- Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience, Pragmatism, and the Study of Religion
As anyone familiar with my own work would readily infer, I have virtually boundless admiration for Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience. In fact, to be honest I think Religious Experience belongs together with Jeff Stout’s The Flight from Authority and David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as the books that have most profoundly shaped my teaching and scholarship. (That’s a list that needless to say puts Proudfoot and Stout in rather distinguished company!) More than the other two works, however, Religious Experience has informed my most basic attitudes about the point and proper pursuit of the shared enterprise we call the study of religion. I know I’m not completely idiosyncratic in my estimation of Religious Experience in this regard because I could not count the number of times listening to a panel at a conference I’ve had the person sitting next to me lean over and whisper something rueful to the effect that the speaker needs to reread Religious Experience. Actually, listening to a panel yesterday, I wanted to be that person! If my testimony alone is not enough evidence of the centrality of Religious Experience to the current conception of the field, Tal Lewis, perhaps the most prominent philosopher of religion of my generation, has pronounced in his new book that, “arguably, no fundamentally philosophical work in the last quarter century has had the broad impact on religious studies of Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience.”1 It should be obvious at this point that if you came to witness an Oedipal struggle decades in the making, you’re bound to be disappointed. In what follows I will not try to slay my doktorvater. Instead, I will discuss Religious Experience’s relation to pragmatism, a topic unlikely to generate a spectacle, but that should engage us all.
First, a few words about Religious Experience’s style. Aside from the power of Proudfoot’s arguments in Religious Experience, the declarative directness of his prose may account for the book’s “broad impact.” The meticulous austerity of its style seems especially well-suited to the task of imparting methodological principles. William James once quipped that if God “hates” anything, he hates “oozy writing” and will “smite it” because it signifies “an utter relaxation [End Page 3] of intellectual duty.”2 If James was right, Religious Experience rouses neither divine enmity nor retribution. Although the writing of the canonical pragmatists is not exactly “oozy,” neither is it exactly crystalline. By comparison with Peirce’s perverse obscurity3 (frankly, Peirce gives the impression that he’s more interested in safeguarding his ideas from the unworthy than he is in disseminating them) or Dewey’s anesthetizing profusion of prepositional phrases (Lewis Mumford described Dewey’s prose as “fuzzy and formless as lint”4) or Rorty’s sometimes reckless provocations (the “pithy little formulae,” the communicative perils of which Stout has noted5), Religious Experience’s measured clarity is bracing. Its relatively unadorned style may even communicate more effectively than James’s enviable elegance of expression, rhetorical intimacy, and democratic inclination toward commonplace examples and illustrations. In my years of teaching James and reading secondary works on James, I have found that his literary displays tend as much to distract as to concentrate the reader’s attention (and they invite misinterpretation). Proudfoot’s deliberately spare and direct prose, by contrast, combats misinterpretation with its precision and rhetorical reserve.
At several crucial places in Religious Experience, Proudfoot sets up James’s views as a foil for his arguments. Exposing the error in James’s way of thinking assists him in articulating his argument, places his position in bold relief, and demonstrates what’s at stake. In these instances Proudfoot emphasizes the contrast between James’s views and his own. James’s theory of the emotions, for instance, is wrong because it treats emotions as directly perceived states that are “independent of representation and judgment,” rather than as attributions—explanations—that set a bit of behavior or a physiological change in a larger context.6 In his analysis of mysticism, to take another (but related) example, James errs...