William James, Radical Empiricism, and the Affective Ground of Religious Life

American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 43 (1):67-92 (2022)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:William James, Radical Empiricism, and the Affective Ground of Religious LifeJ. Edward Hackett (bio)In the following article, I aim to discuss three separate linkages in William James’s overall philosophy of religion. James’s philosophy of religion is based thoroughly on his radical empiricism, and this is the uniting thread often missed in contemporary scholarship. Radical empiricism makes it possible to link 1) his criticism of both representational metaphysics and theology and that philosophy through James must take to heart the lack of access both representative metaphysics and theology conventionally claimed, and 2) the affective ground on which both philosophy and religion have operated for James, especially in his “Will to Believe” argument, and 3) how understanding the affective ground informs a thoroughly empiricist philosophy of religion that moves through his treatment of religious themes (e.g. his mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience) and how this affective ground emerges in the body and action.In showing the accuracy of James’s affective grounds of religion, many reading this essay will note that I am not directing my comments in any particular spiritual path. Instead, my Jamesian commitments are about the individual experience of religion, and for James, he affirmed the widest possible conception of religion to remain neutral to the power such traditions have. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he writes, “Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life.” To get at and underneath these total reactions is not to regard these reactions as causal. Instead, to discover them, James writes, “you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos.”1 This residualness is the affective dimension of experience and its unfolding relations that do not regularly become thematized in philosophy of religion. By contrast, many versions of philosophy of religion attempt to justify the epistemic beliefs about religion through theoretical reason. By contrast, our total reactions make us feel the marrow of our existence because the sense of the world’s presence causes us to feel existence. These religious feeling acts come to form our most completest [End Page 67] answer to the question: “What is the character of the universe in which we dwell?”2 In feeling existence, we experience an ongoing relation with particulars in the world. These feeling acts consist in a whole range of possible religious experiences. By looking at the character of the universe in which we dwell, James is asking: What is the place of feeling that comes to characterize the shared character of the universe in which we all dwell? Reason always comes last. Feeling is always constitutive of all later and built-up cognition.My essay is about the Jamesian-experiential-scaffolding surrounding the religious traditions as ways to encounter the meaning of suffering and uncertainty in these ongoing felt relations. Following the example of James Campbell, I am not committed to drawing a distinction between psychological and metaphysical interpretations of affectivity. Suffering and uncertainty are ways we encounter the feeling of existence. Feeling of existence is, then, akin to a nearly phenomenological-like ontology in which the psychological that inspired the metaphysical are not entirely separate.3 The experiential-scaffolding is regarded as the very same starting place for every single religious person. In this essay and what I hope to make clear in James is that philosophy starts in the affective ground where existence is felt and philosophized about rather than assuming the whole of reality is complete, determined, and somehow reflected in our contemplation of it.4 In essence, the lack of access to reality in-itself means that our beliefs are risky and must start in the marrow where existence is felt. [End Page 68] We risk everything in our spiritual practices. As James reminds, “On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any [religious] hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.”5 That is what makes them so necessary on an existential and practical level. Our passional nature (what James calls the feeling sense of religious feeling in The Varieties of Religious Experience), thus, fuels what we need, and philosophical reflection turns into proposing concepts and beliefs...



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J. Edward Hackett
Southern University

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