William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

Synopsis

In this insightful new book on the remarkable William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, Krister Dylan Knapp provides the first deeply historical and acutely analytical account of James's psychical research. While showing that James always maintained a critical stance toward claims of paranormal phenomena like spiritualism, Knapp uses new sources to argue that psychical research held a strikingly central position in James's life. It was crucial to his familial and professional relationships, the fashioning of his unique intellectual disposition, and the shaping of his core doctrines, especially the will-to-believe, empiricism, fideism, and theories of the subliminal consciousness and immortality.

Knapp explains how and why James found in psychical research a way to rethink the well-trodden approaches to classic Euro-American religious thought, typified by the oppositional categories of natural vs. supernatural and normal vs. paranormal. He demonstrates how James eschewed these choices and instead developed a tertiary synthesis of them, an approach Knapp terms tertium quid, the third way. Situating James's psychical research in relation to the rise of experimental psychology and Protestantism's changing place in fin de siecle America, Knapp asserts that the third way illustrated a much broader trend in transatlantic thought as it struggled to navigate the uncertainties and religious adventurism of the modern age.

Excerpt

At approximately one o’clock on a cold, rainy, and blustery New England day, 6 March 1889, Mr. Robertson James ambled up the front stone steps to the grand oak door located at 5 Boylston Place on Beacon Hill near the Massachusetts State House. On the other side lay the offices of the American Society for Psychical Research, where his brother William James, the psychologist and philosopher, and Richard Hodgson, the organization’s secretary, awaited him. Robertson had come directly to inform them that the James brothers’ aunt—Mrs. Catherine Walsh—had just passed away. Although “Aunt Kate’s” death certificate stated that she had died at “about 12 o’clock midnight,” her nephew had just been notified that she had passed away about 2:00 or 2:30 A.M. earlier that morning. Robertson, however, had not arrived from the coroner’s office, the hospital, the police station, or her bedside. Nor had he spoken with any physicians, nurses, aids, or relatives. Rather, he had just returned from a séance with Mrs. Leonora Piper, the trance medium whose primary control “Dr. Phinuit,” purporting to be in contact with Aunt Kate’s spirit in the “other world,” had announced the news. According to a statement signed by all three men, “Mrs.efore any despatch has been received informing [us] of the death.” Mrs. Alice Gibbens James, William’s wife and a Spiritualist enthusiast, also had participated in the séance. When she inquired about Aunt Kate, Mrs. Piper replied that “she is poorly” and suddenly threw her head back and blurted out, “Aunt Kate has come.” Mrs. Piper informed Mrs. James that when she returned home that evening she would find a “letter or telegram … saying she was gone.” When the Jameses did return home, William wrote, “I found a telegram as . . .

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