We invite students and members of the public to submit comments and questions about our lectures. Submissions will be moderated for suitability of content. Please see BU’s comment guidelines, linked below.

“William James Revisited: Pragmatic Approaches to Religion” David Lamberth, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Harvard Divinity School, October 15, 2014

in Uncategorized
October 14th, 2014

Click here to see a video of the lecture.

Abstract: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience has long been considered a classic among theoretical texts for the study of religion.  Published in 1902 by the noted American psychologist and philosopher, it animated a turn to experience from doctrine as the touchstone for understanding religion, and set the stage for critical studies that sought to consider not only the plurality of human religiosity, but also its positive and negative effects.

Varieties was not James’s only engagement with religion, nor was it by any means comprehensive of his wide ranging view of human nature.  In this lecture Professor Lamberth selects from James’s key writings concerning religion from the 1880s to 1910, developing a composite of his central ideas and connecting them to the animating philosophical and scientific insights that led James’s to his views.  Lamberth argues that the critical features driving James’s views—taking human evolution seriously in understanding thought and action, noting the affective dimensions in our neural makeup, seeing the critical potential for religion to contribute not only to individual but social transformation—make James a surprisingly productive interlocutor for one estimating the future of religion.

16 Comments on “William James Revisited: Pragmatic Approaches to Religion” David Lamberth, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Harvard Divinity School, October 15, 2014

  • I was intrigued by Prof. Lamberth’s biographical aside in the followup questions, that the teenage James had been driven to depression by determinist thought and saved, effectively, by an argument for free will. I hope this isn’t too reductionist, but I wonder if that experience deeply informs his dislike for abstract philosophizing? If he is, at some level, afraid of it?

  • As I listened to Prof. Lamberth’s lecture, I was struck by how much of what he said about James seemed like common sense. I wonder if this is just an artifact of American culture. Is there a sense in which all of us (Americans) are instinctively pragmatists (even if we are not Pragmatists)?

    • I suspect that that’s probably right – and that’s one reason I am suspicious of pragmatism, is that it seems parochial in its way. (I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s aphorism that “man does not seek after happiness; only the Englishman does that.”) When I’ve lived in Asia or my friends have lived in Europe, we’ve often expressed frustration at how hard it is to just get things done. The converse of that is that I think there’s a North American hostility to deep philosophical thinking (the next step after pragmatist philosophy may be no philosophy at all). It’s striking to me that there is no William James Street in Cambridge.

  • While historically William James’ legacy in religious studies surpasses those of his Pragmatist counterparts, he has been considered the lesser philosopher to Peirce and Dewey. David Lamberth’s lecture was a potent argument that James’ idiosyncratic, non-analytic style does contain a deep, nuanced philosophical worldview and is not merely psychology pretending to be philosophy.

    What I appreciated most was Lamberth’s use of evolution as a theme: evolution of James’ thought before, during, and after his opus, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and the influence of biological evolution on James’ philosophy. As Lamberth said, religion can almost be fully philosophically situated within an adaptive evolutionary framework. On the one hand, an evolutionary worldview, combined with a steady optimism, is the foundation of meliorism. On the other, James’ pluralism believes in the possibilities of transformation on all levels of nature from the physical to the human and beyond. Calling James an emergentist would not be a category mistake.

    Religion and God are successful ideas and products of both meliorism and pluralism. What I wonder, though, is how religion and human God-talk can be performed on a social level in light of the fundamental pragmatist principle of fallibilism. James much more comfortably handles the individual, psychological responses to fallibility in religious ideas and God-concepts. While the social supervenes on the individual, reduction of social dynamics wholly or even primarily to psychological dynamics would be a mistake. Can a Jamesian approach handle it? I think so, but I am unsure as to how.

    • Chris offers both a terrific synthesis of the issues here, and also an important set of questions. It’s crucial, for James, not to reduce the individual to the social, but by the same token, not all the same aspects of the experiential analysis can be transferred to the social. So how do we proceed? I think the key categories for James here are “interest,” and “better” (as in meliorism). We can collectively, democratically, refine our interests as a society, and we can act as a group toward (or against) that. The notion of interest, then, can function to see adaptation and behavior at the individual level, but it can also see adaptation at least at the social level in terms of goods, interests, failures, successes, and crucially, recalibrations. Tolerance comes in so importantly here at the social level because it represents a minimum standard, but that’s not a given, so much as a hard fought interest, which has to be maintained.

  • I was struck by Prof. Lamberth’s account of James’ melioristic soteriology (salvation is collaborative creativity between God and humans with the goal of improving a congenial world). Specifically, I’m wondering how crucial the connection is between James’ soteriology and his theology. Does collaborative creativity between God and humans necessarily imply that God is a superhuman consciousness (or vice versa)? Would it be possible to hold to the idea of meliorism while holding to a different conception of God?

