The Universe as Thou: William James’s Religious Personalism

Submission Type: Traditional Paper


This paper places William James within the Personalist tradition.  I argue that, for James, the personal dimension of experience provides analogical evidence for how we understand reality.  Thus for James, the universe is not an “it,” but a “thou” with which we can have a genuine personal relationship.  James’s personalism is a religious hypothesis advanced by faith in the possibility of moral progress, not the result of rational proof.  However, James does believe that there is rational justification his view.  He approaches the issue of personhood from both the psychological and religious perspectives, resulting in the view that the person is essentially a moral individual who works toward the establishment of a moral ideal.  We should understand this religious aspect of James’s thought as a metaphysical hypothesis, in which his radical empiricism and pragmatism are rooted.
The Universe as Thou: William James’s Religious Personalism

William James ends his Varieties of Religious Experience with the question: “Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater task?”[1]  This question sums up James’s central philosophical concern: interpreting the universe in such a way that is consistent with the possibility of religious salvation.  Salvation, for James, involves a personalist conception of the universe, where we can believe that the universe responds to our efforts.  James summarizes his theism as follows: “The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form.  The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.”[2] 

To conceive of a universe with which one can have a genuine personal relationship is to conceive the possibility of a cooperative effort toward moral progress.  James describes this relationship as analogous to any possible relationship between two persons, and it turns out that, for James, personal relations are moral relations.  James’s argument for personalism is one of analogy advanced as a hypothesis for the purpose of finding possibilities grounded in actual experience.  It begins by adopting ethics as the starting point of philosophy, along with recognizing the primacy of volition over perception and cognition in the teleological constitution of mind.  Thus the person is essentially a moral individual for James.  Moreover, introspection reveals a psychological state of insulation between the person and the rest of the world.  James’s personalism assumes that just as moral relations are possible across the phenomenological barriers that exist between two persons, moral relations also exist between the natural and supernatural, the seen and the unseen, worlds.  James’s radical empiricism, along with his method of pragmatism, is rooted in this personalistic faith that our efforts matter and that progress is possible.

As James sees it, “scientific” and “religious” perspectives have traditionally gone to one extreme or another, extinguishing the value of individuals within larger systems.  According to James, the scientifically conceived universe is absolutely impersonal and indifferent.  Absolutistic religions have also rendered individual persons impotent from the larger perspective.  Caught, then, between the nihilism of moral and religious skepticism on the one hand, and overly optimistic faith which fails to see genuine tragedy and evil in the world on the other hand, James opts for a theism which tries to balance the experiences of impersonal indifference with the possibility of a personal relationship with the universe.

Understanding James’s argument for personalism begins with recognizing that for James ethics is first philosophy.  James recognizes that moral and religious skepticism are perfectly justified worldviews.  His aim is to show that we are as justified in believing in a personal God, one which preserves an unseen moral order.  James says that the “radical question of life” is, “the question whether this be at bottom a moral or an unmoral universe.”[3]  James is not asking whether the universe is moral or immoral, good or evil.  He is asking whether or not this universe is a place where good and evil are operative at all.  For James, a moral universe is one where both good and evil have a place.  The unmoral universe, by contrast, is “a simple brute actuality, an existence de facto about which the deepest thing that can be said is that it happens so to be. . . .”[4]  James is not so concerned with the traditional problem of evil.  His problem is more unsettling; rather, James is asking: what if the world in which we live is such that there is not even the possibility of salvation?  

Salvation, according to James, is the establishment of a moral ideal; but James’s pluralism requires that he be somewhat vague about this notion.  He writes, “You may interpret the word ‘salvation’ in any way you like, and make it as diffuse and distributive, or as climacteric and integral a phenomenon as you please.”[5]  What is important is that James believes each person must work to establish the reality of that ideal; we cannot wait passively for it to happen, and it definitely will not come without a prior belief in its possibility.  We can either believe in a universe that is indifferent to our individual lives, or we can believe that it meets us halfway in realizing our larger purposes. 

