Tag Archive: Wilkliam James; psychical research; history of psychical research; radical empiricism; Leonora E. Piper

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

This is the third part of a series of blogs designed to provide online reading materials about the old psychical research literature. I hope readers find it interesting, particularly in these days of social isolation due to the virus going around the world.

Here I would like to focus on reading material about the celebrated mental medium Leonora E. Piper (1857-1950). Although there are discussions about her mediumship in recent publications, an example being Michael Tymn’s Resurrecting Leonora Piper (Guildford: White Crow Books, 2013; see also my blog), here I focus on online freely available publications coming from the late nineteenth century to 1929.

Mrs. Piper in Different Stages of Her Life

Leonora Piper 2

Leonora Piper 4

Leonora E. Piper

Leonora Piper 3

Michel Sage’s Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research (New York: Scott-Thaw, 1904) is a good general introduction to Mrs. Piper. The author wrote in the first chapter: “Mrs Piper’s mediumship is one of the most perfect which has ever been discovered. In any case, it is the one which has been the most perseveringly, lengthily and carefully studied by highly competent men. Members of the Society for Psychical Research have studied the phenomena presented by Mrs Piper during fifteen consecutive years. They have taken all the precautions necessitated by the strangeness of the case, the circumstances, and the surrounding scepticism; they have faced and minutely weighed all hypotheses. In future the most orthodox psychologists will be unable to ignore these phenomena when constructing their systems; they will be compelled to examine them and find an explanation for them, which their preconceived ideas will sometimes render it difficult to do” (pp. 1-2).

An interesting biography by the medium’s daughter is Alta L. Piper’s The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929). Summaries of research with the medium can be found in: Henry Holt’s On the Cosmic Relations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919, Vol 1, Vol. 2); James H. Hyslop, Science and a Future Life (Boston: Herbert B. Turner, 1905); and Oliver J. Lodge’s The Survival of Man (New York: George H. Dorran, 1920, 2nd ed.).

Piper Life and Work of Mrs. Piper

The first research report with Mrs. Piper was William James’ “Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena” (Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1886, 1, 102–106). This was followed by James’ “A Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance (5). Part III (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 651–659), and “Report on Mrs. Piper’s Hodgson-Control” (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 23, 2–121). In his 1890 paper James stated “taking everything that I know of Mrs. P. into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definitive philosophy of her trances is yet to be found” (pp. 658–659).

William James

William James

Other important research reports included:

Hodgson, R. (1892). A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8, 1-167.

Hodgson, R. (1898). A further record of observations of certain phenomena of trance. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 13, 284-582.

Richard Hodgson

Richard Hodgson

Hyslop, J.H. (1901). A further record of observations of certain phenomena of trance. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 16, 1-649.

Leaf, W. (1890). A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance (3). Part II. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 558-646.

Lodge, O. (1890). A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance (2). Part I. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 443-557.

Oliver Lodge younger

Oliver J. Lodge

Tanner, A.E. (1910). Studies in Spiritism. New York: D. Appleton.

The last study, by Amy Tanner, was a skeptical one in which she argued that the communicators were purely psychologically created secondary personalities and that the rest was explained as being due “to a heightened suggestibility to involuntary betrayals of the sitter, with a modicum of guessing, fishing, and inference” (p. 310).

Another study, a massive review of the literature about Mrs. Piper authored by Eleanor M. Sidgwick, also took a psychological view of Piper’s mediumistic communicators (“A Contribution to the Study of the Psychology of Mrs. Piper’s Trance Phenomena.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1915, 28, 1–657). However, she believed the medium produced veridical communications. Sidgwick wrote: “I think it is probably a state of self-induced hypnosis in which her hypnotic self personates different characters either consciously and deliberately, or unconsciously and believing herself to be the person she represents, and sometimes probably in a state of consciousness intermediate between the two. In the trance state her normal powers transcend in some directions those of her ordinary waking self . . . . And further what makes her case of great importance she can obtain, imperfectly and for the most part fragmentarily, telepathic impressions” (p. 330).

Eleanor Sidgwick 2

Eleanor M. Sidgwick

Page scan of sequence 9

This is by no means a complete bibliography about Mrs. Piper. But I hope it will facilitate the study of this important and fascinating medium.

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).

William James

William James

In the article commented upon here James’ interest in psychical research is revisited:

Alexandre Sech Junior

Alexandre Sech Junior

“William James and Psychical Research: Towards a Radical Science of Mind” by Alexandre Sech Junior (ale-filo@hotmail.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

Psychical Research

James and Psychical Research

A Radical Science of Mind

Radicalizing Empiricism

Radicalizing Methodologies

Radicalizing Attitudes

Leonora E. Piper

Leonora E. Piper

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.

James Principles of Psychology

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.”

Frederic W.H. Myers

Frederic W.H. Myers

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.

Théodore Flournoy

Théodore Flournoy

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 . . .”

William James

William James

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.

James Human Immortality

Selected Bibliography

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 Review3, 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.