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James's "Ether Mysticism" and Hegel DANIEL J. COOK THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, James was a persistent critic of Hegel and Hegelianism . Very often he attacked Hegel with derision as well as earnest argument. One attitude that has been cited as evidence of James's light-hearted and cavalier treatment of Hegel concerns his comments on Hegel while under the influence of nitrous oxide (N20). In this paper I wish to argue that such a view is misguided on several grounds.* First, James had a high regard for the insights revealed by nitrous oxide intoxication (also called "ether mysticism" or "anaesthetic revelation") and, second, as a consequence, his constant references to Hegel whenever he discusses such an experience can and should be taken quite seriously. I further want to argue that James's general attitude towards Hegel was not more favorable as a result of these experiences, because his understanding of the nature and role of Hegel's dialectic was deficient. This inadequate appreciation of the dialectical method, especially the dialectic between the finite and the infinite, between man and God, affected his interpretation of Hegel while under the influence of N20. In turn, the nature of James's own drug experiences reinforced this distorted view of the relation of the finite and the infinite for Hegel. Finally, in the light of a proper understanding of James's approach to Hegel, and given the mass of twentieth-century scholarship on Hegel's earlier life and works, and the extensive publication of his early writings, it should be possible to determine whether there is any substance to James's claim that certain mystical experiences or feelings motivated Hegel's formative thinking. I. Let us begin by turning to The Varieties of Religious Experience. The core of this work is James's extended descriptions of various personal religious experiences. At the beginning of the chapters on mysticism, James reiterates this point, noting the centrality of "mystical states of consciousness" for his whole work. 1 He then presents the marks which help one to identify a mystical state: ineffability, noetic quality, and usually transiency and passivity as well. He outlines the spectrum of such experiences (from nonreligious to religious), giving typical examples, and then turns to a more detailed exposition of mysticism. After an opening paragraph on the power of alcohol "to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, ''2 James launches into an extended description of the effects of nitrous oxide--"laughing gas," as it is popularly called--upon himself and others. He points out that nitrous * I wouldliketo thank mycolleagueHenry Rosemont, Jr. for the many suggestionshe made during the preparation of this paper. 1 The Varietiesof Religious Experience:.4 Study of Human Nature, being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religiondeliveredat Edinburgh in 1901-1902(New York: Random House, 1936),p. 370. 2Ibid., p. 377 [309] 310 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY oxide and ether "when sufficiently diluted with air, stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. ''3 In the first substantive section of what James calls "the vital chapter" of the Varieties, he reflects upon his own experiences with nitrous oxide, claiming that they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and trouble, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself. 4 James admits that ordinary logic would find such words rather obscure, but nevertheless , he continues, I feel as if it must mean something like what the hegelian philosophy means, if one'could only lay hold of it more clearly. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind. 5 More explicitly, James adds, What reader of Hegel can doubt that that sense of a perfected Being with all its otherness soaked up into itself, which dominates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 309-319
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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