Investigations into the William James Collection at Harvard: An interview with Eugene Taylor

Investigations into the William James Collection at Harvard: An interview with Eugene Taylor1

Thibaud Trochu

Abstract: While browsing among the archival data that remain in the James Collection at Houghton Library and especially regarding the remains of “William James’s Philosophical Library”, it becomes clear that William James was a very active reader. Among the various fields which stirred his interests, possibly the most striking, as shown by the huge amount of documents, is the field covering such topics as abnormal psychology related to religious experiences, from the most serious monograph in German psychiatry to fly-by-night psychic publications. Can an exploration of these documents help scholars understand how James built up The Varieties of Religious Experience? Is it possible to consider these materials as scaffolding that remain behind the scene of his published writings? So, we interviewed a scholar who investigated for years into this material in order to collect some insights about James’s sources, about the philosopher’s work in the privacy of his own study.
    While browsing among the archival data that remain in the James Collection at Houghton Library and especially regarding the remains of “William James’s Philosophical Library”, as identified by the James bookplate affixed to some 1000 volumes that were accessed on the open shelves among the millions of volumes of the Widener Collection, it becomes clear that William James was a very active reader. Among the various fields which stirred his interests, possibly the most striking, as shown by the huge amount of documents, is the field covering such topics as abnormal psychology related to religious experiences, from the most serious monograph in German psychiatry to fly-by-night psychic publications. Can an exploration of these documents help scholars to understand, for instance, how James built up The Varieties of Religious Experience? Is it possible to consider these materials as scaffolding that remain behind the scene of his published writings? What was the scope of his readings and how did he use them? Eugene Taylor is a scholar who investigated independently for years into this material and published useful books to explore those aspects of James’s thought. In order to collect some insights about James’s sources, about the philosopher’s work in the privacy of his own study, but also on the Exceptional Mental States Lectures and their importance, we asked him a series of questions. The interview took place at William James Hall, which houses the department of psychology at Harvard University, on November 5, 2007, at the table in the seminar room on the 15th floor under the philosopher’s portrait. 1
– Given the manifold possible entries into William James’s works, how and when were you led to his writings?
    The story began back in 1969 when I was a psychology major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. It was a paradoxical situation because my professor, Jack Roy Strange, taught the history course at the graduate level and I was really interested in Carl Jung at that time. Jung was my main project for the semester. And there was a little woman across the table who worked on William James. I was fascinated when she gave her presentation. At one point she quoted from a letter that James had written to his wife after he had just bought their summer home, in Chocorua, New Hampshire, and he said “and it has fourteen doors and they all open outwards.” I thought: “That’s my man!” 2
    In 1977, I had a contract with Plenum to do a chapter in a book called The Stream of Consciousness: Scientific Investigations into the Flow of Human Experience, edited by Kenneth Pope and Jerome Singer at Yale. My teacher, Jack Roy Strange, was also Kenneth Pope’s teacher at Southern Methodist University and Ken asked Jack to do the historical chapter in the book, so Jack chose the title “A search for the historical source of the stream of consciousness.” The chapter that I did was on “Asian interpretations: Transcending the stream of consciousness.” I had the only illustration in the book: that was a mandala in which psychologists could look at, meditate, and see the stream of their own consciousness.
     At the time I went to Harvard for my admissions interview in 1977, I also registered to read in the James papers at Houghton Library. I had a Master’s degree in psychology from Southern Methodist University and a book contract for a chapter, so they permitted me to register as a visiting scholar. While I was in psychology I also spent eight years studying comparative religions with the late Frederic Streng. He had been a student of Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago. Streng introduced me to the techniques of historical scholarship in comparative religions in the University of Chicago tradition, and I applied them to archival investigation in the history of American psychology and psychiatry when I got to Harvard. That work had to do with the hermeneutic analysis of the documents, which was the essence of the method I employed to study James’s Papers. 4
– Could you retrace for us your investigation into the James’s Papers at Harvard? How did you “reconstruct” and publish the 1896 Lowell lectures on “Exceptional Mental States?”2
    Once I had registered to read in the James Papers, I started going through the indices. One was brand new and bound. The other was old and thin and tattered. Then I found two important clues. One, in the brand new one, I found reference to the fact that James had giving a course of Lowell Lectures in 1896 on Exceptional Mental States. I called these items up and found they were notes for a series of public lectures3. So that was the first clue. There were some one hundred twenty five pages in all. Then, before I left, I found a second clue, this time in the tattered index. It was a letter from James’s son, Henry James Jr., who was a Harvard overseer and lawyer and executor of the James Estate at that time, dated 1923, offering to Harvard William James’s personal library, which I estimate had over 2000 volumes in it4. As it turned out, the Department of Philosophy sent over Benjamin Rand, the Departmental librarian, and Ralph Barton Perry, James’s designated biographer, who went to the James house and chose some four hundred and fifty books on subjects such as classical philosophy and a few others in their own areas of interest. These volumes were designated for the Treasure Room at Widener (that was before Houghton Library). But that eccentric Yiddish psychologist, Abraham Aaron Roback, who was friends with William James’s boys, talked them into telling Harvard that if the University wanted the four hundred and fifty they had to take an additional thousand that contained James’s annotations. The books were on radical subjects like demon possession, witchcraft, multiple personality, and religious experience, subjects deemed inappropriate if you publish in the sciences, such as cognitive-behaviourism or rationalist philosophy. Harvard agreed to the arrangement and the four hundred fifty went to the Treasure Room but the additional thousand were given a William James bookplate and assessed to the open shelves among the several million volumes of the Widener collection, according to subject matter.5 5