For James, ethical skepticism and philosophy are mutually exclusive.  Ethical skepticism detracts from the main goal of philosophy which is to make life better.  The original aim of every would-be philosopher is to “find an account of the moral relations that obtain among things, which will weave them into the unity of a stable system, and make of the world what one may call a genuine universe from the ethical point of view.” [6]  As philosophers we must adopt the ideal of establishing an ethical philosophy at the outset.  When we reject the possibility of moral relations obtaining among things, we give up on philosophy.  So for James, that ethics is first philosophy means that we must establish a conception of the universe wherein ethics is possible before we begin metaphysical speculation.  James is intentionally vague with regard to the specifics this ethical system entails because the “system” that James has in mind is open and accounts for a plurality of perspectives, each doing their part, some more valuable than the next, to create and sustain these moral relations.

Abandoning nihilism then, and recognizing what Borden Parker Bowne terms “the failure of impersonalism,” is the starting point for James’s adoption of the personalist hypothesis.  Of course, James recognizes that there is no definitive rational proof for such a view.  James argues, however, that holding such a view is not irrational, and in fact is more reasonable than the alternative.  Religious personalism is not irrational because, as a hypothesis, it is advanced for the purpose of satisfying the volitional, and thus moral, aspect of the mind’s teleological process.  According to James, the mind is physiologically conditioned according to the triadic-reflex pattern of sensation, cognition, and volition.  James explains:

The structural unit of the nervous system is in fact a triad, neither of whose elements has any independent existence.  The sensory impression exists only for the sake of awakening the central process of reflection, and the central process of reflection exists only for the sake of calling forth the final act. [7]

In other words, “perception and thinking are only there for behavior’s sake.”[8]  Therefore, according to James, the most reasonable conception of the universe that we could have is one which allows that our actions have moral consequences.  Materialist and agnostic conceptions will never gain universal acceptance according to the reflex-action thesis because in a world where there is no God, or where God does no work, our efforts are considerably less effective.  So much so, that in such a world, according to James,
“we can never volitionally feel at home.”[9]  James writes, “. . .theism always stands ready with the most practically rational solution it is possible to conceive. . . At a single stroke, it changes the dead blank it of the world into a living thou, with whom the whole man may have dealings.”[10]  James sees personalism as a natural consequence to the constitution of mind.  “Our volitional nature must . . . until the end of time, exert a constant pressure upon the other departments of the mind to induce them to function to theistic conclusions.  No contrary formulas can be more than provisionally held.”[11]  This belief in a personal universe is not simply the result of reasoning.  For James, our reasoning tends to conform to our beliefs, not the other way around. [12]  Rather, we must begin with faith that morality is possible, and afterward consider the reasonableness of that belief.

            James always presents us with a dichotomy from which to choose whenever he sets out on a line of reasoning.  His aim is to ameliorate the two extremes.  There are, he says in one essay, tough-minded and tender-minded philosophers, for example.  In another, he distinguishes between the scientific and religious conceptions of the universe.  Elsewhere, the distinction is between rationalist and empiricist, and in another place between idealist and materialist.  Whatever terms James uses to describe the options with which we are presented, the options are always described in terms of whether they emphasize the personal or the impersonal dimensions of experience.  For example, the materialist is “the denier of persons” whose conception of the universe involves “an over-powering desire at moments to escape personality. . .”[13]  Whereas someone prefers idealism because it “. . . gives to the nature of things such kinship with our personal selves.”[14]  James wants to illustrate that there is something right about each option – that sometimes this world seems to be completely indifferent to our individual lives; other times we feel more optimistic about our relationship to the world.  We experience both the impersonal as well as the personal.  It would be a mistake to believe that we never confront absolute indifference in our lives.  At times we are entirely subject to forces that involve no moral relation whatsoever to us.  There is no shortage of experiences that reveal the impersonal character of this world.  Moral and religious skepticism are persuasive options to those who dwell on this fact.  We should understand James’s project, then, as one which aims to reconcile the personal with the impersonal in experience.  We cannot overlook or ignore the tragic aspects of life and adopt an overly optimistic hope that God saves all; nor should we give up on our larger possibilities by adopting a pessimism which rejects our subjective interests as unimportant.  We should incorporate both the personal and impersonal aspects in our worldview and recognize that progress takes work, that achieving moral ideals and religious salvation are at the same time possible, but not guaranteed.

