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Showing 1-10 of 26 reviews(4 star). Show all reviews
on June 1, 2002
This book is based on a series of Lectures that the late William James gave at the turn of the century. What makes James' writing so odd in the world of religious studies is his refreshingly realistic take on religion and human nature considering it was written previous to the first world war. In an age where people were remarkably positive about human kind and our collective destiny James' views were certainly unpopular. James, however, was ahead of his time. We look back on his work from a century later through the lens of the most bloody and brutal century mankind can remember and find James' assertions to be entirely too accurate.
This was one of the first academic books on the subject of religious experience and is thus extremely important. William James demonstrates such a wide scope of knowledge on the subject that reading this book is like opening a window into the world of nineteenth century religious movements. Considering the amount of important developements that occured within religion at the time: The Quakers, The abolishionists, Mormons, etc. This book can be extremely useful in that aspect as well.
It is certainly worth reading if you have an interest in
religious experience or in nineteenth century religion. James is and most likely will always be one of the greatest voices on this subject, thus, not to read this book would not be a sin, but it would definitely be a mistake.
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on July 29, 2004
I found this an extremely valuable book, but I don't claim that it's an easy read. First, you have to get through the academic writing style of the late 19th century: paragraph-length sentences with triply nested clauses and extensive quotes from other, equally opaque writers. You'll eventually get used to this style, but it will never flow easily.

Next, you have to contend with James' model of psychology, which is different in many ways from our own. He wrote this book when the notion of the subconscious was a bleeding edge concept, Pavlov had yet to identify learned behavior, and experimental psychology was just starting up. So, although his psychology is sound, you'll have to mentally translate it into the more modern models.

But, if you can get through these barriers, it is a seminal book. James finds it natural to unite the notions of personal psychology and religious revelation without conflict (or at least not much conflict), while honoring both traditions.
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on July 28, 2014
Of the recent additions I believe this is the best new edition for the price. Until the Distributed Proofreading Project overhauls the Project Gutenberg ebook version this will do. The type is large. The book is a reasonable size. Varieties is a complicated book to typeset and layout. There are many important explanatory footnotes, page references in the text and a large number of long multiple excerpts from other works. A perfect edition would find a brilliant way to make all these accessible and instantly identifiable. It can be difficult to difficult to follow. This edition does a good job for a quickly made, reasonably priced edition but it is far from perfect. I cannot give it a 5 star. I do not think it set out to be a 5 star edition.
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VINE VOICEon September 28, 2004
Here is William James' extraordinarily dispassionate and narrowly empirical and pragmatic examination of a topic that has rarely been treated dispassionately. The reading can be difficult, actually tedious, but James' language is persistently non-colonized (he had little respect for the popular psychobabble buzzwords and delusionally simplistic conclusions of his day [and one expects that this would hold true a century later!]). By standards of 'originality'* (a word that must be qualified) and reputation, he probably remains America's most famed philosopher of mind (which is something of an affliction to his dogmatic detractors). It seems that he was/is America's most famed psychologist/neurologist as well.
*(James says of his investigation, "Originality cannot be expected in a field like this, where all the attitudes and tempers that are possible have been exhibited in literature long ago, and where any new writer can immediately be classed under a familiar head." Yet, while no single consideration in this work is strictly 'original', the work in sum remains highly unique.)
A large sampling of varied religious experience and psychological temperament is scrutinized. Many readers will find the sampling too large (this reader did). As is quickly apparent, a large number of cited experiences are 'extreme' -- we might say nutty. One might think the material is becoming a mocking of religious experience per se, but James warns us not to leap to conveniently simplistic conclusions: ". . . it always leads to a better understanding of a thing's significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing in the wholesale condemnation which we pass on its inferior congeners, but rather that we may by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular dangers of corruption it may also be exposed." James finds what might be called the "religious temperament" to embrace a broad range of opinions:
"'He believes in No-God, and he worships him,' said a colleague of mine of a student who was manifesting a fine atheistic ardor; and the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal."

As a scientist, James proceeds in this study as a strict empiricist. As a philosophical pragmatist (practicably and on the whole, "the true is what works well"), he finds that objects, after all, can only be considered and "known" subjectively. To 'experience' a material 'object' or phenomena is to be in an intellectual state that is essentially subjective. Thus, although science is the interrogation of the material world, the "truth" content of a dogmatic materialism is a pretension at best and a delusion at worst. James says, "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. . . we belong to it in a more intimate sense than that in which we belong to the visible world, for we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong." To the extent that "religion" tends strongly to understand this while "science" today tends impulsively to deny it, religion may exhibit the clearer vision of reality (and of psychological 'healthy-mindedness'), regardless of science's impressive inventory of material 'facts'.

