William James

   Posted by: David   in Uncategorized

William James


One of the great privileges of being a blogger in the paranormal field is that I have the opportunity to write about my heroes, those people who have most influenced me. William James is one of those people. My research into the life and career of William James is a work in progress so I will likely revisit the contributions of this great man at another time on this blog.

My interest in William James began when I took a winter semester course in comparative religious studies offered by the psychology department over thirty years ago while I was working on my undergraduate degree in psychology.

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James was required reading. I found the book difficult and challenging. It was difficult because it was written at an intellectual level that required me to stretch. It was challenging because William James demonstrated some commonalities in religious experience that, until that time, I believed were unique to my own religion and to my own experience. I recall an odd feeling when I saw displayed in a formal study experiences that I thought were deeply personal and that I had shared with no one. William James was not writing about me of course but those he was writing about described exactly what I had experienced and they came from every belief system.

The reality is people of every faith and no faith at all have encounters with an intelligent entity that many think of as divine. We all have moments of profound epiphany that change the course of our lives. These experiences are not confined to one religion or any religion at all. Mountain top experiences, moments of shear bliss or clarity, those times when we feel connected to everything and everyone, there experiences are common to humankind. Dogmatism is arrogance and pride. Claiming to have an exclusive on god is, in my view, ideological bigotry. In the Victorian age, William James was a remarkable voice for diversity of religious ideology.

The Varieties of Religious Experience was one of my first exposures to the Victorian intellect. If you start reading Victorian literature, and you must if you have an interest in paranormal studies, it will take some getting used to. I suggest that you read with a dictionary nearby. But the effort is worth it.

In the review section of this blog I’ve been reviewing books that use Victorian material as primary source material. There is no better way to learn about the world of the paranormal than to start at the beginning and read the first-hand accounts and the first-hand studies of the great men and women of science that investigated the paranormal activity of the Victorian age.

In some ways I think we, in our culture today, have lost the ability to think. William James is a thinker and he will challenge you to do the same.

William James was born on January 11, 1842 and he crossed to the other side on August 26, 1910. He was trained as a physician but devoted his life to psychology and later parapsychology. Those that know him have called him a leader, a philosopher, even the Father of American Psychology.

The father of William James was a Swedenborgian theologian. Swedenborg is often associated with Spiritualist thinking. I think this is important since William went on to become a pioneer in the field of paranormal investigation and his brother Henry is the author of The Turn of the Screw (1898), one of the most influential ghost stories of all time.

William’s godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

William was Harvard educated. He began the study of medicine at Harvard in 1864. He earned his M.D. degree in 1869. In 1882, he joined the Theosophical Society. In 1873, William became an instructor in physiology at Harvard. In 1889, he became the chair of the department of psychology at Harvard University.

While many of his colleagues were afraid of the professional repercussions of devoting time and energy to the investigation of the paranormal, William James put his reputation on the line. He traveled to places where activity was taking place, he conducted investigations, and he published his findings.

James attracted the lively discussion of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Charles Peirce. Soon their discussion group flourished and in 1872 became The Metaphysical Club. For more information on The Metaphysical Club please see The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History.

William James was the first president of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research and his research on the medium Leonora Piper provides what I believe is definitive proof of the reality of mediumship and more importantly of the continuity of life after death, that our personality does indeed survive the transition called death, and that we can in fact communicate with the living after crossing over.

To his colleagues and critics at the time of his study of Ms. Leonora Piper he said, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove that one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper.”

His colleagues were arguing that all mediums were frauds i.e. “black.” His proof that all mediums were not frauds was Leonora Piper. The details of his study of Leonora Piper are available in libraries and at the touch of your fingers via an internet search. Most of the material is, at this point, public domain.

Leonora was all the proof William James, chair of the department of psychology at Harvard ever needed. My own experience is all the proof I will ever need.

The following quotes represent but do not encompass the genius of William James.
Among other things, he said,

“Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves easier to ignore than to attend to… Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena, and when science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.”

“Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutions—since institutions are merely the social descendant of genius.”

“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

“Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at 12:12 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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