Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center
In 1890 Scribner’s Magazine, published an article in the March issue entitled “The Hidden Self” in which the author commented on the importance of the “unclassified residuum” in science. As he wrote:
“No part of the unclassed residuum has usually been treated with a more contemptuous scientific disregard than the mass of phenomena generally called mystical. Physiology will have nothing to do with them. Orthodox psychology turns its back upon them. Medicine sweeps them out; or, at most, when in an anecdotal vein, records a few of them as ‘effects of the imagination,’ a phrase of mere dismissal whose meaning, in this connection, it is impossible to make precise. All the while, however, the phenomena are there, lying broadcast over the surface of history. No matter where you open its pages, you find things recorded under the name of divinations, inspirations, demoniacal possessions, apparitions, trances, ecstasies, miraculous healings and productions of disease, and occult powers possessed by peculiar individuals over persons and things in their neighborhood.”
The article was authored by American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), who was interested in and contributed to psychical research. Previous discussions of this include articles such as my and S. Krippner’s “Nineteenth Century Pioneers in the Study of Dissociation: William James and Psychical Research” (Journal of Consciousness, 2010), dissertations such as K.D. Knapp’s To the Summerland: William James, Psychical Research and Modernity (Boston College, 2003), and parts of important books about James, among them Eugene Taylor’s William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin (1996) and Francesca Bordogna’s William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge (2008).
In the article commented upon here James’ interest in psychical research is revisited:
“William James and Psychical Research: Towards a Radical Science of Mind” by Alexandre Sech Junior (email@example.com), Saulo de Freitas Araujo, and Alexander Moreira-Almeida (all from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Brazil), History of Psychiatry, 2013, 24, 62-78.
Traditional textbooks on the history of psychiatry and psychology fail to recognize William James’s investigations on psychic phenomena as a legitimate effort to understand the human mind. The purpose of this paper is to offer evidence of his views regarding the exploration of those phenomena as well as the radical, yet alternative, solutions that James advanced to overcome theoretical and methodological hindrances. Through an analysis of his writings, it is argued that his psychological and philosophical works converge in psychical research revealing the outline of a science of mind capable of encompassing psychic phenomena as part of human experience and, therefore, subject to scientific scrutiny.
In addition to an introduction and a conclusion the article is divided in the following sections:
William James: Spiritualism, and Science in His Early Years
James and Psychical Research
A Radical Science of Mind
James’ most important research with psychic phenomena were his seances with the medium Leonora E. Piper (1857-1950), as seen in publications appearing in 1886, 1890 and 1909. But he wrote other papers of interest, among them “Notes on Automatic Writing” (1889), “What Psychical Research has Accomplished” (1892), and “The Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher’” (1909). In the latter article, published at the end of his life, James stated that he did not have a theoretical understanding of psychic phenomena nor a conviction of survival in the case of mediumistic phenomena. He cannot be blamed for this, since conviction is a personal process depending on one’s makeup as well as on the phenomena one observes. But I sometimes wish that he had been more involved with psychical phenomena empirically, and that he had written more about their importance to psychology. There is some of this in The Principles of Psychology (1890), and in works such as Human Immortality (1898), but the psychic content of these works is minimal. But perhaps we need to focus more on who James was and not on our wishes.
Actually, the point of the article commented upon here is not to present a detailed review of James’ contributions to psychical research nor his opinions about specific phenomena or topics. Instead the authors emphasize James’ “outline of a science of mind capable of encompassing psychic phenomena as part of human experience.”
I think they rightly comment on the influence of Frederic W.H. Myers on James. Writing to English psychologist James Sully (1842-1923) in 1901 James referred to Myers saying he knew “how much psychologists as a rule have counted him out from their profession” and added “I seriously believe that the general problem of the subliminal, as Myers propounds it, promises to be one of the great problems, possibly even the greatest problem, of psychology” (H. James, ed., The Letters of William James. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, Vol. 2, p. 141). Both Myers and James acknowledged the influence of the other, and James paid public tribute to his colleague and friend in his article “Frederic Myers’s Service to Psychology,” published in 1901 in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.
In addition to his correspondence with Myers, James corresponded with countless individuals. One of the most relevant sets of letters to psychical research were his exchanges with Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920). These letters have been published by Robert C. Le Clair (The Letters of William James and Théodore Flournoy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).
