William James and the Psychics
January 30, 2018
Why did one of the great figures in the history of psychological science, a Harvard University professor who supervised the earliest United States doctoral degrees in psychology, spend many years attending séances and ultimately come to support the honesty and integrity of a famous Boston medium? Even in those early days of psychology, most of William James’s colleagues derided mediumship and felt psychics were not worthy of serious study, yet James did extensive research on psychics throughout his career in the hope of finding evidence of an afterlife. A number of biographers have suggested the explanation was personal: James and his wife Alice were drawn to psychics in 1885, following the death of their young son, Herman (Blum 2007; Simon 1999). A new book on James’s psychical research suggests that, whatever effect Herman’s death might have had, it was far less important than James’s longstanding interest in the possibility of the soul’s immortality. The seeds of James’s fascination were planted in his boyhood and nurtured by many cultural and philosophical forces throughout his life.
Philosopher and psychologist, William James (1842–1910), who taught at Harvard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was one of the most important early figures in the history of psychological science. Official credit for the founding of psychology goes to a German, Wilhelm Wundt, who opened the first psychological laboratory at the University of Liebzig in 1879. The first American laboratory was founded at Johns Hopkins University by G. Stanley Hall, who had briefly worked in Wundt’s laboratory in Liebzig. Hall also earned the first American PhD in psychology, studying under James at Harvard, started the American Journal of Psychology, and became the first president of the American Psychological Association.
James understood the importance of laboratory work, but because he was not personally drawn to it, he hired Hugo Münsterburg, a student of Wundt’s, to run the psychology laboratory at Harvard (Benjamin 2008). Nonetheless, James wrote an important early textbook, Principles of Psychology (James  1981) that drew many students to the field, and he helped educate several of the early leaders of psychological science, including Hall and Mary Whiton Calkins, who would go on to build a laboratory at Wellesley College and become the first woman president of the American Psychological Association.
Historian Krister Dylan Knapp’s 2017 book William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity provides a very detailed account of how William James became involved in psychical research, and among other things, Knapp demonstrates that James’s work in this area was far from a sidelight or a passing fancy. For obvious reasons, most historians of psychology make at most passing reference to James’s involvement with spiritualists and mediums, but Knapp’s thorough research reveals the many influences that led to a lifelong preoccupation.
James grew up in a privileged and stimulating environment. His father, Henry James Sr., was independently wealthy and had the freedom to satisfy his intellectual curiosities. He was particularly drawn to the “non-normal” and tended to drift from one cause or idea to another. At various points Henry Sr. was occupied with Swedenborgianism2, abolitionism, women’s suffrage, free love, and, of course, spiritualism. The family home on West Fourteenth Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York City was frequently filled with local intellectuals and literary figures, and rather than being sent away, the children were required to participate in adult conversations. As a result, James, his younger brother Henry Jr. (who would become the famous novelist), and the other children were exposed to a diverse set of ideas. Spiritualism was very popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and Knapp suggests that James would have had at least indirect exposure to the Fox sisters.
The Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York were mediums who became quite famous in the mid-nineteeth century. Margaret (Maggie) and Kate purported to communicate with a “Mr. Splitfoot,” who made rapping sounds in response to yes/no questions. Their older sister Leah acted as manager for the other two, and the trio traveled widely and became a major force in the growing popularity of mediumship and spiritualism. The success of spiritualism was also bolstered by its close association with the social reform movements of the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Todd Lincoln (who held séances in the White House) were all spiritualist, and perhaps because many of the mediums of that period were women, spiritualism was particularly bound to the movement for women’s rights.
New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, was a member of Henry James Sr.’s circle, and in 1850, Greeley and several of other members of their group decided to investigate the Fox sister phenomenon. They arranged a séance with the Fox sisters in New York City, following which the group came away with a split decision. Some observers were convinced of the sisters’ powers and others were skeptical. Greeley went on to have a series of additional readings with the Fox sisters and eventually fell somewhere between these poles of belief, perhaps leaning towards belief. At one point he wrote that, through the Fox sisters, he had a conversation with a man who reported on the whereabouts of Edgar Allan Poe in the afterlife.
