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The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

by William James

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Gifford Lectures (1900-1902)

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4,639321,949 (3.91)71
American pastoral counseling movement, and beyond its role in spawning the psychology of religion, it remains a book that empowers individuals and inspires readers with erudition, insight, and kindness. No discussion of current religion - from the fundamentalist revival to the New Age movement - is complete without an appreciation of this groundbreaking work.… (more)

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English (29)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (31)
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
Easy to follow despite being a classic. Provides a very thoughtful and interesting context for the writings and experiences of extraordinary people in the history of religion. It is suitable for believers and those who are not believers. ( )
  TanyaRead | Mar 12, 2022 |
William James is a deep thinker whose primary agenda is to try to understand his subject, and who uses argument sparingly and humbly as a tool to further that goal. Much of the book is carefully selected first-hand accounts of religious experience. You will find wisdom here, not the setting up and knocking down of straw targets. It was a pleasure to read. ( )
  Foeger | Jan 3, 2022 |
This book had a huge influence on me in college, so I must put it on my list. I can't remember enough to say anything too detailed, but his insights into why people are religious are fascinating. ( )
  CaitlinMcC | Jul 11, 2021 |
I was first introduced to William James while earning my degree in psychology. His essay "Habit" struck me as one of the most practical writings of early psychology and the physiological background he grounded his studies in led me to view him as the golden needle hidden in the haystack of psychoanalytic thought that dominates historical discussion.

I had often wondered why he did not receive the attention he deserved while Freud, Jung, etc. get the limelight of history. So, feeling cheated, this was the first psychology book that I read after graduating. It was his masterpiece after all, so what if it is about religion. I quickly found out why he was not given more space in the standard curriculum. This was speaking positively about mystical and religious experiences, not simply categorizing and attempting to control them. Without control (power), then "why bother?" seems to be the modus operandi of current psychology.

It wasn't until nearly a decade later that I came across this title from Aleister Crowley's reading list in his Liber E instructions. I had already changed my personal prejudices about mystical experiences, having earned a few, so I gave this work another try. Reading from a mystical to psychological instead of vice versa provides a much more illuminating and interesting read of this book.

The book is organized from lectures that he presented, and as such I decided to read no more than a lecture a day, as if I was going to a class. Allowing the content of each lecture to sink in throughout the day instead of being replaced by the next lecture. I highly encourage such a reading of this book to anyone who performed well in an academic setting. Some lectures are appropriately dense and may appear simple until you repeat a phrase later on in the day and realize that it has deeper meaning.

The token pragmatism of James shows in the way he focuses on qualitative understanding with each topic, with a phenomenological perspective. This pragmatism is also the source of criticism for James. He does not travel too far away from the Protestant Christian framework that he is most familiar with. I consider this critique unfounded. Had James talked at length about Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion we would probably criticize him speaking with an ignorance of those belief systems. Instead we criticize him for wisely avoiding subjects he knew nothing about. A catch-22 many critics seem to be oddly unaware of.

While psychology students may be barking up the wrong tree with this book (but would benefit from other writings of James), I feel that the religious scholar and religious practitioner can gain quite a bit of insight. There are of course dense passages and due to the age of the material, a trip or two to an appropriately dated dictionary. (Online definitions are unlikely to be the same as the ones James was using and intending.)

Varieties is not without other critiques and deserves a critical reading from anyone, but like most of William James, it is still useful. ( )
1 vote Ophiphos | Dec 24, 2020 |
Conclusions... the religious life... includes the following beliefs:
1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof—be that spirit "God" or "Law"—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:
4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections." ( )
  MaowangVater | Sep 19, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abzug, Robert H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barzun, JacquesForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Niebuhr, ReinholdIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nock, Arthur DarbyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book would never have been written had I not been honored with an appointment as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh.
It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the experience of receiving instruction from the living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the science or literature of their respective countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act. Particularly must this be the case on a soil as sacred to the American imagination as that of Edinburgh. The glories of the philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser’s Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the awestruck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton’s classroom therein contained. Hamilton’s own lectures were the first philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile emotions of reverence never get outgrown; and I confess that to find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much as of reality.
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This is (famously) by the same author as Principles of Psychology, The Will to Believe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, etc.
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American pastoral counseling movement, and beyond its role in spawning the psychology of religion, it remains a book that empowers individuals and inspires readers with erudition, insight, and kindness. No discussion of current religion - from the fundamentalist revival to the New Age movement - is complete without an appreciation of this groundbreaking work.

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