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The Varieties of Religious Experience (William James) Discussion

Over the last few months at the Thinkers Club, we've argued politics to death ; it's now time to delve into that other dark and forbidden dinner table conversation: Come atheists, Come believers...Come all to the first ever discussion of Religion, Spirituality, and GOD at the Thinkers Club!! Some of you may be questioning why we are reading William James, a thinker - no doubt - many of you have never heard of. So let me tell you, from the perspective of someone else who has not yet read The Varieties of Religious Experience, why this text is worth your time: William James was one of the first American Pragmatists. Pragmatism is a definitively American school of thought that surfaced around the same time as the Transcendentalists in the mid 1800s and has grown in popularity since that time. Other more contemporary thinkers like Richard Rorty (very controversial for his "relativism", as some might argue) and Richard Shusterman (a personal favorite of mine). Pragmatists' main focus is on tangible experimentation - they take a radical empirical view of philosophy and they experiment with philosophical theories to create solutions for real problems. Pragmatists take the viewpoint that we can gain knowledge through experience - not some sort of brain structure or "first principles" - and they study various types of experiences to determine how they affect us psychologically. Many Pragmatists are scientists or were also scientists, including William James. Now, from what I gather about this book, William James is suggesting (this is conjecture) that it doesn't matter whether or not we can prove that God exists; what does matter is the practical effect that believing in God/spirituality or not believing has on the individual psyche and how they go about their lives. This is what he is concerned with studying... So, let's put our religious differences aside, because it really doesn't matter for this discussion...aka: Let's not make this into a "Does God exist or not" debate. Come on...we've all done that a billion times. No, let's deal with the topic that James discusses! These are some questions you might want to ask yourself to prepare for the group: 1) Can we separate the value of an object/entity from its existence? Can something be good or bad just because of the way that society or the individual experiences it? Does it serve any practical end to think of good or evil in any other terms but these? Do we have to prove that something is ontologically real for it to have substantial meaning, value, or utility in our lives? 2) How do James' ideas seem to reflect the time in which he lived? How do his ideas compare with other thinkers of the time in other schools of thought? What is Pragmatism's relation to Existentialism, Phenomenology...Foucault? 3) Where do you place yourself epistemically (haha, if anyone knows what that means after the last meeting); would you place yourself with the pragmatists or with Descartes/the positivists/Chomsky? Why or why not? I look forward to a very deep and profound discussion. By the way, you can order the book from Borders; there are multiple versions available but you are not going to find it in the store so order it from the bookstore or library now.

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  • Amy

    Bobby (new member of the group) was kind enough to tell me that you can read Varieties on Google Books for free! Check it out if you haven't been able to get your hands on a book. You can read it during your lunch I am right now.

    August 27, 2009

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