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William James’ Lectures Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2019

American psychologist, philosopher and medical doctor William James was an influential pioneer at the turn of the century in the novice sciences of psychology, , religious experience psychology, as well as the philosophy of .

A prolific and voluminous writer throughout his life who spent most academic career at Harvard, James interact with renowned writers and scholars, amongst them (his godfather), (godson), , , , , and . In 1901 and 1902, James did a series of lectures under the auspices of the Gifford Lecture Series at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) on Natural Theology – the knowledge of God.

The compilation of the lectures resulted in his groundbreaking book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature – his expose on the philosophy of religion in relation to his pragmatic predilections.

In Lectures IV, V, and VI discussed THE RELIGION OF HEALTHY-MINDEDNESS and THE SICK SOUL. In the former James elaborates (defends yet criticizes) on the fundamental tenet of the popular twentieth century mind – cure movement which advocated the healing power of positive beliefs and emotions on the mind – an all pervasive optimistic view of life.

On the other hand, the latter discusses the chronic evils of world and how they inflict the soul and mind. These lectures and the premises they purport can be coined or categorized according to James into two forms of human existence or religious personalities – the “once-born” and the “twice-born.” They not only explained human dispositions but different instincts and attitudes about religion.

Via exaggeration James is effectively describes and differentiates the nature of the two personalities. Aforementioned, the essential goodness of life compounded with cheer and enthusiasm is the core philosophy of the “once born.” Everything is positive, beautiful, euphoric – oblivious to the hardship of life comprised of disease, vices, venality, sin, criticism, etc. As James asserts/further elaborates –

“They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure. The same characters generally have no metaphysical tendencies: they do not look back into themselves.

Hence they are not distressed by their own imperfections: yet it would be absurd to call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves at all. This childlike quality of their nature makes the opening of religion very happy to them: for they no more shrink from God, than a child from an emperor, before whom the parent trembles: in fact, they have no vivid conception of any of the qualities in which the severer Majesty of God consists (The Varieties of Religious Experience).”

On the other hand the “sick soul” or “twice born” are extremely introspective and distressed by and painfully conscious of the evils of the world. They long for a purpose in life as they desire to be free from a transient world full of discontent, division, and alienation. James purports on the other had that such a state actually brings better meaning to life.

“Now in contrast with such healthy-minded views as these, if we treat them as a way of deliberately minimizing evil, stands a radically opposite view, a way of maximizing evil, if you please so to call it, based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart (The Varieties of Religious Experience).”

Life is a journey which involves physical and mental experiences. Transcending time and cultural boundaries, the human development/evolvement process (mental, spiritual, etc.) is indelible and universal.

James appears to hypothesize that both play a vital role in the life process with happiness as the ultimate goal stating “What is human life’s chief concern?…It is happiness.’ How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure (The Varieties of Religious Experience).” Happiness coupled with introspection and challenges however is what makes life meaningful and well rounded.


James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Web.

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