            James explains that when choosing to overemphasize either the personal or the impersonal, philosophers always base the choice on a particular feature from their life.  He says philosophers tend to argue by analogy, whether they recognize it or not, because they are expanding an aspect of interest in their life into a larger philosophical worldview.[15]  James’s personalistic hypothesis which is advanced by a faith in the significance of life, becomes an argument by analogy whereby one takes the personal dimension of experience as a model for the larger conception of the universe as a whole.  Just as experience is given in both personal and impersonal – subjective and objective – modes, we may conceive the universe as likewise composed.  In fact, radical empiricism requires that we take into account all aspects of experience, and not overlook the subjective as irrelevant.  James writes:

If empiricism is to be radical it must indeed admit the concrete data of experience in their full completeness.  The only fully complete data are, however, the successive moments of our own several histories, taken with their subjective personal aspect, as well as with their ‘objective’ deliverance or ‘content.’  After the analogy of these moments of experiences must all complete reality be conceived.  Radical empiricism thus leads to the assumption of a collectivism of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and superhuman or infrahuman as well as human), . . . and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world.[16]

Radical empiricism is therefore a kind of personalism because experience, as it is given, provides the only model for which to conceive the universe as a whole.  Thus, exploring the givenness of personal experience is an essential feature of James’s project, as is evident throughout his corpus.  Each time the issue of personhood appears it is within a religious context, with the notable exception of the Principles.  I describe James’s personalism as a “religious personalism” because the personalistic hypothesis is raised in response to religious skepticism.  Moreover, personalism is a metaphysical postulate, and for James we only deal with metaphysics within a religious context.  In James’s view, science and philosophy are particular methods only, and ought to avoid metaphysical speculation[17].  Having said this, James does give a psychological analysis of the personal nature of experience in the Principles.  James’s analysis begins with the recognition that the personal nature of experience is immediate and irreducible; therefore, the psychological account is not only possible, but unavoidable.  The point is that the psychological account is incomplete, and that a full account of personhood, for James, includes the religious and metaphysical perspective. 

James may not have been successful in his goal of avoiding metaphysical speculation in the Principles.  However, we need to keep his intention in mind, because James’s attempt to avoid metaphysics limits what he says about the person within that context.  First, James explains that “every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.”[18]  Each “mind” keeps its thoughts to itself.  When we talk about the personal character of consciousness, “Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law.” [19]  James describes the breaches between different “personal minds” as “the most absolute breaches in nature.” [20]  Thoughts are grouped together according to which person they belong, not by the context or content of the particular thoughts.  Therefore, according to James, “the personal self rather than the thought might be treated as the immediate datum in psychology.”[21]  We cannot talk about thought without also referring to the person to which that thought belongs.  The person is always present and should always be presupposed in psychological analysis, and the tendency of the scientific community to disregard the personal nature of experience for the purpose of “objective” clarity wrongly disregards this fundamental datum.

Next, James explains that we individuate persons in the same way that we individuate any other “thing,” according to our selective interests.   Things are nothing “but special groups of sensible qualities, which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us, to which we therefore give substantial names.”[22]  An individual is constructed out of particular interests, always for particular purposes.  Individuation is the result of the psychological necessity of coping with the given chaos of relations that composes our environment.  The personal nature of consciousness, likewise, is not something merely given in experience, i.e. something presented in sensation; nor is it an abstractly conceived substantive self.  The person is the result of active selective interests.