The article puts James’ interest in psychical research in the context of his general view of human experience and his ideas of radical empiricism. As the authors wrote: “Countering classical empiricism, he advanced a set of metaphysical postulates with epistemological consequences, which place experience in its broadest sense as the cornerstone of reality. Consequently, through philosophical reasoning, he was able to encompass any kind of experience, objective or subjective, ordinary or extraordinary, as targets of scientific examinations.”
They conclude making three points about James’ work:
“First, it is fair to affirm that James’s interest in psychical research went beyond mere eccentricity. In fact it is reasonable to assert that his many years of active investigation of psychic phenomena played a significant role, not only in the furtherance of his psychological project, but also in his philosophical enterprise . . .”
They also argue that James’ case shows how historical case studies illustrate aspects of scientific ideology and the importance of certain phenomena, such as those studied by psychical research, in the discussion of the mind-body problem.
Finally, the authors remind us (and particularly those who are not familiar with the history of psychical research) that James’s interest and writings about psychic phenomena are part of a wider corpus of writings which include such eminent figures as William Crookes, Cesare Lombroso, Frederic W.H. Myers, and others, deserving more study. In their view, a “multi-perspective analysis of this past literature conducted by historians, psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and others interested in the sciences of the mind will increase our understanding, not only of psychical research in the nineteenth century, but also of human experience.”
I would add that it is important to see James, a leader in American psychology, as a supporter lending his prestige and ideas to the movement of psychical research. While he did not engage in psychical research to the extent that Myers and others did, similar to Charles Richet in France and Cesare Lombroso in Italy, James was in a position to lend his high academic and social position to the defense of psychical research as a worthwhile enterprise. This is clear, for example, in his writings in the Psychological Review, an important forum of American psychology. These writings were not limited to a simple defense of the study of psychic phenomena, they illustrate James’ role as sort of an intellectual “patron” of psychical research, actions which did much at the time to validate the wide approach to human experience in psychology. This is consistent with the points the authors make regarding the expansion of psychology via radical empiricism, and the importance of psychical research in the study of the history of sciences of the mind.
About James and Psychical Research
Alvarado, C.S. (2009). Psychical research in the Psychological Review, 1894-1900: A bibliographical note. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 23, 211-220.
Alvarado, C.S., & Krippner, S. (2010). Nineteenth century pioneers in the study of dissociation: William James and psychical research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 17, 19-43.
Blum, D. (2006). Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. New York: Penguin Press.
Gitre, E.J.K. (2006). William James on divine intimacy: Psychical research, cosmological realism and a circumscribed re-reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience. History of the Human Sciences, 19, 1-21.
Knapp, K.D. (2001). WJ, spiritualism, and unconsciousness ‘beyond the margin.’ Streams of William James, 3(2), 1-5.
Knapp, K.D. (2003). To the Summerland: William James, Psychical Research and Modernity Ph.D. dissertation, Boston College.
Collections of James’ Psychical Research Writings
James, W. (1986). Essays in Psychical Research (The Works of William James, Vol. 16, F.H. Burkhardt, ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Murphy, G., & Ballow, R.O. (1960). William James on Psychical Research. New York: Viking Press.
Some Writings of James (with Emphasis on Psychical Research)
James, W. (1886). Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena. Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1, 102-106.James, W. (1887). Phantasms of the Living. Science, 9, 18-20.
James, W. (1889). Notes on automatic writing. Proceeedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1, 548-564.
James, W. (1890). The hidden self. Scribner’s Magazine, 7, 361-173.
James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology (2 vols.). New York: Henry Holt.
James, W. (1890). A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance (5) Part III. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 651-659.
James, W. (1892). What psychical research has accomplished. Forum, 13, 727-742.
James, W. (1896). Address of the President Before the Society for Psychical Research. Science, 3, 881-888.
James, W. (1896). Psychical research. Psychological Review, 3, 649-651.
James, W. (1898). Human Immortality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
James, W. (1901). Frederic Myers’s service to psychology. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 17, 13-23.
James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green.
James, W. (1909). The confidences of a “psychical researcher.” American Magazine, 68, 580-589.
James, W. (1909). Report on Mrs. Piper’s Hodgson-control. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 23, 2-121.
Other Aspects of James
James, H. (Ed.) (1920). The Letters of William James (2 vols). Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Lamberth, D.C. (1999). William James and the Metaphysics of Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Proudfoot, W. (Ed.). (2004). William James and a Science of Religions: Re-experiencing The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Columbia University Press.
Richardson, R.D. (2006). William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Taylor, E. (1984). William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Taylor, E. (1996). William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.