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Saturday, May 29, 1999

The ontological imagination.

In his pioneering study of the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-1902), William James argues that religious experience originates in subconscious or subliminal experience and therefore constitutes a topic for psychological study. He also argues that religious experience invariably involves a claim that exceeds what psychology can confirm or deny. Psychologists recognize that religious people feel themselves to be in contact with higher powers that energize their lives — but religious people also believe that these same higher powers operate in the world outside of them. As James puts it, the religious person "becomes conscious that this higher part [of the self] is coterminous and continuous with a more of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him" (498-499). A consistent feature of religious experience is the conviction that the personal experience is not entirely subjective, but touches on the nature of reality itself. James describes the "More" as a continuation of the person's conscious life into his unconscious or subliminal life, where it may actually also continue beyond the individual's life into a mystical or supernatural region (506).

This formulation of the nature of religious experience tries to accommodate both the science of psychology (which studies only the relationship of the conscious life with the unconscious life) and the discipline of theology (which studies the relationship of the individual life to the supernatural). by delineating the common boundary of each discipline and by providing them with a common point of access to individual experience. James's more interesting proposal, however, involves his discussion of the nature of personal experience itself. James contends that personal experience, including religious experience, involves a "sense of reality" that may actually produce rather than simply validate facts. The "ontological imagination" generates new facts in personal experience that may bear fruit for living, thereby generating new facts in the world. In this way, according to James, religion may yield truths available to critical and public investigation. Religious experience, by involving human beings in a compelling realization of ultimate ideals, puts us "in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard" (491-492).

The central feature of James's thought is not his definition of religion but his definition of what is real. Reality, for James, is a quality of experience rather than an attribute of things. James introduces what he calls the "sense of reality" as

a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call "something there," more deep and more general than any of the special and particular "senses" by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed. (58, emphasis in original)

The sense of "something there" accompanies our sense perceptions, vouching for the "whatness" of things. But the sense of "something there" also accompanies experiences that do not clearly involve perceptions of objects in the world.1 James points out that the sense of reality often attaches itself to conceptions and ideals — not to mention hallucinations — "even though they might be so vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable, even though they might be such non-entities in point of whatness" (58). James introduces a term for the faculty that contributes this sense of reality: the "ontological imagination" (71).

The most important implication of James's understanding of reality as a quality of experience is that he treats the ontological imagination as more closely connected to the nature of things than rationality or science. To the extent that science recognizes as real only those natural laws that it abstracts out of empirical data and personal experience, science insists on a shallow definition of reality.

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. (488-489, emphasis in original)

The "pinch of reality" is experiential and belongs to the percipient, not to the thing perceived. More importantly, the pinch of reality belongs to "a conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs" (489). When ideals and convictions constitute elements of personal experience, exercising their pull on the conscious self, the ontological imagination essentially treats unrealized factors of experience as realities. In personal experience, in other words, compelling ideals become active forces in the world.

In an important respect, James is making a much stronger metaphysical claim about human experience generally than he is about religious experience specifically. Is it more startling to suggest that a supernatural dimension to the world may be revealed through religious experience, as James postulates on page 506, or to suggest as he does on page 492 that the "recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making"? James challenges scientific materialism by defending personal experience as capable of generating new facts, especially when those facts have religious qualities. He argues that religion exercises the ontological imagination in such a way as to introduce new facts into the world:

Religion, in her fullest exercise of function, is not a mere illumination of facts already elsewhere given, not a mere passion, like love, which views things in a rosier light. . . . [I]t is something more, namely, a postulator of new facts as well. (508, emphasis in original)

Religious experience insists that the individual carries on important transactions with powers transcending the self. But James observes that these powers are identified so variously by different religious traditions and individuals that it is impossible objectively to select one theological interpretation over another. Each individual brings her own "over-beliefs" to bear on the matter. One may objectively recognize that an individual experiences real transformations of herself, that she recognize these transformations as deriving from powers transcending her conscious life, and that she consciously seeks to maintain on ongoing relationship with those transcending powers. Beyond these recognitions, one must engage in imaginative interpretation.

Regardless of the interpretive scheme one adopts in interpreting religious experience, however, one should note that the religious person is already engaging in an act of ontological imagination by putting herself in conscious relation to an ultimate reality (made real in her experience) that animates her life and that she is consciously seeking to realize in the world. In other words, whatever "over-beliefs" a person holds about her religious experiences, James urges us to recognize that the ultimate truths of that experience are already underway. James asserts that it is in the nature of personal experience itself, when that experience involves ultimately compelling ideals, to engage in the realization of new facts. The ontological imagination is the profound discovery of James's radical empiricism.


Written for the American Tradition of Religious Thought and Philosophy, Professors Richard Niebuhr and David Lamberth, Harvard Divinity School, May 29, 1999. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "The Ontological Imagination." Philocrites. 29 May 1999. <>.

1. Objects are not real to us simply by virtue of their whatness (or what is more conventionally called their "being in itself"). Rather than arguing that things convey their reality to percipients (which would imply that we recognize as real only those things possessed of "whatness"), James argues that the sense of reality is a constituent part of the percipient's experience that may in fact be independent of the object of that experience. (Return to text.)

Works cited

William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, 1901-1902. New York: The Modern Library, 1929.

Copyright © 1999 by Philocrites | Posted 29 May 1999 at 5:00 PM

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