"What is This Place?"
William James and Religious Certainty

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
An Essay Written for the Preceptorial on Varieties of Religious Experience
St. John's College, Santa Fe, NM
Summer 1987

By chance of night
By secret ways
Unseeing and unseen
No light, no guide
But the flames that my heart gave -

Led by those rays
Surer than day
I came where one waits
Who is known to me
In a place none seemed to be.

St. John of the Cross
"The Ascent of Mount Carmel"
translated by Charles G. Bell

"Incomprehensibility has place in what is actual only.

Platner's Aphorisms
cited in Kant's "Prolegomena"

David Hume ends his "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" with what may strike the casual reader as a strange assent to some form of religious principle. Throughout the work Philo's skepticism had firmly opposed Cleanthes' attempt to place religion on a rational foundation. He was also dissatisfied with Demea's know-nothing, common sense orthodoxy. Yet, with Demea finally outraged and out of hearing, Philo admits to Cleanthes (as one man of intellect to another) a deeply qualified affirmation of "one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined, proposition." ("That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence") The subsequent qualifications render this already vague proposition absolutely ineffectual. Philo's "plain, philosophical assent" underscores the vast distance between itself and the often feverish intensity of the common world's religious belief and practice. This chilly philosophy of minimal assent hardly seems related to any effective religious experience. At this point Hume (via Philo) shifts to another realm, that of affectivity. The cold philosophical proposition does not so much produce an effective assent as it does stir the emotions. It is met with "astonishment" "melancholy", "contempt" and "a longing desire and expectation for "some more particular revelation to mankind.. (H, 88-89)

William James's work in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" begins here, where Hume disembarks. But before entering that work we should pause to consider some of the implications of Hume's shift to that more affective place of revelation.

We feel throughout the "Dialogues" that Cleanthes is trying to get somewhere and to take Philo and Demea with him. He has an argument. He is not proceeding blindly; he knows where he wants to end - with a certain First Cause. Philo's skeptical resistance and ultimate, icy proposition stand as strong reminders that if such a vast certainty is your goal, you will not reach it through rational argument. Another path is required.

This seems to be a central concern in Plato's "Meno" (80 a-d). There the handsome Meno (emblematic of a mode of inquiry concerned only with superficial appearances) accuses Socrates of acting like the torpedo fish who numbs anyone in the vicinity. But by skewing this metaphor and claiming that he himself is numb, Socrates suggests that the first, most important steps of inquiry cannot be taught but will be experienced only when an individual seeks in a certain way.

In what way? The skewed metaphor suggests that when the handsome man (both tyrannizing and tyrannized by his own surface) ventures into the watery depths, he is numbed not so much by the fish as by the location, for the fish itself has been numbed. It is not the "teacher" who begins the inquiry process but the place, the psyche itself. Something about this place produces the numbness or perplexity which is a necessary condition for the possibility of knowing anything for certain. In this place only I can help myself; I am absolutely limited to my own experience there. This is the realm of affectivity and revelation toward which Hume points. The image of individual depths which are both the locus of perplexity and the spring of certainty will resonate in James's thought.

Descartes has also abandoned surfaces in his quest for certainty. But what role does reason play here? "I" has been proven to exist because it thinks. "I" is what thinks. Without thought "I" could not know that it might exist. For all it knows, "I" is one with its thoughts, yet "I" is able to think about its thoughts as something distinct from itself. With this reflexivity of self watching self watch self etc., "I" has constructed a tight little room of mirrors. One mirror says "I think". The other says "I am." This is not an expansive dialogue, but it is a certain one - certain of itself. Reflecting on the quality of this certainty, Descartes says,

I could not help judging that what I understood clearly is true; not that I was coerced into holding this judgment because of some external force but because a great inclination of my will followed from a great light in the intellect - so much so that the more spontaneously and freely I followed it, the less I was indifferent to it. (D, Med. IV, p. 38)

With this "great light" and "great inclination" "I" has found a subjectively satisfying spring of truth. This certainty (founded on trust in the accuracy of the intellect and the goodness of will, which in turn requires a non-deceptive and non-malevolent God) remains at heart subjective because it cannot be taught; it can only be found in "I" among the mirrors and experienced.

Reason has its limits. Descartes must in the end base his certainty on the experience of certainty ("...what I understood clearly is true..."). Plato/Socrates insists that if truth is ever to be reached an individual must first experience the perplexity of his own depths. Reason would seem to be indispensable in the ordering and judging of experience, but it cannot precede it or substitute for it. It is thus only in the limited realm of experience that certainty can be had.

In his first lecture James indicates without apology that his focus on "religious feelings and religious impulses" is proper for a psychological investigation. We accept this as his right to limit his topic. But in his final lecture he explains a deeper purpose:

You see now. . .why I have seemed so bent on rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion and subordinating its intellectual part. Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen and how work is actually done. (J, 501-502)

Here James draws us to a place reminiscent of Plato' s depths (the source of perplexity and proper inquiry) and Descartes' sparsely furnished "cogito" (the spring of "clear and distinct ideas"). True experiences, "real facts", are generated and known as actual in this "darker, blinder strata of character". In a footnote (J, 502, n1 ), James tips his hat to Hume's displacement of cause and effect from "out there" to " in here" and suggests that to comprehend what we call "real", to understand the roots of certainty, we must come to grips with the nature of experience itself, "real fact in the making".