    Then I had to leave because I was just there for three or four days for my admission’s interview. It turned out that within two weeks I was given a notice that I was accepted. Then I came back in the fall and the first thing I did was go back over to the James Papers in Houghton Library. Through a series of machinations, I cannot exactly tell the details now, I found a note that the list of all the books that were given in 1923 was over in the Reading Room in Widener. So I went over there and looked at every single book in the Reading Room and find the list of these books that had belonged to James. That was the beginning because it turned out that the lecture notes that I had originally seen referred to page numbers and cryptic notes referring to books that were on that list. Through another series of machinations I managed to borrow a Professor’s library card, which allowed me to check books out for an unlimited period of time. I also landed a small grant, in which I employed work-study students at the Divinity School to look up the call numbers of the thousand books, examine them on the open shelves, and bring back to me anything with annotations, so I could check them out on this Professor’s card.
    As it turned out, there was an interesting archivist over at the Medical School who knew about William James and Morton Prince and James’s connections to the so-called Boston School of Psychotherapy, which flourished between 1880 and 1920. He and some of his colleagues had just put on a conference on the subject. I went over there and looked into the situation. He was Richard Wolfe, Joseph Garland Librarian in the Boston Medical Library and Archivist at the Harvard Medical School. I confessed to him that I was a student in the Divinity School and I had these two or three hundred books I had been able to check out of Widener from James’s personal library that contained his annotations and nowhere to put them. He took me down into the bowels of the medical archives and cleared all these shelves and said; “Here, put them up there.” The books remained there for two years. We studied the patterns of the annotations and two or three things became obvious. 7
    First, the books were on many different topics, but numerous books were cross-referenced to each other on topics related to abnormal psychology and religious experience.
    Second, James had given more than one series of Lowell lectures. The first series he gave in 1878 on “the Brain and Mind” became major chapters of The Principles of Psychology. The last series he gave was “Pragmatism,” in 1906, which became the seminal book of the pragmatist movement, Pragmatism (1907). But the one in 1896, hardly anyone knew about it. Perry had mentioned it in his Pulitzer Prize winning Thought and Character of William James (1935). But those who later also mentioned it, didn’t easily understand what it was all about because the lectures had never been published and the materials had to be reconstructed to find out what the ideas were that lay behind the notes. Also, one needed to track the references, which no one was willing to do, and Graduate students weren’t yet allowed to work in the papers. So, as a previously registered scholar, though I had later become a graduate student, I commenced their reconstruction anyway. 9
    Third, one of the things that happened right away was that I began to discover associated materials. There were newspapers accounts of the talks, for instance. Also, I found out about the Harvard University Library Charging Records. The Charging Records contain a reference to every book that every student and every faculty member ever checked out of the Harvard Library from its founding from the original gift of John Harvard to about 1894 or so, when the Library went to a more efficient method of recording books that had been checked out. It was easy when I began the task of looking up what James had checked out as a student, because there were fewer books and the entries simply gave the author, title, and date that the book was checked out, next to the borrower’s signature. But later on, after he became a professor and the decades rolled by, there are more and more entries and the thing started to get unwieldy. This was before the introduction of the Dewey Decimal System, so to manage the situation University-wide, the Harvard librarians tried different experimental classification systems. Up until that time we have all the books that Thoreau checked out, all the books that Emerson checked out, and so on. We have all the books that William James checked out, starting in the 1860s and 1870s, except that suddenly, in the middle of the 1880s, it all changed, when there appeared only cryptic numbers and letters representing each entry. From that day to this, no one knew what those cryptic entries meant. Another scholar, Tom Cadwallader, from Bloomington, Indiana, and I, began to work with two employees of the archives and we spent two years reconstructing the history of the library’s early classification systems. 10
     So when I began reconstructing the 1896 Lowell lecture notes, it turned out that there were many more volumes with annotations in them, keyed to the lecture notes. It appears that James had bought the books with Library money, kept most out for two or three years, heavily annotated some of them, and then sent them back, and no one had looked in the book until I pulled it off the shelves. So we had now three sources: one was the books that came from the gift of 1923, and then we had the books that James checked out at Harvard College as a means to track down the references in the unpublished lecture notes, and we had the newspaper accounts of the lectures as he had given them. 11