Knapp suggests that the young William James—who would have been eight years old at the time of these séances—would probably have participated in discussions of the Fox sisters. Furthermore, Knapp points out that the Fox sisters were enormously popular in the summer of 1850, when they spent two months in the financial district of New York. William and Henry Jr. were very familiar with street life in the city and all the popular entertainments of the time. As a result, Knapp suggests it was quite possible the boys came into direct contact with the Fox sisters, as well.
James’s Early Academic Career
In the years just before he began teaching at Harvard, James published a review of a book on spiritualism and attended a séance. In this case, he quickly discovered the medium to be a fraud—obvious fraud was common—moving a piano, not by psychic power but with the aid of what he described as a “wonderfully strong and skillful knee” (Knapp 2017, 58). James’s writings about spiritualism at that time reflected a degree of skepticism, but he maintained the view that spiritualism was worthy of serious investigation.
In 1874 when James began to teach at Harvard, Boston was a hotbed of spiritualism. A weekly spiritualist newspaper, The Banner of Light, advertised the services of various mediums and published articles on spiritualist topics. Séances were a popular form of evening entertainment. James was committed to conducting psychical research, but in the early years of his tenure at Harvard, he was busy building a family. However, in 1882 while visiting his brother Henry Jr. in England, James was introduced to a group of people who were interested in psychical research. In the same year, the group founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which survives to this day. In 1884, James both joined the SPR and helped start the United States branch, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). Also in 1884, the SPR launched the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, which is still in publication today. All of this happened before the death of James’s son, Herman.
The Case of Leonora Piper
In James’s time, SPR and the ASPR included members who varied in their degree of skepticism and belief. Both societies published articles that exposed fraudulent mediums, but many members clearly believed that some kind of afterlife existed and that communication with the souls therein was possible. James found little value in his investigations of physical mediums—people who, like the Fox sisters, purported to communicate with the dead through rapping sounds, table tipping, or the movement of objects through the air. Most seemed to be engaged in deliberate trickery. But James was more hopeful about trance mediums who appeared to go into a different state of consciousness and communicate by voice—sometimes in foreign languages—or automatic writing.
The most famous and convincing of these psychics was Leonora Piper, whom William and Alice James visited shortly after the death of their son. Piper was a trance medium who reported the messages of a “Dr. Phinuit,” although she would later develop other characters as “controls,” including James’s psychical research colleague and friend Richard Hodgson after his death. James would go on to attend séances with Piper for thirteen years, and conclude that she offered the “dramatic possibility” that her mediumship was real.
As with many of the cases he examined, James’s evaluation of Piper seemed to rest on his assessment of her personality. She was a quiet housewife who did not advertise her mediumship services in The Banner of Light and did not seek fame, but she was willing to be investigated and to receive payments for her sittings. Trance mediumship allowed for stenographers to record what the medium said during the séance, making it possible to study the content of the séance after the event, but James’s approach to psychical research was not particularly scientific by today’s standards. For example, the Jameses attended so many sittings with Piper that she essentially became a friend of the family, and in the fall of 1889, the family hosted Mrs. Piper for a week at their summer home in New Hampshire. This kind loss of objectivity was not uncommon. Years earlier Horace Greeley, before coming to his credulous assessment of the Fox sisters, had invited them to stay at his home for a week while conducting séances, and Kate Fox accepted the invitation. James attempted to maintain an objective assessment of Piper, but in the end, seemed to become a believer, as suggested by the following passage:
My own conviction is not evidence, but it seems fitting to record it. I am persuaded of the medium’s honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance; and although at first disposed to think that the ‘hits’ she made were either lucky coincidences, or the result of knowledge on her part of who the sitter was and of his or her family affairs, I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained. (Cited in Knapp 2017, 189)
James’s Third Way
William James was a modern man, influenced by the rise of Darwinism, the greater use of statistics and quantification, and recent advances of empirical methods. His goal was not to support or defend any particular religion, but he held on to the possibility that there was a God and that there was some kind of afterlife of the soul. With respect to his psychical research, Knapp suggests he was neither a believer nor a skeptic/debunker. Instead, James supported a tertium quid—third way—approach that was somewhere between the two poles. In his famous essay Pragmatism (James  1995) identified two distinct temperaments in the philosophers of the day: the tender-minded and the tough-minded. He used the following adjectives to describe each:
Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’),
Empiricist (going by ‘facts’),
In James’s world, the spiritualist believers were tender-minded and the skeptical nonbelievers were tough-minded. The tough-minded temperament was also common among many of his psychological contemporaries, including G. Stanley Hall, James McKeen Cattell, and Hugo Münsterburg, all of whom thought psychical research was a waste of time.
