Comments on 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' by William James.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' by William James.

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  • 15. At 1:04pm on 15 May 2010, colin sheffield wrote:

    Following the program about William James, born 1842 (his brother Henry was born in 1843) a moderatly interesting coincidience is that the other famous American James brothers, the outlaws Jesse and Frank were their almost exact contempories, born 1847 and 1843.

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  • 16. At 4:52pm on 15 May 2010, Fezziwigg wrote:

    It was interesting to learn about this interest in William James. I couldn't listen to the whole programme--indeed I fell upon it by accident, and am delighted that I did-- but I appreciated Bragg's questions and the rich discussion that resulted. I've just completed a book that focuses on some of the issues that interested James--like him I have always been curious about what he calls the "religious" experience, although I am the world's champion cynic. I wish he were around to comment on my own conclusions!

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  • 17. At 8:23pm on 15 May 2010, John Thompson wrote:

    If I believe in free will then free will exists.Emotions are ‘indubitally physiological’.He showed how inseparable and interdependent the mind and body are.Scientists had become increasingly agnostic because part of the concept of a scientific method is suspension of belief until all the evidence is in.But seldom,if ever, is all the evidence in,and meanwhile some decision often needs to be made,for practical necessity.It is better to take a chance on a decision than wait indefinitely for elusive evidence.The
    dependability of an assumption can only be tested by experience.An assumption that proves reliable is a “truth”,but only provisionally,no truth is universal.He was convinced that feeling and not intellect and reason was the doorway to the religious life.The worshipper felt in contact with spiritual power,from which he felt a charge of new energy.There are 3 techniques for tapping this psychic energy: sacrifice, confession and prayer.James suspected this mysterious psychic energy might come from the person’s subconscious,without ruling out supernatural consciousness.The subconscious might be a doorway to the supernatural,a world of non-physical energy.To experience this flow of energy from the mysterious fountain one must have confidence in its existence,or faith.James finds suggestions-not proof-“in favour of a superior consciousness”.The believer is continuous with a wider self from which saving experiences flow in.Mind cannot conceive independently of the world which appears to it.

    Bertrand Russell was vitriolic about pragmatism:it can’t be right to think this idea that truth is what works.Russell said there are lots of inconvenient truths and hard facts.James said true belief is the expedient in our actions,moral goodness is the expedient in our social actions.Quine learned from the pragmatists we are part of nature,that our relations with nature are a matter for empirical psychology to describe.We think of our beliefs as having been formed by the inputs,the stimuli that nature gives us.And our theories and actions(based on those theories) are the outputs that result.James as a cognitive psychologist describes our activities as something that should be described on a biological basis,but “it is hard to imagine that ‘really’ our own subjective experiences are only molecular arrangements…our experiences resist conceptual

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  • 18. At 5:48pm on 16 May 2010, Jane wrote:

    I remember my ten year old friend and myself avidly discussing whether, when it came to sex, the man went on top or the woman went on top. We just had no way of finding out 'though we spent many happy hours speculating. My point is that so much of life is 'each to their own' - there isn't always a right and a wrong way. Diversity is part of the innate complexity of life. 'Many roads lead to Rome' etc.. This very much applies to what was discussed in the programme re. religious, spiritual inclination, type etc. In relative terms, I think we're still pretty wet behind the ears when it comes to the unraveling of complexity. Best wishes Jane

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  • 19. At 8:07pm on 16 May 2010, Phil Oliver wrote:

    Outstanding, intelligent, sympathetic discussion of James (speaking as the author of "William James's 'Springs of Delight': The Return to Life," Vanderbilt Press, 2001).

    But the panelists apparently were unaware that the centenary of his death will indeed by commemorated in August, both in (Harvard's) Cambridge and at his beloved Chocorua, New Hampshire summer home:

    The William James Society [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] in cooperation with the Chocorua Community Association and Harvard’s Houghton Library, is planning a long-weekend symposium, August 13-16, 2010, to honor the life of James on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. In the spirit of James, the symposium, “In the Footsteps of William James,” will be an opportunity to explore the local settings of James’s life and to reflect on James’s ability to encounter experience afresh and approach problems creatively.

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  • 20. At 8:12pm on 16 May 2010, Phil Oliver wrote:

    Excellent discussion. But the panelists were unaware that the centenary of James's death will indeed by commemorated in August:

    The William James Society, in cooperation with the Chocorua Community Association and Harvard’s Houghton Library, is planning a long-weekend symposium, August 13-16, 2010, to honor the life of James on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. In the spirit of James, the symposium, “In the Footsteps of William James,” will be an opportunity to explore the local settings of James’s life and to reflect on James’s ability to encounter experience afresh and
    approach problems creatively.

