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HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REYIEW 

Volume V. OCTOBER, 1912 Number 4 



EMPIRICISM AND PLATONISM IN THE PHILOSOPHY 
OF RELIGION 

TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIAM JAMES 

ERNST TROELTSCH 
University of Heidelberg 

During the lifetime of William James, his philosophical work, 
closely connected as it is with many traditions of British phi- 
losophy, made a marked impression — one might almost say, a 
stir — on the Continent of Europe. Since his death, obituary 
notices and comprehensive reviews of his philosophy have made 
the intellectual legacy of the departed thinker the object of still 
greater attention, the more because, outside of the pragmatic 
school itself, the interest in the writings of so fine and penetrat- 
ing a mind as Bergson naturally extends itself to cognate move- 
ments of thought. 

In this legacy, James's philosophy of religion stands out with 
special prominence, partly by reason of its contrast to the type 
of philosophy of religion which is traditional on the Continent of 
Europe, partly because of the wealth of his own new and valuable 
suggestions, which have been added to by a number of zealous 
followers. It may not be uninteresting, therefore, to the readers 
of this Review, if I try to characterize what is peculiar and new 
in this, the first thorough-going contribution from America to 
the philosophy of religion. In doing so, I shall discuss two points: 
first, the contrast between James's ideas and the European phi- 
losophy of religion; and, second, the positive value that the new 
ideas which thus emerge seem to me to have. 

Before I undertake to define the difference, I must, however, 
point out what is common to the two systems. This common 



402 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

element is, in fact, more extensive and significant than appears 
in James's own writings. The differences lie within the bounds 
of presuppositions common to both, and are not fundamental; 
the essential unity of the intellectual work of the modern civil- 
ized world is fully maintained. For James's philosophy of re- 
ligion — and this is the common characteristic — is a true philosophy 
of religion, that is to say not a one sided sectarian or theological 
treatment of the subject. As with us the philosophy of religion 
is distinguished from the theology of the churches by setting out, 
not from a given theological norm of truth, but from the whole 
wide field of religious phenomena, so also with James. He, too, 
considers religion as a vast sphere of phenomena common to all 
mankind, within which no presumption lies in favor of minor 
individual circles. The goal, moreover, like the point of depart- 
ure, is determined for him by no outside authority or dogma, 
but he compares and appraises the phenomena with entire free- 
dom, according to a standard which the philosopher himself has 
first to discover and justify. The problem of this standard con- 
tains in itself, as we shall see, the difficulties which are most in- 
trinsic to the philosophy of religion. In what has been said the 
third common trait has already been implied: his discrimination 
and his appraisal do not assume the supernaturalism of the 
church, nor set off a Jewish-Christian region of miracles over 
against a natural region devoid of the miraculous. It is the more 
important to emphasize this, because James himself repeatedly 
and positively professes adherence to supernaturalism and dual- 
ism, and by no means rejects miracles. Supernaturalism is for 
him, however, no exclusive attribute of Christianity, but pertains 
to every religion, and simply means the repudiation of rationalism 
and monism with their faith in law. The miraculous in James's 
sense has nothing to do with the miracles of Christian legend and 
theology. Faith in a divine government of the world, he says in 
one place, "of course means 'miraculous' interposition, but not 
necessarily of the gross sort our fathers took such delight in 
representing, and which has so lost its magic for us. . . . Signs 
and wonders and convulsions of the earth and sky are not the 
only neutralizes of obstruction to a god's plans of which it is 
possible to think." For the same reason natural religion means 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 403 

for him the religious experiences received from the beauty and 
splendor of nature, in contrast to those which proceed from 
nature's hidden background and belong to Neoplatonism and 
Buddhism as much as to Christianity. 

All this, however, imports the large conception of the phi- 
losophy of religion which has taken shape from the time of Herder 
and Schleiermacher, Spinoza and Hume. Setting aside every 
personal belief, the thinker addresses himself to the whole broad 
range of the actual psychological facts of religion, and, starting 
from the observation and analysis of these, tries to attain to 
normative forms of faith; leaving it the while an open question 
whether there are any such forms and what character they will 
turn out to have. Emancipation from the beliefs we happen to 
have inherited, comprehensive comparison of all the phenomena, 
determination of the meaning and content of religious phenomena 
by means of analysis, inquiry into the conditions under which 
a standard of judgment is to be framed — all this James also 
assumes as the only living presupposition, or "working hypothe- 
sis,*' in contrast to which ecclesiastical apologetics with its argu- 
ment from miracles, whether it lays the greater stress on the 
external or the internal miracle, is a dead hypothesis. 

The characteristic difference, then, must be sought within the 
sphere of the common presupposition; for, so far as the latter is 
concerned, James is distinguished from others solely by the fact 
that to him the presupposition presents itself as the only vital 
working hypothesis at present available, whereas we see in it 
the demand of reason, asserting itself as soon as the constraint 
of inherited prejudice is withdrawn. In this distinction, indeed, 
a hint is already given of the contrast between the two modes 
of thought. But it is only a hint, and, as for its effect on the 
thought as a whole, the difference is for the moment negligible; 
the result is the same in either case. The real difference can be 
made essentially clear only at the main point, namely, where 
the principle of psychological analysis and its consequences comes 
in. But that can be done only when we have first made clear 
the fundamental characteristic of the European philosophy of 
religion. 

