Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Transpersonal William James

Academic journal article Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

The Transpersonal William James

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Transpersonal psychologists often speculate on who was their "first" pioneer, commonly with reference to Carl Jung. A look at the early development of modern psychology, however, reveals various figures who accepted a spiritual and collective dimension of the psyche, among them William James. Out of a tension between scientific and religious outlooks embodied in his own life and thought, James had embraced and articulated the principal elements of a transpersonal orientation by the early twentieth century, and had given them a metaphysical and empirical justification on which they still can stand today. We can see those elements in four aspects of his thought: first, in what he chose to study, especially in his interest in psychic and religious experience; second, in his definition of true science and his refutation of materialism; third, in his concept of consciousness; and fourth, in his defense of the validity of spiritual experience.

"100 Years of Transpersonal Psychology": the title and description of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology conference in September, 2006, represented a milestone in the official recognition of William James's place in the origins of modern transpersonal thought. As the conference's official announcement declared, James made the first recorded use of the term "transpersonal" in 1905. The conference's title took its measure of a century from that coinage, suggesting a major role for James in the founding of the field.

The occasion of James's use of the term was modest: an unpublished document, merely a printed course syllabus at Harvard University for an introductory course in philosophy (Vich, 1998). In truth, the meaning he attached to the term was far more restricted than our usage of it today. James was attempting to clarify a technical, philosophical point: exactly what might be meant by the term "objective." The object to which an idea refers, he wrote, might be "Transpersonal" (James hyphenated the term) if two people both perceive it-or, as he put it, "whenmy object is also your object" (Perry, 1935, II, p. 445; Vich, 1998, p. 109).1

James's invention of the word serves as a convenient symbol, but his significance for transpersonal psychology far transcends that coinage. The purpose of this essay is to clarify that significance, to explain with more precision James's place as a precursor of the transpersonal movement, and to elucidate the specific ideas that earn him that recognition.


As readers of this journal well know, contemporary transpersonal psychology is usually traced to Abraham Maslow's investigations of peak experiences and of self-actualized individuals in the 1960s; to investigations of non-ordinary states of consciousness by Stanislav Grof and others in the same period; to meetings of humanistic psychologists hosted by Anthony Sutich to discuss what they first called "transhumanistic" ideas, and their adoption of the term "transpersonal psychology" in 1967; or to the formation the following year of the Transpersonal Institute, later the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (Chinen, 1996, pp. 9-10; Grof, 2005, pp. 1,4). In the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, published in 1969, Sutich, as editor, spoke of "a new frontier of psychological inquiry" that was applying an "empirical approach" to "extraordinary subjective experience," thus providing an early definition of the field (Sutich, 1969, p. iv).

The pioneers who set out towards this new frontier knew that they had predecessors. Willis Harman, writing in that same introductory issue, spoke of this empirical study of subjective, especially "transcendental," experience as "a new Copernican revolution"; but the revolution, he acknowledged, had its precursors, earlier figures who had investigated what he called "supraconscious processes." Harman explicitly acknowledged three pioneering works, among them James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (Harman, 1969, pp. …

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