William James Seminar

In this seminar, we will be reading one book: The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London & New York, 1902) the edited version of his
Gifford Lecture Series on natural theology, delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902.

Many versions of the original text exist online.  I will be using the original 1902 text in class for pagination.  The thirty-eighth printing in 1935 was the last to use these plates.  You can download a PDF of the 1902 version at
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_James_The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience.pdf The scan has a number of errors: one or two missing pages, some extra blank pages, and so on....but I think it's the best there is for now.  In any case, even if you use another edition, you should be able to find your place as we read along.

J.G. Frazer Discovers Taboo

posted Nov 17, 2012, 11:58 PM by Professor Katz   [ updated Nov 18, 2012, 12:48 AM ]


William Robertson Smith (1846-94) influenced Frazer's life work in a very practical way.  Smith was one of the chief editors of the celebrated ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was being published in alphabetical order from 1875-1889.  Smith met Frazer by the time they had reached the letter 'T', a fateful letter in the anthropologist's dictionary.  Brushing aside Frazer's objections that he really didn't know anything about the subject, Smith assigned him to write the articles on 'Taboo' and 'Totemism'.  The first article would be the embyronic draft of The Golden Bough; the second for his two works on totemism, the last of which would inspire Freud to make his own contribution to the field.

The books in question are, of course, J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 18901, 19002, 1911-153); idem, Totemism (Edinburgh, 1887); idem, Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society (London, 1910); Sigmund Freud, Totem und Tabu (1913).

Read the Frazer's original articles on 'Taboo' and 'Totemism' attached below.

J.G. Frazer (1854-1941): the Crucifixion as Purimspiel

posted Nov 12, 2012, 10:42 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Nov 12, 2012, 10:46 AM ]

The Old Testament was merely another source of ethnographic data for J.G. Frazer, and he was not above making great leaps of logic on the basis of little hard exegetical evidence.  His discussion of the book of Esther and the Jewish holiday of Purim in the second edition of The Golden Bough, published in 1900, for example, is stunning in its wrong-headedness.  According to Frazer, the story is not that of Jews escaping mass murder in Persia, but rather yet another middle eastern holiday of misrule, of Babylonian origin, based on agricultural magic, and in its original form involving human sacrifice.  Purim, he argued, began as the rite which ratified the gods' approval for a king's rule for another year, a ritual which originally had involved ritual murder, but which at some point made use of a mock king instead.  This explanation also solved the meaning of the Passion narrative.  Frazer claimed that at Purim the Jews would stage a Passion play starring two prisoners who would play Haman (the mock king who is killed) and Mordecai (the true king who is enthroned).  Jesus, playing the part of Haman, was killed; Barabbas,  appearing as Mordecai, was spared: even his name has the ring of a role title.  Frazer thought his theory solved the question of whether the pattern of the dying/reviving god, common to the middle east, also existed in Palestine.  Most people thought not.  Frazer, on the other hand, argued that Jesus was included among the adherents of this motif, and was given the undesirable role of Haman in the first place because his revolutionary preaching had angered the wrong people.

Frazer's reinterpretation of Purim and the Book of Esther quite naturally did not go down well with either Christians or Jews.  He knew that himself, and warned his good friend the rabbinical scholar Solomon Schechter (1850-1915) that the second edition of his book would get him into trouble everywhere.  Reviews this time were far more negative, not only from Jews like Chief Rabbi Moses Gaster (1856-1939), but also from Andrew Lang (1844-1912), an important contemporary intellectual.  Indeed, Lang's review was so severe that when Frazer read it he had to quit writing and take a long holiday to recover from the blow.

The third edition of The Golden Bough (1911-15) repaired much of the damage, and incorporated the development of his recent thinking, which was not nearly so anti-religious.  The first thing to go was his interpretation of Purim, especially the claim that Jesus was crucified while playing Haman in a Purimspiel.  Frazer's main point in this flight of fancy had been to show that the Palestinian Jews already had the motif of the dying and resurrected god, so it was easy for them to accept the story of Jesus when it crystallized.  Frazer also made it clear that he did not think that Jesus was a mythical figure, and even compares him with Muhammad.  Jesus fit in well with Frazer's notion of the great role that individuals had in history, in helping mankind make the inevitable progression from magic to religion and finally to science.  'Quite apart from the positive evidence of history and tradition,' he ruled, 'the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer.'  But since Frazer never threw anything out, he printed the Purim idea in an appendix, with some new information that he had since acquired.

[Texts attached below]

William James (11 January 1842 – 26 August 1910)

posted Oct 16, 2012, 11:58 AM by Professor Katz

I suspect that your first thought when looking for a short biography of William James would be to click William James - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  Maybe some of you would even go for William James (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  There is even a William James webpage.  But for something shortish, and more importantly, accurate and authoritative, I've attached a PDF of a chronology about the life of William James from the edition of his works published by the Library of America in 1987.  Very helpful.

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