Human Nature and Human Person (A comment on essence and existence)
The 1901 Gifford Lectures are arguably the most famous in their august history. In print the next year, William James’ ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ went through dozens of imprints in the next decade, cementing his reputation as the foremost American thinker of his time. I taught this text many times over my own professorial career, and for me, it was one of those books where the sub-title was in fact more profound than the title, for James subtitled his work ‘a study in human nature’. Immediately one is arrested by the scope, the depth, that such a phrase implies. The only hedge is that it is one of a possible number of such analyses, ‘a’ study rather than ‘the’ study. Otherwise, the author of such a book has committed himself to the topic of topics, and for many of us, I think we might shy away from such a responsibility. My own large-scale works have never directly approached such a theme of ‘nature’ and those of the future likely never will. At most, I have suggested that our experience of art ‘glimpses the shared soul’ to slightly paraphrase the publisher’s subtitle for my major work in aesthetics. But James was working in a period where leitmotif statements were not only discursively sanctioned, the readership available seemed to expect such grand gambits of their philosophers. It took two world wars and a genocide to perhaps dissuade the European tradition from overdoing it, and postwar one notes a general stepping back from essential narrative, something that the novelist had moved away from after only the first war. So, while the title of the book remains both intriguing and moving, we tend to at first overlook the real meat of the work, its actual purpose, as revealed in the subtitle.
And that core thing is, in short, that no matter the diversity of religious experience had by humans in their equal diversity, such experiences, even if we do not refer to them as ‘religious’, are part of the essence of what it means to be human. Even if religion is itself one massive projection of the human ego, as James states in this work, it is a necessary aspect of the wider and originally thrown project which each of is. For James, ‘projection’ was not a psychoanalytic term, but rather an expression of the very character of humanity; a representation, in a word, of our shared human nature. Much of his 1902 work is spent cataloguing the very varieties he advertises in his title, simply to demonstrate that in their existence and exigency, nothing is taken away from their pattern. A vision, no matter its specific contents, remains a vision. A conversion, no matter to which credo, is still a conversion. In the one, the visionary is taken outside of the everyday world and given a glimpse of another. In the second, the convert leaves behind the old world and is inducted into the new. The higher otherworld is, if not perfect, far better than the worldly realm, just as is the new world better than the one previous. In this, the visionary and the convert share both the experience of, and also the ability to, transcend their mundane circumstances, and this is part of the essence of the religious experience, as well as the leverage it uses to convince us of its profundity.
James argues that it is only through the possibility of what we can refer to as ‘irruptive’ events or phenomena, that regular life is livable at all. Such experiences may even be partially calculated, as in creative works of art, but their model is the religious undertaking, often seemingly spontaneous, as if the otherworld were a structural neighbor figure, dipping into our mundanity to aid us in crisis, in an unexpected and radical fashion. It is indeed, James suggests, that human life as lived is livable only due to the idea that there exists another life at hand. In some systems, there is no evaluation in store in order that one may pass on to this other, better life, whereas in others, not all will have the opportunity to do so. Even so, these purely cultural distinctions hail from the realm of existence alone; the presence of the otherworldly, the ‘reality of the unseen’, as James puts it, is of the essence. At this deeper and thus ‘more’ real level, several patterns emerge: one, that an otherworld exists and thus this our world is not all there is to being – this is reflected in the discourse of the child of religion, that of science, through its quantum-predicted multiverse – two, that we can pass through or on to this other realm; hence the idea of spirit or soul which, if not immortal, is at least understood as indefinite – this too is expressed by the sense that the cosmos is not infinite but indefinite in both time as a cycle and space as an expansion – three, that even within the mundane sphere we can catch glimpses of the otherworld; implying that its forces or denizens have a human interest or at the very least, interact with the purely human world – this too may be found in science by way of evolution; ‘we are star stuff, contemplating the stars’.