– How can we characterize the content of James’s philosophical library? Is it scattered? And what could you say about the marginalia, namely all the autographical markings and signs in James’s books?
    Aside from the 1450 volumes offered to Harvard in 1923, there are lists by Ralph Barton Perry of books that were afterwards sold. There are numerous individual volumes that made it into Houghton from individuals. There are possibly more than two thousand volumes still in the James family home in Dublin, New Hampshire, in books cases, stashed in window seats, and so on, not all belonging to William James. There were also hundreds left on the shelves in the philosopher’s house at 95 Irving Street that were given away, sold to dealers, and put out at the William James Yard Sale back around 1980 or so. So, yes, the library is now somewhat scattered. 12
   Regarding the marginalia, an interesting book by Abraham Roback was, in fact, titled William James and his marginalia, because Roback was the one who saw the marginalia first when the library was still in the hands of the James family6. He knew the importance of these marginal markings, and he convinced the James boys to get Harvard to take the extra books, even though they were on heretical subjects. So he wrote that book which is very interesting, but it was a casual analysis. It wasn’t like the work I did. When you actually took the annotations and applied them somewhere that had references to these annotations, they take on new meaning. 13
    James’s marginalia is also readily identifiable. He would take a book and read it and he would put a very artistic pencil line down the side of a passage he thought interesting. It was a very distinctive line; you can tell just by the pressure and the nature of it. He would never write in the text. He put maybe little checkmarks in the margins and things like that. But then in the back, he created his own index on the last blank page of the book which contained important pages from the book or other books in his library, or others’ books that he had read. So, for instance, when you go to the notes for the Exceptional Mental States Lectures, you will find the reference to “Lowell Ontake P. 96.” Percival Lowell, the astronomer, was known to William James. Lowell had written this book called Occult Japan, in which he was talking about the shamans who ascended Mount Ontake to perform trance ceremonies at the very top. There were two ways up: the way the laymen went and the back way, the way the Ryobu Shinto priests went. So, this was an account of the ascent of Mount Ontake up the priests’ route and the trance rituals that occurred at the top. This was what James referred to in the notes for the Exceptional Mental States Lectures. When I found the book with his annotations in it, and turned to that page, it said in the margin “read this,” which I presume meant, read this example to the audience. 14
     So things like that occurred with each other. He had an idiosyncratic way of recording interesting ideas, and cross-referencing them. He had a very definite system that he used. So it was quite possible in just a glance of 30 seconds to a minute to go through any book and see if the tell-tale pencil lines, the check marks, the index on the last page, and possibly any signatures or dates were there to identify the volume as having been read by James. I went into all the books I could, looking for those kinds of marks. In those that had them, I did start to apply the annotations to a reconstruction of the Lowell Lectures. Afterwards, we turned these books over to Houghton Library. 15
– The philosopher’s son, Henry James Jr, spoke somewhere about his father’s library as “the largest collection ever assembled of crank literature in New England at the turn of the twentieth century.” Could you help the international readers to understand this statement more precisely? What would the word “crank” have implied in James’s mind? What was his concern when he says that he is “too easily a prey for ‘cranks'”? Are they “lame ducks” (Santayana)? Are they fraudulent performers of psychic & religious phenomena?
    By the term ‘crank’ James’s son was referring not just to the slightly deranged, but also to the Spiritualists, Mental Healers, New Thought practitioners, Theosophists, Utopian groups, and the homeopathic-phreno-magnetists that populated what I would call the American psychotherapeutic counter-culture in the 19th century.7 There were similar developments in Europe and South America, but the US was definitely ground zero for such movements. The literature that these irregulars produced was mainly ephemeral—flyers, posters, off-prints, self-published books, underground newspapers, limited editions from a spiritualist press, fly-by-night magazines, and so on. It was material that was published which is now gone. Libraries usually do not catalogue such material. Usually there are not a lot of copies of one thing, and the only copy might be in the Library of Congress or it might not. James had his own personal collection of such literature. 16
    I found one interesting advertisement in a folder of miscellaneous material that had belonged to James that, on a single page, listed clairvoyants, astrologers, psychic healers, massage therapists, psychic readers, and a variety of different hawkers of elixirs. They all appeared to have come into town from different places and were staying at the same hotel, from which they offered their services, and this allowed the public to all come to the same location. You could heal a person from a distance, for instance, if you just brought the psychic a lock of the person’s hair. Some of these movements had roots going back to the tradition of occult Christianity in Europe. Others were imported to the US as they proliferated abroad—homeopathy, phrenology, and mesmerism would be examples. By the 1830s, practitioners stood out thereafter, such as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who healed Mary Baker Eddy, and the trance psychic and healer, Andrew Jackson Davis, allegedly the father of American spiritualism. The Fox sisters followed. And then there were a generation of charismatic women such as Mary Baker Eddy, Helena Blavatsky, and others who started small but soon grew to lead international movements. James’s interest in them was that he believed many were practicing sound methods of psychotherapy, the dynamics of which were just beginning to be understood by physicians and scientists. He had written about all this as early as 1868, when he reviewed Epps Sargent’s Planchette: The Despair of science and A.A. Liébault’s Sleep and Analogous States.8 His study of the psychics and mediums, such as Mrs Leonora Piper, convinced him that we were on the threshold of a new psychology. He associated himself with the psychical researchers and the psychopathologists, was a highly skilled hypnotist himself, and even took in a few patients into his home for treatment. 17