This fundamental characteristic may be described in a single 



404 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

word as Platonic or Neoplatonic. The whole of European 
philosophy and science stands essentially under the influence of 
Platonic rationalism. This in turn presupposes, to be sure, 
the subjectivism and relativism of the Sophists, and in so far 
has its roots in empiricism; but at the same time its consistent 
aim is to transcend the merely actual through the demonstra- 
tion that, seething and developing within it, is a rationally neces- 
sary conceptual element. Platonism proper understood these 
concepts only as thought-engendered intuitions and abstractions 
of the genuinely ideal; and it never seriously attempted to eluci- 
date their essential reality, their relation to the experience that 
elaborates and contains them, their derivation from an ultimate 
rational basis, or rational law, of the universe. That advance 
was made in part by Aristotle, who taught that idea and law are 
immanent in experience, and derived them from the rational 
principle of the world by the use of the ideas of purpose and of 
organic development toward the cosmic principle. Neoplatonism 
then attached this development still more firmly to the cosmic 
principle by teaching that the descent from pure intangible 
superempiric ideality down to the world of experience is made 
on a kind of ladder of ideas, and that the reascent comes about 
through a growing knowledge of these ideas as realities. Stoic- 
ism, despite its original empiricism, eventually approximated in 
its theory of knowledge and its metaphysics to these same views, 
through its idea of a universal cosmic law governing nature and 
spirit, so that for European philosophy Stoicism was able to 
fuse with the two first-mentioned types. 

This system of thought controlled all the philosophy of the 
Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The relativism of the Sophists, 
the scepticism which appeals to the multiformity of the actual, 
the whole troop of radical subjectivism and empiricism, were com- 
pletely routed by the Platonic school; only occasionally and un- 
certainly, in nominalism and in the scepticism of the Renais- 
sance, did these features reappear. Raphael's "School of 
Athens " depicts European philosophy as it took shape in reaction 
against the Sophists and their relativism; a philosophy, that is, 
which points out in experience rational laws and ideas, and de- 
rives these laws from the divine cosmic reason. Here the modern 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF EELIGION 405 

natural sciences, which in other respects pass clean beyond the 
horizon of antiquity, have changed nothing. With Kepler and 
Galileo, Descartes and Newton, the purport of science is the dis- 
covery of a rational necessity in the processes of nature. It is 
now rightly recognized that the conception of rationally necessary 
laws of nature is derived from Platonism. Even the Kantian 
philosophy follows the lead of Platonism when it attempts to con- 
strue these natural laws as a rational necessity of the mind, and 
thus to secure them against pure relativism, as well as against a 
materialism which annuls necessity and mind together. It is no 
wonder, therefore, that from the Kantian philosophy have issued 
once more the analogues of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism. 
And Neokantianism, even in its most cautious, positivist-agnostic 
form, is prepared to assert the rationality and necessity of the 
laws, referring them to the a 'priori organizing activity of the 
thinking subject. 

Under these circumstances, it is but natural that the philosophy 
of religion, too, should conform to the Platonic type. For the 
philosophy of religion is in truth nothing other than the ap- 
plication of universal philosophic theory to the understanding 
of religion and judgment upon it. Religion in itself is without 
ideas and without scientific method. Hence it can never give 
rise to a completely independent science determined only by 
the indications of religion itself. It will always be necessary to 
apply general principles, defined on the plane of science at large. 
Accordingly, the European philosophy of religion, so far as it 
has been able to develop at all in the presence of popular my- 
thology and of the official theology (and to filter somewhat into 
the latter), is throughout Platonic and Neoplatonic in nature. 
Stoicism, whose contributions were considerable, and especially 
important for ethics, was hardly felt to be different from Plato- 
nism; it represented only the more simple and popular philosoph- 
ical element. As soon, therefore, as the Christian community, 
emerging from the obscurity of the lower and middle strata of 
society, felt the need of the intellectual life and sought to offer 
a philosophical basis for the common faith, Platonism came to 
the fore. 

The two greatest constructive theologians of the ancient church, 



406 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

Origen and Augustine, required such a basis, and both found it 
in Platonism. The spiritual contemplation of the eternal and 
necessary ideas is for Origen the very substance of all religion; 
and if it be asked where in this is to be found the specifically 
religious element, Origen would answer that it lies in the assimila- 
tion, communion, and unification of being, between the divine 
and the finite spirit, realized in this contemplation. The fellow- 
ship of Christian worship and life adds to this only the concrete 
visibility of the divine reason in the incarnate Logos, the moral 
laws of the Logos, and the mysteries founded by him. Under such 
a view a distinction is of course made between an esoteric, phil- 
osophical type of Christianity and an exoteric, mythical, ecclesi- 
astical one. For Augustine, the mind's logical certainty of itself, 
which overcomes scepticism, is the most elementary expression 
of religion. He goes on to seek support in the Neoplatonic con- 
ception of an immanence of the divine thought in human thought, 
so that, by the clarification of thought itself, the ascent to unity 
with the divine spirit which is operative in this process follows. 
Complete assurance, indeed, he obtains only through the au- 
thority of the church, with its dogma, its sacraments, and its 
rule of life. 

