In Praise of William James

John Williams in the New York Times:

22enthusiastjames1-superJumboTo James, the very broad category of religious experience was inextricably human, and to attempt to argue people out of it would have struck him as similar to trying to argue someone out of right-handedness. “Taking creeds and faith-states together, as forming ‘religions,’ ” he wrote, “and treating these as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their ‘truth,’ we are obliged, on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind.”

James compared trendier systems of religious thought (ideas that resemble what we call New Age) to the gospels because of “the adequacy of their message to the mental needs of a large fraction of mankind.” His pragmatism led him to not care whether it was natural constitution or willful decision, systems age-old or newfangled, that led someone to a life filled with meaning and consolation. He even freely admitted that “reducing inner discord is a general psychological process, which may take place with any sort of mental material, and need not necessarily assume the religious form.” Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote: “Some of the enchantment of ‘The Varieties’ comes from its being a kind of race with James running on both teams — here he is the cleverest skeptic and there the wildest man in a state of religious enthusiasm.”

In the space allotted here, I can’t begin to enumerate all of the book’s delights, the wisdom it conveys on every page.

More here.