Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Essayist of the Day: William James

As soon as I was assigned to Team Non-Fiction, I delved into The Varieties of Religious Experience with gusto. It's the optional work which has perhaps taken the largest chunk of my time: it's a hefty (but breezy!) volume, and several hours has only gotten me through a handful of the lectures.

William James, granddaddy of the psychologists, uses a lot of very persuasive rhetorical devices. The two I note most are logos and ethos.

He uses logic in the way he lays out his arguments: his aims is to explore religious life not from the doctrinal perspective of a preacher, but from a psychological and anthropological perspective. To do so, he can't make circular claims like "religion is X because it's X." He uses an evenhanded, fairminded approach to the question: note the "varieties" in the title.

His second appeal is to ethos, the authority of others. This is not a testimonial, but a psychological history. Much as Dr. Oliver Sacks explores mental and physical health issues through case studies, William James uses case studies of the exceptions: extraordinarily devout people.

Fashionable in his day was the Freudian idea that religion was a twist on the sexual impulse. I referenced this idea about teenagers briefly before; here it is in full:

These arguments are as good as much of the reasoning one hears in favor of the sexual theory. But the champions of the latter will then say that their chief argument has no analogue elsewhere. The two main phenomena of religion, namely, melancholy and conversion, they will say, are essentially phenomena of adolescence, and therefore synchronous with the development of sexual life. To which the retort again is easy. Even were the asserted synchrony unrestrictedly true as a fact (which it is not), it is not only the sexual life, but the entire higher mental life which awakens during adolescence. One might then as well set up the thesis that the interest in mechanics, physics, chemistry, logic, philosophy, and sociology, which springs up during adolescent years along with that in poetry and religion, is also a perversion of the sexual instinct:—but that would be too absurd. Moreover, if the argument from synchrony is to decide, what is to be done with the fact that the religious age par excellence would seem to be old age, when the uproar of the sexual life is past?

He uses a classic argumentative device (I was on BYU's debate team; I would know): outline the other argument in full to be better able to knock it down.

The link sends you to the text in full. His brother, Henry James, a previous EOTD (Nabokov) compared to a whale. You'll find no bloatedness in his brother. With the transcripts of these lectures, it's easy to imagine someone cosmopolitan, erudite, and, that rarity in today's maniacal talking heads, rational.

1 comment:

  1. And a great knock down it is. I liked it! He sounds like a level headed man full of spunk to take on Freud in his day. I am amazed at how Freud's theories continue, except that it was he who sparked interest in focusing on the child.