NOTES on William James (1842-1910): Mysticism

William James

Many people believe that a study of philosophy will make you lose your faith in God. This may happen, but it will not necessarily happen. Philosophers critically examine issues of human life and thought. Therefore, to philosophically examine religion, there must be a degree of detachment as we look at some of the problems arising from a particular religious viewpoint — the Judeo-Christian viewpoint.

Mystical Experience: Introduction

Mysticism turns out to be a hard term to define, as many people use it in many different ways. However, mystics wish to have an encounter with God — to experience the divine or the sacred.

The two major types of mysticism are union mysticism and communion mysticism. In union mysticism, the mystic has an experience of union with the divine or the sacred. The philosopher Walter T. Stace (1886-1967) further divided union mysticism into two types. Introvertive mysticism involves completely withdrawing from the world and being united with the transcendent. On the other hand, experiences of extrovertive mysticism involve a disappearance of all distinctions between the mystic and nature. In extrovertive mysticism, the mystic feels a oneness with nature.

Communion mysticism is more common in Christianity than union mysticism. In communion mysticism, one retains one’s individuality, but one has a sense of communion with the divine or the sacred. Clyde Webster, the late father of a friend of mine, was a Methodist minister who had this kind of experience while walking in the woods. He came across a clear area that he likened to a cathedral. He sat on a log and experienced an overwhelming sense of peace, clarity of thought, and communion with God. “The Cathedral” became one of his most memorable sermons.

We may make the mistake of thinking that mystical experiences are phenomena of the past; however, they may be much more common than we suppose. Father Andrew Greeley reported in the January-February 1987 issue of American Healththat “a full 35% of Americans reported they had had a mystical experience: feeling ‘very close to a powerful, spiritual force that seems to lift you out of yourself.’ And one seventh of those who have had such experiences — 5% of the whole population — have literally been ‘bathed in light’ like the Apostle Paul.”

Mystical Experience: William James (1842-1910)

Now we turn to William James, famous American psychologist and philosopher, who identifies four characteristics of mystical experiences in The Varieties of Religious Experience(1902). James’ discussion of mystical experiences concerns union mysticism more than communion mysticism. According to James, the first two characteristics below are the most important:

  1. Ineffability: The people who have had a mystical experience say that it cannot fully be described in words; instead, it has to be experienced. (A joke among philosophers is that one ought not to try to eff the ineffable.)
  2. Noetic Quality: The people who have had a mystical experience claim that during it they reach a state of knowledge that is lacking in ordinary experience. During the mystical experience, they achieve a state of knowledge — the content of this knowledge is forgotten after the mystical experience is over, although the mystic remembers that he or she had achieved a state of knowledge. (“Noetic” means “It is not perceived as mere ‘subjective’ experience nor an ‘emotional’ experience; rather, it is a valid source of knowledge,” according to <>.)
  3. Transiency: The mystical experience does not last very long: 30 minutes to an hour or two. After the experience is over, it cannot be 100% remembered, but a sense of continuity will be felt if the person has another mystical experience.
  4. Passivity: A mystic may practice self-discipline in order to achieve a mystical experience; however, during the mystical experience, the mystic is passive. According to James, “[T]he mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

James describes some typical mystical experiences:

Yoga: According to James, “Yoga means the experimental union of the individual with the divine.” A yogi practices self-discipline in order to attain a mystical state.

The Buddhists. Dhyâna is the Buddhist word for “higher states of contemplation.” Buddhists recognize four stages in dhyâna:

1st stage: The mind concentrates on one point. The intellectual functions of the mind are still present.

2nd stage: Here “the intellectual functions drop off, and the satisfied sense of unity remains.”

3rd stage: “In the third stage the satisfaction departs, and indifference begins, along with memory and self-consciousness.”

4th stage: Here “the indifference, memory and self-consciousness are perfected.” However, James points out that “memory” and “self-consciousness” must have different meanings than these words ordinarily have.

Sufis: Little is known about the Sufis, since the secrets of the sect are imparted only to initiates.

Christians: Mystics have been a part of Christianity, even though “many of them have been viewed with suspicion.” Among those accepted by Christianity, their experiences “have been treated as precedents, and a codified system of mystical theology has been based upon them, in which everything legitimate finds its place.”

James also considers whether mystical experiences are authoritative. In his discussion, he makes three points about mystical experiences:

  1. “Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to which they come.”

A person who has had a strong mystical experience is certain of its truth. Another, more “rational” person is unable to convince the mystic that the mystic is mistaken. After all, the mystic has had direct personal experience with mysticism.

  1. “No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.”

Should we who have not had mystical experiences uncritically accept the word of those who have? No, answers James. Why? Because religious mystical experiences are not unanimous. They vary quite a bit. Sometimes they are ascetic; sometimes they are self-indulgent. Sometimes they are dualistic; sometimes they are monistic. Sometimes they are pantheistic; sometimes they are not. In addition, some paranoid, insane persons appear to have a form of what James calls “diabolicalmysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down.”

  1. “They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based on the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.”

According to James, “As a rule, mystical states merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness.” It is possible that mystical experiences give us new knowledge that we do not have in our ordinary lives. Mystical experiences may be, according to James, “indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of truth.”

Note: The quotations by William James that appear in this essay are from his The Varieties of Religious Experience(New York: Longmans, Green, 1902).


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