Suchness and Whatness

Cabrera, Jaena Rae
Midterm Prompt #1
March 10, 2009

In “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James discusses what he calls suchness and whatness. Suchness encompasses experiences beyond our typical senses, feelings or sensations pertaining to the unseen. It includes an awareness or consciousness of some other presence, a sense of a much deeper reality. In contrast, whatness involves tangible sensible experiences, such that we face on a regular basis in our everyday lives. Whatness refers to facts and things that are immediately observable by our five senses. Although James admits that suchness does not necessarily correspond with religious experience, it is definitely an important characteristic of it. He points out that suchness maybe experienced by those having hallucinations as well, but those experiencing hallucinations do not necessarily receive a sense of enlightenment.

This distinction between suchness and whatness is part of what fuels James’ notion of cash value. To James, cash value refers to the practical applications and implications of an experience. A religious experience must convince the individual that he must be a better person, and provides him with a method to reach this goal. Thus, a religious experience only has cash value if it has a proven utility in life. This is one way we may assess such experiences. If there is no practical benefit to such “otherworldly” experiences and feelings, there is little reason for them to be considered worthwhile.

Suchness may only be philosophically reasonable if one determines that the cash value is more important than the origins of the experience. One must also come to comprehend that suchness and whatness comprise an essential duality for understanding the reality of life. During lecture, we encountered two very disparate schools of thought: Stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism emphasizes reason by way of the intellect, which will eventually lead one to knowledge. Stoics focus on the necessity of life. On the other hand, Christians stress the emotional by focusing on their belief in the divine love of God. Christians are governed by their feelings; perhaps what James calls suchness. While knowledge may temper experience, and experience broadens life, both are necessary for understanding. An understanding of life is certainly morally helpful, by giving us guidance and meaning in our lives. It gives us a model to follow.

Accordingly, a religious experience is much more than a simple delusion or hallucination. It does more than provide an amusing fancy. A religious experience, suchness, gives a person a feeling of connection or awareness of something unseen, and from there they typically make a decision to change their lives. As James’ writes, “[such experiences] are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are (64).” This is a central indication of a religious experience. It makes life meaningful, and therefore imparts an improved understanding of life. Suchness should not be labeled as a religious experience if there are no practical results.

It is of very little consequence whether it is true that people having religious experiences are actually coming into contact with something profound and unseen, whether it be God or something other. The factual morsels of religious experience are undeniably insignificant when discussing James’ concept of cash value. As stated during lecture, “it’s not the roots of religious experience, but the fruits.” The enduring principal aspect of religious experience is its faculty to improve the quality of life for those who are fortunate enough to face it.

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