The Varieties of Religious Experience


William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In regard to the existential condition of Ludwig Wittgenstein

and the writing of the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus


I recently read William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience. I was drawn to the book after spending time with the philosophical work as well as the biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It turns out The Varieties of Religious Experience was one of three main texts Wittgenstein read during his time in World War I before writing the Tractatus, the other two being Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief, and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. But I’ve become interested in the work of Wittgenstein not only because of the content of the philosophical writing, but also because of the existential condition that would require someone to write in such a way. As a way to survey the land of such a condition, and understand the need to create a text of analytically pure geometry that endures an existence on a frictionless pane of ice, I have read William James. Throughout the book, any time I read a passage that I thought revealed something about Wittgenstein, or the creation of the Tractatus, I marked a little L.W. in the margin on the text. For the purposes of this blog, I am just going to collect and record all the paragraphs from the book with little L.W.s next to them.


page. 55-56, Lecture III, The Reality of the Unseen

“The sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself so strongly to our object of belief that our whole life is polarized through and through, so to speak, by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in, and yet that thing, for purpose of definite description, can hardly be said to be present to our mind at all. It is as if a bar of iron, without touch or sight, with no representative faculty whatever, might nevertheless be strongly endowed with an inner capacity for magnetic feeling; and as if, through the various arousals of its magnetism by magnets coming and going in its neighborhood, it might be consciously determined to different attitudes and tendencies. Such a bar of iron could never give you an outward description of the agencies that had the power of stirring it so strongly, yet of their presence, and of their significance for its life, it would be intensely aware through ever fibre of its being.

“It is not only the Ideas of pure Reason, as Kant styled them, that have this power of making us vitally feel presences that we are impotent articulately to describe. All sorts of highter abstractions bring with them the same kind of impalpable appeal. Remember those passages from Emerson which I read at my last lecture. The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims, not only for such a transcendentalist writer, but for all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideasm that lend it its significance. As time, space, and the ether soack through all things, so (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just.

“ Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all out facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilites we conceive of. They give its ‘nature,’ as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is ‘what’ it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. WE can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in the handling the real worl we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predictes and heads of classification and conception.”


page 150, Lecture VI, The Sick Soul

“It is notorious that facts are compatible with opposite emotional comments, since the same fact will inspire entirely different feelings in different persons, and at different times in the same person; and there is no rationally deducible connection between any outer fact and the sentiments it may happen to provoke. These have their source in another sphere of existence altogether, in the animal and spiritual region of the subject’s being. Conceive yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to imagine it as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or apprehensive comment. It will be almost impossible for you to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness. No one portion of the universe would then have importance beyond another; the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, or perspective. Whatever of value, interest, or meaning our respective worlds may appear endued with are thus pure gifts of the spectator’s mind.”


pg. 151. Lecture VI, The Sick Soul

“In Tolstoy’s case the sense that life had any meaning whatever was for a time wholly withdrawn. The result was a transformation in the whole expression of reality. When we come to study the phenomenon of conversion or religious regeneration, we shall see that a not infrequent consequence of the change operated in the subject is a transfiguration of the face of nature in his eyes. A new heaven seems to shine upon a new earth. In melancholiacs there is usually a similar change, only it is in the reverse direction. The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny. Its color is gone, its breath is cold, there is no speculation in the eyes it glares with. “It is as if I lived in another century,”says one asylum patient – “I see everything through a cloud,” says another, “things are not as they were, and I am changed.” – “I see,” says a third, “I touch, but the things do not come near me, a thick veil alters the hue and look of everything.” – “Persons move like shadows, and sounds seem to come from a distant world.” – “There is no longer any past for me; people appear so strange; it is as if I could not see any reality, as if I were in a theatre; as if people were actors, and everything were scenery; I can no longer find myself, I walk, but why? Everything floats before my eyes, but leaves no impression.” – “I weep false tears, I have unreal hands: the things I see are not real things.” – Such are expressions that naturally rise to the lips of melancholy subjects describing their changed state.