    So James had a collection of this literature. It was “ephemeral” in the sense that it cannot be repeated; and through successive generations of librarians it has been thrown out, displaced. For instance, there was a packet of articles on theosophy on the open shelves. It contained some of the only material I have ever seen on the early history of the Theosophical Society in Boston, which started in 1888. Theosophy in America at the time was taken over by Katherine Tingley and William Q. Judge. The American branch broke away from Blavatsky and the International group centered in India. Then, in 1926 or so Tingley was killed in a traffic accident and Annie Besant went around and started collecting all of the break away lodges. So the modern history of Theosophy in the US starts in 1926. Nobody has any information about the period of the 1880s. James was a registered member of this earlier group. Sylvia Cranston, from Princeton, sent me the documentation on his membership, and his letters. That was one of the reasons he spoke so favourably about the Theosophists in The Varieties, in the chapter on ‘Healthy-Mindedness.’ 18
– In the first chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, entitled “Religion and Neurology”, James spoke about what he calls “the psychopathic temperament”, and he used, we have said, the word “crank”. Maybe you might explain more about that, since as a European reader I’m quite baffled about this old-fashioned English expression?
    In general, “crank” is a pejorative term originally used to refer to the 19th century New York publisher Horace Greeley, who was likened to the hand of a crank organ, forever grinding out the same old tune. Later it took on the meaning of ‘near-insanity’. So it is used by a rationalist who doesn’t believe in the afterlife, or by a biological psychiatrist who doesn’t believe in the unconscious, or a minister who rigidly preaches the doctrines of Christianity, all of whom think the mental healers’ claims are spurious and in the end false, so any one of these irregulars are labelled a “crank”. When James used it, he was basically referring to someone else’s judgement against people who are odd or irregular. Applied to mental life, it refers to a person whose ideas are outside the norm. The psychopathic temperament might be a term given by psychiatrists for a person who speaks from a state of theopathic absorption, for instance, claiming that God speaks through him, or that He is God. His followers, however, would not call him psychopathic. 19
– If “crank” is a pejorative term, why did James seem to switch its meaning? What was his philosophy toward those persons?
He was their great champion. He believed they were onto something, but high culture, normative science, and common everyday reason had not yet noticed. Meanwhile, he also believed that the job of the scientist was to remain neutral while investigating their claims. Fro instance, he defended the mental healers against a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature put up by the Physicians’ lobby that would have required anyone who saw patients to be licensed by taking a test devised by the physicians. James said there were bad apples in every bunch, even in the field of regular medicine, and anyway, “it was a poor policy to burn down the house just to cook a mutton chop” by trying to regulate the entire group. Rather, investigating their activities fairly could lead to new understanding of untried methods.9 Similarly with the insane. The best cure for the insane, he had once said, was to keep them in constant contact with healthy minds. In the Exceptional Mental States Lectures, his claim was that our fear of the insane is a blanket judgement. Rather, he said, no one flaw is fatal. This is also true of geniuses. Quoting Lombroso he reminded us that “Madness always ferments in the dough of which great men and women are made.” In The Varieties he reminded us that saints were not perfect. Actually, they almost always showed some morbid characteristics. In addition, psychologically, there was what he called “Myers’s Problem,” after the discoveries about the subliminal consciousness made by the British psychical researcher, F. W. H. Myers. That is, Myers conceived the interior life as a spectrum of states of consciousness from the psychopathic to the transcendent. He didn’t really clarify that in a way in which others did, such as Richard Maurice Bucke, who talked about the same thing in his book Cosmic Consciousness in 1901. Bucke had been a friend of James and also Bucke’s own example of an opening of the internal spiritual domain is depicted in James’s Varieties. But James himself alluded to such a spectrum in his article called “Frederick Myers’s Service to Psychology” which was written just after Myers’s death in 1901.10 In that article James also identified Myers’s Problem. This was the fact that the psychopathic and the transcendent always express themselves to waking consciousness through the self-same channels. For this reason they are so often confused for each other. So, we think that artists are insane or that someone’s description of religious ecstasy represents the babbling of the deranged. The real question is, how can waking consciousness comprehend states of consciousness that are beyond itself? James conjectured that there must be some chink that opens up into waking consciousness that allows the chaotic to come through and in the chaotic you get both the worst and the best. So, he would certainly be willing to leave the question open. 20
– How do you interpret the so-called “French school of experimental psychopathology” of that time? Its influence on James? For instance, how do you consider James’s review of Liébeault’s Sleep and analogous states in 1868? How can we explain James’s early knowledge of that work? And what was his relation toward early psychoanalysis and “depth psychology”?
