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God's Pragmatist

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited by Charles Taylor (Harvard University Press, 127 pp., $19.95)

The recent blizzard of pragmatism has produced many discussions about William James, but there is one side of James that has been almost programmatically neglected. It is a side of James that James himself cherished, and it provides the great reason for so much of what he wrote, for so much of his philosophical pluralism, and for his campaign against idealism. I am referring to James the obsessively religious man, who was committed to devising a philosophy that would provide a foundation for spiritual experience, and to opening up room for faith in an increasingly secular world. Now at last we have a book about this James, and it has been produced by a religiously obsessed man himself.

Charles Taylor has been writing philosophy for many years, and the scope of his achievement is extraordinary. He has written on ethics, epistemology, language, and politics. He has analyzed Greek, medieval, Renaissance, and modern thought in learned discourses on the history of ideas. Even more amazing, perhaps, is that a corpus of philosophy so wide should be so intellectually coherent. All of Taylor's writings are unified by a goal, a mission, almost a calling: to understand by philosophical means who we have become and who we ought to strive to become.

Though he never argues for theism in his major works, Taylor does articulate a genealogy of morals that places Christianity squarely at its core. Freedom, reason, equality, and universal benevolence all have their roots in biblical values, according to Sources of the Self, Taylor's magnum opus, even if moderns do not wish to recognize their debt, and even if they consciously reject it. Taylor's account of the origin of the ideal of disengaged reason, for example, goes roughly like this: in the Christian narrative, God endowed humans with rationality to exert control over nature and over themselves. In exercising this capacity, they could distinguish themselves from other creatures--hence the relationship between reason and human dignity. With time, disengaged reason was itself ennobled more and more as it became dissociated from divinely endowed dignity.

Whatever the historical accuracy of this account, its religious tendency is plain. Taylor tightly binds our contemporary moral condition to our religious past. Over the years, he has been accused of injecting Christian theology into philosophy, of promoting his own religious beliefs as the foundation of his moral theory. He has denied this, saying that "the nature of philosophical discourse ... has to try to persuade honest thinkers of any and all metaphysical or theological commitments." He fastidiously honors the difference between philosophy and religion, and he believes that the propositions of religion must be philosophically scrutinized. He insists that his account of the evolution of selfhood in the West is descriptive and nothing more. But recently Taylor has begun to explore in earnest the dynamics of contemporary theism and secularism. In 1999 he published A Catholic Modernity?, a look at the connections and the tensions between transcendence and human flourishing in our time. And now he has published Varieties of Religion Today.

So let us revisit William James for a moment. In 1901-1902, James delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, a series established to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term--in other words, the knowledge of God." His twenty lectures were soon published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, and became one of the most widely read and most highly influential treatises on religion by an American. The work inaugurated a Copernican turn in religious studies away from the objective terms of religion--God, the cosmos--toward the subjective human experience of religion.

James offered a picture of religion that revolves dramatically around individual experience. It is the inner lives of men and women, their spontaneous glimpses of a world beyond, he claimed, that determine their attachments to divinity. The locus of religion is inside the individual, not outside: "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine." The sphere of subjective and even solipsistic intuition is wide: every individual is capable of discovering God internally and defining God differently. The direct encounter is unique, for James, and it is importantly unmediated by social or ritual or linguistic institutions.

Belief in the primacy of experience brought James to a damning view of orthodoxies, and of the institutions of religion generally. He accused them of taking ecstatic moments and squashing them through routinization, of making them banal. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James asserted that

when a religion has become an orthodoxy its days of inwardness are over; the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church ... can be henceforth counted as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all the later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.