    • This is a nice question. James in his later writings talks about God, but he also characterizes his philosophy as a form of spiritual philosophy (as opposed to materialism). So there is a real openness to this. In his early writings about theism, he is insistent on God having personality so God can have interests. I take it the move to the superhuman is a way to resist total transcendence of God, but to leave a wider space for interepretation of the “divine” as that with which we collaborate. I take it many kinds of theism could fit, as could other views without Gods. Maybe even forms of humanism themselves, provided a strong meta-social normativity was articulated. But James wants to insist that we not only contribute, but also receive from this larger than human aspect.

  • During Dr David Lamberth’s lecture, the discussion of genuine novelty as a social force struck me. According to Lamberth, James greatly respected the power of religious experiences to transform an individual on an deeply psychological level. Lamberth called this “conversion as dynamic personality reorganization.” It is this deep change that stimulates a passion to create “where nothing had been imagined.” I find this line of thought deeply inspiring and (as many mentioned) incredibly optimistic; but I do have to ask what this means for what we might call “organized religion”? Mainly, does organized religion really tend towards producing these types of authentically creative individuals? Or is it “the opium of the people,” as Marx would have us believe? If a little of both, then does the aesthetic justify the drug?

    • This comment is quite astute, and raises a really good question for James. “OK, you set aside organized religion strategically. But what about it?” The answer is likely mixed. It’s certainly the case that most of us who get religion at second hand still experience “real” religion, even though we’re not good subjects for the psychological analysis he’s interested in. But it’s also the case that our social enterprises, organized religion, can cut any of a variety of ways. James’s meliorism commits him, implicitly, to the idea of social engagements oriented to bettering the world, and there is no reason organized religions aren’t a major part of that, if they orient that way. But they also can be, and might even be inclined to be, “morbid,” or affiliated with “peiorism.” Though obviously they wouldn’t be doing that intentionally, but as a matter of effects. On James’s view, religious traditions should always be adapting to the present and future, and they are probably better off doing so intentionally. That’s a place where his optimism comes through, but he doesn’t see the alternative to that as tenable, for some obvious reasons. (It isn’t only philosophically pessimistic, but also practically incoherent–contrary to seeking to realize interests–to insist that the world can’t be improved potentially.)

  • Professor Lamberth’s lecture on William James was very enlightening, in that it provided a tremendous amount of context that enabled me to much more comprehensively understand and appreciate James’ work. Lamberth achieved this by introducing a few key tenets of James’ thought—found outside of his Varieties—and presenting them seamlessly in accord with the substance of Varieties. For instance, just by emphasizing James’ deep interest in both the subjective (experiential) and objective (scientific) vantage points, Lamberth enabled me to better apprehend James’ method and more deeply appreciate what he set out to do in Varieties. I thoroughly appreciated how Lamberth did not spend time delving into the “nitty gritty” of James’ thought—for example, his definition of religion—but instead focused on the bigger picture at play and the overarching themes of James’ works. This, too, greatly strengthened my grasp of James’ mission.

    Perhaps the most gratifying portion of the entire presentation came at the very end when Lamberth directly addressed the topic of the Institute in conjunction with the topic of his own lecture—namely, what James’ work can tell us about the future of religion. While the previous lecturers left it to the audience to relate their presentations to the theme of this year’s Institute, Lamberth did this bit of work for us, a move for which I am quite thankful. After all, I am at least somewhat more inclined to trust a Jamesian expert’s intuition on the matter than my own.

  • Comment written by Noa Lahav Ayalon

    Prof. Lamberth’s lecture was especially illuminating in explaining James’ general approach to the study of religion. An independent reading of “Varieties of Religious Experience” left me puzzled as to the social, normative and institutional aspects of religion, that were left unattended by James. Lamberth’s explication of James’ comprehensive method, which was based on the view that human nature is to be studied like the nature of any other embodied, situated animal that has evolved over millennia, sheds a new light on his choice of religious phenomena to focus on.

    His psychological understanding of humans as generating thoughts in reaction to their environment, while implementing their existing faculties, makes sense in examining specific affects of religion in individuals. James is apparently judging theism only as it is utilized by the psyche. In the normal strive for well-being, employment of theism is nothing unique. In this general scope, it can be fully understood why abstract, ultra-rational philosophy is no match for religion – and why it shouldn’t be “competing” it. But I still don’t understand why philosophy couldn’t be observed, at least in a few special cases, as religious. Philosophic emotions can be very strong. It would be interesting to examine more closely James’ opinion of rationally induced beliefs (religious or otherwise) – a topic raised a few times in the lecture.

    • Noa Lahav Ayalon raises an interesting point about philosophic emotion that James doesn’t seem to give much credit. That is, that inevitably, even in the case of philosophical reasoning, people engage their passions (as James notes in the Will to Believe). And so, what kind of distinction is there, really, between philosophy and religion. James seems, at the end of the day, to extend his “natural realism” to religion as well. That is, religion’s objects are or aren’t real, and when we refer to them in experience, we’re referring to something. Philosophy’s God, by contrast, isn’t “objective” for James in that same way, or not obviously so. He discusses this point directly in A Pluralistic Universe when he talks about what happens when, philosophically, we let God be part of the world. Then philosophy starts to move onto the same plane as religion. And presumably, we get the ability to characterize particular moments of philosophizing experientially. It’s probably useful when reading James to distinguish between what he thinks philosophy is, as practiced by others, and what he recommends that it should be. In that latter part, we can, if we wish, start to see the circle close a bit for him in the gap he points out in Varieties.

