James:
Function, Fact, and Faith

By Matt McKeown

The work of William James has shaped all later discussions of academic fields from psychotherapy to mysticism.

The last third of the nineteenth century in the United States is often called “the Gilded Age,” a period of dramatic growth in industrialization, prosperity, and immigration (principally from central and eastern Europe). Throughout this period and into the early twentieth century, one of the most prominent minds in the country was William James, a graduate of and professor at Harvard University, where his friends and pupils included Mark Twain, Carl Jung, John Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

James’ work covered a variety of fields, including psychology, ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. His 1890 book Principles of Psychology was widely celebrated, despite the fact that it can hardly have been an easy read, since it ran to twelve hundred pages! In it, he set forth a number of ideas that have remained important in the field of psychology, such as the James-Lange theory of emotion, which states that emotions are caused by our physiological reactions to things, and are essentially the brain’s subjective perception of those reactions: e.g., if we see a dangerous animal, our adrenaline increases and we run away; according to the James-Lange theory, it is these responses and behaviors that cause the experience of fear, rather than fear prompting the response and the behavior.

He is perhaps better known as the father of pragmatism, a school of thought that treats ideas primarily as effective or ineffective tools, rather than primarily as true or false statements about reality. James advanced a theory of truth that was more concerned with internal coherence than with correctly describing the world for its own sake, valuing such correctness only for its practical usefulness. Pragmatism is sometimes loosely associated with certain other ideas, such as empiricism and even relativism, which have earned it criticism from some quarters: G. K. Chesterton wrote that “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” But pragmatism does call for intelligent analysis, if only because it is a widely—and often unconsciously—held view.

No philosophy can ever be anything but a summary sketch, a picture of the world in abridgment, a foreshortened bird's-eye view of the perspective of events.

William James

Psychology, epistemology, and ethics unite in his celebrated lecture The Will to Believe. Here, James attacked evidentialism, the idea that one should believe something if and only if the belief is supported by adequate evidence. Like St. John Henry Newman, James points out that no one does or could actually follow this criterion of belief in everyday life; indeed, he goes further, pointing out that it would be impossible to advance scientific hypotheses for investigation if we adhered strictly to evidentialism. He also discusses self-fulfilling beliefs, like confidence—in performing some tasks, the most important factor for success is confidence that one can achieve them, a confidence which by definition must exist in advance of the evidence.

But James’ scholarship is perhaps best remembered for a different book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Though he took a comparatively low view of religious institutions, he had a keen interest in what he called “religious genius,” i.e. the experience of religion enjoyed by devotees and especially by mystics. Though he regarded many expressions of religion as pathological, he did not, like many skeptics, dismiss these expressions as valueless; on the contrary, he described them as providing an exceptionally “close up” view of normal religious psychology, like a microscope trained on faith. James was one of the first writers to set forth an academic definition of mysticism, identifying it by four traits: ineffability (the mystical experience cannot be fully communicated in words), transience (mystical states cannot be maintained for long), “noetic quality” (despite its inexpressibility, the mystical state is experienced as knowledge or revelation), and passivity (the mystic perceives themselves to be taken up or held by a superior power). He identified other common attributes among mystics as well, asserting that mysticism is consistently “optimistic” and “pantheistic.” Many Christian authors have taken issue with James’ characterization of religion as “what man does with his solitude,” given the importance of the Church in most systematic theologies; but his description of, well, the varieties of religious experience remains influential.

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Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you liked this essay, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like this author profile of Sir Isaac Newton, this discussion of the history of the idea of labor, or this student essay on Christian versus Platonist notions of salvation. And don’t miss our weekly podcast, Anchored, or our seminar series on the great minds of our Author Bank.

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