Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death. By Deborah Blum

Book Review

Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death. By Deborah Blum. New York: Penguin, 2006. Pp. 384. $25.95.
    Each person who writes a book on William James contributes some new nugget to the vast store of information and interpretation already accrued. But it is also true that if a rhinoceros had a God he would look like a rhinoceros. This is to say that each author looks into the James material and sees James in his or her own image and that is what each projects into what it is that they write. Gerald Myers looked into James and saw a critique a la Wittgenstein and Russell because he himself comes out of a tradition of analytic philosophy. Charlene Haddock Seigfried looks into James from a radical feminists’ point of view and hence interprets James’s cases of multiple personality accordingly. Similarly, Linda Simon’s biography emphasizes James’s relationships with some of the more prominent women in the Jamesean circle. Meanwhile, Richard Rorty looks into James and sees only Peirce and Dewey.
    Deborah Blum’s tidy little volume is no exception. Blum is a journalist interpreting science to the public. Her subject is spiritualism, defined by what the newspapers said and what was publicly reported, as compared to the attitudes of normative science toward the same phenomena. An incredulous public in the 19th century believed everything they read and millions were convinced that science had established communication with the dead. Meanwhile, most scientists believed that spiritualism was bunk, perpetuated by charlatans, and any attempt to take it seriously was misguided. Into this breach between complete credulity and outright claims of fraud stepped a band of courageous investigators around William James and the British and American Societies for Psychical Research, beginning in the early 1880s, who were determined to apply the methods of science to all claims paranormal.
     In James’s case, Blum makes it personal. One of James’s children, Herman, lived only four months, and, grief stricken, James turned to the séance as a means to ameliorate his pain and to assure himself and his family that their newest little one was safe on the other side. But rather than unquestioned acceptance, at the risk of one’s professional reputation, James felt that science, at least, was the appropriate means of investigation. Its proponents had a duty to apply its methods, which might provide at least a partial answer.
    What is it, then, that Blum’s book uniquely contributes to the body of James literature? Making nimble use of the college students in her classes, and after visits to the James Papers at Harvard and the archives of the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City, we get new information on specific examples of psychics, spiritualists, and mediums of the time, and also correlations with James’s correspondents on these subjects, encompassing family, friends and his professional colleagues, including what James had to say himself about his own on-going investigations. More than other works on James and the same subject, here and there we also get greater detail about the exchanges that went on between the American Society for Psychical Research and the Society for Psychical Research in England. 4
    A large body of specific archival sources has been left out, however, because the work is marketed as a trade book and not meant to be part of the scholarly peer reviewed literature. So we get what they all said to each other, but no documentation as to where and when they said it. There is also a tendency to take common stereotypes as absolutely true—spiritualists are frauds, scientists think they know the real truth, and grief drives some to seek communication with the other side. All very plausible, but scholarship on James that Ms. Blum did not take into account paints a quite different picture. The great unanswered question that Blum does not even broach is, beyond her quasi-psychoanalytic interpretation of the grieving father—why was James interested in these phenomena in the first place, and to what end did he pursue them? 5
    It is a question left unanswered by most authors who write on James. He was a great philosopher; He was a great psychologist, but they cannot fathom why James persisted in investigating psychic phenomena, other than his father (and mother) believed in it.
    In this, which would seem to be the purpose of her book, Blum completely missed the mark. First of all, other than his yearnings for the by-gone little Herman, James knew well the Swedenborgian doctrine of spirits from an early age, which Blum acknowledges, although she misspells Swedenborg’s name and misunderstands his metaphysics. She also misses the spiritual context that was much wider than mere occultism, a context that pointed toward a generic process of spiritual self-realization within each person, about which James was keenly aware from an early age. When he was thirteen, James witnessed trance mediums first hand at the home of Dr. James John Garth Wilkinson doing automatic writing. Later James would use automatic writing as an experimental tool in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory. When he was 25, James published a review of Sargent’s Planchette: The despair of science, and then went on to pioneer in the field of psychical research as a corrective to rampant scientism, becoming also a champion of the powerful phenomenological effects of belief. And he wasn’t that interested in life after death. He says as much in his Ingersoll Lectures on Immortality in 1899. These facts suggest that there is much more to the story than Blum tells.
    On this point, modern scholarship in the history of psychical research, which Ms Blum never looked at, has clearly established that the Society for Psychical Research in Britain foundered on the question of scientific evidence for the afterlife, while the American Society for Psychical Research stated more modest goals—that of at least establishing “consistent laws of mental action.” Modern scholarship in the history of the ASPR indicates that the experimental committees looking into hypnosis, mediumistic trances, spontaneous mental imagery, and dissociated states of consciousness made a major contribution to the development of the then new field of experimental psychopathology, at Harvard, Tufts, and Clark, and also had a major impact on the delivery of clinical services in the treatment of the ambulatory psychoneuroses in local hospitals and asylums. Examples of mediumship and multiple personality became a scientific paradigm for almost a quarter of a century before the Clark Conference in 1909.
    Internationally, figures such as William James, FWH Myers, Theodore Flournoy, Pierre Janet, even the young physician Carl Jung, and others, constituted a French-Swiss-English-and American psychotherapeutic axis that was at the center of developments in scientific psychotherapy in the English speaking world from about 1881 to 1917. This informal axis, before Freud, fielded a cross-cultural, comparative psychology of subconscious states. In this, James led in the development of the so-called Boston School of Psychopathology, facts consistently ignored even by contemporary James scholars who purport to interpret James in the context of the late 19th century. In other words, parapsychology is still around precisely because it provided one of the cornerstones for the emergence of modern ‘psychotherapeutics’ after 1900. But the skeptical scientists of which Blum writes had the same attitude toward psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as they did toward psychic phenomena, so the historical connections still remain wholly obscured. 9
    James himself extended the results of these investigations in several important ways. In his first presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1894 (he was president twice), he indicated that the work of the psychical researchers and the so-called French Experimental Psychology of the Subconscious provided the scientific evidence for the germ of what later became his doctrine of radical empiricism. He was also encouraged by this work to articulate a growth oriented dimension to personality—where, as any Asian scholar worth their salt and certainly most occultists already knew, regardless of the evidence for or against life after death, that human beings are capable of developing extraordinary abilities beyond the norm, and that the spontaneous appearance of such abilities is but a mere epiphenomenon in the process of self realization. From this line of thinking, in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James called for a cross-cultural comparative psychology of mystical states across different world religions. This he believed was psychology’s most important contribution to the development of a science of religions. 10
    As a popular science writer, we may forgive Ms Blum for these oversights, for she has at least propped open the door leading to a further discussion of such topics. 11
Eugene Taylor
Saybrook Graduate School
Harvard Medical School

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