James's criticism emerged not from an assessment of the particular practices of churches, but from his definition of religion as an exclusively private phenomenon. Public institutions are simply powerless in this respect. They might be able to transmit "at second hand" reports of the inspiring experiences of ancient people, but they can neither capture nor engender those experiences themselves. On the contrary, they repress those moments of intensity through authoritative regulation and "dull habit." They dilute the depths of religion by intruding upon the free domain of the spirit. The religious person of The Varieties of Religious Experience is therefore charged to stand alone, so as to experience divinity deeply. Neither ritual (collective practice) nor theology (collective thinking) will ever spur the spirit to action, says James. Inspiration resides only and essentially in the individual. He defended a radical empiricism against the baroque systems of the idealists, so as to make sense experience available for the purposes of the soul. For this reason, he is not remotely the ally of John Dewey that today's pragmatists make him out to be. In a profound way, James was not a secular man.

In 1897, in his essay "The Will to Believe," James assigned another important religious role to the individual, one that itself precedes religious experience. In an effort to secure the foundation of religious belief in a world without revelation, in a world in which doubt is philosophically plausible, James argued at length--in fine Augustinian form--that faith, like love, cannot be found unless one opens oneself to it. The commitment to searching, and to the possibility of finding, is intellectual security enough for the attempt to arrive at the spiritual destination. James's argument is not to affirm the religious choice, but rather to affirm the right to make the religious choice in the absence of incontrovertible evidence.

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, "Do not decide, but leave the question open," is itself a passional decision--just like deciding yes or no--and is attended to the same risk of losing the truth.

James famously rejected the "agnostic's veto" on the grounds that one always has to make choices. Questions always beckon and the loss of truth is always risked. The only issue is whether one chooses to risk a loss of truth for fear of error. Hope is not as flimsy as some people think. "What proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist's command to imitate this kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk." James was a remarkable kind of rationalist: he taught that it was a rational choice to go beyond rationality. He does not explicitly argue for faith, but gives grounding to those who decide to side with it. And this decision cannot be a social or institutional decision. Only individual men and women can make James's spiritualist-pragmatist wager.

In 1999, almost a century after William James took the podium at Edinburgh, Charles Taylor did the same. Following in the footsteps of other notable Gifford lecturers such as James Frazer, Alfred N. Whitehead, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Iris Murdoch, Taylor wrestled with the task of advancing the study of theology philosophically. And he found himself studying James in preparation. When the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna then invited him to lecture in the spring of 2000, he seized the opportunity to further his conversation with James. That intellectual engagement has become this small but very stimulating book.

Taylor's book is a helpful if uneven review of the primacy of the individual in James's work, an inquiry into the philosophical origins of this view, and a criticism of it in the name of communitarianism. He begins his analysis by praising the contemporaneity of James's work, which so presciently anticipated the focus on individuality and inwardness that has characterized modernity. Taylor takes James to be a veritable spokesman for the modern world and the modern self.

In addition to highlighting James's call for individual experience, Taylor calls our attention to James's categorizations of religious individuals. In particular he stresses James's category of "sick souls," those who are painfully in touch with the suffering of the world. These morbid souls, a profound bunch in James's estimation, observe and endure a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the continual loss and the perpetual evil in the world. For them, the world is truly an abyss. Taylor discerns three dimensions of this abyss: the alien world becomes meaningless, its evil becomes overwhelmingly frightening, and its people become sinners. James finds these souls interesting insofar as they are susceptible to experiences of deliverance. Should they make their way to the other side of the abyss and embrace the world through God, they become "twice born" and attuned to the complexities of religious faith.

Taylor, by contrast, finds these "sick souls" interesting because their melancholy nicely exemplifies "the malaise of modernity." He believes that modern melancholy is of a wholly different sort from the sadness that preceded it. People who lost their feeling of meaningfulness in the past did so in a world that was self-evidently meaningful. God was God and good and evil were pretty clearly defined, only there were times when individuals felt alienated from these realities. Modern melancholy, by contrast, enjoys no such assurance of a meaning beyond the self. "It therefore has a new shape," writes Taylor, "not the sense of rejection and exile from an unchallengeable cosmos of significance, but rather the intimation of what may be a definitive emptiness, the final dawning of the end of the last illusion of significance. It hurts, one might say, in a new way." Focusing in broad strokes on the Jamesian abyss, Taylor credits James with identifying what he takes to be the primary spiritual challenge of the present generation, the threat of absolute meaninglessness.

