You Do Not Stand Alone

Reflections on: Natsoulas, T. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Experience considered from the perspective of James’s account of the stream of consciousness. In R. D. Ellis & N. Newton (Eds.), Consciousness & Emotion: Agency, Conscious Choice, and Selective Perception (pp. 303-325). John Benjamins Publishing.


In a brief address, published in Psychological Review in 1943, E. L. Thorndike attempts to acknowledge the contributions of William James to psychology. On the  first page of the article, he claims that the contribution is restricted to the Principles of Psychology. Whatever was published after 1890, Thorndike claims, was either a reformulation of what was already contained in the Principles or a contribution to philosophy. He then points out the one exception: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

“Though treasured by all serious students of religion, this dealt with narrow problems of a specialized field. The influence of James on psychology means essentially the influence of the Principles of psychology.” (Thorndike, 1943, p.87)

This judgment is still with us as the dominant view of the contributions of James.

Before starting to discuss your work, let me begin on a more personal note. I’ve been reading “The Intellectual Life”, by Antonin Sertillanges (1920), after a friend recommended it to me. Among other things, I am taken by the conviction and confidence with which Sertillanges writes. When I shared this impression (mixed with a bit of envy) with my friend, he tried to explain to me some of the possible sources of this conviction. In addition to being a Dominican priest, Sertillanges stood within an immense intellectual tradition — with the central figure being Thomas Aquinas — who provided him with a collective narrative in addition to his own personal life history. Laying claim to that tradition was most likely a major source of conviction and confidence.

When you — reflecting on William James — refer to religious experiences, I think of the role of such collective cultural edifices to which Sertillanges had a clear and strong access. Or perhaps I should say edifices on which he relied and through which he navigated. I’m going to stay with this phrase “cultural edifice” because it opens up useful analogies. A physical edifice, such as the building in which I am at this moment, serves many functions. It can be a frame of reference — I am sitting in my office on the third floor of the building, next to several other Psychology offices. I know where I am, in relation to (and thanks to) the building coordinates. Further, the building is support — the floors under me prevent me from falling down and the ceiling above me protects me from the heavy rain. It can be structure and constraint — the walls prevent me and my colleagues from walking/looking into each others’ offices. Aren’t cultural edifices similar? Don’t they provide a frame of reference, support, structure, and constraint? A cultural edifice is, among other things, a system of propositions. A proposition affords belief, but it also affords support for further beliefs (by implications), similar to how the floor under me supports standing. I think this is in line with your Gibsonian reading of Varieties. What I became aware of while reading your paper is the inevitable consequences of such a cultural edifice in terms of sensory and affective experience, given that these are essential attributes of any experience. Even though those edifices themselves do not possess sensory and affective qualities, they provide support for experiencing such qualities.

While reading, I kept wondering: Should a psychologist sidestep the question of ontology when it comes to the topic of religion? Is it possible to sidestep the question? Categories of experience take their distinctions in part on the basis of our shared inter-subjective reality. Concepts such as paranoia and hallucination can help emphasize this point. And yet, we also cannot refute the sense/reference distinction (Frege). So perhaps religious experience is something we ought to explore in the sense of an experienced event, as opposed to the event itself (reference). Going back to my example of a physical edifice, perhaps it’s more important to discuss how I think of/use the building, how I actualize the potentials in the building (or the potentials that arise from myself and the building), rather than stressing the nature of the building itself.

I am unsure whether you wanted to completely sidestep the question of ontology. Perhaps, part of your intention (and James’s) is to point out that ontology may not be the only (or the most interesting) aspect of this topic.

Reflecting on your paper, Sertillanges, and cultural edifices made me think about my own motive behind building these signposts here. Since this is my first letter to you, let me elaborate on this point a little. I’m trying to discover (and claim) my tradition. A few days before leaving Toronto, I had coffee with one of my teachers and told him about my doubts about having a public and non-scholarly writing space. I said I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be doing with it. I knew I had a goal, but the nature of the goal, or my perception of it, was fuzzy and unclear. He responded: You’ll be creating a space in which certain expressions are possible. If it wasn’t for this space, I would have never approached Fiona, Ray, or Jan. I wouldn’t have read and incorporated their works into my thinking. At the very outset of the book, Sertillanges says: You do not stand alone. Hasn’t this been one of the themes ever since I wrote that review of The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology? The structure that I have been trying to create here is now supporting the writing of this letter to you.

In writing, I am attempting to enact the sentiment of not standing alone, as a message (meditation) for myself, to those I am writing about, and to those I am writing for. I’m trying to maintain a space in which certain expressions/experiences are possible, but I am far from being the sole source of those expressions. I attempt to point toward a set of possibility (if not a specific desirable future). Possibilities for psychologists (if not for Psychology) that are worth considering. Possibilities that are grounded in a tradition that I’m trying to better understand (and perhaps even claim as my own).

I use the word “maintain”, as in maintaining a habit, consciously. You pointed out James’s distinction between mystical and religious experiences which he made despite the similar qualities of the two kinds of experience. I believe the key to their distinction can be expressed in terms of habits. In other words, the difference between mystical and religious experiences is not in the ends but rather in the means. If the same end can be achieved both by means of inhaling nitrous oxide and by means of inheriting and maintaining a cultural edifice, the similarity of ends can only be in their sensory quality, rather than in their cognitive attributes or their meaning. I think of Raymond Bergner’s (1998) taxonomy of meaning (intrinsic, instrumental, & spiritual). For the drug user the “mystical” experience has intrinsic value, whereas for the religious person it has “spiritual” value. It stands — and acquires meaning — within an existing structure of propositions and practices. It stands, furthermore, within a community of individuals who share those propositions and practices (I think of the way Marx brought into focus the religious nature of participation in a capitalist system).

When I started reading your chapter, I expected to read a deconstruction of the religious/non-religious dichotomy of experiences. Now I don’t think that was your goal. But the deconstruction seems worth exploring, primarily because certain features run through both sides of the dichotomy: sensations and affects (qualia), about-ness (Brentano), concepts (Kant), conviction, presence/absence (Husserl), anticipation of what comes next (how what is currently absent might be disclosed after an action), sympathy (to see a hill/person is to recognize to possibility of being seen from the hill/by the person), etc. Such a deconstruction would not necessarily reduce the “spiritual” domain into the material reality, but would perhaps bring spirituality back to the everyday domain. More importantly, it might afford ways of discussing the topic that are open to both religious and non-religious people. The reason why I think you did not aim at such a deconstruction was your emphasis (based on James’s) on unique attributes of mystical/religious experience (pp.320-321). But I am not convinced whether these attributes — at least when taken individually — are uniquely religious.

Let me end this by saying that I enjoyed reading the chapter, not only because of your clear and stimulating writing, but because of the bridges to a great line of thinkers (James, Gibson, etc.). Those thinkers left behind a cultural edifice that is worth exploring, understanding, and preserving. It is, in part, by virtue of that edifice that we do not stand alone.