James, William (1842–1910)
Professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of
the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research
(ASPR). James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842,
and obtained his M.D. in 1870 from Harvard Medical School.
In 1872 he was appointed instructor in anatomy and physiology
at Harvard College. He went on to study psychology and hygiene
and in 1890 published his famous work The Principles of
Psychology. In 1897 James became professor of philosophy at
Harvard and lectured at universities in the United States and
Britain. He developed the doctrine of pragmatism, and one of
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. James, William
his most important philosophical books is The Varieties of Religious
Experience (1902), which has been an influential work in
the attempt to reconcile science and religion.
The first case that piqued James’s interest in psychic phenomena
is reported in the Proceedings of the American Society
for Psychical Research (vol. 1, part 2, pp. 221–31). It is the case
of a drowned girl whose body was seen by a Mrs. Titus of Lebanon,
New Hampshire, in a dream. The girl’s head was under
the timber trussing of a bridge at Enfield. Divers had searched
for the girl’s body in vain, but following Titus’s vision they
found it.
The discovery of Leonora Piper’s mediumship for the Society
for Psychical Research (SPR) was attributed to James. His
mother-in-law, led by curiosity, paid a visit to Piper in 1885.
She returned with a perplexing story. Seeking a simple explanation
for the supernatural nature of the facts related to him,
James took a rationalist view. Then a few days later, with his
wife, he went to get a direct personal impression. The Jameses
arrived unannounced, and they were careful not to make any
reference to a relative who had preceded them. James later
‘‘My impression after this first visit was that Mrs. P. was either
possessed of supernormal powers or knew the members of
my wife’s family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become
acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances
as to produce the startling impression which she
did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance
with her has led me to absolutely reject the latter explanation,
and to believe that she has supernormal powers.’’
For 18 months after his first experiments, James was virtually
in charge of all arrangements for Piper’s séances. When, because
of other duties, he dropped his inquiries for a period of
two years, he wrote to the SPR (London) and induced them to
engage Piper for experiments. ‘‘The result,’’ he wrote of his
personal investigations, ‘‘is to make me feel as absolutely certain
as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows
things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in
her waking state.’’ He admitted there was a strong case in favor
of survival when the following message, obtained while a Ms.
Robbins had a sitting with Piper, was submitted to him ‘‘There
is a person named Child, who has suddenly come and sends his
love to William and to his own wife who is living. He says L
. . .’’ Neither Robbins nor Piper knew Child, who was an intimate
friend of James and whose Christian name began with L.
In the autumn of 1899 Piper visited James at his country
house in New Hampshire. There he came to know her personally
better than ever before. ‘‘It was in great measure,’’ wrote
Alta L. Piper in her biography of the medium, ‘‘due to his sympathetic
encouragement and understanding of the many difficulties,
with which she found herself confronted in the early
days of her career, that my mother was able to adhere unfalteringly
to the onerous course which she had set herself to follow.’’
In an often quoted lecture in 1890 James declared
‘‘To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no
need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient
to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient.’’ Since his
proclamation of Piper as his ‘‘one white crow,’’ the concept of
the single ‘‘white crow’’ has become a cliché in psychical research.
James published several papers in the Proceedings of the SPR
and an important essay on psychical research in his book The
Will to Believe (1902). In a lecture at Oxford in 1909 he announced
his firm conviction that ‘‘most of the phenomena of
psychical research are rooted in reality.’’ Shortly before his
death he stated in the American Magazine that, after 25 years of
psychical research, he held the spiritistic hypothesis unproven
and was inclined ‘‘to picture the situation as an interaction between
slumbering faculties in the automatist’s mind and a cosmic
environment of other consciousness of some sort which is
able to work upon them.’’
James served as president of the SPR, London, from 1894
to 1895 and as vice president from 1896 to 1910. His name and
prestige and his open espousal of the cause of psychical research
were a great benefit to the nascent science. He died at
Chocorua, New Hampshire, August 26, 1910. His alleged return
after death is discussed in a long chapter in James Hyslop’s
Contact with the Other World (1919).
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
James, William. Essays in Psychical Research. Cambridge,
Mass. Harvard University Press, 1986.
———. Letters of William James and Theodore Flournoy. Edited
by R. C. Le Clair. Madison University of Wisconsin Press,
———. William James on Psychical Research. Edited by Gardner
Murphy and Robert O. Ballou. New York Viking Press,
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.