William James’s influential papers on ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

William James (1842–1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist. James was a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential U.S. philosophers; his groundbreaking papers and discussions known as “The Varieties of Religious Experience” would influence both Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley.

William James in Brazil, 1865
William James in Brazil, 1865


Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism. The philosophy of pragmatism “emphasizes the practical application of ideas by acting on them to actually test them in human experiences”

Born into a wealthy family, James was the son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr. and the brother of both the prominent novelist Henry James and the diarist Alice James. James trained as a physician and taught anatomy at Harvard, but never practiced medicine. Instead he pursued his interests in psychology and then philosophy. James wrote widely on many topics, including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion, and mysticism. Among his most influential books are The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology; Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy; and The Varieties of Religious Experience

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James provided a description of the mystical experience, in his famous collection of lectures published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience. These criteria are as follows

  • Passivity – a feeling of being grasped and held by a superior power not under your own control.
  • Ineffability – no adequate way to use human language to describe the experience.
  • Noetic – universal truths revealed that are unable to be acquired anywhere else.
  • Transient – the mystical experience is only a temporary experience.

James earned his M.D. degree in June 1869 but he never practiced medicine. What he called his “soul-sickness” would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878. In 1882 he joined the Theosophical Society.

For a great introduction to the man and his work, there is this episode of Radio 4’s “In Our Time”

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ by William James. The American novelist Henry James famously made London his home and himself more English than the English. In contrast, his psychologist brother, William, was deeply immersed in his American heritage. But in 1901, William came to Britain too. He had been invited to deliver a series of prestigious public lectures in Edinburgh. In them, he attempted a daringly original intellectual project. For the first time, here was a close-up examination of religion not as a body of beliefs, but as an intimate personal experience. When the lectures were printed, as ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, they were an instant success.They laid the ground for a whole new area of study – the psychology of religion – and influenced figures from the psychiatrist Carl Jung to the novelist Aldous Huxley. To date, James’s book has been reprinted thirty-six times and has been hailed as one of the best non-fiction books of the twentieth century.

In Our Time: William James’s ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’