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Ineffable Experience

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This essay offers a reading of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience that suggests considering religious experience as a cultural form and practice of 'transcendent' meaning construction. Following James, but also drawing on discussions in cultural psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, such meaning constructions are viewed as historically and culturally specific ways of transcending ordinary experience in an effort after 'deeper' meaning. While James's project is seen in the tradition of Geisteswissenschaft, outlining a hermeneutic human science, it is argued that his investigations have not taken into account the complex relationship between experience and language. In line with an empiricist conception of experiences, James ignores the constructive function of language -- and thus culture -- in the constitution of both experiences and thought. The discussion of the problematic consequences of this neglect of language and cultural language games focuses on 'ineffable experiences', which are the chief characteristic of mystical states and thus, for James, at the centre of the religious experience.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: New School University Graduate Faculty, Psychology Department, 80 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10011, USA.

Publication date: January 1, 2002


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