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William James and the Religious Character of the Sick Soul


The scholarly attention lavished on William James’ case study in the “Sick Soul” lecture in The Varieties of Religious Experience of a man disturbed by the vision of an epileptic patient has generally not approached this case as a religious experience. To deepen our understanding of religious experience, I show that this case study can be understood as religious using elements of the theory of religion expounded throughout James’ text. I argue that it can be understood as a stage in the process of conversion James lays out. The omission of a subsequent stage highlights James’ reasons for rejecting healthy-mindedness as a philosophically adequate perspective and illustrates his claim that the strivings of the conscious mind can stunt the conversion process. Drawing on other philosophical, psychological, and literary texts, I argue that the content of the vision James describes points to solitude as a source of religious disquiet.

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  1. This statement sums up the relation James describes between the self prior to conversion and the self after conversion (“twice-born”). It is chiefly a structural relation—very little is said about the content of the self at each stage. Thus, James’ theory offers no basis for anticipating in any detail what the narrator’s conversion would be like if it reached its terminus. Since I read the crisis he relates as an abortive conversion that stops at the divided self stage, I will have little to say about James’ account of the subsequent stages of conversion; if I am right, it does not bear on the case under discussion.

  2. Miller’s masterful analysis deals with a particular kind of crisis in which an agent’s life is upended and voided of meaning by the realities he has evaded. It is not obvious that the mechanisms that allow us to put shattering events in parentheses would work in the same way or at all when the crisis is not tied to any given situation but rather, as in James’ narrative, sudden and unexplained. However, if Miller has correctly identified a predisposition to maintain one’s way of life in the face of radical disruptions, it seems easy to believe such a tendency would express itself before crises of a somewhat different origin.

  3. Rilke, for example, seems to suggest that religious experience will ensue upon the rupture of our familiar relation to the world when he writes in the first Duino Elegy: “It’s strange not to wish your wishes anymore Strange/ to see the old relationships now loosely fluttering/ in space. And it’s hard being dead and straining/ to make up for it until you can begin to feel/ a trace of eternity.” (Rilke 1977: 9)

  4. The congruence of James’ narrative with this aspect of an enduring way of picturing divinity makes it difficult for me to accept Menand’s claim that the case raises “the problem of evil”. Wettstein argues against the problem of evil in the context of the Jewish tradition, observing that the Bible shows God’s dark side and His imperfection (2012: 164, 169). Likewise, I believe that the intimations of divinity in the case under discussion are not of a perfectly just and benevolent God. That the narrator utters lines of scripture seeking refuge in God simply highlights a divorce of systematized religion from primary individual experience that supports James’ exclusion of the former from his inquiry.

  5. Curiously, the lines James chooses to cite from the Divinity School Address in support of his point do not include Emerson’s trenchant pronouncement on this issue: “Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love” (Emerson 1983: 71).

  6. Paul Fisher links the vision of the epileptic with James’ suicidal thoughts and seems to place the incident in “the dark times following Minny Temple’s death” (2009: 271). The implication is that the vision is related to mortality but Fisher doesn’t do justice to this suggestion, since he doesn’t spell out any conceptual connection between finitude and the content of the case. Thus, the proposal that the case speaks to our finitude is made only on biographical grounds, with no hermeneutic support. I hope the present text helps fill this gap. Fisher further muddles the issue by stating that James found “just what he needed” in Charles Renouvier’s notion of free will and that this discovery “marked the turning point in his crisis” (2009: 271) without explaining how the belief in free will is supposed to address misgivings about mortality.

  7. On this point, in addition to the passage from “Soledad” cited above, see de Unamuno (1990: 55) .


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The author would like to thank Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Ed Casey, David Dilworth, Susanna Kirk, and two anonymous readers for Human Studies for useful suggestions and discussion.

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Correspondence to Roger G. López.

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López, R.G. William James and the Religious Character of the Sick Soul. Hum Stud 37, 83–101 (2014).

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  • William James
  • Religion
  • Solitude
  • Dread
  • Psychology