“Now there are some subjects whom all this leaves a prey to the profoundest astonishment. The strangeness is wrong. The unreality cannot be. A mystery is concealed, and a metaphysical solution must exist. If the natural world is so double-faced and unhomelike, what world, what thing is real? An urgent wondering and questioning is set up, a poring theoretic activity, and in the desperate effort to get into right relations with the matter, the sufferer is often led to what becomes for him a satisfying religious solution.”


pg. 317, Lecture XIII, Saintliness

The opposition between men who have and the men who are is immemorial. Though the gentleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the man who is well born, has usually in point of fact been predaceous and reveled in lands and goods, yet he has never identfied his essence with these possessions, but rather with the personal superiorities, the courage, generosity, and pride supposed to be his birthright. To certain huckstering kinds of consideration he thanked God he was forever inaccessible, and if in life’s vicissitudes he should become destitute through their lack, he was glad to think that with his sheer valor he was all the freer to work out his salvation. “Wer nur selbst was hätte,” says Lessing’s Tempelherr, in Nathan the Wise, “mein Gott, mein Gott, ich habe nichts!” This ideal of the well-born man without possesions was embodied in knight-errantry and templardom; and hideously corrupted as it has always been, it still dominates sentimentality, if not practically, the miliatary and aristocratic view of life. We glorify the solider as the man absolutely unincumbered. Owning nothing but his bare life, and willing to toss that up at any moment when the cause commands him, he is the representative of unhampered freedom in ideal directions. The laborer who pays with his person day by day, and has no rights invested in the future, offers also much of this ideal detachment.


pg. 326, Lecture XIV, The Value of Saintliness

If, in turning to this theme, we could descend upon our subject from above like Catholic theologians, with our fixed definitions of man and man’s perfection and our positive dogmas about God, we should have an easy time of it. Man’s perfection would be the fullfillment of his end; and his end would be union with his Maker. That union could be pursued by him along three paths, active, purgative, and contemplative, respectively; and progress along either path would be a simple matter to measure by the application of a limited number of theological and moral conceptions and definitions. The absolute significance and value of any bit of religious experience we might hear of would thus be given almost mathematically into our hands.”


pg. 373, Lecture XIV, The Value of Saintliness

The whole feud revolves essentially upon two pivots: Shall the seen world or the unseen world be our chief sphere of adaptation? and must our means of adaptation in this seen world be aggressiveness or non-resistance?

“The debate is serious. In some sense and to some degree both worlds must be acknowledged and taken account of; and in the seen world both aggressiveness and non-resistance are needful. It is a question of emphasis, of more or less. Is the saint’s type or the strong-man’s type the more ideal?”


pg. 405, Lecture XVI, Mysticism

The incommunicableness of the transport is the key-note of all mysticism. Mystical truth exists for the individual who has the transport, but for no one else. In this, as I have said, it resembles the knowledge given to us in sensations more than that given by conceptual thought. Thought, with its remoteness and abstractness, has often enough in the history of philosophy been contrasted unfavorably with sensation. It is a commonplace of metaphysics that God’s knowledge cannot be discursive but must be intuitive, that is, must be constructed more after the pattern of what in ourselves is called immediate feeling, than after that of proposition and judgment. But our immediate feelings have no content but what the five senses supply; and we have seen and shall see again that mystics may emphatically deny that the senses play any part n the very highest type of knowledge which their transports yeild.”


pg. 411, Lecture XVI, Mysticism

Similarly with Saint Teresa. “One day, being in orison,” she writes, “it was granted to me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul. It is one of the most mignal of all the graces which the lord has granted me…The view was so subtile and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it.”


pg. 432, Lecture XVIII, Philosophy

To find an escape from obscure and wayward personal persuasion to truth objectively valid for all thinking men has ever been the intellects most cherished ideal.”


pg. 451, Lecture XVII, Philosophy

the principle that to acknowledge your limits is in essence to be beyond them”


pg. 476, Lecture XVII, Philosophy

Sometimes the realization that facts are of divine sending, instead of being habitual, is casual, like a mystical experience.”


pg. 522, Postscript

Both instinctively and for logical reasons, I find it hard to believe that principles can exist which make no difference in facts. (We owe it to the Absolute that we have a world of fact at all. ‘A world’ of fact ! – that exactly is the trouble. An entire world is the smallest unit with which the Absolute can work whereas to our finite minds work for the better ought to be done within this world, setting in at single points.) But all facts are particular facts, and the whole interest of the question of God’s existence seems to me to lie in the consequences for particulars which that existence may be expected to entail. That no concrete particular of experience should alter its complexion in consequence of a God being there seems to me an incredible proposition, and yet it is the thesis to which refined supernaturalism seems to cling. It is only with the experience en bloc, it says, that the Absolute maintains relations. It condescends to no transactions of detail.”

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