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Remembering William James

Posted on 10 August 2010, 16:50

No, the roguish-looking person pictured below is not Billy the Kid, Jesse James, or some other legend of the American West. True, since his first name was William, he may have been called Billy as a kid, and his last name was James. But he was no outlaw.

william james

Yes, it is Professor William James, the renowned American philosopher, psychologist, and psychical researcher. The picture was taken during his Amazon expedition in 1865, when he was 23.

Since August 26 will mark the 100th anniversary of James’ transition from the material world, I thought it a good time to remember him.

Reading about James and reading his works is a lot like reading about Wyatt Earp, the legendary US Marshal of the American West. One is never quite sure if Earp is an outlaw wearing a lawman’s badge or a real lawman who sometimes strayed outside the law. With James, one is never sure if he is scientist with a religious bent or a religionist posing as a scientist.

‘Tactically, it is far better to believe much too little than a little too much,’ James explained his fence-sitting position, adding ‘better a little belief tied fast, better a small investment salted down, than a mass of comparative insecurity.’

On another occasion, he stated: ‘I have myself been willfully taking the point of view of the so-called ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, and making an ad hominem plea.’

Born in New York City on January 11, 1842, James, the son of prosperous parents and ancestors, was educated by tutors and at private schools in New York, Geneva, Paris, and Boulogne-sur-Mur. In 1861, he entered Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard and three years later entered the Harvard School of Medicine. However, he took time out from medical school to travel with a zoological expedition in the Amazon and to study physiology and philosophy at Berlin University. He received his MD degree in 1869, but never practiced medicine.

During his final years at Harvard and immediately thereafter, James is said to have suffered from fits of depression, what he called ‘soul sickness,’ and even considered suicide. Apparently, the ‘death of God’ and the increasingly materialistic world view of the times brought on by the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment and then Darwinism, seriously impacted him. However, he overcame his depression to some extent in 1872 when he accepted a position to teach physiology and anatomy at Harvard.

Soon thereafter, James integrated his physiology course with psychology and in 1876 founded the first laboratory for experimental psychology in the United States. Along with Wilhelm Wundt, John Dewey, and Sigmund Freud, James is considered one of the pioneers of modern psychology. He gradually moved from psychology to philosophy as he felt that psychology was too limited.

leonora piper

At the urging of Professor William Barrett, a British physicist who was instrumental in founding the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England during 1882, James organized the American branch of the SPR in 1885 after repeated observations of Leonora Piper (pictured above), a Boston medium, during which he received much evidential information.

James referred to Mrs Piper as his ‘white crow,’ the one who upset the ‘law’ that all crows are black – the one who proved that all mediums are not charlatans. ‘I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the waking use of her eyes and ears and wits,’ he wrote in his report for the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). ‘What the source of this knowledge may be I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape.’

Because of his academic duties and other interests, James was unable to devote much time to investigating Mrs Piper and other mediums. Thus, Dr Richard Hodgson, a hard-core skeptic, was imported from England in 1887 to serve as executive secretary of the ASPR, and his first task was a thorough investigation of Mrs Piper. In spite of his intentions to debunk Mrs Piper, Hodgson soon came to believe in her gift.

Initially, however, both Hodgson and James rejected the spirit hypothesis. They reasoned that Dr Phinuit, Piper’s spirit control, was a secondary personality buried in her subconscious and that this secondary personality somehow had the ability to read minds. When information came through that was unknown to the sitter, the theory was expanded from telepathy to teloteropathy. This theory held that it is possible to pick up thoughts from a person anywhere in the world. James also speculated that there is some kind of cosmic reservoir where every thought or utterance ever made is recorded and that the medium had the ability to draw information from that reservoir.

The emergence of George Pellew (Pelham in the research records) in 1892 won Hodgson over to the spirit hypothesis. Pellew had been a member of the ASPR and an acquaintance of Hodgson’s before dying in an accident at age 30. Soon after his death, he began communicating with Hodgson through Mrs Piper without the assistance of Dr Phinuit, offering much in the way of evidential information. As the ‘personality’ of Pellew came through clearly, Hodgson reasoned ruled out the secondary personality and telepathic theories.

While others members of the SPR and ASPR were gradually won over to the spirit hypothesis. James remained on the fence, sometimes, however, leaning toward an acceptance of the spirit hypothesis. ‘One who takes part in a good sitting has usually a far livelier sense, both of the reality and of the importance of the communication, than one who merely reads the records,’ he reported. ‘I am able, while still holding to all the lower principles of interpretation, to imagine the process as more complex, and to share the feelings with which Hodgson came at last to regard it after his many years of familiarity, the feeling which Professor Hyslop shares, and which most of those who have good sittings are promptly inspired with [i.e., the spirit hypothesis].’

In spite of his fence-sitting relative to the results of psychical research, James waged war against the materialistic mindset that had gripped the educated world after the acceptance of Darwinism, which was first announced in 1859. He rebuked the strictly scientific point of view relative to God and immortality. ‘I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor which WK Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.’

He rejected the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, which had become very popular with the ‘intellectuals’ of the era. In effect, Spencer said we should be satisfied to realize that such things as God and Immortality are unknowable. James called it ‘agnostic substantialism’ and said it was philosophy designed to give Philistines a certain security.

He also rejected the philosophy of the ‘moralist,’ today’s humanist. ‘The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well – morality suffices,’ he explained. ‘But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind.’

To the simplistic advice of the moralist that one should ‘live in the moment’ and not concern himself with what comes after death, James responded:

‘The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.’

James believed that a true philosophy must eliminate uncertainty from the future and found it difficult to understand why most philosophers of his day ignored this aspect, the result being a ‘haunting sense of futurity.’ He cautioned against becoming anti-religious because of the mistakes of organized religion. ‘It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.’

