Wednesday, 14 March 2012

William James and the Mystical Experience

William James, 1942-1910.

With the emergence of modernity, the hermeneutic and liturgical dimensions of mystical thought and practice were gradually neglected in favour of an appreciation of a generic experiential value of the category of mysticism. An example of this shift is evident in the works of the pioneering philosopher and psychologist, William James, and his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, which was first published in 1902. James’s scholarly interest provided a framework for the study of mysticism and religious experience through the emerging discipline of psychology, yet he did not adopt the reductionist approach. For James, organised religion was secondary in importance in relation to private individual religious experiences, which reflected the process of secularisation prevalent with the rise of modernity and affected the transference of significance of religion being to public affair to that of a more private one.

The study of mysticism in the works of James has often been conceived as a study of the attainment of altered states of consciousness, which are inaccessible to the rational mind yet have exceptional meaning and impact upon the individual. In James’ words, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special types of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”[1] According to James, mystical experiences exhibit four characteristics, through which he was interested providing a theoretical framework for exploring the rich diversity of mystical texts and traditions throughout the world. The first characteristic is ‘ineffability’, which refers to the indescribable nature of the mystical experience. The second, the ‘noetic quality’, is the impact that the acquisition of the some mystical insight has. The third quality refers to ‘transiency’, indicated that the experiential state of mystical insight is limited in duration. The final characteristic is the ‘passivity’ of mystical experiences, where the powerful sense of the unity of all things experienced through a mystical insight renders the subject incapable to act, as they are ‘given’ instead of being an expression of an active imagination.

[1] James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, 1977, page 374.

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