The Varieties of Religious Experience (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Varieties of Religious Experience (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)


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The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:
  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.

Acclaimed as one of the greatest works of nonfiction published in the twentieth century, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church but solely within “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.”

Using the language of psychology, James tries to explain religious phenomena—such as conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintliness—as psychic energy that arises from the unconscious mind in times of trouble. To support his theories, James turns to the autobiographical writings of a wide variety of mystics and writers, including Walt Whitman, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, and Tolstoy. The result is a colorful and wide-ranging collection of recorded experiences that James compares, categorizes, and analyzes. Many of his categories—including the sick soul, the divided self, and healthy-mindedness—have become standard in the study of religions.

Exquisitely written, The Varieties of Religious Experience has had a profound influence on modern spiritual thought, including the psychology of religion and recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wayne Proudfoot is Professor of Religion at Columbia University, specializing in the philosophy of religion. He has published Religious Experience, as well as articles on William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and American Protestant thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593080723
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 02/01/2004
Series: Barnes & Noble Classics Series
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 32,595
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.28(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Wayne Proudfoot's Introduction to The Varieties of Religious Experience

James was dissatisfied with the current state of philosophy of religion and liberal theology, and he thought that a new approach was needed. Contemporary British and American philosophy of religion was dominated by a rationalist tradition that James viewed as empty and unrelated to the actual place of religion in people's lives. His Harvard colleague Josiah Royce, a former student and close friend whom he greatly respected, was a logician and a leading representative of philosophical idealism, and had published a clever argument for the existence of God. James thought this too facile. If the question of God is a real question, it calls for real inquiry, an inquiry that examines experience rather than circumventing it by appeal to logic. It can't be settled by some abstract argument. While working on Varieties James wrote to Royce that he was composing it with the design of overthrowing his system. According to James, a proper study of religion should begin with actual religious life, its effects on those who live it, and its implications for philosophy.

James called for a new approach to the study of religion in two pieces written while he was preparing for the Gifford Lectures. The first is the preface to The Will to Believe (1897), a collection of his articles on religion and morality, and the second a lecture, delivered at Berkeley in the fall of 1898, that he viewed as a rehearsal for the lectures at Edinburgh.

The Berkeley lecture, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," is well known for the first public use of the term "pragmatism" to refer to a method of doing philosophy. James credits his friend Charles Sanders Peirce with both the term and the method. Peirce claimed that the meaning of a concept is to be found in the practical consequences we are to expect from it, and in its implications for future conduct. James uses Peirce's criterion to try to clarify what is at stake in the debate over whether or not there is a God. The abstract conceptions of theologians, he says, are aftereffects of concrete religious experiences. Those experiences—voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, and assurances of support—are the primary constituents of religious life. The meaning of the term "God" is those experiences. James says that the theistic controversy appears trivial if taken academically and theologically, but is of tremendous significance for actual life.

In the preface to The Will to Believe, a volume dedicated to Peirce, James says that the only way to evaluate religious beliefs is to test them empirically. When people actively live out their faiths, he writes, some of those beliefs will survive advances in knowledge and others will prove inadequate. No rationalist argument can determine which faiths will work best. The history of religions shows, he says, that many hypotheses have crumbled with widening knowledge of the world, and others have endured and possess vitality for today. A "science of religions" can tell us which faiths have worked best, in a way that no rationalist analysis can. In Varieties James proposes that philosophy of religion be replaced by such a science of religions, and he hopes that the book will make a contribution to it. The phrase "science of religions" had recently been developed by European scholars to refer to a new comparative and empirical approach to the subject, though in fact it often continued to serve theological interests.

Conception of Religion and of Religious Types
Were he asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest possible terms, James writes, he would say that "it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul." James writes well and chooses his terms carefully. When he uses terms that seem vague, it is because he thinks they capture the proper level of generality for his purpose. He intends the phrase "unseen order" to encompass not only the New England Transcendentalism of Emerson and the "natural supernaturalism" of Wordsworth and the romantic poets, but also the objects of traditional religious doctrines in a variety of cultures. With this broad characterization of religion, and with the typology that follows it, James hopes to offer an approach to the subject that cuts across doctrinal divisions and debates both within Christianity and beyond. While his idea of religion and his judgments about the value of particular beliefs and practices are strongly shaped by New England Protestantism, he aims to say something more general about the religious life.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the most respect psychologists, William James points out so many of religious attitudes and discusses them in rational terms by his use of psychology, philosophy and even pathology at times. He uses essays from everyone ranging from respected people in the same field as he is in (or sometimes in the religious field) to some of his closest friends. This shows how determined he was to consider ever type of religious belief in order to construct a way to explain all of the wild phenomena that goes on to corrupt people's minds and belief. Anyone who holds on to their religion and considers it very dear to them should read this book to see if it their faith can really stand up to the theories of James.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Varieties of Religious Expreience" is not only the classic book that chronicles the historic lectures given by author William James, but also offers insight into one of the the Spiritual paths that Bill Wilson followed in devising the Spiritual aspect of his classic book "Alcoholics Anonymous". It should prove of great interest to followers of both William James AND Bill Wilson, and those itnerested in a deeper, historic look into various religious practices. This Barnes and Noble edition offers a good introduction and a price tag that isn't hard to believe in!
Susan Prill More than 1 year ago
Many many misscans. Totally unreadable.
bodhisattva on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
William James presented the "Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology" at the University of Edinburgh as 10 lectures each in 1901 and 1902, and later published his edited lecture notes as this book. James presents a psychology, a philosophy, and a science of religion, aspects of which are both remarkably modern and out-dated. His use of first-person narratives (many quoted from E.D. Starbuck's 1899 "The Psychology of Religion" -- full text available at provides a database which he then uses to build his thesis. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and most directly Carl Sagan ("Varieties of Scientific Experience") all build on this foundation. The clearly (and stated) Anglo-Protestant perspective which James takes dates this work, but the read is still more than worthwhile. The first 15 lectures (or so) present his "psychological" data, while the remaining lectures provide his philosophical and "scientific" conclusions. Now on to "The Varieties of Religious Experience: Centenary Essays" by Michel Ferrari and "William James and a Science of Religions: Reexperiencing The Varieties of Religious Experience" by Wayne Proudfoot. [Proudfoot edited the B&N version of "Varieties" and provides a good introductory chapter.]
JBreedlove on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A dry and brutally boring read. I know it is supposed to be a classic but 19th century religious psychology is not for me I guess. However, there were a few gems within this tome. I now know where the "streams of consciousness" idea comes from. Maybe its being so immersed in the world right now makes reading about individuals who turn their back on it seem a waste of time.Originally published in 1902
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Undoubtedly William James most popular book, I found this to be, as it always is with James, a joy to read. His style kept me going when both the combination strange ideas and impenetrable prose of his cited examples retarded my progress. His focus on the individuality of experience was what struck me as central and certainly most important to me - the mature individualist that I am. While I was not convinced by the mysticism surveyed or the various rationalizations of religious pondering, I came away with a better sense of this type of thought. Unlike Santayana I was not bothered by the focus on "religious disease" or "sick souls", but my perspective, unlike his, is a bit more rational, if not more reasonable. On the whole a very good book about a subject that is spiritual in many ways.
pickwick817 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
James describes the phenomena of many different kinds of religious experineces in this book. It is a very analytical look at an emotional / spiritual subject. He appears to keep objective throughout, but we all know in the end that is immpossible. It was more objective than I think I could ever be. Again, another book on philosophy that while good, I found incomplete. Some day I am going to begin to write my own thoughts so that I will have a book to read that at least attempts to cover everything I'm looking for.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unreadable file
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