The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.1 (2001) 56-61
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William James's Philosophy of Religion
Heaven's Champion: William James's Philosophy of Religion. Ellen Kappy Suckiel. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. Pp. xiii + 184. ISBN 0-268-03814-7.
William James is notorious for the large number of inconsistencies and at least apparent contradictions in his writings. Many readers conclude that he should be appreciated more for his profound but erratic insights than for any coherent philosophical perspective. Ellen Kappy Suckiel disagrees. She argues that James [End Page 56] is far more careful and systematic than many readers realize. Her work on James is guided by the attempt to lay bare his coherent philosophical vision and the consistent philosophical methodology underlying it. As a result of this approach, Suckiel's work on James is both sympathetic to his philosophical insights and carefully argued.
In her first book, The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James (1982), Suckiel applies this approach to James's philosophy as a whole. The result is a work of remarkable clarity and insight that serves as a wonderful introduction to James's thought. In her more recent book, Suckiel applies this approach specifically to James's philosophy of religion, with similar felicitous results. Heaven's Champion: William James's Philosophy of Religion is an excellent introduction to James's views on religion and presents important insights and arguments for those already familiar with it as well.
Suckiel takes as her epigraph for this book a line from James's Pragmatism: "It is high time to urge the use of a little imagination in philosophy." For Suckiel, this line is thematic for James's approach to the philosophy of religion. She contends that James's purpose is neither to work out and defend a particular theory of the justification of religious belief nor to prove conclusively the existence of God or the truth of any other religious claims. Rather, she argues, James wants to suggest more imaginative approaches to religious questions, with the ultimate goal of removing illegitimate obstacles to belief and showing that belief is both justifiable and morally useful. The methods he uses to accomplish this goal, she argues further, are both empirical and pragmatic.
Suckiel takes James's Varieties of Religious Experience as the paradigm case of his use of the empirical method. But she warns that readers should not understand his case studies as mere descriptions of religious experiences. Rather, they constitute a critique of speculative philosophy and theology by showing the limits of intellectual approaches to religion and by pointing out the value of preconceptual knowledge. They also constitute a critique of the position of those whom Suckiel calls "scientific rationalists," who acknowledge only certain limited types of evidence for religious claims. Suckiel points out James's use of a pragmatic method in his argument that the positive consequences of religious beliefs constitute a prima facie reason for holding them.
Having made these distinctions in the first two chapters, Suckiel dedicates the remaining five chapters to defending James against epistemological and ethical attacks and to exploring the metaphysical implications of his views. In a chapter on "Preconceptual Knowledge," Suckiel defends James's view that religious experience is a legitimate source of knowledge of the divine. She places this view within the larger context of James's philosophy as a whole by claiming that throughout his philosophy he argues for the epistemic primacy of experience. On her reading, James consistently holds the view that, while concepts may be useful, they temporally follow from and are less important than experience. To make this reading more convincing, it would be helpful to address passages, especially [End Page 57] in James's later works, where he writes of the importance of concepts. In Some Problems of Philosophy, for example, he writes:
Percepts and concepts interpenetrate and melt together, impregnate and fertilize each other. Neither, taken alone, knows reality in its completeness. We need them both, as we need both our legs to walk with. . . . For...