In The Varieties of Relgious Experience William James identifies a “noetic quality” as one of the defining characteristics of mystical experience. For James, mystical states are “states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” (POR, 45). James’ use of the term “noetic” in this context is intended to convey the notion that despite their ineffability, mystical experiences do comprise states of knowledge which are not fundamentally different from those associated with conventional reason. That is to say, the mystical experience comprises an epistemological element, a logical operation which imparts a degree of knowledge onto the subject of the experience, not unlike the epistemological processes associated with ordinary perception. As James explains, “our own ‘rational’ beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs. Our senses, names, have assured us of certain states of fact; but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensation ever were for us” (POR, 48). James stands very much in defense of the legitimacy of mystical perception, at least from the subject’s perspective. For James, it is no more “rational” to derive knowledge from normal sensatory experience than it is do so from mystical states, arguing that “the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe” (POR, 49). James even goes so far as to suggest that mystical states might be “windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world” (POR, 49), “indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of the truth,” and “the truest of insights into the meaning of this life” (POR, 50).
But how is it that religious experiences occur in the first place? In Religious Experience Wayne Proudfoot points out that the noetic quality of religious experience referred to by James is the same epistemic component found in ordinary perceptual judgments. As Proudfoot explains, “a perceptual judgment includes an embedded claim about the cause or origin of the perceptual experience,” and “if James is correct in saying that the noetic quality and the authority of religious experience are analogous to that of sense perception, then a similar assumption about the cause of the experience may be embedded in report of religious experience” (POR, 61). In other words, the noetic quality of the religious experience is such that the origin or cause of the experience from the subject’s point of view must in some sense involve religious beliefs. Or as Proudfoot puts it, “if the distinguishing mark of the religious is that it is assumed to elude natural explanation, then the labeling of the experience as religious by the subject includes the belief that it cannot be exhaustively explained in naturalistic terms“(POR, 64).
In short, the particular conceptual framework of the believer allows for the possibility of the religious experience. Yet as Proudfoot effectively demonstrates with the example of the mirror image of the tree, perceptual judgment can in some cases prove unreliable, which reinforces the notion that a perception of any kind (including religious experience) is merely an inference based on certain assumptions. Hence, with respect to religious experiences, our attention should, according to Proudfoot, properly be focused on the concepts and beliefs available in a particular culture such that we may obtain access to the variety of experiences available to persons in that culture (POR, 64).
While James welcomes the possibility that mystical experience may constitute a window to a more extensive world, Proudfoot goes in the opposite direction, seeking explanations for religious experience within the commitments and contextual conditions of those who experience them. While James speaks freely of illuminations and revelations, Proudfoot objects to the usage of religious terms such as numinous, holy and sacred as descriptive or analytical tools. According to Proudfoot, these terms “function to preclude explanation and evoke a sense of mystery and awe. They are used to persuade the reader that the distinguishing mark of the religious is some quality that eludes description and analysis in nonreligious terms” (POR, 65). While James defends the “rationality” of beliefs based on the “evidence” or mystical experience (POR, 48), Proudfoot objects to the reverse justification of religious beliefs through appeal to religious experiences and practices (POR, 66).
James, W. (2008). The varieties of religious experience a study in human nature. Waiheke Island: Floating Press.
Proudfoot, W. (1985). Religious experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.