Was William James a Wimp?

                                                     Michael E. Tymn

           Much has been written about the contributions of Professor William James of Harvard University to early psychical research and parapsychology.  It was James who took the lead in organizing the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in late 1884 and then “discovered” medium Leonora Piper, the primary research “project” for the ASPR, the following year.   Without a detailed examination of the research records relating to Mrs. Piper, one might easily jump to the conclusion that James did more than any other researcher to advance the survival hypothesis.  The truth is, however, that he probably did more than any other person of that era to impede it.

          In fact, James avoided discussing the survival hypothesis and remained on the fence relative to it his entire life. His attitude no doubt influenced many others who saw him as someone “in the know” and to be admired.  Although I was aware of James’s fence-sitting posture before doing research for a book about Mrs. Piper (Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, soon to be released by White Crow Publications), his antagonism, if it can be called that, really struck a nerve when I went over the records with a fine tooth comb. 

While other prominent researchers, such as Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, Oliver Lodge, and James Hyslop, moved from skepticism to belief in spirits and survival after studying Mrs. Piper, James remained a skeptic to the end, at least publicly.  There was no doubt in his mind that Mrs. Piper was not a charlatan of any kind. “…..I am persuaded by the medium’s honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance; and….I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained,” he wrote. (Holt, 400) 

 During the first six or seven years of the study of the Mrs. Piper, James appears to have been the leading proponent for the “secondary personality” and “telepathy” explanations.  That is, Phinuit, Mrs. Piper’s “control,” who claimed to be the spirit of an early 19th Century French doctor, was really just a dream personality of Mrs. Piper’s and this personality had the ability to read minds and then dialogue with the researchers and other sitters.  When information came through that was unknown to the sitter and therefore seemingly outside the scope of simple telepathy, the theory was expanded to something called teloteropathy, the ability to read the minds of people anywhere in the world, and also to tap into a “cosmic reservoir” or “universal mind,” which stored all memories and thoughts somewhere in the ethers. All of these theories were much later packaged and called superpsi.

While Myers and Lodge favored the spiritistic hypothesis over the secondary personality explanation after studying Mrs. Piper in 1889-90, Hodgson, who had become the chief researcher of Mrs. Piper, agreed with James. It was clearly the “intelligent” thing to do at a time when science had supposedly freed itself from the folly and superstitions of religion.  To express a belief in spirits would have invited the disdain of mainstream science and all “knowledgeable” people.  Myers and Lodge were initially guarded in stating their beliefs in a spirit world, but they were much more forthright than William James.  Hyslop, who had been teaching logic and ethics at Columbia, did not come onto the scene until 1899, but soon had his feet firmly planted in the spirit camp.

Attempts to verify that a “Dr. Phinuit” had actually existed as a person were unsuccessful and this was seen as supporting the secondary personality hypothesis.  However, in 1892, George Pellew, a 32-year-old member of the ASPR, died in an accident and soon thereafter began speaking through Mrs. Piper and sharing “control” duties with Dr. Phinuit.  As there was much evidence to suggest that it was actually Pellew communicating, Hodgson joined in the spirit camp.  

          James complained about the triviality of the messages coming through Mrs. Piper, giving no indication that he was aware of the volumes of profound material coming through other mediums and documented by Judge John Edmonds, Professor Robert Hare, Allan Kardec, and the Rev. William Stainton Moses during the previous 35 years.  Either he was unaware of the “higher truths” documented by those men, or he was indifferent to them.   If the latter, why complain, unless he was prepared to critique the earlier material?  As Hyslop and others pointed out, the trivial messages were the evidential ones, while the profound messages were in no way evidential, unless one considers the fact that  the material was often well beyond the medium’s intellect or experience.

          It has been suggested that, beginning around 1850, advanced spirits attempted to communicate the true nature of reality through mediums, but the world, for the most part, rejected it, since it was non-evidential.  Thus, those advanced spirits threw up their hands in despair and turned it over to lower level spirits to work on the more trivial and evidential messages.  Thus came Dr. Phinuit speaking through Mrs. Piper.

          In his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James  didn’t even mention Mrs. Piper or the extensive research carried out with her by the ASPR and the SPR in London. He alluded to it by mentioning a “discovery” in 1886 suggesting that there is a consciousness outside of the primary consciousness (James/Varieties, 191), but steered clear of the “M” (mediumship) and “S” (spirits) words.  According to Hyslop, James asked Hodgson to review the proofs of his 1902 book, which was actually a collection of lectures he had given, before they were printed.  Hodgson was somewhat perplexed at the fact that in the 400-plus pages of the book James never directly addressed the survival issue.  He apparently let James know of his disappointment in that respect.   Whether to appease Hodgson or to correct his oversight, James then added a postscript to the book.  In that section of the book, he wrote:


          “Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race means immortality, and nothing else.  God is the producer of immortality, and whoever has doubts of immortality is written down as an atheist without farther trial.  I have said nothing in my lectures about immortality or the belief therein, for me it seems a secondary point.  If our ideals are only cared for in ‘eternity,’ I do not see why we might not be willing to resign their care to other hands than ours. Yet I sympathize with the urgent impulse to be present ourselves, and in the conflict of impulses, both of them so vague yet both of them noble, I know not to decide.  It seems to me that it is eminently a case for facts to testify. Facts, I think, are yet lacking for “spirit return,” though I have the highest respect for the patient labors of Messrs. Myers, Hodgson, and Hyslop, and am somewhat impressed by their favorable conclusions.  I consequently leave the matter open, with this brief word to save the reader from possible perplexity as to why immortality got no mention in the body of this book.”  (James, 406)

           James went on to say that the only thing the religious experience can unequivocally testify to is “that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.” (James/Varieties, 406).