    Well, the Germans were into experimental laboratory psychophysics and the English were into mental testing. The French were more clinically oriented, their medical schools being associated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with their major teaching hospitals, so the focus was “la clinique,” bedside teaching, not laboratory experimentation. For them, that came second. But there was an important lineage in such fields as experimental physiology from Bichat and Magendie to Claude Bernard. Théodule Ribot introduced English and German psychology, but the French take on these developments was the emergence of French psychopathology around such figures as Jean Martin Charcot, a neurologist at the Salpêtrière Hospital, and Hippolyte Bernheim at Nancy. 21
    In this regard, Auguste Liébeault was a French country doctor in the 1860s who kept a separate practice of patients whom he treated with hypnosis for free and he wrote a book about it. James was supposed to be in Germany attending the lectures of Helmholtz and Wundt, but was so dilapidated that he skipped this part of his education and fled to the baths at Bad Nauheim, where he convalesced and read. He had been exposed to hypnotism at an early age through a close family friend, the Swedenborgian and homeopathic physician, James John Garth Wilkinson. In addition, James was a product of Harvard Medical School professors who had been profoundly influenced by French clinical medicine.11 22
    I had a correspondence with Henri Ellenberger, the existentialist historiographer in psychiatry, about this point.12 He had written that very few people read Sleep and its analogous states, and reviewed it in Europe. I pointed out that James had reviewed it in 1868 in the American literature and he was very interested. The story is important because James is always portrayed as a student of Wundt and Helmholtz, when actually, he was an ardent Francophile. This was also right around that time of his near-suicidal episode, about 1867. Hypnotism was obviously a remedy he investigated in the treatment of his own condition. 23
    So, I have appropriated the phrase “French Experimental Psychology of the Subconscious” from Alfred Binet, who used it in the 1890s when he referred to Ribot, Janet, and others. While James reviewed Liébeault in 1868, it was not until the 1880s that Hyppolite Bernheim discovered Liébeault and brought him to Nancy. After that, an ideological war broke out between Bernheim and Charcot on the scientific explanation of hypnosis. Bernheim said it was normal suggestibility and Charcot said it was a state peculiar to psychopathology. James somewhat straddled both camps. He had read Liébeault, but also, in 1882, through Ribot he had been introduced to Charcot, Binet, and others. Pierre Janet came on the scene around 1885. I’ve seen some letters between James and Janet. There is one glued into the book called Mollie Fancher, The Brooklyn enigma which is in the archives of the Harvard Medical School. I recall there might be one or two other letters that I have heard about. There are more letters to Ribot, I now realize, that draw other connections to James. One is James’s article called “What is an emotion?” from 1884, which had a big impact on Ribot while writing his essays on personality and on the pathology of the emotions. 24
– In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James mentions a “discovery first made in 1886.” Could you explain what it was all about? Is this the discovery of the so-called “subliminal self”?
The religious studies scholar, Ann Taves, author of Fits, Trances, and Visions, and I had a running argument about that at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion. She is a scholar of American religious history who has taken the work of Sonu Shamdasani and myself seriously about James’s contribution to experimental psychopathology, which James scholars usually do not do. It is usually said that theories on dissociation, hypnosis, and dual personality had no impact because they were not Freudian. So Professor Taves got into that and in 2002, when the anniversary of The Varieties came up, there was a James symposium, and she raised that issue about the so-called 1886 discovery. We claimed that James was referring to F.W.H. Myers on the subliminal. She claimed that it was in fact Janet’s paper delivered by Jules Janet, his uncle, to Charcot’s “Society for Physiological Psychology”.13 I nevertheless originally thought that James clearly in his own mind believed that it was Myers, and not Janet or Freud. I think Carl Jung mentioned that same passage and had claimed that it was F.W.H Myers whom James was likely referring to. We certainly didn’t have access to the same original documents. However, on further reflection, James may also have been referring to his discovery of the Belmont medium, Mrs. Piper. He did in several places refer to her as an important discovery. This fact has not been considered enough in the discussion. 25
– So, there was not only one discovery or one experiment? Wasn’t there also this work of Edmund Gurney, from the SPR in England, and others, men in France, who were doing experiments on post-hypnotic suggestion at the same time?
    Yes, the psychical researchers in England were themselves experimenting with hypnosis, and also interested in the results of similar experiments carried on by the French psychopathologists. My understanding of it is that Janet had developed the case of Léonie for his Ph.D. dissertation. He studied—very unlike Janet in his career—the problem of suggestion at a distance. This referred to the phenomenon where the subject could be hypnotized while the hypnotizer was not immediately present, but at a distance. This was likely due to hypnotic rapport having been already established at a previous time between subject and experimenter, making the subject hypersuggestible, also exacerbated by her hysteric condition. But it seemed also to have a slightly occult reference. Janet was a disciple of Charcot, but such “facts” nevertheless went against Charcot’s theory of the physical basis of hypnotic trance. That was the reason why this paper had been given some importance at that time. 26
