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


Conversion apparently involves the most powerful of the certainty-experiences. The "field of consciousness" is helpful here. From this perspective conversion would occur when a certainty-experience carries with it such a high charge of feeling (valuation) that the individual's personal center of energy (the sense of self to which attitudes and interests belong) shifts to a field of thought-objects which had previously existed only on the margin of his consciousness. What triggers the conversion could be the "invasion" of consciousness by subliminal memories which have developed ("incubated") to a "bursting-point". James notes that this incubation period is usually, but not always, evident; some irruptions into consciousness cannot be explained by this model. (J, 236n) In Augustine's case, however, the incubation period is quite evident. It is the period of uneasiness and "wrongness" which James details in his thoughts on "the sick soul" and "the divided self".

Whatever the precise mechanism of conversion may be, it is plainly an experience beyond rational assent. Most surely, a path of rational assent may precede or follow a conversion, but it is not the conversion itself. The actual experience is irreducibly affective and immediately present to the self. This helps to account for the passive character of mystical experiences and is supported by the knot of emotional-physical responses contained in almost every tale of conversion cited by James. Stephen Bradley reports, "My heart seemed as if it would burst, but it did not stop until I felt as if I was unutterably full of the love and grace of God." (J, 191) Charles Finney: "I wept aloud with joy and love; and I...bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart." (J, 255) The "unutterable" is the experience itself, yet Mr. Finney somehow manages to utter it.

How do we explain the "overwhelmingness" of this encounter with the new field of thought-objects? It may be that the field itself isn't overwhelming, but the experience of contact with the inner state's actuality (its voltage or valuation) may be. This experience has no content as such but becomes attached to any likely or "attractive" field of thought-objects. This could account for the phenomenon that a person might be converted to anything.

As the "root and center'' of personal religious experience, the mystical state may be expected to carry a most concentrated form of certainty-experience. Of the four characterizing marks of mysticism - ineffability, a noetic quality, transiency, and passivity (J, 380) the noetic seems immediately related to the problem of certainty. We may easily understand that mystical experience is indescribable, brief, and involves a trance-like surrender of will, but how can we comprehend the conviction that the experience delivered "illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain?" (J, 380) We habitually associate the act of knowing with rationality and language. In the common world we hold that if one knows something, one should be able to articulate it. Without articulation we doubt the knowledge.

To say the mystical state is perfectly inarticulate is not accurate. Throughout his lectures on the subject, James cites numerous "testimonials" ranging from individuals under anaesthesia to the classical religious mystics. Each person does what he or she can to explain the nature and content of the experience. One, a Mr. Blood who advocates "anaesthetic revelation", tries to explain the nature of his cognition: "I know - as having known the meaning of Existence." (J, 391n) By qualifying his knowing, by placing it as in the past, he fails to lift it from the realm of feeling. It is not a knowing that is open to rational analysis (as given by James on page 73), but remains ineffable. To "test" his knowledge, we could pursue its content and ask, "Well, Mr. Blood, what is the meaning of Existence?" And he responds, "The lesson is one of central safety: the Kingdom is within." The ineffable persists; we cannot be as certain as he is unless we experience it ourselves.

The noetic remains a "quality" of the mystic state, but this inability to reach a common rational surface should not lead us to dismiss the state as mental rubbish. James's empiricism compels us to attend to the experience. When Augustine says, "God is the Life of the life of my soul, (A, 213) he is uttering much more than a theological proposition. He is shaping a certainty experienced in his own depths. How can anyone speak of such an irretrievably personal experience, an actual event of the inner state? Augustine creates an image of profound interiority. The concept of soul is mysterious enough by itself, but to speak of its animating force takes us deeper. And then to conceive the source of that animation (and name it "God" ) moves us well beyond the realm of logical propositions and common standards of measure. If certainty dwells on this level, the common human language must struggle even to suggest its presence, let alone describe its full actuality.