For the most part, each person individuates objects in the world in a similar manner because, for the most part, everyone has similar practical and aesthetic interests.  However, James explains that there is one case which no two people ever choose alike. “One great splitting of the whole universe into two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the interest attaches them in a different place.” [23]  The case which James speaks of is the division of the “me” and the “not me.”  He writes: “The altogether unique kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental psychological fact.” [24]  It is a moral riddle because, according to James, “No mind can take the same interest in his neighbor’s me as in his own.”[25]  Personal individuation creates an unbalanced relation of interests between my person and the rest of the world.  However, from the scientific perspective, James is deferring all question of morality.  The moral riddle occurs because within the scientific perspective we are not given any moral direction.  At the end of the scientific analysis, we are left with a world of disconnected, isolated, self-interested persons.  This is not to say, however, that James is actually confused about the moral status of persons.  He simply thinks that moral questions are better left to religion to solve.  James’s psychological description of personhood is therefore incomplete, but intentionally so.

The personal dimension of experience is essential to religion.  James writes: “Religious thought is carried on in terms of personality, this being, in the world of religion, the one fundamental fact.” [26]  When religion becomes too abstract and impersonal, it no longer serves any practical purpose in our lives.  James says a person is religious by virtue of the fact that she has an interest in her personal destiny.  Again, this issue of personal interests arises.  James writes: “The pivot round which the religious life . . . revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny . . . the religious individual tells you that the divine meets him on the basis of his personal concerns.”[27]  In James’s psychological analysis, the selective interests are always in terms of one’s practical and aesthetic interests.  In the religious analysis, one’s interests are in terms of moral interests.  The question on James’s mind is: will I be saved?  This is not a question that science can answer, and this is why, according to James, “religion is man’s most important function.”[28] 

A complete account of personhood involves one’s practical, aesthetic, and moral interests.  However, the person is more than a mere functional category.  James says that, “so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.”[29]  The personal dimension of experience is a psychological and religious phenomenon that has metaphysical consequences.  James writes: “By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard.  Our responsible concern is with our private destiny.”[30] 

We establish possession of “ultimate reality” by way of analogy with personal experience.  Our concern with destiny, as a defining feature of our personhood, becomes a feature of that analogy.  Thus, God, as a locus of that concern, becomes the most reasonable postulate.  For James, our conception of God must include, minimally, that God is the deepest power in the universe, and that God be conceived in the form of a “mental personality.” [31]  He writes:

[God’s] personality need not be determined intrinsically any further than is involved in the holding of certain things dear, and in the recognition of our dispositions toward those things. . . .  But, extrinsically considered . . . God’s personality is to be regarded, like any other personality, as something lying outside of my own and other than me, and whose existence I simply come upon and find.  A power not ourselves, then, which not only makes for righteousness, but means it, and which recognizes us. [32]

Whatever ways in which God’s personality may differ from ours, our personalities are similar to the extent that “both have purposes for which they care, and each can hear the other’s call.” [33]  God’s personality is intrinsically constituted like all other personalities, by its unique selective interests.  Extrinsically, God’s personality is, again, like every other personality, insulated and private in that God’s person is not my person.  Since every person has a limited perspective, James also conceives of God as limited.  God does not guarantee salvation.  God merely presents the possibility.[34]  For our practical purposes, the possibility of salvation is motivation enough to fight for it.  We do not need the guarantee.  The possibility becomes grounded by our belief in a God with whom we strive to actualize our individual ideals, and as James says, “Every such ideal realized will be one moment in the world’s salvation.”[35]

