William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in Human Nature: Book Review

Book Review

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Although he is probably less well known today than his novelist brother, William James’s contributions to both scientific and humanistic discourses during the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century were actually much greater. Generally considered to be the father of American psychology of education, his 1890 The Principles of Psychology is still widely read today, as is his Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in Human Nature. This latter book is the focus of this paper, although it must be stressed that the ideas presented in the latter cannot be fully understood unless they are placed within the context of James’s entire body of scholarship on the ways in which the human mind develops.

The Varieties of Religious Experience did not have its genesis as a single unified text. It is rather the collected series of lectures on natural religion that James delivered in 1901 and 1902 at the University of Edinburgh. The book is thus somewhat of a patchwork creation, containing scores of personal references and anecdotes that James called the “facts of experience”. However, this somewhat informal organizational structure of the work does not diminish it in any important way; indeed, the rather Jungian, free-form way in which James connects ideas and experiences provides us with a poignant and very personal look at his understanding of the ways in which religion functions in an individual’s life.

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