James hoped to reconcile these two competing attitudes with his third way. He was an empiricist who valued facts when facts could be found, but in those cases that were “yet unexplained” he supported a kind of agnosticism, maintaining the possibility of belief. This view is also seen in his famous essay “The Will to Believe” (James 1897).
“The Will to Believe” was written in response to another famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief,” by British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford (Clifford 1886). Clifford was an extremely tough-minded skeptic who famously wrote: “It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence.” For reasons that by now should be obvious, James found this kind of stance overly restrictive and argued that it was justifiable to hold certain beliefs based on insufficient evidence, particularly if they might have value to the believer. In “The Will to Believe,” James supported a version of Pascal’s Wager. French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously offered a cost-benefit analysis, suggesting it is best to live a Christian life, despite very small odds that heaven is real, because the inconvenience of Christian life is small in relation to the possible reward of a life in the hereafter. James argued that an idea that is still a “living hypothesis,” one that has not been directly refuted by facts, can be maintained if believing has possible benefits. One such case would be when believing in God now is required to gain salvation later.
“The Will to Believe” is most often interpreted as a defense of religious belief, but Knapp’s book shows that James was undoubtedly also thinking about his psychical research. “The Will to Believe” was first presented as a lecture in 1896. James would go on to be involved in and write about psychical research almost until his death in 1910.
James Is Not the Only One
James was perhaps the first eminent psychological scientist to be a supporter of psychical research, but he is far from the last. I have previously written in this column about Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem, who has published a number of papers—now largely discredited—claiming to demonstrate psi phenomenon. Perhaps even more interesting is the case of Gary Schwartz, who has carried on in James’s tradition, attempting to prove valid communication with the dead. Schwartz codirected the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Yale University before moving to the University of Arizona, where most of his mediumship research was conducted. (Schwartz’s research has been critiqued a number of times in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer.)
In an interesting twist on the story of William James and the psychics, Schwartz (2010) published an article reporting two “proof of concept” experiments supporting the idea that William James may be continuing his psychical research—“from the other side.” I will leave it to interested readers to decide how lively they find that hypothesis to be.
- Benjamin, Ludy T. 2009 A history of psychology Original sources and contemporary research. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
- Blum, Deborah. 2007. Ghost hunters: William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death. Penguin.
- Clifford, William K. 1886. Lectures and Essays, ed. Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock London: Macmillan and Co.
- James, William. (1907) 1995. Pragmatism. New York: Dover.
- ———. (1890) 1981. Principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- ———. 1897. The Will to Believe and other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1–31.
- Knapp, Krister Dylan. 2017. William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity. UNC Press Books.
- Parry, Manon. 2006. “G. Stanley Hall: Psychologist and early gerontologist.” American journal of public health 96, no. 7: 1161–1161.
- Simon, Linda. 1999. Genuine reality: A life of William James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schwartz, Gary E. 2010. “William James and the Search for Scientific Evidence of Life After Death.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 17 no. 11–12: 121–152.
- 1 Photo by Notman Studios. (Credit: MS Am 1092 (1185), Houghton Library, Harvard University)
- 2 Based on the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic. He had a very well-developed theory of the afterlife that appealed to many nineteenth century spiritualists