          And yet, while claiming that survival was a “secondary concern,” he wrote that “the luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with.  Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have a mortal significance.”  (James/Varieties, 124)    James was said to have considered suicide in his younger years as a result of his “soul sickness,” or belief that there was nothing beyond this world. 

          Early in the book, he stated that the “moralist” – apparently the name for the humanist at that time – can get by without religious beliefs until the body begins to decay or “when morbid fears invade the mind.”  (James/Varieties, 54)  The logical inference here is that he was referring to the moralist’s fear of extinction and the religionist’s hope for life after death. 

In concluding the book, before the postscript, James stated, “I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’  Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.” (James/Varieties, 401)

          Still, he continually beat around the bush on the survival issue, disguising it in other verbiage, sometimes alluding to it as the “eternal.” He said that a person should be content in his or her faith that there is a higher power, even if that higher power does not promise life after death.   “For practical life at any rate,” he concluded the postscript, “the chance of salvation is enough.” (James/Varieties, 408)  In effect, he was saying that the blind faith of religion is enough, whereas the goal of psychical research was to move from disbelief or blind faith to conviction.    

Strangely, in his reports on the Piper phenomena, James never explains why he thought Pellew was a secondary personality. At least I have not been able to find anything in my search of the SPR and ASPR records to that effect.  In 1909, the year before his death, James, who called Mrs. Piper his “white crow,” the one who proved that all crows are not black, stated that he was “baffled as to spirit return….I personally am as yet neither a convinced believer in parasitic demons, nor a spiritist, nor a scientist, but still remain a psychical researcher waiting for more facts before concluding.”  (Murphy, 322-23) 

          Writing in the November 1919 issue of the Journal of The American Society for Psychical Research, Hyslop, who had known James personally, and, in fact, came to know of Mrs. Piper from him, stated that “James seems to have confused means and ends in the method of determining ethical truth, and also to have wholly missed the basis of scientific truth which may be wider than ethical truth.”  That is, James’s pragmatism was sound for ethics, but was not the criterion of fact which is the object of science and philosophy.  “While his aim was apparently to establish science in the place of dogmatism and abstraction,” Hyslop went on, “he stated his position so that it meant something else and only aroused controversy instead of solving a problem.  The opposition is between empirical and a priori methods, not between theoretical and practical, or between ‘rational’ and ‘pragmatic’ methods.” (Hyslop, 559)

            Hyslop further stated that James leaned toward polytheism and seemed to prefer the doctrine of Spiritualism, but he could not openly avow such a doctrine. “When it came to that one doctrine and the application of his view to it, he halted with more respect than the logic of his pragmatism required,” Hyslop offered. (Hyslop, 561)

          Hyslop continued:

“The fact is that he never clearly understood the problem of psychic research.  This is clearly proved by his anomalous and paradoxical position in the Ingersoll lecture on the immortality of the Soul, delivered at Harvard University.  He had very little to do with the Society’s work, tho the public thought he had much to do with it, and after he had rejected the spiritual body doctrine of Swedenborg it was hard to make him see just what the tendencies of psychic research were.  He returned to what he ought to have regarded as wallowing in the mire of Hegelianism when he felt a leaning toward the cosmic reservoir theory.  But this aside, the main point is that he could never boldly decide between the respectable philosophy of pantheism or monism and the logical tendencies of his pluralism which should have taken him with less evidence into spiritism than would be required to convert the materialist.” (Hyslop. 561-563) 

           James wrote that he was willfully taking the point of view of the so-called ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, and making an ad hominem plea, stating that tactically, it is better to believe too little than too much.  Reading between the lines of his reports on Mrs. Piper, I suspect that James was more of a believer than he let on, but lacked the courage to admit it, probably feeling that such an admission would have significantly damaged his reputation in the academic and scientific communities. To put it another way, he simply wimped out, as so many others have. 

          Then again, he might have been so stuck in the muck and mire of scientific fundamentalism that he was unable to see the forest for the trees. 




Holt, Henry, On the Cosmic Relations, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1914

Hyslop, James H. The Doctrines of Professor James, Journal of the American Society for Psychical          Research,             November 1919

James, William, Essays in Pragmatism, Hafner Press, New York, 1948

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Collier Books, 1961

Lodge, Oliver, The Survival of Man, Moffat, Yard and Co., New York, 1909

Murphy, Gardner & Ballou, Robert, William James on Psychical Research, The Viking Press, New York, 1960

Murphy, Gardner, Challenge of Psychical Research, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1961