From Augustine down, this fundamental philosophy of religion 
has persisted. It has been broadened by Aristotelianism, moral- 
ized by Stoicism; but it has remained the fundamental philosophy 
of religion, so far as one has been needed. This foundation ap- 
peared most clearly in so-called Mysticism, which satisfied its 
yearning for immediateness and intensity in the religious process 
by an unparalleled emphasis on these fundamentals, and made 
the Christian dogma a mere symbol of the cosmic process, in 
which the potential unity of divine and human reason — the 
universal cosmic law— is made actual in the Christian soul through 
contact with the truth taught by the church. We meet a like 
thought in the mystics of the Renaissance, but with the specifi- 
cally Christian elements completely eliminated; while the mystics 
and spiritualists of Protestantism have naturally introduced the 
historical aspect of Christianity more strongly and in various 
ways. The religious part of Spinoza's teaching is to be under- 
stood no otherwise, and is closely connected with the mysticism 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 407 

of his day. In recent times, under the influence of the modern 
conception of evolution in history, Christianity has been under- 
stood as a transitional stage, or as the culmination, of a process 
wherein the soul apprehends the unity with the divine reason 
which inheres in the nature of spirit. An unbroken line runs 
here from Leibnitz, Lessing, and Herder to Schelling, Hegel, and 
Schleiermacher, and thence to the religious philosophy of today. 
The doctrine of Kant, too, which pre-eminently maintains the 
fundamental thought of Platonism, does not depart from this 
type in its philosophy of religion. The apprehension of the 
immediate unity of the finite and the infinite reason does not, 
indeed, form the basis here, and religion is treated as the comple- 
ment of ethics, to which it is annexed; but since the rationally 
necessary law of the practical reason connects the finite spirit 
with "reason in general," the Platonic type is maintained, at 
least indirectly, through the mediation of the moral. Kant's 
philosophy of religion is a sort of grafting of Stoicism upon the 
Platonic theory. So far, also, as the Neokantian theology (which 
in Herrmann is much nearer to Count Zinzendorf than it is to 
Kant) finds in the moral law a general philosophical support for 
the underpinning of Christianity, it, too, despite its contempt 
for the philosophy of religion, is connected, though by a rather 
slender thread, with Platonism and its conceptual necessities. 

The leading ideas which appear in such a philosophy of religion 
are the following: 

1. Consciousness, as a finite concretion of the universal cosmic 
consciousness, and taken together with the necessary presup- 
positions which are a priori and potentially contained in it, is 
the source of religion, Religion is a fact of consciousness; yet 
not mere fact, but the result of a necessity of consciousness, in the 
further interpretation of which the necessity of religious concep- 
tions is made to approximate, now to the ultimate metaphysical, 
now to the ultimate ethical ideas, or again is characterized as 
something entirely unique, and with a content which is hard to 
define. 

2. This necessity of consciousness, or a priori spiritual law, 
by virtue of which the individual relates himself to an absolute 
immanent in the soul, is the kernel of religious phenomena, which 



408 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

are everywhere identical, in spite of all their external diversities, 
accidental variations, and obscurations. This is the "essence of 
religion," which in various manifestations becomes variously 
actual, but presses on toward the pure realization of itself — a 
genuinely Platonic thought. 

3. This essence of religion actually appears as a constantly 
changing and mobile phenomenon, a fact which is explained 
partly by the notion of empirical distortion, partly by that of 
necessary individualization, partly by that of an historical, evo- 
lutionary movement directed toward the realization of itself. 
According to the sturdiness of our underlying rationalism, we 
either content ourselves here with empirical classifications, or 
else we seek to understand and rationalize this movement like 
everything else. In the latter case it will appear as an evolu- 
tion necessarily resulting from the relation of the spirit to the 
world of experience, and one in which we can recognize the stages 
of development. 

4. As the "essence of religion" never lies quite in broad day- 
light, while the historical movement aims at the pure realiza- 
tion of this essence, questions present themselves about a com- 
plete, final, and therefore rationally necessary, realization of this 
"essence" — whether such a realization is possible at all, whether 
it has already come into existence, when and how it may perhaps 
be brought about by the future. This is the problem of abso- 
lute religion, and is immediately encountered so soon as con- 
sciousness is recognized as expressing rational necessities and 
religion is accepted as one of these necessities. For Christian 
theologians the difficulty then arises of construing Christianity 
as the absolute religion. 

5. All these investigations have set out from the fact of con- 
sciousness, which, however, as already said, is more than mere 
fact, being a compound of both the necessary and the contingent. 
Such a way of thinking gains its final security only when it 
firmly anchors the individual consciousness, of itself always con- 
tingent, in the holding-ground of "consciousness in general," and 
then, on that basis, makes the compound somehow comprehen- 
sible, so that in it the elements of necessity are plainly seen to 
derive their origin from the absolute consciousness, and the 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 409 

direction of evolution is understood as a movement toward that 
goal. In the background here stands the problem of the con- 
nection of finite and infinite consciousness. This problem is 
often called insoluble, and in that case, as in Schleiermacher, the 
idea of God loses its metaphysical character. When a solution is 
attempted, as in the Hegelian school, universal rational necessity 
absorbs the empirical, contingent, and free elements, so that the 
result is a pantheistic monism; or, as in Schelling and Schopen- 
hauer, it becomes apparent that the compound cannot be ra- 
tionally analyzed, in which case an element of irrationalism 
enters into the idea of God that neutralizes the rational founda- 
tion thought. 

