WJ bio – 11

It’s the turn of the (19th to the 20th) century, James is cultivating his friendly philosophical antagonism and personal friendship with Josiah Royce

who said: “I teach at Harvard that the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real, you see.”

In this photo James has just goaded Royce with the taunt: “Look out, Royce. Damn the Absolute, I say!” (The Absolute was Royce’s and the other Idealists’ name for, for lack of a better name, God.)

…and he ‘s still hiking too much. He’s working on, and fretting about, the impending Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland that will eventually become Varieties of Religious Experience. But a collapse in December ’99 necessitates their postponement.

“The problem I have set myself is a hard one; 1st to defend against all the prejudices of my [profession], ‘experience’ against ‘philosophy’ as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life… and second, to make the hearer or reader believe what I myself invincibly do believe, that although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories) yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

We’ve already noted that, for James, the religious impulse is less motivated by questions about God than by the universal urge for better, richer, more meaningful life. Experience, including religious experience, is to be taken seriously whenever it aspires to serve that purpose. Much philosophical discourse about religion is logically and technically correct, but fails to grasp the life-affirming motivation that made James a friend (if not a practitioner) of religious faith.  (And then there’s the Nietzschean critique, according to which religion is intrinsically life-negating. James was more cognizant of religion’s naturalistic roots and fruits.)

James really means what he says.  Religious creeds and theories are absurd, and he has no interest in “your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be  Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition…”

James’s interest was more in what we might call ” spirituality,” with a lot of qualification. There remains much confusion about this term, with some assuming that it excludes a naturalistic orientation– it does not– or that it’s simply an alternative, non-sectarian name for “religious”— which it defiantly is not.  “We must make search for the original experiences which were [and are] the pattern-setters,” rather than sinking back into comfortable religious conformism. “Life” demands it.

John Dewey made a similar point, when in A Common Faith he called for the reclamation and emancipation of “religious” as a term of description applicable to generic, non-denominational experience. He didn’t want to surrender the word, but whatever you call it– spiritual, transcendental, “consummatory” etc.– the experience is very much of this world. It’s natural for human beings to seek and find meaningful patterns in life as it is lived, and not to postpone it for an after-life that for all we can possibly know may never arrive.

The so-called religion of healthy-mindedness, or mind-cure, or (more broadly) positive thinking, had James’s strong endorsement. Richardson: “When a person feels better because he thinks he has been given a cure, we call it, with complacent condescension, the placebo effect. For James, however, the same effect is simply a cure.”

Religion never had a more sympathetic defender among philosophers than William James, but as the Edinburgh lectures drew to a close he wrote to a Christian friend: “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian system of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” But he’d not have had much sympathy for Richard Dawkins’ atheistic version of evolutionism. He’s too supportive of the life impulse to deny its religious manifestations in just about any form, but he’s also too drawn to the evolutionary hypothesis to exclude religionists from its tent.

Richardson reports a scene that may surprise Jamesians like me who were  aware that he’d rebuffed former student Morris Cohen’s proposal to regard baseball as a “moral equivalent of war,” which James had said “we now need to discover in the social realm… something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved incompatible” :

Friends of son Francis (“Aleck”), who managed the baseball team at his Cambridge school,  “remembered seeing William James sitting by himself in the stands in raw weather, watching his son’s team and taking a lively interest in the new idea of sliding into base headfirst.”

A headfirst slide is a good metaphor for William James’s view of life in general, at age 60. As he said in his last Edinburgh lecture in 1902: “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.” And to take serious risk of personal and professional injury doing it, evidently.


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