William James

Professor of Philosophy, Harvard

The Varieties of Religious Experience

In his series of twenty lectures, James focuses on ‘religious geniuses’ and their personal experiences that form the foundation of most religious sects. Calling for toleration of religious diversity, he places a higher value on experience over thought. In the absence of a scientific explanation, James argues that ‘the only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace’.


William James was born on 11 January 1842 in New York. As the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James is known as the ‘Father of American Psychology’ and was the first American philosopher to receive recognition in Europe. Spending most of his academic career at Harvard, he dealt with several bouts of ill health throughout his life. First appointed as an instructor in physiology, he eventually moved to an endowed chair in psychology in 1889, retiring as Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in 1907. 

The recipient of three honorary doctorates from Princeton, Edinburgh, and Harvard, his obituary in the New York Times described him as ‘America’s fore-most philosophical writer, virtual founder of the modern school of psychology and exponent of pragmatism’. James’s most important publications include Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence (1878), The Principles of Psychology (1890), Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results (1898), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), and Problems of Philosophy (1911).

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