Considering the mystical state (as seen through the attempted articulations of the participants) and its relation to truth, James identifies "a pretty distinct theoretical drift" toward what could be called "optimistic monism". The common spirit of mystical experiences stems from a partiality for impulsive rather than inhibitory energies that accompany a shift from "a smallness" (of ordinary consciousness) to "a vastness" (the new field of consciousness) (J, 416). The experience is often described as an opening up and out beyond the limits of the identified self. As previously noted, the power of these experiences may lie not so much in "where" the person ends but rather in that the person has gone. Because the certainty is inextricable from the experience itself, it cannot have a clear noetic content. Knowing as feeling is all we can expect from these depths.

James argues for a wholeness, for balance and proper perspective. Intuitive experiences of certainty - inarticulate as they may be - must be accepted as vital data. In other words, the marginal or subliminal fields of consciousness towards which our ordinary self continually shifts should be recognized and included in any examination of "human nature". Empiricism has this perhaps dubious advantage over Rationalism: it admits more data, which for a while may muddy the waters of purer hypotheses, but we sense that this muddiness will draw us closer to the truth if we keep a balance.

The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion... Our impulsive belief is here what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas. (J, 74)

The balance should mark Intuition as the vital source of knowledge and Reason as the judger, sifter, sorter, namer and transformer of Intuition's raw material. They need each other. James blames the denigration of religious experience on the devaluation of personal "depths" by Reason. Those depths, however limited, are the only point of contact with actuality; they are the sole locus of primal knowledge. Descartes' cogito operates above that place as Reason's second-hand capacity; it is not the earliest tenant. It may not be quite fair to say so, but Descartes' "great light in the intellect", upon which he founds certainty, has been generated in James's dark and inarticulate depths.

But what of the darkness? This image suggests not only the unknown but also the malevolent. Is it not likely that such a highly charged, emotive region would produce certainties of a destructive as well as of a creative nature?

Goya has grimly illustrated the maxim that "The sleep of Reason breeds monsters." Much brutal history has been made by aggressive individuals and groups steeped in their own certainties. In one of his televised documentaries, Jacob Bronowski wades into the sloughs of Dachau or Auschwitz which received the cremated remains of many people (some his family, perhaps). He says in effect, "This is where the need for certainty has led us." James suggests a distinction between the religious certainty that flows from an individual's encounter with his own depths and other phenomena that mimic this certainty:

...the bigotries...are chargeable to religion's wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system. (J, 337)

Along with the implication that religious experience is essentially positive, James here suggests that an individual intuitive certainty, when transformed by intellect into a dogmatic system, may produce certain outrages. By indicting the intellect's passion (if we may use such a term), James would appear to be reversing Goya's maxim. But rather than generalize Reason as the root of all evil, he shifts our attention to a "tribal or corporate psychology" whose dynamics are beyond the scope of his present study. (J, 338) Interesting questions are raised, however, concerning the relation of individual and group psychologies, particularly the interactions of corporate instinct and individual intuitions. The "tribe" has certainly found devious as well as legitimate uses for a singular phenomenon of the individual's inner state: "All invasive moral states and passionate enthusiasms make one feelingless to evil in some direction." (J, 90) This one principle could account for the hard-heartedness of a Nazi bureaucrat or the self-sacrificing courage of a Gandhi. Energies are generated in the raw experience of the inner state. The responsibility to direct them rests on the individual and the culture.

One of the pleasures of James's discourse comes from his ability to "physicalize" what would in other mouths be difficult and quite abstract. I have tried to indicate that his use of place-images in the matter of certainty follows a kind of tradition. Beyond rhetoric, these images suggest that because certainty occurs "where" it does it will be necessarily difficult to examine and articulate. Yet James seems to succeed more widely than others I have read. Perhaps this is because he knows there is a "something" he is trying to reach, and his images are merely tools to get him there. He doesn't hold his images too tightly, as others have (I think of Descartes in particular), but attends to them as long as they are useful.