When we set before us these fundamental ideas of the Euro- 
pean, essentially Platonic, philosophy of religion, it is at once 
clear how exactly opposite is the position of James. James is 
more than the religious psychologist who has added a new field 
to the philosophy of religion. He is, by the very act of making 
the philosophy of religion into a psychology of religion, the rep- 
resentative of an altogether opposite type of thought in general, 
and therefore of an opposite type of the philosophy of religion. 
James likes to call himself a radical empiricist. That, means, 
first of all, that he describes himself as a radical antiplatonist; 
the implied contrast to the insufficiently radical empiricists, or 
agnostic positivists, is for the moment a secondary matter. The 
main point is opposition to all apriorism and to all belief in law 
in every field, to the rationalist theory of knowledge, and to 
any prepossession in favor of necessity and synthesis. He is a 
pure analyzer and empiricist, who takes the facts solely as facts, 
not seeking in them any rational necessity and validity in which 
alone the proper essence of the facts is manifested, not combining 
and linking them together according to rational principles and 
finding only in this combination the true object of knowledge. 
He sides with the type against which Plato contended, with the 
relativism of the Sophists, which naturally, with him also, turns 
into psychologism. He resembles the nominalistic and scepti- 
cal opposition which Platonism has always met. He has his 
proper, immediate root, however, in the British philosophy of 
strict empiricism, as Locke laid its foundations in opposition to 



410 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

Descartes — who was the founder of the modern Platonism of 
natural science — as Hume developed it on a great scale, and 
as John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte brought it to wider 
dominion. 

James does not, indeed, remain a relativist and sceptic in the 
sense of the Sophists. Rather, he, too, is seeking the way to nor- 
mative and valid knowledge, although not by the aid of the 
rationalism of laws and necessities, but by means of biological evo- 
lutionism and an idealized utilitarianism. Hypotheses used in 
the process of knowing and verified by results, the economy 
achieved by logical generalizations saving the labor of thinking 
in particulars, principles which are helpful in the struggle for 
existence, and ennobling, — these give him everything that the 
Platonist and Kantian gets from a priori necessities. They give 
it, indeed, provisionally, and with the possibility of constant 
improvement, but they give it. Therein he approximates to such 
modern European antiplatonic thinkers as Mach and Avenarius 
— points of contact which have been instructively emphasized 
by Goldstein, in his book, Die Wandelungen der Philosophie der 
Gegenwart (1911). The aim of attaining to knowledge and to 
confidence in knowledge is not renounced by him, and he does not 
trifle as do the Sophists. But his knowledge is guaranteed solely 
by a practical faith, and determined only by the degree of its veri- 
fication in practice. For him the individual is everything; and 
the individual is an element in a continuous stream which makes 
everything relative, and from which it can only artificially be 
isolated. We can merely analyze this stream, empirically classify 
its chief phenomena, and verify the scientific, social, ethical, relig- 
ious, and metaphysical hypotheses emerging from it by assessing 
the amount of their practical efficiency in the furthering of life. 
There is no absolute unity and no absolute necessity whatsoever. 
Logic is only a labor-saving device, a kind of short-hand, indis- 
pensable, indeed, to knowledge, and resulting from the consti- 
tution of the mind, but indefinitely improvable. The ethical 
and other necessities, the values and ideals, are the more or less 
provisional condensation of experiences concerning what en- 
hances, steadies, and harmonizes life. James himself calls this 
point of view "Pragmatism," and has found a great number of 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 411 

disciples, who hold it with intelligence and zeal. On the founda- 
tion of purely psychological analysis, which has no contempla- 
tive interest in knowing truth for truth's sake, but recognizes only 
a continual succession of stimuli and discharges in act, is built up 
a relativistic-utilitarian conception of the universe, which acknowl- 
edges that the brain intervenes in that stream with a free deter- 
mination of relative values, and which includes among its values 
the spiritual, ethical, and religious, as expansions and enhance- 
ments of human nature. These are entirely subjective appraisals 
on one's own account and at one's own risk. But in their actual 
diffusion and in their function of expanding human nature they 
gain a certain measure of objective confirmation. From the 
purely metaphysical point of view, they remain a venture, which 
must be hazarded, and by which we perhaps help on the work 
of the cosmic Spirit. 

A philosophy of religion conceived from this point of view can 
by its very nature be nothing else than a psychology of religion. 
It does not ignore the question as to the value, meaning, and 
future development of religion, but it proposes to answer this 
question with wholly antirationalistic means. Now this is the 
point where the "radical empiricism" of James turns not only 
against the more or less veiled rationalism of Plato, but also 
against the insufficiently radical empiricism of his own predeces- 
sors and contemporaries, — against the agnostic positivism which 
treats religion solely as a part of ethnology and the psychology of 
primitive men, that is to say, against Comte, and especially 
against Spencer's Darwinian evaporation of all present value in 
religion. While by their doctrine real experience is limited to the 
phenomena of the material world and of social relations, and all 
further belief in a transcendental world is declared illusory, James 
sees in such a conclusion the influence of that scientific Platonism 
which admits only the laws of combination of atoms, material 
and psychic, and which throws on the scrap-heap of romantic 
dreams everything that finds no room in these "necessary" com- 
binations. If we free ourselves completely from this naturalism, 
with its doctrine of rational necessity inherited from a Platonism 
turned to natural science, then there is no reason why we should not 
see in religious and cognate phenomena real experiences — experi- 



