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Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  10,890 ratings  ·  476 reviews
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Kindle Edition, 234 pages
Published May 12th 2012 (first published 1901)
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I wanted to like this classic book, but I can't do it: too many things are wrong. A shame, because I completely approve of the idea. William James, writing around the end of the 19th century, sets out to take a cool look at how people experience religious feeling, basing his investigation on state-of-the-art psychological theory. What do we discover, and what do the findings tell us about the nature of religion? For the first two or three chapters, I enjoyed it and thought it was going in a good ...more
Paul Bryant
Oct 04, 2007 marked it as probably-never  ·  review of another edition
I had an unusually long conversation with my daughter Georgia (also now a Goodreader) once when she was seven years old (she's now 16 going on 17, just like in the song) and the matter of eschatology came up, so I asked her directly - well, what does happen when you die? So she laid out what she thinks happens, and I was so taken by the stuff she came out with that I wrote it down. As it's a variety of religious experience I thought it appropriate to include here.


Mar 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015, aere-perennius
“There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.”
― William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


The amazing thing about James is he can write with precision and humility about something so completely intrinsic and fraught with pit falls. Most writers run at the subject with some large bias of the mystical, the absolute. You have thousand of books written every year proclaiming their strain of Christianity, Judaism, Veg
I have heard of this book for years and have meant to look into it for about as long – but earlier this year I read a book called Ghost Hunters William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death and that made me more curious about James and his philosophy. I had read some of his philosophy at University, but not really a lot.

I had no idea this would be quite so long. I also had no idea this was based on a series of twenty lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh between
Clif Hostetler
This book is a compilation of twenty lectures delivered by William James at the University of Edinburg, Scotland between 1901 and 1902. William James is speaking as a psychologist in these lectures so his focus is on examples of human feelings and behavior in response to religious experiences. Much of the text consists of quoting from previously published accounts and his own data collection of these experiences. He connects these accounts with his own commentary and uses this range of examples ...more
Paul Cockeram
May 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Most people seem to think this book is important for the light it sheds on religion, or perhaps as an advancement in the field of religious studies. However, I would argue that this book's real significance lies in James' respect for our conscious experiences of things as the origin of real truth, insight, and significance. James is one of those rare thinkers who values the subjective more highly than the objective: "The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective an ...more
190619 later later addition: reading chapter on james in ‘evasion of philosophy’, on american pragmatism, certainly inspires more reading of his work. does not directly mention much of this text, but reveals his and others, pierce, emerson, dewey, all influenced by, all noted, christianity as baseline to their attitudes, their ideas, of idealism embodied in empirical and abstract ideologies of truth, effect, value- so maybe i should pay more attention to ...more
Ade Bailey
May 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A classic of course, still potent and assured. I return to it for its look at the realism of the 'sick soul'. It comforts me.

It is not religion that is the concern here. Human emotions and feelings are the focus. How these influence a personality could as equally underlay their political orientation, their philosophical orientation, and they do in fact represent how a person actually is in the world: how they relate, how they feel, in short their character. There is an existential edge, of cours
Feb 09, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
"I fear that my general philosophic position received so scant a statement as to hardly be intelligible"

That about sums up this text for me. Although the language is beautiful, I never really got a understanding of what the author was trying to prove.

A more apt title for this book is probably "The Varieties of Anglo-American Protestant Religious Experience". There was slight mention of other belief systems (Islam, Sufi-ism, and Hinduism, had small cameos). Even the more interesting Protestant s
May 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You will not wait for me to remind you that William James is a great writer, a man in absolute possession of the art of expressing ideas. You will not wait for me to remind you that William James is a great professor, a scholar and an influencing thinker who contributed to founding an important school of thought. This I assume you already know.

Now these skills, and on the scale of which William James was in complete mastery of them, is what you need to treat a subject as difficult to grasp as t
May 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have translated this book with my dear friend/ brother Ali Reda.

Three years of systematic work, frustration and despair.

Finally, we made it!

I am looking forward to seeing it published soon.
E. G.
Foreword to the Centenary Edition, by Micky James
Editors' Preface
Introduction: The Spiritual Roots of James's 'Varieties of Religious Experience'
Introduction: The Return to James: Psychology, Religion and the Amnesia of Neuroscience
Preface from the 1902 Edition

--The Varieties of Religious Experience

Barnaby Thieme
It's impressive how well this book has withstood the passage of time. More than a century after its publication, it continues, on the whole, to feel extremely fresh and insightful, compared with the works of some other psychologists whom I could name. Like ... people whose name rhymes with "Kroid." But I digress.

Unlike the dogmatic theoretic architectonics that would increasingly dominate the field of psychology in the twentieth century, James subscribed to an empirical pragmatism that is quite
Erik Graff
Dec 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: psychology
Being derived from public lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience is neither a particularly deep nor demanding book. It is, however, both beautifully written and clearly expressed--hallmarks of James' style. Informally unsystematic, the painless effort of going through it will likely present the reader with useful insights, apt examples and challenging arguments.

I was particularly challenged by the idea that some people, what he calls healthy souls, are constitutionally happy. Being to t
Apr 07, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901) is a lecture series that American philosopher and psychologist William James offered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902. In these lectures, James explores the phenomenon of religion from a psychological perspective. That is, he describes how religious phenomena are objects of our mental life and he explains these phenomena in psychological terms.