  • I found Professor Lamberth’s lecture to have been quite informative when one contemplates William James and his ideas. When reading The Varieties in Religious Experience, we find James to have an optimistic approach to religion.
    Professor Lamberth discussed how James believes “religious energies to be humanistic and not pure.” This notion stuck with me for a bit. Today, as Lamberth had stated in his lecture, people are identifying themselves to be more spiritual rather than religious. Perhaps in being spiritual, one connects inwardly with themselves in terms of belief and faith. One may ask how this is this so different from being religious? This may not be the only reason but perhaps it is because of how religion is violently disputed.
    We see in history, and even today, the violence of what people do in the name of religion. So, I would have to say James’s optimism in religion is a bit naïve and on some level dangerous; I use the word dangerous specifically because “one problem society has today in modernization is its lack in tolerance”- a point made by Professor Lamberth.
    Nonetheless, in the end religion is, and in my opinion, here to stay particularly because it is part of human nature and its growth. So, is there a way where religious energy is capable of being humanistic and pure?

  • While reading William James, I was frustrated by what I perceived as ambiguous boundaries between philosophy and religion. It seemed as though James was delineating between the two based upon their effects, rather than their internal structure. Indeed, Professor Lamberth’s lecture somewhat reinforced this point, as he remarked that a central difference between philosophy and religion is that religion is more behaviorally affective. This seems wrong to me: is it really the case that we don’t know whether a piece of writing is philosophy or religion until after we see how it motivates people? If the ethics professors at the BU philosophy department went on a utilitarian crusade, actively acting in a (what they thought to be) a utilitarian manner, would we re-label utilitarianism a religion? In a modern, largely secular society does Christianity become a philosophy rather than a religion? I feel like there is more to religion than simply a call to action.
    I’m reminded of the psychological school of behaviorism. In behaviorism we are only concerned with external effects, rather than internal machinations (there is no anger but what anger causes a subject to do, etc.). There are clear echoes of there of James’ reflex-action theory, and of pragmatism in general. And, in the same way that modern advances in science have shrunk those internal machinations, I would hope that we would expand our picture of the effects of religion.

    • Forrest raises an interesting point here, but I think James is fairly clear on the whole on how he distinguishes philosophy and religion in this regard, via experience. So, religious experience for James involves objects, such as God, that philosophy might be engaging with theoretically. But religious experience is typified by both its emotional dimensions (the ordinary feelings associated with a distinctively religious object), and its pscyho-dynamic effects. Philosophy, by contrast, is by definition abstracting from the emotional dimensions (if it’s being done well), and only engaging with conceptual, logical, theoretical dimensions. And that more abstract feature is, I take it, why James (erroneously) thinks no one has ever had their “centres of personal energy” changed by philosophical reasoning. James has a pluralistic conception of rationality that goes along with this division–he thinks we have differing rational systems that include theoretical, moral, practical, and aesthetic dimensions or domains, and that these can conflict. Philosophy has, he thinks, limited itself solely to the theoretical dimension. Religion, by contrast, may be engaging more of these dimensions, as well as other aspects too.

  • David Lamberth gave a fascinating lecture on William James and his pragmatism. He explains that according to James, ethical obligation can be traced to the play of demand of other human beings that
    represents the crux of altruism, and that good is but a term for collective possible goods. Theism (or any religion) then opens up the infinite perspective and allows more imperative ideals for a new and more significant objective for the pursuit of good by claiming that the good things are the more eternal things. More importantly, when life is faced with hardship, “even if there is no metaphysical ground for a God”, Lamberth said, “men will postulate one.” James’ outlook on religion as Lamberth sees it, unlike that of many other philosophers, is a rather positive view of religion. He explains that religion continues to succeed in leading us to a morally “better”, and it is capable of delivering the kind of emotional fulfillment that not only motivates good general morale in the society, but also positive feelings within individuals for better personal lives. What some would consider as a weakness, James simply thinks that religion has become a human nature, a way for us to cope with reality as given by civilization and society. Like many thinkers before him, James does not think that human beings will ever adapt beyond religion, and that no matter how far science and psychology get, they are simply not structured in a way that can fill voids and answer questions that we create. The uncertainty that knowledge cannot satisfy will always make way for religion. If there is anything that I wish Lamberth had explained more clearly, it would be the claim that James never thought that all would be religious or that those who are religious will remain religious in the same way, because it shows that theist religion is neither a necessary condition for morality nor did religion create morality. If there exist, at any given time, people who can do without theist religion and still live according to social mores, then what really makes religion essential in collective social living? Or would Lamberth say that religion is only a convenient aid but not necessary in facilitating healthy social and individual development? If so, how can we be certain that civilization cannot completely adapt beyond theist religions and turn to secular spirituality or atheist civil religions?

Reply to M David Eckel

Click here to cancel reply.