412 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

ences as real as those which we have of a stone or from a beam 
of light. The experiences of the material world lose their tyran- 
nical exclusiveness as scon as their coherence no longer signifies 
a closed causality of rational necessity; and there is no reason 
for not treating as genuine experiences the religious phenomena 
that still survive in full vitality. The naturalistic, antireligious 
prepossession of the positivists is the last evil remnant of a Platon- 
ism become natural science. If that collapses, as from this point 
of view it must collapse, nothing stands in the way of a completely 
unprejudiced analysis of religious phenomena. This analysis will 
have to be a psychological one, although here again not in the 
sense of a constructive psychology which from the smallest ele- 
ments builds up complicated structures in accordance with ideas 
of causal necessity, but in the sense of an analytic psychology, 
such as James's radical empiricism has created. As constituent 
parts of a continuous stream of consciousness, ever acting and 
reacting, the phenomena are to be isolated, analyzed, classified, 
and their significance for life appraised. Their eventual meta- 
physical meaning then forms an ultimate and independent question 
by itself, which, again, is to be answered only through experience, 
and not through the phantom of rational necessity. 

So arises a type of the philosophy of religion which, both in 
general and in particular, is at all points opposed to the Platonic. 
It will now be instructive, after this general characterization, to 
contrast it in detail with the main positions of the platonizing 
philosophy of religion, as they have already been stated. This 
will further make plain how each of the two types forms a self- 
consistent whole, and how in its own way each is a logically per- 
fect theory. One can even say that these are the two logically 
possible leading types, each having a peculiar serviceableness 
to thought, and each corresponding to a distinct side of the phe- 
nomenon in question. 

The contrast to the five points presents itself in the following 
fashion : 

1. James, too, starts from the facts of consciousness. But for 
him, from the point of view of the psychology of religion as well 
as of general psychology, consciousness is a stream of psycho- 
physical occurrences, not to be limited and not to be resolved, 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 413 

a bundle of continuous experiences in constant motion, which, 
starting from some physical stimulus, pass on through mental 
activity, and are discharged in some action. Thus disappears 
all a priori unity of consciousness, all connection between contin- 
gent individual consciousness and consciousness in general, all 
derivation of validity from the central unity of consciousness, 
all contrast between pure necessities of mind and the concomitant 
or underlying organic processes. In brief, everything is lacking 
which, as he ironically says, is peculiar to the "Platonic psycholo- 
gists of the Continent." 

2. Accordingly, the characterization of those facts of conscious- 
ness, or experiences, which, using the common term, he calls 
religious, is something quite different from the search for the 
"essence" and typical valid contents of religion. James takes 
the religious experiences in a purely empirical way, and gives 
a purely empirical, approximate characterization, which accumu- 
lates its marks indefinitely, and leaves the question wholly open 
whether religious experiences are really unitary and specific 
experiences. For the estimate of the value of religion this in- 
definiteness of characterization is entirely unimportant, since 
this value obviously does not depend on any unitary and necessary 
function which religion may be supposed to have in the system 
of values of consciousness, but rather on its practical and bio- 
logical service in the enlarging and strengthening of human life. 
Such a service can be rendered, of course, just as well by a highly 
complex group of experiences as by a simple one. Similarly, 
the connection which must be assumed between religious experi- 
ences and the processes of the nerves and brain, particularly 
the familiar relation between strongly religious temperament 
and nervous abnormalities, presents no difficulty. The worth of 
religion and the recognition of it depend upon its actual working, 
not upon the demonstration that it is derived from any "source," 
whether psychological or zoological or ontological. The result 
is that no idea of religion is in fact possible. All we can have is 
a highly indefinite, relative description, which piles up various 
characteristics, and, besides, confines itself to one selected part 
of what is in fact an illimitable phenomenon, namely, to the 
sphere of individual, personal, religious feeling, which represents 



414 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

what is most primitive in religion. As a criterion for getting at 
these characteristics, in the absence of any self-contained and 
necessary "essence" of religion, James uses the empirically ascer- 
tainable eccentricities, the saints, ascetics, and mystics, in whom 
the phenomena appear in one-sided, and often morbid, phases. 
The reduction and adjustment which any respectable religion 
will require for purposes of practical use is accomplished by 
life itself. 

3. So, while the European philosophy of religion, from its premise 
of a unitary essence, seeks to comprehend the historical stages 
of evolution as teleological, James knows the varieties only as 
psychological variations, in every case dependent on general 
psychical condition and on nervous constitution. The great 
historical complexes, taken by and large, are merely accidental 
differences in name and external historical location. In truth, 
he holds, analogies and psychically conditioned varieties run 
through all religious systems, and are to be understood by psycho- 
logical and psychophysical interpretation, not by any dialectic 
of self-evolving thought. Hence James treats only of those 
religious systems from which definite subjective testimonies and 
confessions of religious persons are to be had. The religion of 
savages and of primitive men, which for ordinary positivism is 
all-important, he passes by as obscure and practically unimpor- 
tant, as he does the several philosophical theories of an histori- 
cal evolution of the religious consciousness. So he arranges the 
varieties solely according to the great psychological leading types 
of the general constitution of the soul, and divides religious ex- 
periences into such as correspond to the type of the "healthy 
mind," the "sick soul," and the "divided self." In accordance 
with the psychological nature of his thinking and the strongly neu- 
rological character of his psychology, James emphasizes the fact 
that these differences exist in all systems, and do not depend on 
thought and its movement, but on the nervous constitution. 
His principle, consequently, for the classification of varieties is 
derived neither from a necessary movement of ideas nor from the 
great historic complexes, but solely from the types of nervous 
systems by which the religious emotional attitude is colored and 
determined. In the great historic systems we can speak at most 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 415 