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  • 21. At 2:03pm on 17 May 2010, Jane wrote:

    A couple more points. In this twenty first century, as in William James's time, most people are groping in the dark for real spiritual answers and signs. There's obviously been a rejection of certain western religion but also, we have little bedrock to build on - just a rather messy accretion of all sorts of creeds, doctrines and natural doubts. These exist in the context of our empirical boundaries and an era which orientates itself strongly towards materialism and empiricism. There does seem to be an endogenous element as well as a conditioned one to our inclinations and, as many roads lead to Rome, then maybe we should relax a bit and find the particular route which suits us best amongst the many options...including atheism. People with innate faith tend to be understandably grateful for it, 'though this faith divides. There's strong faith which supports people through their darkest difficulties and there's fair weather faith which fails under pressure. Possibly the faith which sustains is endogenous - 'though this doesn't have to be first hand ie. sphere of influence. There is also faith which is earned inch by inch, stone after turned stone and faith which comes about after a so named 'religious' experience which transforms or transfigures. Faith can truly be an active principle. It must also be remembered that - as was pointed out in the programme - a voice heard in the head isn't necessarily a voice of the highest order. Neither the exoteric nor the esoteric are easy to relate to...possibly the Quakers find a good balance. Personally, I still think that belief is subordinate to 'by their fruits shall ye know them'. Best wishes

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  • 22. At 2:07pm on 17 May 2010, Jane wrote:

    ps So much has to be 'to thine own self be true' and 'Know thyself' ...but these, surely, are two of the most easily said and difficult to achieve phrases in existence!

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  • 23. At 7:29pm on 17 May 2010, John Courtneidge wrote:

    Nice programme - the notion (only) of 'God out there' would be helped by the counterpart of 'God in here' - immanence as compared to transcendence. The emergence in contemporary Quakerism, for example, of the trend from personalized immanence to panentheism - and in other demographics of the development from transcendence to en-theisms (green theology etc).

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  • 24. At 4:46pm on 18 May 2010, jdsrasmussen wrote:

    Thanks to you and your guests for an excellent conversation. I'd like to add that, in addition to conferences on James this August in Chocorua, New Hampshire and in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see Phil Oliver's post), there will also be a James centenary conference in the United Kingdom this September in Oxford:

    William James and the Transatlantic Conversation:
    A Centenary Conference, Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, 23-25 September 2010

    This international conference brings together a number of high-profile scholars to appraise the work and influence of American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) upon the centenary of his death. In his own time, James engaged in a number of international conversations in science, philosophy, religion and literature, not least through his 1901-2 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh and his Hibbert Lectures in Oxford in 1909. Given the historical vantage of a full century, 2010 marks an appropriate year for an international gathering of scholars from a range of disciplines to assess James’s work, to take stock of his multi-disciplinary reception across the twentieth century and around the globe, and to evaluate his legacy as a resource for the various disciplines in the twenty-first century.

    International speakers include: David Hollinger (California), David Lamberth (Harvard), Leslie Butler (Dartmouth), Eddie Glaude Jr (Princeton), Richard H. King (Nottingham), Martin Halliwell (Leicester), Eric James (Cambridge), Michele Mendelssohn (Oxford), Jaime Nubiola (Navarre) and Sami Pihlstrom (Helsinki).
    Conference rates: £50 (full), £40 (postgraduate). Includes wine reception, lunches, refreshments and a gala conference dinner on Friday 24 September. Accommodation available at Mansfield College, Oxford.

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  • 25. At 02:22am on 19 May 2010, John Thompson wrote:

    James sees conception as a “teleological instrument” used “to satisfy the sentiment of rationality”.In doing this, a partial aspect of a thing is seized upon to represent the entire thing,ignoring qualities that seem inessential,therefore he regards concepts as limited, though the conceiver regards them as all-inclusive and universal.The 2 kinds of mental disposition,one for simplification,the other,a minority,for distinguishing…the impulse to be acquainted with the parts, rather than to comprehend the whole.Out of these responses, the need for unity and the need for clearness.James prefers the
    clearness of “concrete reality” in all its fullness and eccentricity of detail,leading to his philosophy of “pluralism” and “radical empiricism”.He preferred rich diversity to an abstract,simplified unity, because it left more room for chance and indeterminism.
    “Actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen:and somewhere,indeterminism says,such possibilities exist,and form a part of the truth.”He believed that philosophy(empiricism)should be based on experience. This was a “methodological postulate”to avoid duality between thoughts and things:“’Pure experience’ is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories…Pure experience is another name for feeling or sensation”.This empiricism heralds a new era of religion and philosophy.He has a partiality for perception,nearer to “pure
    experience”,than conception,which is a Darwinian tool helping us adapt to environments and changes,”We harness perceptual reality in concepts in order to drive it better to our ends.”However he preferred experience over concepts,taking him away from behaviourism into the arms of phenomenology,receptive to the many
    worlds of consciousness,worlds that contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also.”The real world is more intricately built than physical science allows.”

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