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The Varieties of Religious ExperienceReview - The Varieties of Religious Experience
Centenary Essays
by Michel Ferrari (Editor)
Imprint Academic, 2002
Review by Wesley Cooper, Ph.D.
May 12th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 20)

This is a slim volume (149 pages, including an index and introduction) that republishes a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: controversies in science & the humanities, Vol. 9, No. 9-10, September/October 2002. It is an appropriate tribute to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience that must be welcomed by all students of James's works. Each of the contributors has an agenda that is more or less separable from understanding Varieties, so their essays can be appreciated for the agenda as well as for the light they shine on James's project.

Eugene Taylor's scholarly ''William James and Depth Psychology'' presents James as committed to a school of depth psychology, a different one from the psychoanalytic school of Freud and others. Taylor refers to psychoanalysis as ''the orphaned stepchild of the previous era'' and describes it as ''the only language of depth psychology admitted into the flow of modern discourse'' (31). Because James's school died and the surviving school ''has never been considered legitimate science,'' and also because his 1896 Lowell Lecture on Exceptional Mental States was never published as a book by itself, Taylor reckons that modern readers are likely to fail to appreciate the influence of James's depth psychology on his Varieties.

Assessing this interpretation is aided by a distinction between shallow unconscious mental states and deep ones. A shallow unconscious mental state is simply a disposition of the central nervous system to give rise to conscious mental states, comparable to the solubility of a sugar cube. A sugar cube's solubility does not consist in internal, shadowy acts of dissolution, but merely in its dissolving when immersed in water. Similarly a shallow unconscious thought that such-and-such does not consist in an internal, shadowy ''version'' of that thought, but rather in one's being disposed to have the conscious thought that such-and-such when awake, when asked appropriate questions, etc. A deep unconscious mental state on the other hand is allegedly an internal, shadowy version of the conscious mental state, one that may be so suppressed that it is no more capable of rising to consciousness than a stone is liable to dissolve in water. It is arguable (I have argued it in The Unity of William James's Thought [Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002]) that the sort of unconscious mind that fits James's way of thinking is the shallow kind. If that's right, Taylor's depth-psychology reading of James is sound to the extent that depth psychology is about shallow unconscious mind. His essay does not settle this issue.

Eleanor Rosch's interesting if unfortunately titled ''How to Catch James's Mystic Germ'' does not exhibit a similar ambiguity in its elaboration of James's view that there is more to mind and experience than is given by ''normal waking consciousness.'' She dismisses ''traditional psychoanalysis'' as for theorizing the unconscious as ''a homunculus with the same kinds of goals and activities as the conscious'' (38). Nor is she impressed by the unconscious as it figures in experimental psychology and cognitive science, ''brain processes and other low level cognitive phenomena denuded of human experiential import'' (38), which she joins James in calling ''medical materialism'' and making us feel, in James's words, ''menaced and negated in the springs of our innermost life'' (38). Her difference with James is that she wishes to locate the mystical in ordinary experience, along lines laid out by Eastern religious and meditative traditions, especially Buddhism. I think she has a valid point. But is it possible that the mystical has two locations, one in ordinary experience understood as intimating the ineffable, one in ''special states of mind'' that are different from normal waking consciousness?

G. William Barnard's helpful ''The Varieties of Religious Experience: Reflections On Its Enduring Value'' concerns itself with constructivism about mystical experience, which he understands as the view that such experiences ''are always filtered through, and formed by, the mystic's tacit, internalized cultural symbolic structures, structures that are operative during the experience itself'' (58). He rejects ''complete constructivism,'' which interprets mystical experience as ''one hundred percent shaped, determined, and provided by the mystic's cultural framework'' (58), from ''incomplete constructivism,'' which claims that some aspects of the mystical experience are provided by something else, which Bernard explains by reference to James's distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge-about. This seems on the right track, but it would be worthwhile to consider whether the idea of knowledge-by-acquaintance fails to separate consciousness of the ''something else'' from what James sometimes called ''sciousness,'' a state in which one experiences things without internalizing them into the stream of consciousness or externalizing them as physical objects. Arguably (See Cooper, cited above) the latter is the kind of experience that James associates with mysticism. It's not clear that Barnard would accept such a ''something else'' as figuring in incomplete constructivism, though his definition of it can be read so that ''sciousness'' qualifies as such.

Jen Brockmeier's postmodernist-to-the-max ''Ineffable Experience'' interprets James through the lens of the twentieth century's linguistic turn, particularly as wending its way toward views that countenance no ontology ''beyond the text.'' So he writes, for instance, that ''From a post-positivist perspective, we do not know 'facts' about reality,'' and ''it is not reality that speaks to us, it is the documents of a consensus among a community about what counts as real'' (83). I don't think one needs to be a positivist to contest such views, but one can appreciate how, given Brockmeier's twist on the linguistic turn, James's radical empiricism, committed as it is to a world of pure experience beyond our representations of it, must ''fail to capture a fundamental dimension of the phenomena under examination'' (85).

Keith Oakley and Maja Djikic's ''Emotions and Transformation: Varieties of Experience of Identity'' argues that ''the most original and far-reaching idea of James's 1902 book is that of the functions of emotions. Not only are emotions central to human motivation and personality, but changes of life from one emotional centre to another are themselves fundamentally, and consciously, emotional'' (101-2). They present this idea as at odds with James's (the James-Lange) theory of emotion, according to which, they say, ''an emotion is a perception, an outcome, not a mental cause'' (98). But it's arguable that this diagnosis overstates the counter-intuitive implications of James's theory of emotion. That we are angry because we strike, and so on, changes a particular order of sequence that common sense assumes, but it doesn't necessarily follow that emotions are thereby stripped of causal powers beyond this sequence; they could bring about life-changing transformations, in particular.

Michel Ferrari's poignant ''William James and the Denial of Death'' replies persuasively on James's behalf to several objections to his defense of immortality. As well, he brings the discussion up to current research into artificial intelligence and cryogenics. One appreciates the (bare) possibility that this work might achieve something approaching immortality. But his concluding suggestions, notably the view that "through artifacts like books and photographs, people live on" (135), runs afoul of Woody Allen's point, that one does not want to achieve immortality through one's children or books, but by not dying. But anyone who is familiar with James's ouvre has to sympathize with what Ferrari is trying to say here. James fashioned a great gift that speaks to us still.

 

2003 Wesley Cooper

 

Wesley Cooper, Ph.D., Dept Philosophy, University of Alberta, Canada


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