In summarizing his belief system, James said: ‘The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous as certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure of this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true.’

alice james

On March 6, 1889, Alice James (seen above), the wife of Professor William James, and Robertson James, William’s brother, sat with Leonora Piper, the Boston medium who was being studied by Dr Richard Hodgson of the ASPR. They were informed by Phinuit, Piper’s spirit control, that ‘Aunt Kate’ (Kate Walsh) had died early that morning and that a letter or telegram saying she was gone would be received later that day.

It was known to the two sitters that Aunt Kate had been seriously ill, but neither was aware that she had died. After leaving Mrs Piper’s home, Robertson James stopped by the ASPR office to report the sitting to Hodgson and Professor James. ‘On reaching home an hour later I found a telegram as follows,’ William James recorded: ‘Aunt Kate passed away a few minutes after midnight. – ER Walsh.’

Alice James recorded her version: ‘It may be worth while to add that early at this sitting I inquired, ‘How is Aunt Kate?’ The reply was, ‘She is poorly.’ This reply disappointed me, from its baldness. Nothing more was said about Aunt Kate till towards the close of the sitting, when I again said, ‘Can you tell me nothing more about Aunt Kate?’ The medium suddenly threw back her head and said in a startled way, ‘Why Aunt Kate’s here. All around me I hear voices saying, ‘Aunt Kate has come.’’ Then followed the announcement that she had died very early that morning, and on being pressed to give the time, shortly after two was named.’

On November 7, 1889, Hodgson sat with Mrs Piper and received some fragmented and confusing messages from Aunt Kate, which he passed on to William James. James replied: ‘The ‘Kate Walsh’ freak is very interesting. The first mention of her by Phinuit was when she was living, three years or more ago, when she had written to my wife imploring her not to sit for development [as a medium]. Phinuit knew this in some incomprehensible way. A year later [in a sitting] with Margaret Gibbens [sister of Mrs James], I present, Phinuit alluded jocosely to this fear of hers again, and made some derisive remarks about her unhappy marriage, calling her an ‘old crank,’ etc. Her death was announced last spring, as you remember. In September, sitting with me and my wife, Mrs Piper was suddenly ‘controlled’ by her spirit, who spoke directly with much impressiveness of manner, and great similarity of temperament to herself. Platitudes. She said Henry Wyckoff had experienced a change, and that Albert was coming over soon; nothing definite about either. Queer business!’

In a later report, James wrote: ‘The aunt who purported to ‘take control’ directly was a much better personation [than Phinuit], having a good deal of the cheery strenuousness of speech of the original. She spoke, by the way, on this occasion, of the condition of health of two members of the family [Henry and Albert] in New York, of which we knew nothing at the time, and which was afterwards corroborated by letter. We have repeatedly heard from Mrs Piper in trance things of which we were not at the moment aware. If the supernormal element in the phenomenon be thought-transference it is certainly not that of the sitter’s conscious thought.’

James went on to report that when his mother-in-law returned from Europe, she could not locate her bank book. ‘Mrs Piper, on being shortly afterwards asked where this book was,’ James continued, ‘described the place so exactly that it was instantly found.’

At that same sitting, James was told by Mrs Piper [or by Phinuit] that the spirit of a boy named Robert F. was the companion of his deceased child, Hermann, who had died as an infant in 1885. The F.’s were cousins of his wife and were living in a distant city. On his return home, James told his wife of the reading and asked for particulars on the baby lost by her cousin, as he did not recall the name, sex, and age of the child being as reported by Phinuit. However, his wife corrected him and confirmed Phinuit’s version. ‘I then learned that Mrs Piper had been quite right in all those particulars, and that mine was the wrong impression.’

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.



Great article! In a sense, William James was a benevolent outlaw, philosophically,  when it came to psychology.

Dr. Sanislav Gergre O'Jack, Thu 9 Dec, 01:18

David C.

Thank you for your comment.  I read the Jane Roberts book when it was first published and remember being impressed with it. The title is “The Afterlife Journal of an American Philosopher.”  You’ve prompted me to go back and reread it after I catch up on a few other things.  Again, thank you.


Michael Tymn, Tue 14 Sep, 03:40

Thank you, Michael, for your most interesting article on William James. His book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was an early favourite of mine and still is many years later. Even more remarkable is the 1978 book by the medium Jane Roberts, The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher, subtitled The World View of William James. This is a series of communications from him and is consistent with your article, namely his ‘sitting on the fence’, melancholy, etc, while on earth. Now, though, he says, he is surrounded and supported by a wonderful ‘atmospheric presence’ which is ‘more like a delightful medium in which all living is bathed’. Reading his account of the Afterlife gives us something very much to look forward to!

David C., Mon 13 Sep, 23:34

Thx for this wonderful article… now on my wall:

“The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with.” – William James

Alex Tsakiris, Tue 31 Aug, 19:33

off topic.. I just found a way to see some of your old Gaia blog posts at the internet wayback machine:


I still think it would be great if you repost them here, though.
Thanks for your great work smile

Roger, Thu 19 Aug, 21:20

I like this….Thanks….Wilhelm Wundt….What did he do?

jane katra, Wed 11 Aug, 13:31

I think the article is good about William James, and I enjoyed reading about it.  You have put the other characters in, and it is interesting.  I just finished reading Holm’s bood on Houdini, and found it very interestin.

G. Duckett, Wed 11 Aug, 04:17

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Fallen Soldier Convinces His Famous Father of Life After Death – On September 14, 1915, Second Lieutenant Raymond Lodge, the youngest of six sons of Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished British physicist and pioneer in electricity and radio, as well as the former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was killed in WWI action in Flanders. Read here
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