Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Much has been written about William James and psychical research in scholarly publications. Eugene Taylor has argued that Frederic W.H. Myers influenced James greatly: “Myers’s formulations were . . . central to the development of James’s psychology and philosophy in the 1890s, and they form the epistemological core of James’s scientific activities in abnormal psychology and psychical research” (E. Taylor, William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 21). In recent years various authors have discussed William James’ involvement with psychical research in scholarly publications, among them: Junior, A.S., Araujo, S. de., & Moreira-Almeida, A., “William James and Psychical Research: Towards a Radical Science of Mind” (History of Psychiatry, 2013, 24, 62–78). In this post I would like to summarize a recently published article of mine on the topic.
The paper, “Classic Text No. 107: ‘Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena,’ by William James (1886)” (History of Psychiatry, 2016, 27, 85-100; available from the author on request), is a reprint, with a commentary, of relevant parts of a paper James published about American medium Leonora E. Piper (W. James, “Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena.” Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1886, 1, 102–106). It appears in a section of the journal History of Psychiatry, published by Sage, devoted to present reprints of important writings of relevance to the history of psychiatry and psychology.
Here is the abstract:
“Mediumship was a topic of great interest to some nineteenth-century students of mental phenomena. Together with the phenomena of hypnosis and other manifestations, mediumship was seen by many as a dissociative phenomenon. The purpose of this Classic Text is to present an excerpt of an article about the topic that William James (1842–1910) published in 1886 in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research about American medium Leonora E. Piper (1857–1950). The article, an indication of late nineteenth-century interactions between dissociation studies and psychical research, was the first report of research with Mrs Piper, a widely investigated medium of great importance for the development of mediumship studies. In addition to studying the case as a dissociative experience, James explored the possibility that Piper’s mentation contained verifiable information suggestive of ‘supernormal’ knowledge. Consequently, James provides an example of a topic neglected in historical studies, the ideas of those who combined conventional dissociation studies with psychical research.”
Among other things, James article should be of interest as an “early attempt to study a medium systematically, an attempt that reflected both the then-current interests in the subconscious regions of the mind and the field of psychical research.”
I wrote in the introduction:
“The Classic Text is from the first formal report ever published about Mrs Piper . . . an important event both in psychical research and in dissociation studies, the latter being an interest of James . . . The year in which it was published, 1886, was an important one for studies of the subconscious mind and dissociation . . . Particularly important were developments related to hypnosis. The same year also saw the initial publication of the Revue de l’Hypnotisme Expérimental & Thérapeutique, as well as of the important hypnosis studies of Janet (1886a), and the work of many other individuals (e.g. Beaunis, 1886; Bernheim, 1886; Lombroso, 1886), including James (James and Carnochan, 1886), not to mention some of the ideas of Myers (1886) about the value of hypnosis in the exploration of the capabilities of the mind. There were also developments in the study of psychical research, as seen in various works about telepathy and the like, such as Gurney et al.’s (1886) now classic study [Phantasms of the Living] . . .”
“James’s (1886) report was a pioneering work for many reasons. First, it started the modern era of scientific mental mediumship studies focusing on both conventional trance phenomena and supernormal aspects, as well as a long line of studies and observations of Piper, as seen in later séance work . . . Second, it pioneered the use of a stenographer to record the statements of the medium, something done more frequently later . . . Third, James used hypnosis to study possible continuities in consciousness between hypnotic and mediumistic trance, something consistent with the explorations of others regarding trends of thought and memory in and out of hypnosis (Gurney, 1887; Janet, 1889). Fourth, James observed and recorded some features of Piper’s trance, which probably inspired later observations (e.g. Hodgson, 1892 . . .). Fifth, James emphasized the importance of work conducted with special participants, which was common in the era in such areas as hypnosis and hysteria . . .”