of a preponderance of this or that type, according as the founder 
and leading personalities have made one or another type authori- 
tative for the auto-suggestion of their followers. Nevertheless, 
all this does not signify a strict neurological fatalism, since James 
holds that it is in some measure possible for the free will to enter 
into the impressions which casually present themselves. His 
psychology is neurological, so far as this principle can be carried 
through, but not mechanistic and naturalistic. 

4. As James's empirical conception of the nature of religion 
does not deny to religion practical or biological value, so in the 
presence of this manifoldness of experience he recognizes the 
necessity of a standard of discrimination and graduation. Of 
course, this cannot mean a measuring of the phenomena by the 
standard of an absolute and rationally necessary ideal of religion, 
nor even an approximation to such an ideal as something to be 
at least postulated and contemplated as ultimately achievable. 
As the absolute and the rationally necessary exist nowhere, they 
do not exist here. Rather does the standard emerge in the vital 
movements and adjustments which contribute to the self-preser- 
vation and self-expansion of the race. Here the one-sidednesses 
of exaggerated religion are happily removed through adaptation 
to the totality of the interests of life, and the medial type of a 
moderate religiousness results. Here also those experiences gain 
importance as the more valuable and the more conducive to wel- 
fare which embrace the whole complex life of the soul and over- 
come this complexity by the power of a unitary principle. These 
expand, enrich, and invigorate life as can no other function of 
the soul. Thus the relative maximum value belongs to the 
individualistic redemptive type of piety found in Protestantism, 
or the faith which emphasizes conversion with a strong ethical 
verification — which, of course, is not to deny that like precious 
experiences are found outside of Protestantism or of Christianity. 
The attainment of this maximum experience is dependent, how- 
ever, upon the constitution of the individual, and it will never 
become a universal possession of mankind, nor will it be esteemed 
the highest except from a point of view which sets so high a value 
on the unification of the divided self. Every such judgment of 
value is purely subjective, a hazard, a venture. 



416 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

5. In all this the only question is as to the biologically ascer- 
tainable value for life of religious experiences or of the contents 
of consciousness. The idea of value for life takes the place of 
truth or validity. But, obviously, that is not the whole story. 
Even James has eventually to raise the ontological question. He 
has all the more to raise it, because really the only specific feature 
of the religious state that he singles out is the coloring of uni- 
versal mental processes by the subject's relation to a particular 
object, namely, the supposed divine Power. To be sure, it might 
be abstractly possible to give a neurological explanation for this 
conception of the object, and such an explanation would do no 
prejudice to his estimate of the value of religion. But such ex- 
planations, like those offered by the school of Freud, based upon 
sexual psychology, seem to him inadequate. Thus the ques- 
tion remains to be answered, as to the rise of this idea of the 
object and its possible relation to reality; and James, himself 
a man evidently of strong personal religious feeling, takes it up 
with special interest. But whereas Platonism is compelled to 
answer such ontological questions by referring the idea back to 
the self-revelation of the absolute, active and present in the idea 
itself, James can meet them only in a wholly empirical way, 
much as people generally refer the idea of an object to the reality 
behind the idea, assuming that the idea was somehow produced 
as an impression from the object, or as the popular faith believes 
in divine influences on the soul in individual cases. 

At this point James comes to the most original and personal 
chapter of his philosophy of religion. Together with all his em- 
piricist and positivist colleagues, he is unable to find in ordinary 
consciousness any place where such incursion of a religious power 
would be possible. Therefore, he turns to the modern discovery 
of the subconsciousness, as possibly offering the entrance at 
which the divine power generates the idea of the religious object. 
Of course, he can present such an explanation only as a wholly 
personal and merely probable "over-belief." Moreover, his use 
of the subconsciousness, which elsewhere in modern psychology 
is more like a sphere split off from the normal consciousness, 
serving to explain apparently sudden and, in particular, patho- 
logical incursions into the superconsciousness, is altogether origi- 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 417 

nal. He here approaches Myers, and the "Society fo» Psychical 
Research," which studies mystical phenomena. But in this 
"over-belief" it is not merely methodically instructive to observe 
how the antiplatonic fundamental thought makes any other solu- 
tion impossible, but James has equipped the solution with another 
much more important antiplatonic contrast. He insists that the 
Platonic solution must lead to the thought of an absolute being, 
a law of laws, a unified cosmic authority, and thereby necessarily 
beget pantheism or monism or the " block-universe," in which 
he holds there can be merely a religious light thrown upon the 
cosmic universe of law, but no vital intercourse with God; only 
mystic feelings of unity, no divine rescue and redemption; only 
general ideas, no vigor of life and no voluntary resolve of faith. 
His antimonism, which is a corollary of antirationalism and anti- 
platonism, does, he says, more justice to real religious experience, 
and at the same time emancipates religious life from doctrines 
that stifle it. Indeed, as the much -discussed "Postscript" shows, 
it also evacuates the thought of God of all inner unity and 
definiteness, and does not shrink from the further consequence of 
polytheism, which is, as he says, the strictly empiricist idea of 
God. 