This trinity of essential character underpins the vast variety of religious experiences that human beings have encountered over the course of both historical time and that primordial. Even if, as James the psychologist is wont to point out, all of this rests strictly in the human imagination, it has become essential by transcending what has remained existential. In this, James appears to counter the modern sensibility that consciousness is historical through and through, and that Dasein is itself a being of history and language, though it too has ‘essentialist’ characteristics shared by every human being; anxiety, resoluteness, being-ahead, and care or Sorgeheit, for instance. But this contrast is an appearance only, at least at the level of discourse. For this aspect of human nature has itself developed evolutionarily; it is this chief manner by which we find a reason to live, and thus reproduce ourselves as a species. In Marxian terms, the religious experience is part of our species-essence, and it is an open question as to whether he and Engels considered the religious experience to be merely a part of religion proper, the notorious ‘opiate of the masses’, or whether it was excerpted from this indictment as an aspect of the authentically human character. In terms Heideggerian, James’ patterns would be expressions of the structure of Dasein’s beingness. Such monumental ‘projections’ certainly reflect our existential anxiety – perhaps overdone in Heidegger, though surely not as Schutz flatly suggested of his analysis: ‘phony’ – but as well and at once, our care or concernful being. They aid us in our resoluteness and keep our focus upon the future, assisting our ‘being-aheadedness’. Religious experience, if not itself an aspect of Dasein’s elemental character, could certainly be understood as the outward statement thereof.
Both cosmology, our understanding of the universe as it is, and cosmogony, how that same universe came to be over time, its origins, are, as the ultimate discourses of the sciences, descended from religious conceptions. In primordial temporality, such ideas were not necessarily understood as religious per se, for only with the advent of agrarianism did major world systems associated with pantheism, ritual, place, priest and pilgrimage are observed historically. Nevertheless, in all known pre-agrarian beliefs, we can easily identify the three crucial elements of otherworld, of spirit, and of vision. They appear to be human universals, and even though human nature is not any one thing, it is mutable and itself takes on a variety of experiences deemed essential, for James, the ongoing presence of these projected tropes points to there being something within which what it means to be human indefinitely rests. In this, and somewhat surreptitiously, James in fact has altered the very definition of human nature through his study.
Our nature is evolved in the structural sense, developed in that personal. To each her own truest nature, as regards the latter, but in each the basic thrownness which includes the happenstance of birth and the inevitability of death. Life is itself an outcome of cosmogony, but one’s person is an accidental correlate of that life. Therefore, origin narratives take account of Being, of there being something rather than nothing, but cosmological systems respond only to beings, of there being me rather than someone else, or humanity rather than some other ‘intelligent species’. Human nature is thence in turn a response to evolution, human person a response to thrownness. On the one hand, time, on the other, history. Cosmic processes are themselves evidence of a kind of otherworld, anonymous in its forces, dispassionate in its absence of intent, ateleological in its lack of any ultimate purpose. But I as a human person am the very opposite of each of these: I am a being which can be known and can know others, I intend almost everything I do, and I have, over the life course, created a purpose to explicate to myself at least my own presence, my accidental existence. Just so, it is of the essence for each human person to accomplish this trinity in light of the essential one of otherworld, spirit and vision. Discourse and knowledge provide the world other to custom and tradition, intent vouchsafes the sense that I have an ongoingness, a psyche or ‘soul’ by which I navigate the day-to-day work of existing, and finally, an overall or general purpose for an individual human life is the vision necessary to string the whole thing together of a piece.
James sets up this kind of interpretation for our present day by responding to the critiques of selfhood and Being characteristic of the nineteenth century. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, in spite of their radical dismantling of Enlightenment precepts, all reserved their own sense of human nature, as well as the essence of historical or existential Being. James appears to combine all of these insights or even overtake them in an unexpectedly specific manner, by making singular the pattern by which our ‘nature’ is expressed in the world of forms. If history is class conflict, if life is eternal recurrence, if psyche is Eros-Thanatos, then human nature is religious experience lensed by the human person. This essential experience, born of a universal human condition of happenstance and inevitability, is nonetheless borne on the existential vehicle which is my own personal life as lived. And in that life, though meaning is inherited, meaningfulness is made. The ‘religious’ experience, in its widest and deepest sense, that which includes science and art, gift and even love, is a fullest expression of both our nature and our person. This is why it can be referred to as essential and existential at once. It lives but it also needs to live. It is the one joy amongst all sorrows, it is the meaning shadowing all meaninglessness, it is the cosmos within the chaos, the clarity breathing beneath absurdity. It need not be ‘oceanic’, as Freud skeptically disdained, but it is nevertheless the ocean, in all its mystery and power. In recognizing this, James has given us the ability to shrug off specific beliefs precisely in order to hold on to belief itself. And this too can be a talisman for us; that we can endure specific moments and crises in our lives in order to simply continue to live.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, religion, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.