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American Spaces of ConversionThe Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James$
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Andrea Knutson

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195370928

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195370928.001.0001

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William James’s Uncertain Universe

William James’s Uncertain Universe

Theory as Theology in The Varieties of Religious Experience

(p.134) Chapter 4 William James’s Uncertain Universe
American Spaces of Conversion

Andrea Knutson

Oxford University Press

Chapter 4 examines the impact that Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and its demonstration of probabilistic thinking had on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (Varieties) and demonstrates the central role the conversion dynamic plays in James’s work, focusing on his development of a psychology of religious experience in the Varieties and of pragmatism as a philosophy whose claim that “truth is what happens to an idea” affirms the process of belief as conversional. Conversion finds a conceptual home in modern philosophy as James’s pragmatic hermeneutic, a habit of mind tying conversion to the process that drives consciousness. James characterizes conversion as the experience of the gap between a fact and its interpretation responsible for the ongoing work of establishing beliefs in the face of uncertainty. Through the gathering and arranging of countless testimonies in the Varieties James anchors the process of conversion and the constituting and reconstituting of beliefs and bodies of knowledge in discourse and various discursive communities. In doing so he foregrounds an individual’s continual efforts at reaching these “stages” of personal and cultural renewal through the adoption of the empirical method, which he claims encompasses all scientific and religious enquiries and is “founded in feeling.”

Keywords:   pragmatism, William James, Charles Darwin, belief, conversion, consciousness, habit, method, psychology

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