    As soon as Janet’s first paper on the subject was presented before Charcot’s group, a contingency of British psychical researchers and a separate group of physicians from Charcot’s circle met where Janet had worked with his patient in the asylum at Le Havre in France. Both groups jointly investigated Leonie. It was an historic meeting because it started the psychical researchers reproducing the experiments of the French Experimental Psychology of the Subconscious. Alfred Binet, with Charles Féré, was doing extensive researches in post-hypnotic suggestion, hypersuggestibility, and so on. In one experiment they placed a coin the size of a dime on the neck of an entranced subject and she was able to allegedly report the date on the coin. That was the kind of scientific studies which were done at that time, on phenomena that seems a little fantastic today. But that has to do with the ambiguous nature of hypnosis. There is something radically different from the rational waking state which most scientists cannot tolerate about the claims of hypnosis. That led James to maintain that psychology failed to have a language and an epistemology to deal with alternative states of consciousness. 27
– In the philosophical biography of William James he published in 1935, Ralph Barton Perry ends by stating the importance of the “noetic quality of abnormal mental states.”14 What do you think about this statement? Does this address, for instance, the “mescal episode” due to S. Weir Mitchell? Or might we relate it to James’s dreams as he describes them in his late article “A Suggestion about Mysticism”? Can these forms of altered consciousness be a form of knowledge?
    First of all, the “noetic quality of abnormal mental states” refers to non-ordinary states as a source of higher visionary knowledge than the facts garnered from the senses. Even alcohol intoxication, James had said in The Varieties, was capable of giving us a glimpse of the infinite; the only problem was, as a pickling agent, it was poisonous to the body, the only vehicle we have to experience those higher psychological states. To reiterate, again you have the problem of waking consciousness trying to understand states beyond itself. Now, James was not a proponent of the method of symbolism, as Freud and Jung were. They wanted to know the content of the patient’s dreams. This is what differentiates his contributions to a dynamic psychology of the subliminal from psychoanalysis or analytical psychology. James was rather an exponent of different states of consciousness, some dissolutive, as Myers had called them, some evolutive. This seems to imply higher or lower states, as when we might compare conditions where we witness the crippling disintegration of personality in the insane, as opposed to a highest state of unification leading to psychological health in the mystic, as in spiritual types. It also implies that there is a qualitative change in the rational waking state as it transforms into these other conditions. We know in psychiatry about crippling states of schizophrenia that are accompanied with extraordinary and penetrating perception of reality in deeper and more sensitive ways than the person in the normal state. It was also believed at the time that, while the psychical researchers had not produced any evidence for life after death, their investigations did suggest that normal human beings were capable of being trained to achieve supernormal abilities. Moreover, the line this development took was an appeal to the growth oriented dimension of personality. It is very clear in depth psychology that the purpose of symbolism is to be able to translate the data of non-rational states into some intelligible form that waking consciousness cannot otherwise deal with. The dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious takes place through symbolism: through symbolism in art, through symbolism in dreams, through symbolism in word association tests, or through symbolism in free association, after Freud. It is the language of psychotherapeutics. James reserved the method of symbolism for madmen,15 which is, I guess, why the depth psychologists used it. 28
    Concerning the “mescal episode”, there are a number of things to say. First, James received the peyote buttons from the Philadelphia neurologist, Silas Weir Mitchell, a close friend. Mitchell had gotten them from the US Government, who had ordered cavalry physicians at outposts in the Southwest to collect them from the Indian tribes who used them in religious ceremonies. Mitchell’s task was to find out more about what these substances were. Whatever chemical assay was performed, Mitchell and other physicians also ingested the peyote themselves and reported extraordinary states of consciousness. Today we call them entheogens within the psychedelic family of drugs—naturally occurring plant substances that induce visionary states of consciousness. They were originally classed as psychotomimetics back in the 1950s, because physicians believed they mimicked psychoses. James waited until he was up in the mountains on vacation to try the peyote, but swallowed only one cactus button. He became violently ill, throwing up and with horrific intestinal explosions. This is to be expected; as such symptoms are from the alkaloids in the plant. The Indians also believed that this flushing was a cleansing phase for the visions. But James had no visions, obvious enough to anyone who has taken them, because he did not take enough of the buttons. Nevertheless, there are some clues that suggest in the days following this that his perceptions became temporarily though only slightly more acute.16 29
    The example of the telescoping dream is also an interesting one related to the development of a science of consciousness that is capable of accommodating the experience of psychic phenomena and exploration of the transcendent.17 Most James scholars have no clue how to understand James’s interest in the paranormal, if they even acknowledge it at all. But for James, it was part of his larger project to understand consciousness. In one of the last essays he published before his death in 1910, entitled “A Suggestion about Mysticism,” James was reiterating the idea that consciousness was a field with a focus and a margin, where the margin expands and contracts. He used the term “fall of the threshold” to describe a receding of the waters, so to speak, as with a low tide, so that what is below the surface of consciousness becomes visible. One can only imagine extensive mud flats with old tires or an abandoned vehicle that had been submerged, tree branches, and other decomposing vegetation, in other words,—what is forgotten and disregarded or of another world. But no! James described various permutations of experience in subliminal states and assures us there is much there to discover, particularly about ourselves. As one example, he gives an account of his own, where he woke up from one dream into another that he had had the previous night. There was a