William James (1842-1910). Who Was William James?. Harvard psychologist and philosopher. Developed the philosophical viewpoint called Pragmatism. Experimented with nitrous oxide to induce mystical experiences. Attended seances with Boston medium Leonora Piper. Biographical Outline.
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Who Was William James? Harvard psychologist and philosopher • Developed the philosophical viewpoint called Pragmatism • Experimented with nitrous oxide to induce mystical experiences • Attended seances with Boston medium Leonora Piper
Older brother of novelist Henry James • Entered Laurence Scientific School, Harvard (1861), and Studied medicine at Harvard (1864-69) and in Berlin, Germany (1867-68). • Received his MD from Harvard in 1869.
Taught medicine, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard University (1872-1907)
List of Courses Taught By James Comparative Anatomy & Physiology The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology Psychology Comparative Philosophy English Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume Psychology and Logic Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz General Introduction to Philosophy Cosmology Psychological Seminar: Questions in Mental Pathology Psychological Seminar: The Feelings Metaphysical Seminar: A Pluralistic Description of the World Metaphysics
1875: established the first American laboratory of experimental psychology • 1879: Began teaching philosophy; Professor of Philosophy (1885) James’s Home, 1889, Cambridge, MA
Periods of ill-health: 1869-72; 1873-74 • 1890: Published Principles of Psychology • 1892-93: Received the Ph.D and M.Litt from the University of Padua (in Italy). • 1896: Published “Will to Believe” essay • 1897: Published Will to Believe and Other Essays • 1902: Published Varieties of Religious Experience • Taught General Problems in Philosophy course at Stanford University (1906-1907). • 1907: Published Pragmatism
1901-1902: Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh • 1906-1907: lectures on pragmatism at the Lowell Institute and Columbia. • 1908-1909: Hilbert Lectures at University of Oxford
James’s Interlocutors John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Mark Twain, Carl Jung, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Pragmatism: Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good for definite assignable reasons. • The truth of a belief is measured by its usefulness. • Absolute certainty is not necessary for beliefs to be rationally justified. • Rational proof of any sort is not necessary for beliefs to be reasonable.
British Psychologist Edmund Gurney (1847-1888) Gurney claimed that he had a sudden, mystical insight into the nature of immortality. Gurney told William James about his experience, but he added one serious complaint. . . . The moment of insight melted away gradually as the nitrous oxide he had received at the dentist’s office wore off.
Effects of Nitrous Oxide (N20) Disorientation (both spatial and temporal) Pulsating auditory hallucinations Pulsating visual hallucinations Increased pain threshold Feelings of euphoria Out of body experiences
William James experimented with nitrous oxide in the early 1880s. • James wanted to have first-hand experience of mystical states of consciousness. • James composed and published a brief essay documenting his experiences: “On the Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide” (1882)
“There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”
William James: The Harvard Ghost Hunter
Society for Psychical Research Founded 1882 in London, England Sidgwick Group: Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, Lord Raleigh, and Arthur Balfour Objectives of the Society: Conduct a scientific investigation of anomalous or paranormal phenomena, e.g., telepathy and clairvoyance, apparitions, mediums, and levitations and other phenomena associated with seances.
James’s Interest in Psychical Research • 1885: co-founder of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). • 1885-1910: Pursued the study of paranormal phenomena. Published over 500 pages on the topic. • 1894-95: Served as the SPR’s President
James took a particular interest in mediums, people with the alleged ability to communicate with the dead. Together with Rev. Minot Savage, James visited prominent mediums in Boston.
Leonora Piper (1857-1950) The first medium to provide members of the British and American societies for psychical research with convincing evidence of her abilities.
Trance Mediumship The medium enters a trance-like state during which a discarnate spirit speaks using the vocal cords of the medium or uses her hands to write messages.
Mrs. Piper’s Trance Mediumship Like many other mediums, Mrs. Piper manifested two different types of personalities in her trance states. Communicator: The alleged discarnate spirit of a formerly living person who sends messages to the living through the medium. Control: A personality manifested during trance states that assists with contacting the spirit world.
Methods of Communication Mrs. Piper’s controls and communicators spoke through the medium by taking control of the medium’s vocal organs and/or producing written messages by controlling the medium’s arms and hands (co-called automatic writing). In some cases voice and automatic writing were both used, sometimes simultaneously, by one or more personalities.
James had 12 impressive initial sittings with Mrs. Piper in 1885 in which she revealed intimate details about James’s family and his own life. • He sent 25 different persons to Mrs. Piper as sitters, taking necessary precautions to ensure that they had never met Piper before. Sitters were also introduced on separate occasions and under pseudonyms. • Mrs. Piper consistently provided correct and highly detailed information about the deceased relatives of the sitters and demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the lives of the sitters. James published the results in 1886.
James wrote the following about his first personal sitting with Piper: “My impression after this first visit was that Mrs. Piper was either possessed of super-normal powers or knew the members of my wife’s family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did.”
James went on to conclude: “My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me to absolutely reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers” -Letter to Frederic Myers (1890)
Why Important? 1. The phenomenon of trance mediumship provides data that are at least suggestive of the survival of the personality beyond death. 2. Trance mediumship is of general psychological interest. Trance mediumship involves altered states of consciousness, not wholly unlike what is observed in cases of dissociative identity disorder.
3. James believed that the study of altered states of consciousness could help us understand religious experiences since many of the latter also involve altered states of consciousness. 4. James believed that through a study of altered states of consciousness we could better understand forms of anomalous cognition (ESP) not presently understood by scientific paradigms.
Many Different Kinds of Truth If there are different kinds of truths, perhaps we need different states of consciousness to come to know these truths. Openness to Possibilities These possibilities are particularly important to understanding the nature and implications of religious experience.