Taylor also sees modernity as fundamentally characterized by religious doubt. While he does not deny that there are many strong believers (himself among them, presumably), he observes that it is extremely rare for someone in this era to maintain his or her beliefs without challenge. The intellectual comfort of the past, the old regime of clarity and certainty about ultimate verities, is much more scarce than it was when national or at least communal religion could be taken for granted. James is also prescient here for Taylor. In his assessment of the risk of belief, most explicitly in "The Will to Believe," James articulated the condition of being on the brink, pulled in two directions, but forced to make a choice, no matter how tenuous, over and over again. He describes the difficulty and the drama of spiritual decision-making, and for this Taylor admiringly calls him "our great philosopher of the cusp."

The main concern of Taylor's new book is the Jamesian insistence upon the supreme importance of individual experience for religion. Taylor recognizes the descriptive power of this notion for moderns, but he contests James's prescriptive claim for this preference. Taylor is not a big fan of alienation. He does not see--or bless--individuation as the condition of faith. Quite the contrary. He believes that the reality of individualism is the beginning of the discussion about religion, not the end of it; that individualism needs, for the sake of religion, to be corrected and amplified.

Taylor has written much about the phenomenon of modern individualism, which he has dubbed (following Adorno and Trilling and others) a culture of authenticity. In Sources of the Self (1989) and its smaller sister, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991), he examined the development of the modern turn inward and investigated what we have gained and what we have lost as a result. By "authenticity," Taylor refers to the contemporary drive to be true to oneself, to achieve self-fulfillment through self-expression. Authenticity involves deep-rooted senses of inwardness, of freedom, and therefore of empowered agency. It promotes self-creation as well as self-discovery, an emphasis on originality, and an opposition to externally imposed norms.

This authenticity is a welcome development for Taylor. It has opened up human potential and brought people a greater sense of fullness, as they appropriate their lives as their own. It has made them more aware of, and more responsible for, the ramifications of their choices. But there are dangers and disadvantages to this celebrated individualism, says Taylor, among them the loss of "larger social and cosmic horizons of meaning." This loss manifests in two distinct ways. First, in the rise of relativism: centering on the self has bred self-generated values that have no room for the standards generated by society. The freedom to choose is itself often prized above making right choices. Second, authenticity has bred a narcissistic dismissal of the need for others. Concerns beyond the self do not compel in the way they once did. Neither God nor good, neither church nor community, beckons urgently. The cultivation of relationships is frequently deemed secondary, or not at all relevant, to the cultivation of the self.

Taylor argues in his larger works that the undermining of these broader "horizons of meaning" is actually an undermining of authenticity itself. Relativism, when it entails choice for choice's sake, betrays its own search for significance, as it makes all options equally frivolous and therefore no option valuable. The authentic requirement of self-choosing as a moral ideal--that is, one that makes a claim of significance--loses all of its weight as a result. In The Ethics of Authenticity, he writes:

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.... Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.

Individualism is thus the friend of collective standards. There are "inescapable horizons" in response to which we make choices in the world.

With regard to human relationships, Taylor relies on his conception of the self as "dialogical"--that is, as fundamentally born of exchanges with others. He asserts that identity is always built out of dialogue with, or struggles against, the perceptions of significant others. The dialogues need not be verbalized continuously, but they reside in a person's psyche indefinitely. For the recognition and the challenge of the other are the "crucibles of inwardly generated identity." The "self only exists within ... 'webs of interlocution,' " Taylor declares in Sources of the Self. There is no self but the self embedded in a context.

Taylor's argument about the limits of narcissism follows: if self-generated identity is the core of authenticity, and such identity requires the spur of another, then authenticity rationally demands relations with beings other than the self. Indeed, the implication of both of the above arguments is that a community of others--other ideas and other people--has an essential place even in the life of the highly individualistic member of contemporary culture. It is the great irony of individualism, Taylor wisely suggests, that it cannot be achieved alone.