All experience occurs within the limit of the experiencing self. To this extent all experience is "subjective". Yet James goes on to distinguish the objective and subjective elements of that experience.

The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner 'state' in which the thinking occurs. (J, 498-499)

The objects of our thought

are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. (J, 499)

The objects of our thought are only ''symbols of reality", whereas the subjective or inner portion of our experience contains "realities in the completest sense of the term". (J, 498) It is on this ground that James can criticize the impersonal approach of Science which can only touch the outer edges of human experience as objects of thought and which views personal experience as less valuable because it is personal. (J, 491)

James's view of experience and reality also illuminates Hume's thought about "the imperfections of natural reason". (H, 89) The imperfection may be that reason, as the second-hand manipulator of the objects of our thought, cannot penetrate the absolutely firsthand experience of our inner state. Only what is called revelation (with its force and intimacy of feeling) can provide a knowledge which stands in immediate relation to the inner state. This we may call certainty.

What is the nature of this inner state which is identical with experience itself? James must here explain a region which would have been Terra Incognita (or even pure fantasy) for Plato, Descartes, and perhaps even Hume. From his psychological lexicon James is able to use the ''field of consciousness" rather than the single idea as his basic "unit of mental life". (J, 231) The advantage of the field is that its boundaries are indistinct, and it helps to account for the complex mix of perceptions, feelings and ideas which occupy our minds at any given moment. The fuzzy boundaries also help to explain sudden or gradual shifts of awareness. (J, 232) On the basis of this field, James is able to isolate a general four-part structure for the inner state which is concrete experience itself:

A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs... (J, 499)

This model is not above reproach. One wonders if the final three parts can be actually added to the conscious field or whether they are simply distinct elements within it. But this seems a quibble. However the furniture may be arranged, James has identified this room as the place where all certain experiences occur. And beyond this he has tried to suggest the way things work there. Because it is a field, it is more malleable than Descartes' rigid cogito; it contains its own principle of motion in that its boundaries and center continually shift. (J, 231) Yet in the midst of this movement James insists

...such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the 'object' is when taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong (J,499)

Whatever happens in this place is ultimately real and quite possibly significant, not to be glibly dismissed because of some obvious difficulties. The greatest of these is that it is a region of feeling and is therefore "unsharable" and necessarily "egotistic". We may desire a kind of truth that is free of this affective personal element; but to the extent that we acquire it, we have diminished its actuality, the very thing we sought. James calls each person's unique, indissoluble core of certain experience "the pinch of his individual destiny". (J, 499) This pinch is individual certainty itself.

James holds that certainty can never be located anywhere other than in personal experience. It must also consist of more than merely rational assent to any string of propositions which may be spread before us. Socrates tries to dramatize this for Meno by leading the slave-boy to a moment of perplexity. The boy may have been mindlessly assenting to Socrates, but when he exclaims, "By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know," he has felt the pinch. He has become certain of his uncertainty, and there is no shred of personal detachment in this recognition. We can easily imagine his tears of frustration. The moment of certainty carries with it an energetic (that is, emotional) charge. The same kind of jolt
(though different in degree) is felt when one suddenly sees the necessity of a given Euclidean proof. The nature of certainty will always consist of this, yet the effects of the certainty-experience will vary according to the value a person places upon the object of certainty. This helps to account for the scarcity of Euclidean martyrs and the plethora of Christian ones.

This valuation of the object of certainty seems problematic. What, for example, really distinguishes a certainty-experience of geometric first principles from a certainty-experience of God's immanence? In the latter case the individual would generally feel that the stakes are higher, are more closely related to personal interests. These higher stakes reach far beyond any idea the individual may have but touch his actual destiny (the "pinch" once more). James sets forth his own criteria for judging religious experiences,

Their value can only be ascertained by spiritual judgments directly passed upon them, judgments based on our own immediate feeling primarily; and secondarily on what we can ascertain of their experiential relations to our moral needs and to the rest of what we hold as true. (J, 18)

By pinpointing "immediate feeling" as the ultimate criterion, James reinforces the indissoluble nature of the certainty-experience. The "pinch" and its value are one. A ten-volt shock feels quite different from a five hundred-volt shock, but the value (voltage) cannot be separated immediately from the actual experience.

At one point in his "Confessions", Augustine ponders the misdirections of his youthful philosophizing,

I used to talk glibly as though I knew the meaning of it all, but...instead of finding knowledge I should have found my end. For I had now begun to wish to be thought wise. (A, 154)

In a literal sense, valuation is the central concern here. Before his conversion (his ultimate certainty- experience), Augustine was blind to any standard of valuation beyond the immediately useful or pleasurable. Here he speaks of using "knowledge" as a commodity in barter for power and prestige in the eyes of others. It is only a means to those unstable ends. But his "end", once he knows it, is a non-negotiable (unsharable) experience. This end or destiny is not so much what he has or will have as what he is and will be: an identification of his present self with his future being in God. He upbraids himself for not having felt the pinch, always there but to which he was numb. When we inquire about the precise nature of his moment of recognition, we are thrust back to James's "unsharable feeling". Augustine, however, had been so prepared by his uneasiness and his search (both consciously and subliminally) that when the certainty-experience struck he was able to place it and speak of it within the field of the Christian tradition. CONTINUE ...


St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin.

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans . by Donald A. Cress, Hackett.

David Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion, Hackett.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin.

Plato, "Meno" in Five Dialogues, trans. by G. M. A. Grube, Hackett.

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