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

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

Programme information and audio


  • 1. At 09:58am on 13 May 2010, Philipaz wrote:

    Very interesting discussion that ran out of time but didn't run out of steam. Please please can you find more time to continue this discussion and include more of the comparison with Mill? Hope others found it as interesting as I did.

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  • 2. At 12:53pm on 13 May 2010, ianbuist wrote:

    First, I was most disappointed that the discussion did not mention Sir Alister Hardy, the marine biologist, and his foundation of a Research Centre to study scientifically the varieties of religious experience, in accordance with James' book, as a phenomenon of human nature. This work, now based at the University of Wales at Lampeter, has been going on for over thirty years.. A Trust and charitable society support this work and hold regular meetings to discuss connected issues.
    Second, Axel Munthe, who was a friend of William James, records in "The Story of San Michele" how a distinguished colleague who, like James, believed in the possibility of communication with the dead, had agreed with James that whichever died first should send a message to the other as he passed over. When the time came, William James was present at his friend's death, but waited in vain for any message
    Ian Buist

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  • 3. At 1:32pm on 13 May 2010, John Thompson wrote:

    First of all Melvyn,you provided a program that showed IOT at its best,with a good subject,able speakers,a dialectical discussion of a worthy subject,bringing philosophy back to its Socratic roots in our humanity,reconciling emotions with rationality. Emotions are an important part of an active,searching and thinking human being.The
    human world is full of emotions not because we are animals at heart,but rather because it is still full of signals that elate or threaten,and replete with events or people that produce discrepancies or interruptions,creating visceral responses.In the VRE,James examined the biographies of people who reported a belief that ‘there is an unseen order,and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto’.Such beliefs were subjective,but nonetheless real to the experiencer,and they had manifest effects on the individual’s conduct.When such effects were ‘good’,the individual was right to exercise the ‘will to believe’, although not to insist that others share the same belief.Pragmatic philosophy emphasised usefulness rather than truth.The truth of which he spoke was not absolute but relative to each individual.
    The ‘pluralistic and unfinished universe’ had undiscovered potentialities which different individuals might make actual through the hypotheses they held,the choices they made,and the purposes they pursued.The particulars of religious faith are true insofar as they provide the believer with emotional fulfilment.Also the mind is part of the body,and that an individual’s mental adjustments are in fact environmental responses.The relationship of mind to world,is using it to control choice,effort and will,it makes adjustments which are modified by deterministic factors such as heredity and biology.In this he comes close to Meaurleau-Ponty’sphenomenology.

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  • 4. At 4:33pm on 13 May 2010, Babs wrote:

    An excellent programme today. I knew nothing about William James before and what I heard was exciting and energizing. Much of what was communicated about James' ideas resonated with some of my understanding of C.G.Jung's work on religious experience. I wonder if there was direct contact or if, perhaps, Wittgenstein was the link. Also there seems to be a link with the work of post Jungian thinkers such as John Dourley and David Tacey, who explore our current situation with regard to the demise of institutional religion and increasing recognition of the significance of the experience of the individual. Another programme on James' influence on current thinking would be good. Perhaps we are just now beginning to catch up with him although I think the mystics may have been there all along.

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  • 5. At 6:43pm on 13 May 2010, Peter Bolt wrote:

    I have read "Varieties of Religious Experience" in its published form (and made a note of your discussion on the inside cover)
    As a convinced atheist the lectures have played an important role in my understanding and tolerance of any genuine Deist.
    One truly interesting fact I noted in the Lectures is that James was convinced beyond any doubt that the "Experiences" were utterly genuine.
    On a discussion on Radio 4 (14th Nov 2009) it was stated that Neuroscience had discovered that "Voices heard" in the head really do register in the Audio reflex areas of the Brain.

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  • 6. At 8:57pm on 13 May 2010, Colophonic wrote:

    Higamus Hogamus.

    I am a regular listener to the show and don't want to lower the high brow nature of the discussion but I am certain there was an omission in terms of the above.

    I was led to understand - I think it was in Colin Wilson's 'The Outsiders' that as part of James philosophical explorations he was rather partial to ether and was convinced of the deep mystic qualities and insights the drug had to offer. Saddened that the epiphinic moment he enjoyed using the drug was so ephemeral he took to keeping a notebook by him as he slipped in and out of his trance. Then one time, convinced of the revalation that had been offered him he had written, as he discovered later :

    Higamus Hogamus, women's monogamous
    Hogamus Higamus, man is polygamous

    Perhaps it is apocryphal but it shows that there are higher mystics and just high mystics and sometimes a bit of both.