James has a fairly developed religious conception of the person over ten years prior to his writing the Varieties, and three years before the “Stream of Thought” chapter that contains his psychological account of personality.  This religious conception must be lurking in the background when James writes that the personal nature of consciousness presents a moral riddle.  Considered from the religious perspective the person is nothing like a moral riddle.  Instead, it is the moral aspect of experience that is most telling of the personal.[36]  James’s personalism consists in recognizing the moral relations extant in the universe.  The person, according to James, is the moral individual who works toward the establishment of a moral ideal.  Since a defining feature of personal experience is its limited and private perspective, each person must act on faith that their efforts make a difference in the larger scheme of things.  Without this faith, the ideal is lost; however, with effort the ideal may become realized, and thus this faith may be self-verifying.  James’s personalism is understood then as a moral project.  The metaphysical implications are that when we opt for the personalist conception of the universe, we concretize the possibility of the world’s salvation.  The practical import is that our precursive faith in either a personal or impersonal universe drastically alters not only what is achieved by us as individuals and as a society, but also what we are even willing to attempt.


[1] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), 444.

[2]William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956), 27-28.

[3] James, The Will to Believe, 103.

[4] James, The Will to Believe, 103.

[5] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 137.

[6] James, The Will to Believe, 184-5. emphasis added.

[7] James, Will to Believe, 113-14.

[8] James, Will to Believe, 114.

[9] James, Will to Believe, 126.

[10] James, Will to Believe, 127.

[11] James, Will to Believe, 127.

[12] William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 10.

[13] James, The Will to Believe, 89-90.

[14] James, The Will to Believe, 89.

[15] James, A Pluralistic Universe, 10.

[16] William James, Collected Essays and Reviews (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), 443-44.

[17]“If she [philosophy] will abandon metaphysics and deduction for criticism and induction, and frankly transform herself from theology into science of religions, she can make herself enormously useful.” (James, Varieties, 392.) 

“The spirit and principles of science are mere affairs of method; there is nothing in them that need hinder science from dealing successfully with a world in which personal forces are the starting-point of new effects.  The only form of thing that we directly encounter, the only experience that we concretely have, is our own personal life.  The only complete category of our thinking, our professors of philosophy tell us, is the category of personality, every other category being one of the abstract elements of that.  And this systematic denial on science’s part of personality as a condition of events, this rigorous belief that in its own essential and inner-most nature our world is a strictly impersonal world, may, conceivably, as the whirligig of time goes round, prove to be the very defect that our descendents will be most surprised at in our own boasted science, the omission that to their eyes will most tend to make it look perspectiveless and short.” (James, Will to Believe, 327.)

[18] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover, 1950), 1:220.

[19] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:221.

[20] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:221.

[21] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:221.

[22] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:274.

[23] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:277-78.

[24] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:277-78.

[25] James, The Principles of Psychology, 1:277-78.

[26] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 480-81.

[27] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 480-81.

[28] See James’s letter of February 15, 1901 in Francis J. McConnell, Borden Parker Bowne: His Life and Philosophy, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), 274.

[29] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 488-89.

[30] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 491-92.

[31] James, The Will to Believe, 122.

[32] James, The Will to Believe, 122.

[33] James, The Will to Believe, 122.

[34] James, Pragmatism, 136-7.

[35] James, Pragmatism, 137.

[36] Josiah Royce, a personalist, and one of James’s closest friends and colleagues makes a similar point to this by defining the person in terms of moral striving.  He writes:  “. . . the term ‘person,’ in its metaphysical sense, can mean only the moral individual, i.e. the individual viewed as meaning or aiming towards an ideal, good or relatively bad, angelic or relatively diabolical, lawful or relatively anarchical; for only the moral individual, as a life lived in relation to a plan, a finite totality of experience viewed as meaning for itself a struggle towards conformity to an ideal, has, in the finite world, at once an all pervading unity, despite the unessential accidents of disease and of sense, and a single clear contrast, in its wholeness, to the rest of the universe of experience” (Josiah Royce, The Conception of God, ed. George Holmes Howison [New York: Macmillan, 1897], 293.)