There may be no particular reason why we should consider this primal certainty-experience in the light of spatial imagery. But we probably call it a "place" because we are physical bodies, and it helps us to know a thing and speak of it if we can locate it in space.

A quick review of James's language shows a fairly wide spatial image-repertoire. He speaks of "fields of consciousness", one of which has a "center" and indistinct, shifting "margins". This helps to explain many of our inner dynamics. The inner state can be
pictured as a room with "thresholds" and "doorways". Subliminal levels are like springs from which come "irruptions" and "invasions", again trying to explain these obscure disturbances of consciousness that we call emotions. These unconscious regions themselves have limits. When he speaks of "the more" which may exist on "the farther side" of the subliminal self, I can't help imagining the breeze on this odd frontier. He has spoken of "the darker, blinder, strata of character", suggestive not only of geological space but also of geological time. This more than any other image marks the difficulty of getting to that "place" where ideas become clear and distinct and certainty breeds belief .

We may be reduced to a kind of geometrical purity after all. In defense of the necessarily personal nature of religious experience, James writes, "By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard." (J, 500-501) Yet this is a dynamic geometry because those points are points of contact at which something is "given". He calls it, as we have seen, "the pinch of his individual destiny". (Euclid could never pinch us as our end does.) And he earlier called these points a small "solid bit". This resonates with Descartes' dream (via Archimedes) of "a firm and immovable point in order to move the entire earth from one place to another." (D, Med. II, p.17) From this living, pinching point flash those affective (yet strangely noetic) experiences that we call certainty, "given us to guard". James suggests an ethical-stance in relation to our own deepest experiences in our own deepest place. These experiences would seem to evoke a kind of action, "guarding".

The final image to consider falls in line with James's own valuation of personal experience. Speaking of mystical states, he somewhat offhandedly notes, "my own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely." (J, 378) To be "shut out" as if from a place is a sad thing. To be "shut out" as if from a range of possible experiences could be a deep sorrow to one who is committed to the empirical method.

At this point I will breach the formal distance and end with a consideration of some personal experience. As a vowed brother of the Carmelite Order of the Roman Catholic Church, I find myself heir to a rather intense spiritual tradition. Our communal roots are lodged deep in the spiritual experiences (the certainties) of many individuals. Yet we are not monks; we are mendicant friars. Historically we have experienced constant tension between Action and Contemplation, needing to live in the external world while trying to attend to the interior one. This problem is not peculiar to Carmelites, of course; it is the predicament of any person struggling to be whole. But I find myself within a paradoxical institution, James writes,

...and when a religion has become itself an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second-hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn... (J, 337)

I have lived this. My own psychological temperament is "inward", but I am far from being a mystic. In fact, "shut out" is an image I could easily apply to myself. Within the carefully formulated orthodoxies of Catholicism, I had not been encouraged to move inward. As a "cradle Catholic", I learned early on (in many ways) that external observances were of the greatest importance while internal experience was suspect, to the point of being embarrassing.

That is one side of the paradox. The other is that I find myself in a "sub-institution", the Carmelite Order which has this ancient tradition of interiority. Of course, the Order is threatened by similar orthodox petrification, but something of the old spirit stays alive - if only in the expectations we place upon ourselves. "Stoning the prophet" generally takes the form of succumbing to the exteriority of our orthodoxies, allowing our inner state to fossilize. I think the pun is revealing. "The prophet within" may be another image of the inner state, the powers of which can be ignored only at our own peril.

I exist in these tensions (within the institutions and within myself). My own "certainty" leads me to believe that I am in the right place, where I need to be. Sometimes I feel guilty for not living up to the tradition, but most of the time I'm willing to wait. Not wait, exactly. Anne Sexton wrote that God was an island she hadn't rowed to. I feel that is my present relation to the place inside - the island I am yet to visit. The traditions of the community to which I belong are not treated as absolute dogma but as encouragements to get me into - and keep me in - the boat.

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
Mundelein, IL


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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