The social nature of saintliness and moral action: A view of William James’s Varieties in relation to St.Ignatius and Lawrence Kohlberg

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Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This article argues that William James’s thinking in The Varieties and elsewhere contains the view that social institutions, such as religious congregations and schools, are mediators between the private and public spheres of life, and are necessary for transforming personal feelings, ideals and beliefs into moral action. The Exercises of St Ignatius and the Just Community moral education approach serve as examples. Criticisms of the more commonly held view that James recognised only individual personal experiences as valid religious expressions are marshalled. Furthermore, we argue that moral action or saintliness, the ultimate expression of religious faith according to James, is fundamentally social. The commonalities that the phenomenologies of moral action of St Ignatius and Lawrence Kohlberg have with William James’s view are used to support the argument.

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