UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Matei Lagher


Theorizing experience: psychology and the quest for a science of religion(1896-1936)

My thesis examines the rise and demise of the psychology of religion in the US, France and Switzerland  in the first decades of the Twentieth century with a view towards the ways in which this sub- discipline sought to  formulate a 'science of religion' on the basis of psychological categories such as 'conversion', 'feeling', 'experience', 'consciousness' and the 'unconscious'. Main figures whose contributions will be analysed include: William James, James Henry Leuba, Théodore Flournoy, Ernest Murisier, Pierre Janet, Henri Delacroix.

My aim is to show the process by which such categories were refashioned and deployed to interpret 'religion', and  to map out  the intellectual exchanges that took place between religious psychologists working on both sides of the Atlantic.

Psychology of religion represented both a reaction to 19th century projects for a 'science of religion' as well as an attempt to restrict or expand the remit of ' religious experience' on the basis of what were taken to be transhistorical and universal human characteristics. As I argue, the institutional demise of 'psychology of religion' in the 1930s is intimately connected with its failure to deliver  an essence of 'religion', as its practice continually dissolved and fragmented the very category that it was seeking to establish. At the same time, some of its presuppositions were carried over into C. G. Jung's project to turn his psychology into a kind of 'religion'.

Thus, my purpose is to contribute to both an under- historicised segment of the history of psychology, as well as to provide a context for a critique of psychological discussions of 'religion.'