varieties of religious.jpg

The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James

It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.
— James

William James is a national treasure, and an inflection point in philosophy. He took the transcendentalism of Emerson and planted it firmly in the soil of lived experience.

Varieties is the work that came out of his fascination with altered states of consciousness. More broadly, he took the nature and potency of subjective experience seriously, and studied it with all the rigor philosophy can muster.

“The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose…Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world.”

Along with Ken Wilber’s Spectrum of Consciousness, this was one of the first books that sent me on my way, landing me in the bizarre forest of curiosities I’m now in.

Having read it a few times, it’s influence is visible everywhere. Michael Pollan’s recent book that reanimated the public interest in altered states of consciousness draws heavily from it.

James’ work is full of first-hand accounts, interviews, and open-minded inquiry into the many potential organizations of conscious experience.