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  • How to Write a Book:Religious Experience at Thirty
  • G. Scott Davis (bio)

Some years ago I mentioned to Wayne Proudfoot what a pleasure it was to teach Religious Experience, if only to show a group of students how to develop an argument over the course of an entire book. Proudfoot shook his head and remarked that one reviewer praised the book as a helpful collection of essays. In the remarks that follow, I want to argue three points: 1) that Religious Experience is a remarkably tight argument, from beginning to end; 2) that the argument vindicates a methodological pluralism that was previously undervalued in the philosophical study of religion; and 3) that Religious Experience established a paradigm for the philosophical study of religion that remains the norm.

The Aristotelian Way

Other than scholars of Aristotle, few academics remark how early the paradigm of philosophical book-writing was established. But it is a regular practice of Aristotle to begin, as in On the Soul, by charting the history of the question, identifying predecessors so that he can profit by their insights and avoid their errors.1 As best as we can tell, for most of the history of human beings, specifically the recorded histories of most peoples before the eighteenth century, there was only a loosely distinguished notion of religion, if at all, and religious experience was not much more specific than whatever happened in close conjunction with what Durkheim would come to call the negative and positive cult and the basic beliefs sustaining those practices. So why ask about “religious experience” as though it were a distinct and important object of study?

Part of the story has to do with the rift caused by the Protestant revolution, which called into question not only the authority of the Roman magisterium but also the nature of the sacraments, the organization of the church, and the status of the believing individual. Particularly after the Westphalian settlement of 1648, the legitimacy of different forms of Christian practice suggested that there was a phenomenon—Christianity—that could be experienced in multiple forms. By the seventeenth century, educated Europe was aware that there was a larger institutional phenomenon—religion—that could also be encountered [End Page 10] in different forms. Jonathan Israel remarks that the massive work of Picart and Bernard, appearing in 1723, constituted “one of the enduring Early Enlightenment contributions to religious toleration.”2 By the end of the century, it is at least a puzzle how and where to situate Christianity in the world’s religions. Schleiermacher’s early strategy depends heavily on the notion of religious experience, and in good Aristotelian fashion, Proudfoot begins with him.

“The early years of the nineteenth century,” writes Proudfoot, “figure prominently in the history of the idea of religious experience.”3 A detailed reading of Schleiermacher, early and late, uncovers a strategy of characterizing religious experience as both “immediate” and “intentional.” Schleiermacher concludes that “religious statements neither represent nor assert but are used to express a dimension of experience which is immediate and primitive.”4 The tradition of Schleiermacher becomes central to the interpretation of religion in the academic world “through the work of two Schleiermacher scholars, Rudolf Otto and Joachim Wach. Both emphasize the irreducible character of religious experience and the need for an autonomous approach to the study of religion.”5 But when, in the methodological style of Aristotle, we ask whether this view of religious statements can be sustained, the answer is no:

If reference to the concept of dependence and to an intentional object or codeterminant is required in order to identify the distinctive moment of religious experience, then it cannot be independent of language or thought. In the absence of the concepts of cause and dependence, or of the thought that an entire causal nexus we call the world might depend on some more comprehensive power distinct from it, the consciousness of absolute dependence Schleiermacher describes would not be available.6

In an argument that has its roots in Aristotle, Peirce, and Wittgenstein, Proud-foot maintains that intentional states must be about something. Intentional verbs such as “want,” “fear,” “love” and the like invoke an object to which the individual...


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