confusion of dreams that frightened him and when he awoke from dreaming in a panic, tried to go back to sleep but only succeeded in falling back into the dream within a dream within a dream. In a fitful but sleepless condition he eventually dozed off for the last two hours of the night without incident. In the article he attempted to fathom what these experiences meant; was he experiencing a thrombosis? Were they dissociated states? Did one dream come from a dream in one part of the night that recurred later in a new dream, but they were so discontinuous? Could one of the dreams have come from his own ancestral past which he only dreamt at a certain time of the night? That says several things. First, he spoke about dreams, which is very important since he did not believe in the method of symbolism and did not use the method to interpret dreams. So, it is almost as if he were describing things physiologically, as physiological facts, simply reporting it and saying “What do you think of it?” In any event, these were topics to be further explored. But at the end he did say: “The ordinary psychologist disposes of the phenomenon under the conveniently ‘scientific’ head of ‘petit mal,’ if not ‘bosh’ or ‘rubbish.’ But we know so little of the noetic value of abnormal mental states of any kind that in my own opinion we had better keep an open mind and collect facts sympathetically for a long time to come. We shall not understand these alternations of consciousness either in this generation or the next.”18 30
– It is little known that WJ’s wife, Alice Howe (Gibbens) James, made a handwritten list of a dozen books, labelled “William James’s most valuable and highly prized books.”19 These books and pamphlets (most in German) are about topics such as trance, double consciousness, inebriety, hypnotism, animal magnetism, and psychic experiences,—from a physiological point of view. So, what can you say about this enigmatic list? About Alice Howe James ? Why might she have written such a list?
    Yes, this is a most curious list among the James Papers at Houghton Library. The correlation of this single sheet with what we now know about the Exceptional Mental States Lectures, and with what we just talked about, I think is very important. I imagine it was a little place in his library where he kept all this material together meaning to get to it. He probably got some of these articles from the authors directly. So, they meant a lot to him, partly because they were from colleague whom he knew with whom he communicated. They might seem strange for mainstream interpreters who are not trained to think in those terms and who see nothing but crank literature. But I think these were primary examples of what James intended to describe as what was beyond the margin. That is the way in which we might understand it. That is the way it comes to consciousness. And this is the language, picked up from these different writings that he was using to understand these peculiar mental states. So, if we examine the documents I think that becomes clear. 31
    To my mind, this list is the virtual philosopher’s stone—ignored as insignificant, yet it begins to define the core of his psychology, and how that psychology, in my mind, is connected to his philosophy, particularly his radical empiricism. It is usually imagined that James’s psychology was archaic as compared to the modern prejudices toward psychoanalysis, or unrelated to modern conceptions of cognitive science. Because this list may define the core of what William James’s psychology represents. This certainly explains the greater number of books on these subjects with annotations in the original gift of his library to Harvard in 1923. But he became extremely distracted in the 1890s with developments around pragmatism, the battle against other philosophers to argue him down, the eventual advent of pragmatism as the defining philosophy of the Progressive Era in American social thought, and the advent of pragmatism as the first uniquely American philosophy to have international consequences. He also sustained a major injury to his heart around that time and that must have slowed him down considerably. 32
    As for why the list is in Alice’s hand, we have examples of manuscripts for James’s books copied in the hand of James’s daughter Margaret, and accounts of James rowing around the lake while his wife, Alice, sat at the back of the boat and copied down whatever he said. She was familiar with his work and would have wanted to make sure after he died that Ralph Barton Perry, already designated as James’s biographer, or Henry James Jr, the son and lawyer who edited the first set of James’s letters, were aware of particularly these materials. 33
    In the end, James was looking for the larger connection in terms of what I would call a whole organism physiology. He was against the method of symbolism as it was developing in the field of psychotherapeutics, and yet we employ this method as a way to talk about the mind-body connection, which is at the heart of psychotherapeutics. At the same time, James’s vision was a long one and by no means Cartesian. The classical separation in the West of mind and body created a distorted medicine—so successful on the physical side, while, as Jung has said, our understanding of the mind still resembles a 14th century map of the world. James was looking for some other way to conceptualize the physical and the mental and, of course, that was at the heart of his radical empiricism: the relation between our experience and our understanding. He was never able to finish this task he had set for himself. His metaphysics remained incomplete, and he left us an unfinished arch. In any event, I would equate this list to what a mature philosophy of radical empiricism would look like back at that time, supported by what James believed would be a scientific psychology of consciousness. Such a psychology for James had to account for the vegetative nervous system, trance consciousness, and pure experience before the differentiation of subject and object, as in the description of ecstatic states of consciousness expressed across cultures. I would say that this is even more urgent today than in James’s time, and explains why his materials remain so current, even after 100 years. 34
Department of Philosophy
University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Acknowledgements: To the Houghton Library Staff for their kindness and skills. To Professor Nobuo Kazashi, witness, advisor and also photographer of the meeting.