And so Taylor now takes issue with James's religious encouragement of absolute individualism. After paying lengthy homage to the descriptive power of James in foreshadowing the post-Durkheimian world in which we now live, Taylor presents a criticism of James that operates on two somewhat confused levels. At some points, he argues that individual experience is limited. At others, he argues that such experience might actually be impossible. The latter argument about the strict impossibility of individual experience, which is entertained more than rigorously articulated, draws on the notion of the dialogical self as well as the social nature of language. Taylor posits that since language is shared, and thus inherently communal, any experience will of necessity be filtered and internalized through a communal lens. What we would call "religious experience," then, can never be entirely unmediated. It will always be informed by prior conceptions of what that experience can be, and so there simply cannot be a wholly individual experience.

This is weak and Taylor knows it. It is true that language is shared, but surely this does not force us to conclude that no sentence can possibly be original. What matters is how we uniquely inflect common possessions, not only how we may create raw materials. Individualism does not require each of us to invent our own language; it requires only that each of us use the language that we inherit in new ways, to say new things. Is a painting not original because it makes use of the shared color red? Surely originality is not an invention of origins.

Thankfully, Taylor leans primarily on an argument for the limits of individual religious experience rather than for its impossibility. He makes a critical distinction between an individualist motive and an individualist path. Our era might in fact be characterized by a drive for authentic, individual experiences of the divine, but the anti-institutional, anti-collectivist attitude that James harbors need not follow from this. True individualism, Taylor believes, should allow an individual the choice to relinquish isolation, to transfer his or her experiences onto a community of believers, because presence in a group does not necessarily dull the already internalized religious sensibility.

In a similar vein, Taylor argues that spiritual intuitions often have ritualized translations. Momentary illuminations may yield disciplined behaviors, often communally based or communally prescribed ones. One may meditate alone, but draw from the patterns of ancient spiritual traditions. Or one might attend a communal prayer service to perpetuate the "momentary sense of wow!" once experienced deeply. In contrast to James, Taylor detects a necessary partnership between solitude and solidarity in the religious life. Whether on theological or sociological grounds, there is room for individuality to profit from community. For Taylor, James's failure to see this possibility caused him mistakenly to shrink the sphere of religion.

Taylor's criticism of James, then, is ultimately an apology for a communitarian theology, for a religious philosophy that places community at its core. His own lifelong communitarian project--of defending an authenticity in the context of collectivity--is here only further buttressed by his attempt to revalidate public ritual for private religion. So Taylor the religionist is not all that different from Taylor the philosopher. The search for sources of the self continues, though in slightly varied terms.

But there are problems. Taylor has too much confidence in the community. To counter James's portrait of individual subjectivity, Taylor proposes a kind of collective subjectivity, where individuals come together to affirm and direct one another's unique experiences. But is collective subjectivity really a correction of subjectivity? Is it not itself vulnerable to collective narcissism? Groups, like individuals, can become atomized, self-referential, self-congratulatory entities with no horizons of significance beyond themselves. We know too well that the authenticity of groups can be even more disastrous than the authenticity of individuals. Taylor's confidence that group interaction would counteract self-indulgence and enrich self-understanding seems unwarranted.

The only way to correct the excesses of subjectivity is with an appeal to objectivity; but objectivity is usually the opposite of solidarity and the sensation of belonging. Taylor is oddly unconcerned about the actual content of religious belief, about its truth. But surely the question that the individual--the lonely man of faith, in the words of a modern Jewish thinker--must ask is not "What do my fellows believe?" but "Is what I believe true?" In this way the self will certainly be restrained and humbled, as it submits to a standard that is not only outside of the self, but outside of selves altogether.

Taylor's reluctance to entertain the possibility of objectivity and its use for religion seems to be rooted more in sociological descriptions of the culture of authenticity than in reasoned philosophy. It is an odd criticism to make about Taylor, but in this book there is not enough philosophy. Taylor is assuming a world in which claims of objectivity have no sympathy, when he should be arguing for why that should or should not be the case. Either religious experience is an experience of something, or it is not; and no amount of affection for religion can unburden us of the task of finding out.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.