When we consider all this, the contradiction here presented to 
the European philosophy of religion seems complete, as James 
explicitly declared it to be. If that be so, the question as to the 
significance of James's philosophy of religion would become the 
simple alternative of a choice between it and the European type, 
a choice in which the only question to be raised would be the 
general one of their respective methods. 

But before, in conclusion, I take up this question, one obser- 
vation must be made which will again diminish the practical 
difference between the two types. On each theory the result 
for the conception of religion is very much the same. In both 
cases the result is a complete reaction from dogmatic theology, 
church, ecclesiastical worship, ritual, sacrament, and canonical 
law to the element of purely personal religious attitude. The 
marrow of religious phenomena is understood, on both sides, 
in a mystical and spiritual sense; only with the Platonists the 
contemplative mysticism of the vision of the Absolute and Eternal 



418 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

preponderates, with the empiricists the practical mysticism of 
experience of the mystical state, saintliness, and love of humanity. 
In both cases the theory emphasizes the immediateness of the 
religious life, in contrast to historical authorities and traditions 
and to sociological constructions. The historical sinks to an incit- 
ing occasion, and redemption lies in the elevation of the subject 
into immediate unity with the divine power. In neither case 
does the philosophy of religion substitute a "pure religion" for 
the dominant religions; it simply furnishes a solid foundation 
and justification for the religious life in general, leaving free its 
living course, which it essays to regulate only for those to whom 
reflective thought is a necessity. This naturally brings about 
a difference between the esoteric religion of the thinker and the 
exoteric religion of the masses. On either hand, the freedom 
which is secured to the heart of religion to create its own form 
involves a complete mutual tolerance between the religious groups 
and between believers within each group. This means that in 
the end both views see on the whole the highest, or most valuable, 
evolutionary form in an individualized and spiritualized Protes- 
tantism, such as has resulted from a great part of Protestant 
history, and itself, indeed, stands under the influence of such 
theories. 

There abides, however, the contrast between the inner majesty 
of the absolutely necessary and valid, on the one hand, and prac- 
tical vitality and concreteness, unimpaired by scientific abstrac- 
tions or by ideas of unity or law, on the other. The one view 
inclines to monism and pantheism, the other to untiring activity 
and to living interaction between God and the soul. The one 
finds its demonstration in its intuitive apprehension of the neces- 
sary and the universally valid, the other in the spiritual power 
and effect of the mystical state. It is, in mediaeval language, 
the difference between realism and nominalism. It is a difference 
like that between Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventura. It 
suggests, too, the difference between Luther and Calvin. To go 
farther afield, one can think of the difference between Brahman- 
ism and Buddhism. In modern German literature treating of 
the philosophy of religion, the difference might be illustrated by 
the contrast between Simmel, who has much in common with 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 419 

James's psychological relativism but rejects his robust utilitarian 
standard of judgment and his theology of the subconsciousness, 
and Rudolf Eucken, who, in sharpest opposition to the psycho- 
logical method, endeavors to establish a zoological one, and under- 
stands by this the derivation of the entire world of ideas from an 
historically unfolding basis of universal realities. In Simmel 
we have a combination of nominalistic-psychological mysticism 
and sophistic relativism, in Eucken a combination of Plato, 
Fichte, and Hegel. The contrast is therefore plainly founded 
on the two great, diverging tendencies in human life and thought 
universally; and by reason of the very agreement of both ten- 
dencies in their apprehension of what is the central religious 
process, that process is subjected to contrary interpretations. 

This contrast of interpretations and of the theories to which 
they give rise — one that of a psychological positivism, the other 
that of an absolutist theory of knowledge — is certainly great 
enough to bring again before us the old alternative. 

A full discussion of this question is impossible in the present 
article. Such a discussion would touch upon the most general 
philosophical principles, and has been often undertaken, and by 
many hands. For myself I can only accept the a priori, transcen- 
dental philosophy. It seems to me closely bound up with the 
recognition of all logical validity. Moreover, a doctrine of 
values in the field of ethics and aesthetics is not to be constructed 
without the idea of an element unqualifiedly valid, issuing from 
the nature of consciousness. Finally, and above all, justice to 
the religious sentiment is done only by a theory which does not 
put usefulness in the place of truth, nor substitute a quasi-physical 
action in the subconsciousness for the presence of God in the 
human spirit. In religion a relation to a whole, to an absolute, 
to something possessing inner necessity, is always indispensable. 
James himself felt this when, among other characteristics of 
religion, he spoke of a "reaction upon the cosmos, upon the 
universe," of a relation of the individual to "the first and the 
last word of truth," to "primal truth," to "the most primal 
and enveloping and deeply true," when he recognized in religion 
a "root of happiness in the absolute and everlasting." Such 
words, taken seriously, shatter James's whole theory and recall 



420 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

Plato and Schleiermacher. For my part, I hold substantially to 
Platonism, and to that extent would still stand by the criticism 
which I passed on James in an address before the Congress at 
St. Louis on "Psychology and the Theory of Knowledge in the 
Science of Religion." 

