Exploring Unseen Worlds : William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism


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W. James and Mysticism: he was open to it, but wasn't a mystic.


When you speak from the heart you can kindle the fire in the hearts of others. Through recognition you actually begin to awaken the soul which is asleep. And fire spreadsthere is nothing more catching than love.

-- Reshad Feild, The Last Barrier

Introduction

James often fumed at the dense, almost impenetrable, prose of many of the philosophers of his time. He was bothered by philosophical jargon, not because of any snobbish need on his part for aesthetic purity, but rather, because he strongly felt that philosophers needed to break free from the insular security of the ivy-covered walls of academia in order to address, clearly and simply some of the most pressing and important questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the nature of reality? Why is there evil? What actions are good? What is truth? What can I hope for after death? Is there a meaning to life? What, if any, is my connection to God?

Myers: "from the beginning [James] was convinced that the philosopher ought to take his ideas to market, that the public needs those ideas as values by which to live, and that the ideas themselves are tested and refined by public response."
From James's pragmatic perspective, a philosophical vision that did not transform lives was certainly not valuable, and it was quite possibly not even true.

As James goes to great pains to point out in The Principles of Psychology, our moment-to-moment experience of life is itself always rooted in choices: we perceive a world that is at least partially molded by what we choose to notice, by what we are hoping and expecting to see.

For James, mystical experiences ''are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.

not only are genuine mystical experiences experiential and powerful, they must also, from James's perspective, be transformativethey can and should revolutionize a person's (and ideally a community's) life.
non-religious experiences are "mystical" only if they succeed in significantly altering a person's worldview.

Although James was fascinated by mysticism, James himself was not a mystic, that is, he was not someone who had frequent and profound mystical experiences. As he stated in a letter written in 1904 to Prof. James H. Leuba:
"My personal position is simple. I have no living sense of commerce with a God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly. The Divine, for my active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideal, interest and determine me, but do so but faintly in comparison with what a feeling of God might effect, if I had one."

Climbing the Mystical Ladder