All of James’s writings are referred to the complete edition The Works of William James, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977-1988.

1 I would like to thank the Houghton Library Staff for their kindness and skills, and Professor Nobuo Kazashi, witness, advisor and also photographer of the meeting

2 Taylor, E.I. (1982). William James on Exceptional Mental States. New York: Scribner’s Sons.

3 The notes are in The James Collection at Houghton Library, bMA Am 1092. 9 (4402-4405), and are transcribed in Manuscript Lectures, ‘Lectures on Abnormal Psychology”, p. 55-81.

4 Letter from Henry James Jr to A. C. Coolidge, Director of the University Library, dated November 19, 1923, inserted in the Official Shelf List, The James Papers, Houghton Library.

5 “List of Books and Pamphlets selected from the Library of William James and presented to Harvard College by his Family, 1923”, Houghton Library, bMS Am 1092.9 (4579).

6 Abraham Aaron Roback (1890-1965), William James, his Marginalia, Personality and Contribution, SCI-ART Publishers, Cambridge MA, 1942. See also A. A. Roback Papers, Houghton Library, MS Am 2518, and Taylor, E. I., “Abraham Aaron Roback”, American National Biography, Oxford University Press, American Council of Learned Societies, 2001.

7 Taylor, E. I (1999). Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America, Washington DC, Counterpoint.

8 Review of Planchette by Epes Sargent (1869), Essays in Psychical Research, p. 1 ; Review of Du Sommeil et des Etats Analogues, by A.A. Liébeault (1868), Essays, Comments and Reviews, p. 240.

9 On James’s view on the “Medical Registration Act” (1894), See various letters to editors published in Essays, Comments and Reviews, p. 142 – 150.

10 “Myers’s service to psychology” (1901), Essays in Psychical Research, p. 192.

11 Various reviews on French psychopathology are published in Essays Comments and Reviews. See also James’s article entitled ‘the Hidden Self’, Essays in Psychology, p. 247.

12 Ellenberger, H., The Discovery of the Unconscious, New York, Classic Books, 1970.

13 About the so-called “discovery”, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 190 ; Ann Taves, Fits, Trance, Visions, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1999. For a complete discussion, “The Fragmentation of Consciousness and the Varieties of Religious Experience”, in Proudfoot W. (dir.), Re-Experiencing the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James and the Science of Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004.

14 The “noetic quality of abnormal mental states” has been coined by James and developed in the chapter on Mysticism in The Varieties. Perry, R.B. (1935) The Thought and Character of William James. Boston: Little & Brown, vol. 2, p. 674-677

15 In a letter to Miss Calkins dated September 19, 1909, James says: “[…] I strongly suspect Freud, with his dream-theory, of being a regular halluciné. […]”. And on September 28, 1909, to Flournoy: “[…] I hope that Freud and his pupils will push their ideas to their utmost limits, so that we may learn what they are. They can’t fail to throw light on human nature; but I confess that he made on me the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas. I can make nothing with his dream theories, and obviously ‘symbolism’ is a most dangerous method […]”, Skrupskelis, I., Berkeley, E. (editors), The Correspondence of William James, vol. 12, p. 331, 335.

16 The “Mescal episode” is known by a letter from James to his brother Henry, dated June 8 1896, and another to Benjamin Paul Blood, dated June 28, 1896. In the Chapter X of the Varieties of Religious Experience, James quotes an experience of “chromatic hallucinations” induced by mescal from James Henry Leuba. In his Notebook containing outlines for the Gifford Lectures he notes, “all kind of odd experiences, mescal, ecstasies etc. give them indeterminate possibilities”. See also Silas Weir Mitchell, “Remarks on the Effects of the Mescal Buttons”, British Medical Journal, 1896.

17 “A suggestion about Mysticism”, Essays in Philosophy, p. 157.

18 Ibid., p. 165.

19 “Valuable and much prized books of William James”, in the hand of Alice Howe (Gibbens) James, Houghton Library, bMS Am 1092. 9 (4581).

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