    Colophonic. Oxford

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  • 7. At 10:37pm on 13 May 2010, Letranger wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 8. At 10:44pm on 13 May 2010, Letranger wrote:

    I can't be too grateful for having been sent back to my tattered old paperback copy of Varieties, which had been lying on a shelf just waiting for this reminder. A thought occurred to me as I listened to the programme. When will you do a similar one on Charles Saunders Peirce?

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  • 9. At 09:09am on 14 May 2010, robinallott wrote:

    One of the best programs. All contributors were excellent. William James was a great figure. Besides the Varieties of Religious Experience, his Principles of Psychology remains a treasure-house of acute perception and clear thought. Less significant figures (perhaps even his own brother) have received a great deal of attention. There really should be a proper recognition of his importance and value in this centenary year of his death, as was suggested by one of the participants in the program.

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  • 10. At 09:11am on 14 May 2010, SarahQMalone wrote:

    The program stopped at a really interesting point and I wish it had run longer!

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  • 11. At 3:06pm on 14 May 2010, Tom Milner-Gulland wrote:

    No mention of the word that should be key in this discussion, identity. It is a sense of identity that projects an individual from being prepared to accept that which is found by reason to accepting tenets essentially for their sociological utility, or for their instrumental value in regard to decision-making.

    Tom M-G

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  • 12. At 3:32pm on 14 May 2010, Jane wrote:

    Between themselves, empiricism and the intellect presume so much and obviously, philosophy, psychology, biological exploration etc. have their place in such a milieu - 'though I'd say that these means of understanding exist by default ie. because of our perceptual limitations. They also create a tendency to give rise to such 'clutter' as hubris, divisiveness, competitiveness etc.. William James will certainly be celebrated in my house this year, for he seems to have sussed the cryptic and intricate nature of things incredibly astutely. Also, probably, that the unconscious in us can, in multitudinous ways, be our greatest taskmaster - both 'positively' and 'negatively'. We live as dichotomy (divided-selves) in a world of duality and find ourselves in a chaos of 'becoming', way beyond the conscious mind's ability to register, accommodating vast and often contradictory realms within each of us. It is my experience that the unconscious mind, for reasons beyond us, sometimes makes deeper understanding possible...even inevitable. In our imposed states of discrete individuality, we live a certain way, but when the Buddha supposedly talked of non-attachment, he would have understood that we are unwittingly forced to crave and seek attachment in everything - be it in material objects, addictions, intellectual or sexual pursuits, holding opinions, habits, nature, art - whatever. 'Though utterly familiar, our 'island' states are anathema to us, for when our consciousness is loosened from the brain's constraints, we find ourselves immersed in a beneficent 'isness' that defies description. No matter how we self aggrandize, love each other, occupy ourselves, achieve or whatever, our need has a deeper morphology than we can fulfil and that is possibly the restless angst which many struggle with. Consciousness is obviously affiliated to biology in the context of embodiment - ruthlessly so - but there's so much more. Our physical makeup holds profound paradox... as well as clues. There are 'bright' humans who, often after an experience of extended awareness, find that the false dynamics fall away and that complexity gives way to simplicity. In these people the greater truth is very humbly present in the form of 'by their fruits shall ye know them'. I loved this programme. Many thanks as always. Best wishes to all - Jane

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  • 13. At 3:52pm on 14 May 2010, Jane wrote:

    ps. On reflection, I've spoken too simplistically - there are many orientations of mind. This 'isness' is a particularly profound one and is like a combination of perception, 'knowing' and 'being'....I think, personally, that I would describe it as a 'state of grace'. Other orientations can be achieved through the use of the mind - this one, in my experience, can't be approached.

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  • 14. At 01:29am on 15 May 2010, GEORGEFB wrote:

    I have just heard the recording of Thursday morning's discussion. It was most enjoyable.

    Your pondering, Melvin, about the word "religion" fell on stony ground. They continued to use "religion" and "spirituality" as interchangeable. You had posited "experience" and I would agree that experience of being unselfish will lead to spirituality.

    Surely the word "religion" implies some rites and or creeds to be observed, whereas spirituality is a quality beyond rites and creeds, generated purely by service to others.

    I believe it is a a secular fact that we continue after death to an afterlife, no religion being involved, and it looks as if Wiliam James was toying with the idea, but had not, as had scientists like William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, and engineers like me looked at the evidence, it being rather infra dig in respectable circles to so do.

    I fear my last paragraph will make my contribution offensive to the Very Religious BBC, but it has been a pleasure writing my comment on a most enjoyable broadcast,


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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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