This approach is, besides very fruitful, mind-bogglingly innovative. Mention religion and people
Bryn Hammond
Apr 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I still haven't read this cover to cover but it's a work of art. As a student I targeted the section on drunkenness -- a lyrical description I haven't seen bettered. But don't trust my memory. I was a drunken student. ...more
robin friedman
Aug 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
William James' Great Study Of Religion

William James's classic "The Variety of Religious Experience" (1902) consists of the text of the twenty lectures he delivered as the Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 -- 1902. James took has his theme the exploration of "religious feelings and religious impulses."
In great detail, he studies how people who have had deep and, to them, convincing religious experiences describe these experiences and the meaning the experiences have for thei
May 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The classic value of this work I think relates to the way it frames the questions or the approach it gives to a (Western?) mind. For example, it's in the way that James tries to define how exactly we say what is "religious" and what is not. The fruits or results of a "religious" experience are part of it as are the passions goals and desires religion incites in the psyche. Yet at the same time it's almost as if part of the goal of his writing is to show how real yet how fleeting this area of rea ...more
Soooooo ridiculously ahead of his time. He manages to anticipate more or less the entirety of 20th Century philosophy, both analytic and continental. In fact, he's one of the few thinkers I've encountered (Freud, Marx, Beauvoir, Deleuze, Spinoza, and Said being a few others) whose intellect is strikingly original enough to pierce through the reader's own perspective. Also, in the present American popular-intellectual climate of religious/spiritual pabulum versus asshole scientism, it's hella ref ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Testimonials belong inside a comic book and offer nothing but anecdotal curiosities for those who already believe without sufficient reason or for those who like to pretend to know things they don’t really know. This is clearly one of the worst books I’ve ever read and I can’t believe that I had such high esteem for the author before having read this.

The book is an incredibly dangerous approach to understanding a topic. Over a hundred different case studies of personal experiences are mentioned
May 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thought-religion
A classic from a very important thinker, as fresh today as when it was written. Although the book has some limitations, such as emphasis on Christianity relative to other religions, one could echo the Bible in saying the world could not contain all the books that might be written on the subject.

James examines a wide range of particulars and boils them down to general facts and some hypotheses, concluding that at the very least, conversion experiences "even for a short time show a human being wh
ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos)(RK)
I tried reading this book about 35 years ago and gave up in despair. The lack of distinct between philosophy and psychology at the time James wrote the book led to bad philosophy and unsubstantiated psychology. ( There's still a great deal of both around. )

This time around, I decided to read the book for what it is, an historical document which looks back on an interesting period of changing concepts in psychology. Once again, I am giving up in despair.

There are simply too many words that take
Jon Boorstin
This from one of the inventors of modern psychology. Looking at religious experience not in a proscriptive way, but descriptively -- how great religious thinkers think. It embraces the breadth of our experience, and encourages us to follow our own peculiar combination of quests and impulses.
Glen Schroeder
May 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When I think about the anhedonia that settled in me after entirely abandoning my religious upbringing and disregarding all things spiritual, I’m forced to think about what I really lost. William James would say that which was lost is the completeness of a human being, which is both body and spirit (union—or, in Sanskrit, yoga). It is all too easy (for an angsty teen like I was or otherwise) in our time to buy into the idea that science can dismiss religion, even though it can say very little abo ...more
May 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Lame Goodreads tells me I'm "reading this for the 2nd time". Nope. My 'to read' shelf is simply part of my 'read' shelves because I don't want Amazon monitoring my upcoming reading choices. Goodreads has really gone to the dogs with all these newfangled tracking options. Leave things alone! Stop adding bells-and-whistles to everything!

Anyway so, this is my first time reading William James (or any of the James family) and it's a superb book. Falling aptly in line with my recursive taste for cereb
Geoffrey Fox
Jul 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
To try to make sense of the religious fanaticism that either inspires or serves as a pretext for so much of the violence and destruction we are watching at this moment, I turned to this book, which I had long intended to read. It has been a great pleasure to be in the company of such a rational, good-willed and articulate thinker for nearly 500 pages. I was interested in the subject matter, and amazed by many of the examples he quotes of extreme religious devotion (though the quoted passages are ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really interesting book, but quite long and tedious as it just goes through story after story.
Bob Nichols
Feb 23, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Given his reputation as a thinker and writer, this is a disappointing book on substance and style.

James delves into the wide variety of transcendent (the "Reality of the Unseen") experiences and provides many anecdotal accounts to illustrate them. Given James' background in psychology, and the likely influence of Darwinian theory on philosophical pragmatism ("Truth" is what best works), it is surprising that James accepts these accounts at face value without questioning whether other underlying
Theo Logos
I first read this book in my early twenties. I was a young man fleeing the rigid, fundamentalist evangelicalism I had been raised in, and searching for a more rational expression of faith. I was greatly impressed with this book at that time, and in that condition, so when I added it here on Goodreads that memory of how it had impressed me moved me to rate it five stars.
On this my second reading of William James' great work, I approached it as a man in later middle age who has been a functional
Jana Light
Aug 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thinking, spiritual
I go back and forth on giving this book 4 stars or 5. I thought it was excellent considering where the field of psychology was at the time, but I was disappointed in how James's analysis stayed in the realm of the subjective and anechdotal. Of course, religious experience is radically individual and subjective, so it makes sense that much of his work would discuss individual experiences as such. However, I felt that in the first half he relied too strongly on autobiographical passages to prove h ...more
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Goodreads Librari...: Please add "cover" for audio book 5 17 Jul 02, 2017 07:08PM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who was also trained as a physician. The first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the

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