As the author instructs, the reader should patiently wade through these lectures. The conclusions toward which he labors are not generally apparent before they are reached. At points throughout the text, both the 'religionist' and the 'anti-religionist' may believe that James is given to championing their respective positions, only to soon understand him differently. While the study is one of empirical psychology, the conclusions are inescapably philosophical (conclusions always are). The author briefly considers the classic theological arguments (cosmological, teleological, etc) and finds them to be logically elegant, yet less than universally compelling. Where [psychological] temperament leads, thought tends to follow. More compelling to James is a theologic / religious / epistemic warrant that seems highly amenable to (perhaps identical to) so-called reformed epistemology. Dogmatic philosophical materialism is inherently an arbitrarily limited window to reality. For the naturalist and the supernaturalist alike, personal experience and 'temperament' are the arbiters of reality. The book is important, in large part, because it has no obvious partisan constituency. Empiricists and mystics alike may find certain aspects of this study to be of merit. Philosophical skeptics won't like it, but of course ultimately they won't like anything.
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on December 28, 2013
William James was an incredible psychologist turned philosopher (who also studied medicine at Harvard). This book was originally published in 1902 and was an immediate bestseller. It was based on lectures James provided in 1901 and 1902. The Lectures: Religion and Neurology, Circumscription of the Topic, The Reality of the Unseen, The Religion of Healthy Mindedness, The Sick Soul, The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification, Conversion, Saintliness, The Value of Saintliness, Mysticism, Philosophy, Other Characteristics, Conclusions, and a Postscript. Many reviewers have noted this book is one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. The Modern Library Classics edition is 616 pages and has all 20 lectures along with a postscript. There are a few different versions of the book available. No matter the edition you pick up you will be enlightened by James's ideas on conversion, repentance, mysticism, and hope of reward and fears of punishment in the hereafter. James examines the direct experiences of people under the influence of religious moods and mystical states of mind. He is critical of dogmas and mainstream spiritual beliefs as he focuses on the individual experience as the root of religious experience. These lectures are descriptive as they are loaded with specific examples so it makes for very interesting reading. My version of the book provides extensive footnotes (some take up nearly the entire page) but these are essential to appreciating the examples provided by James. Some editions dispense with the footnotes entirely leaving a book that is less than half of its original size (as little as 284 pages).

The chapter on Religion of Healthy-Mindedness is interesting as it describes "mind-cure" (new age) methods of achieving union with the divine. These techniques are structurally similar to some forms of religious conversion that you would find in Christian Fundamentalism (e.g. born again Christians). James describes religious experience as primarily personal and related to feeling. He sees little compatibility with intellect and religion but recognizes the individual religious experience as vital to humanity. James connects religion with the unconscious mind and goes so far as to identify some saints and mystics as nearly psychotic but refuses to dismiss their experiences as he sees them essential for life and worthy of study. For example, he sees the value of prayer (but only praying for yourself or others and not for better weather or lottery numbers) but believes it does not matter who the prayer is addressed to as he prefers to view the act itself as important without the need for formulas or dogma. Despite the critical examination of religious experience James does remain a believer and proposes a science of religion to replace current systems of dogma. To his credit, James reaches conclusions that are quite a bit different from what you might expect. After listing scores of examples he manages to bring his own original insights from a psychological perspective. He was truly an original thinker who had something unique to impart to his audience. My only criticism is that James provides mostly examples so there isn't much analysis and James himself admits his interest in religious experience is intellectual so he lacks a personal experience of the direct spiritual awakening that he values so highly (he claims he does not have the "constitution" for mystical states of consciousness).

James grew up in a very tolerant household and had parents who were influenced by the ideas of mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The pluralistic wisdom of James flows through these pages. He focuses on one major idea per lecture and strips away the core element that can be used in a practical manner. James does not get swept away by metaphor and drills down to the root of the religious experience. One of the major messages I took away was how varied religious experience is since James feels that no single experience deserves to be called the "truth" except by the person experiencing it. His philosophy is one of Pragmatism while he points out the deficiencies of other philosophers (such as Immanuel Kant). James ultimately feels philosophy should abandon religion and metaphysics. James studied associationism, spiritualism, and was a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research. He was interested in the practical, successful use of ideas rather than their representative accuracy so he wasn't given to flights of fancy common to people studying paranormal events. Some strongly religious-minded people of faith and new agers probably won't turn to this book unless they want their metaphysical balloons deflated a little. My only complaint is that some of the descriptions seem long-winded and dry to the modern reader.

Buy this book.
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on June 24, 2009
This is the second time through, and I am surprised at how much I overlooked the first time. A must read for anyone who is interested in religion.
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on January 26, 2013
In the early 20th century, psychologist William James took a long hard look into what makes religion tick in the minds of men and women. The results were published in a series of lectures he gave in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. Very erudite and interesting.
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on April 30, 2014
I found this book through references from Carl Jung. This is a series of lectures on the psychology of religious experiences, given by James in Edinburgh. The lectures are well-crafted and argued, and it is fascinating to read the real-life experiences presented. The idea of an "unconscious" has just been posited at this time, and you can trace the seeds of Jung's ideas. "Religion" is broadly interpreted by James and whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic you will find this book informative and thought
provoking.
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on January 18, 2007
The book is a series of lectures given by the author in 1901-02. The academic language takes a little getting used to, yet once accustomed the material is presented in an effective manner. This is a good book for someone who would like to explore rationale why different types of religions exist, their relation to each other, types of individuals that gravitate to each, and whether or not there is a creating spirit which resides in all. Dispells some of the notion "My way is right and if you don't believe it, ask me." Good for the person who is open-minded and seeking.
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on November 4, 2013
A good summary of why people pursue and what they experience in various religious traditions. Revolutionary for its time because it attempts objectivity in exploring a wide range of traditions.
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