William James, Circumscription of the Topic

Presentation and Discussion


Questions and Assumptions in the Class:



Š       Other aspects of religion are secondary


James, “Circumscription of the Topic”


1)    No one essence but many characters which may alternately be especially important in religion.

a)    Cf. “religious sentiment.”  A single sort of mental entity?  No psychologically unique and specific nature.  

b)    No ground to assume a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’ to exist as a distinct elementary mental affliction by itself, present in every religious experience without exception.

c)     [Institutional vs. personal aspects of religion.] “[I]n these lectures, I propose to ignore the institutional branch entirely. . . to consider as little as possible the systematic theology and the ideas about the gods themselves, and to confine myself as far as I can to personal religion, pure and simple.” [Because experirence is primary, the rest is secondary]

2)    James’ definition: [Religion is] 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 the divine.

a)    p. 35.  Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life. Our reaction to the question, What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?

3)    What do we mean by “the divine”? Not just a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe (transcendentalism, Emerson) [cf. “total reaction”].  Buddhism.  Any object that is god-like.

a)    God-like = first things in the way of power and being.  Overarching and enveloping

b)    An attitude toward this primal truth - a man’s total reaction upon life.  That curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence which in some degree everyone possesses [ultimacy].  The sense of the world’s presence.  

c)     Individual reactions to this sense of the world’s presence, to the nature of the universe, vary = part of the sphere of religious life?  E.g. atheism.

4)    Can we call any total reaction religious or spiritual?  No.  Religion always signifies a serious state of mind. “All is not vanity” Cf. Je m’en fiche-ism.  All is vanityIt favors gravity not pertness, it says ‘hush’ to all vain chatter and smart wit

a)    Hostile to light irony and to heavy grumbling and complaint

b)    Not melancholy

5)    Religious experiences is solemn

a)    The divine: such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, as neither by a curse nor a jest.

6)    We should study religious experiences at their extreme

a)    At their extreme, in their most exaggerated forms, religious experiences are unmistakable