Wil­liam James

Psy­chi­cal Re­search and the Chal­lenge of Moder­nity

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Tom Ruffles

Kris­ter Dy­lan Knapp

The Univer­sity of North Carolina Press 2017

Hb, 385pp, £31.36, ISBN 9781469631240 Wil­liam James (1842–1910) was a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in the his­tory of psy­chol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy, and Kris­ter Dy­lan Knapp’s de­tailed anal­y­sis demon­strates the ex­tent to which James’s long­stand­ing in­ter­est in psy­chi­cal re­search in­ter­pen­e­trated his other aca­demic in­ter­ests.

Through­out his ca­reer James wrote about psy­chi­cal re­search, yet while his bi­og­ra­phers have gen­er­ally marginalised this part of his cor­pus as be­ing of lit­tle im­por­tance, an em­bar­rass­ing ec­cen­tric­ity, Knapp shows con­vinc­ingly that it was cen­tral to his in­tel­lec­tual life; more, it is not pos­si­ble fully to un­der­stand his work as a whole without an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his psy­chi­cal re­search writ­ings.

Knapp has di­vided his book into three main sec­tions. ‘Be­com­ing a psy­chi­cal re­searcher’ out­lines the growth of James’s in­volve­ment which may have had its ori­gin in the din­ner ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions of his Swe­den­bor­gian fa­ther and his fa­ther’s friends about Spir­i­tu­al­ism. ‘Prac­tis­ing psy­chi­cal re­search’, ex­am­ines the scope of his ac­tiv­i­ties in the field; and ‘The­o­ris­ing psy­chi­cal re­search’, which opens out the dis­cus­sion to ex­plore the im­pact of his ex­pe­ri­ences, par­tic­u­larly on his the­o­ries of con­scious­ness and sur­vival af­ter death. The last he con­cep­tu­alised in terms of a gen­eral meld­ing of con­scious­nesses to form a ‘cos­mic reser­voir of mem­o­ries’, which raises the is­sue to what ex­tent one can talk of the con­tin­u­a­tion of the in­di­vid­ual post-mortem per­son­al­ity.

James stud­ied the en­tire range of top­ics sub­sumed un­der psy­chi­cal re­search, but his pri­mary fo­cus was medi­umship, notably sittings with the men­tal medium Leonora Piper (his ‘white crow’). He also wit­nessed phys­i­cal medi­umship but dis­missed it as pro­duc­ing “phe­nom­ena of the dark-sit­ting and rat-hole type”, and was crit­i­cal of phys­i­cal medium Eusapia Pal­ladino while char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ac­knowl­edg­ing that some of her phe­nom­ena might be gen­uine. In all these en­deav­ours James fought to bring the sub­ject mat­ter of psy­chi­cal re­search un­der the scope of the sci­en­tific method, de­fend­ing it against those crit­ics who de­nied it came within sci­ence’s purview.

Key to his ap­proach was an at­tempt to un­der­mine en­trenched po­si­tions, for ex­am­ple be­tween psy­chi­cal re­searchers and ‘ten­der-minded’ Spir­i­tu­al­ists (who rea­soned by ‘prin­ci­ples’), and be­tween psy­chi­cal re­searchers and ‘tough-minded’ sci­en­tists (who rea­soned by ‘facts’), tran­scend­ing such du­alisms to fa­cil­i­tate a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, but not a syn­the­sis – in­stead seek­ing a third way, or ter­tium quid. Ap­ply­ing this prin­ci­ple, James aimed to steer a course be­tween those whom he con­sid­ered to pos­sess a ten­dency to credulity con­cern­ing the phe­nom­ena, and those who re­fused to ex­am­ine them at all.

The re­sult was an ‘in­tel­lec­tual dis­po­si­tion’ that was not afraid to over­ride sci­en­tific bound­aries. Thus séances and other per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences were as valid a source of data as was the lab­o­ra­tory, and to re­ject them a pri­ori was a ques­tion of faith, not sci­ence.

It was not just the sub­ject to which he de­voted his en­er­gies, but or­gan­i­sa­tions as well, and he re­mained a firm sup­porter of both the So­ci­ety for Psy­chi­cal Re­search in Bri­tain and its Amer­i­can coun­ter­part.

This was partly through a de­sire to sup­port their ef­forts, but also from loy­alty to in­di­vid­u­als (notably Edmund Gur­ney, Henry and Eleanor Sidg­wick, Fred­eric My­ers and Richard Hodg­son) with whom he fos­tered deep bonds, ties that were bro­ken only by death. He main­tained some of his most en­dur­ing pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships with SPR mem­bers, and My­ers’s ideas were par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial in the de­vel­op­ment of James’s thought, not least the no­tion of the sub­lim­i­nal self.

As well as be­ing a re­searcher, the­o­reti­cian, ad­min­is­tra­tor and fun­der, James was a pop­u­lariser, de­fend­ing psy­chi­cal re­search even when it threat­ened to un­der­mine his rep­u­ta­tion. Nor did he aban­don it when it failed to ful­fil its early prom­ise; rather he re­tained an ac­tive in­ter­est to the end of his life. He re­mained cau­tious but op­ti­mistic re­gard­ing its prospects, and his con­clu­sion to­wards the end of his ca­reer was that “we must ex­pect to mark progress not by quar­ter-cen­turies, but by half­cen­turies or whole cen­turies”.

It is im­pos­si­ble in a short re­view to do jus­tice to Knapp’s sym­pa­thetic dis­sec­tion of James’s thought.

While at times the book is not an easy read, Knapp has done an im­pres­sive job in pulling to­gether and mak­ing sense of James’s writ­ings on psy­chi­cal re­search, in­clud­ing his ex­ten­sive cor­re­spon­dence, point­ing out his strengths but not be­ing afraid to in­di­cate where he was wrong, on shaky ground, or con­tra­dict­ing him­self. The re­sult is es­sen­tial read­ing for any­one who wishes to have a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of James’s work in psy­chol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy, or to as­sess his sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to psy­chi­cal re­search.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.