On the other hand, the impression of James's presentation, 
living, unprejudiced, saturated with reality, grows on me. I 
perceive that the criticism of the idea of the absolute which, 
though without transgressing the limits of transcendentalism, 
I made in my essay on the "Absoluteness of Christianity and the 
History of Religion" (2d edition, 1911), comes unintentionally 
rather near to that of James, so far as it deals with a standard 
of judgment for the history of religion. So I find it much more 
difficult today than in the past to incorporate the element of 
relative correctness in James's philosophy of religion into the 
structure of the transcendental, a priori philosophy of Kant and 
Schleiermacher. We are dealing not merely with the psychology 
of religion, but with a philosophy of religion begotten of psycholo- 
gism — a method of thought in which the two things are insepa- 
rably connected, and which stands sharply opposed at every 
point to transcendentalism. 

Nevertheless, if the fundamental principle of the Platonic 
system of thought is accepted, nothing remains but to sever 
religious psychology from the pragmatist presuppositions as to 
the theory of knowledge and metaphysics, and to adopt into 
Platonism the element of truth which pragmatism holds. 

There is, it seems to me, one way in which this can be done, 
although I can but briefly indicate it here. The transcendental 
method starts from a purely psychological analysis, and from 
that works on to find the point where the a ■priori element of 
consciousness asserts itself. Such an analysis must be made 
without any presupposition from metaphysics or the theory of 
knowledge. It must proceed in purely positive and empirical 
fashion, and therefore can very well operate, provisionally, with 
the fundamental assumptions of empiricism and pragmatism. 
But all that is a purely provisional description and analysis of 
the phenomena. Now James, by retaining, as he does, in such 
an analysis the conception of the religious object as a residual 



WILLIAM JAMES'S PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION 421 

datum, indicates the point at which the transcendental analysis 
can start in and penetrate deeper. At every stage of such a pro- 
cedure, James's chief virtues — his marvellous freshness, free- 
dom from prejudice, and sharpness of observation — will be a 
model. 

But there is one thing more which we can and must learn from 
James. With full justice he calls attention to the consequences 
of the absolute transcendental belief in law, which in its ultimate 
outcome transforms reality into a monistic formula expressing a 
universal law, and reduces religion to an abstract sense of unity, 
or confines its function to that of supplementing a closed me- 
chanical universe by sundry ineffective postulates or judgments 
of value. In opposition to this, James rightly points out that 
every unsophisticated and unperverted religious sentiment pre- 
supposes a "piecemeal supernaturalism," that is, a power dis- 
tinct from universal law and operating within it as a living force. 
Of course, this observation does not hold good for Christianity 
alone; and in making it he is undoubtedly right. But even here 
the relief cannot come through pragmatism, which with its "plural- 
istic universe," its "multiverse," and its polytheism, does violence 
to the equally naive basic sentiment of religion. The only ques- 
tion can be how, within the universal connex which issues from 
the Deity, to give due weight to multiplicity, irrationality, mere 
actuality, vital creative power. In my article on " Contingency," 
in Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, I have referred 
to this task, which, in spite of its difficulty and of the repudiation 
of it by the prejudices of the prevailing rationalism of law, has 
always formed, and still forms, the chief problem of speculation. 
If laws and the a priori can be elicited from the chaos of reality 
only by abstraction and analysis, then, when the return is made 
from them to reality, all the irrational and purely fact-contents 
of reality must remain or must be restored to their rights. So 
we shall always have the "mixed universe" of which James 
speaks. Indeed, only so can we arrive at such mixture; by 
James's way it is only possible to attain to a multiplicity of irra- 
tional facts, and never to such a mixture of the rational and irra- 
tional. This mixture constituted the problem of Plato and of 
Neoplatonism; it is the problem of Kant, and was again em- 



422 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

phasized by the aged Schelling in the final stage of his evolu- 
tionistic pantheism. Only where, under the influence of classical 
natural science, the a priori philosophy has been transformed into 
the mechanical monism of a "Naturphilosophie" does the prob- 
lem of mixture disappear — and with it religion as well. To this 
James has rightly called attention. But his own solution is so 
radical a cutting of the knot that in consistency he ought not to 
recognize any mixture, but only a pure irrationality and multi- 
plicity, which likewise nullifies religion, and is more consistently 
represented by agnostic positivism than by James's doctrine. 
In so far as from his point of view he does justice to religious ex- 
perience, he also is constrained to interfuse Platonic elements in 
his general view. 

For all that, James has set before the philosophy of religion, 
as well as philosophy in general, the task of giving serious heed to 
realities, and has filled them with justifiable mistrust of abstract 
theories. But, nevertheless, the abstract is the sphere of phi- 
losophy; and our task is to make abstractions fit life, not to abolish 
them altogether and put the chaos of reality into their place. If 
the philosophy of religion is to exist at all — and it is impossible 
to see how, in view of our distrust of all merely ecclesiastical faith 
and of all merely enthusiastic affirmations, we are to get on with- 
out it — then the abstractions of the transcendental method will 
have to stay with us. We must simply try to put into them more 
of the living reality. 



ERRATUM. 

On page 413, line 6 from below, and page 419, line 4, 
for "zoological" read "noological."