The Varieties of Religious Experience HTML version
Lecture 18. Philosophy
The subject of Saintliness left us face to face with the question, Is the sense of divine
presence a sense of anything objectively true? We turned first to mysticism for an
answer, and found that although mysticism is entirely willing to corroborate religion, it is
too private (and also too various) in its utterances to be able to claim a universal
authority. But philosophy publishes results which claim to be universally valid if they are
valid at all, so we now turn with our question to philosophy. Can philosophy stamp a
warrant of veracity upon the religious man's sense of the divine?
I imagine that many of you at this point begin to indulge in guesses at the goal to which I
am tending. I have undermined the authority of mysticism, you say, and the next thing I
shall probably do is to seek to discredit that of philosophy. Religion, you expect to hear
me conclude, is nothing but an affair of faith, based either on vague sentiment, or on that
vivid sense of the reality of things unseen of which in my second lecture and in the
lecture on Mysticism I gave so many examples. It is essentially private and
individualistic; it always exceeds our powers of formulation; and although attempts to
pour its contents into a philosophic mould will probably always go on, men being what
they are, yet these attempts are always secondary processes which in no way add to the
authority, or warrant the veracity, of the sentiments from which they derive their own
stimulus and borrow whatever glow of conviction they may themselves possess.
In short, you suspect that I am planning to defend feeling at the expense of reason, to
rehabilitate the primitive and unreflective, and to dissuade you from the hope of any
Theology worthy of the name.
To a certain extent I have to admit that you guess rightly. I do believe that feeling is the
deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary
products, like translations of a text into another tongue. But all such statements are
misleading from their brevity, and it will take the whole hour for me to explain to you
exactly what I mean.
When I call theological formulas secondary products, I mean that in a world in which no
religious feeling had ever existed, I doubt whether any philosophic theology could ever
have been framed. I doubt if dispassionate intellectual contemplation of the universe,
apart from inner unhappiness and need of deliverance on the one hand and mystical
emotion on the other, would ever have resulted in religious philosophies such as we now
possess. Men would have begun with animistic explanations of natural fact, and criticised
these away into scientific ones, as they actually have done. In the science they would
have left a certain amount of "psychical research," even as they now will probably have
to re-admit a certain amount. But high-flying speculations like those of either dogmatic or
idealistic theology, these they would have had no motive to venture on, feeling no need
of commerce with such deities. These speculations must, it seems to me, be classed as
over-beliefs, buildings-out performed by the intellect into directions of which feeling
originally supplied the hint.