The Theosophical Society in America

William James: The Pragmatic Visionary

by Edward Hoffman

Originally printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Hoffman,Edward. "William James: The Pragmatic Visionary." Quest  98. 3 (Summer 2010): 96-99.

EdHoffmanWilliam James, preeminent American philosopher and one of the founders of the field of psychology, is revered today as one of our country's greatest thinkers. Echoing the sentiments of many of his European compatriots, Sigmund Freud memorialized him as "the one authentic American genius that I have met." Virtually every standard history of science emphasizes James's key role in establishing psychology as a logical and empirical discipline, worthy to take its place as a legitimate arena of human study. From their first appearance, James's popular writings on philosophy have been praised for their beauty and clarity of expression. Indeed some of his best passages on the life of the mind glow with a poetic intensity.

Ironically, though, the work for which James is most acclaimed became quickly outdated, whereas his most provocative and exciting ideas remain largely unknown. For at the turn of the twentieth century, he startled and outraged many academic contemporaries by staunchly defending unorthodox forms of healing, denouncing mainstream medicine and psychology for their shortsightedness, and advocating a whole new pathway to knowledge'one that would embrace the way of both the mystic and the scientist. Often minimized as a mere eccentricity, or ignored altogether by historians, this aspect of James's legacy is especially relevant today.

Indeed, writing in an age of science when few worlds seemed to be left to conquer, James was perhaps closest to seeing its inherent flaws and limitations. While respecting the power of reason, he denied that analysis is the only valid means of understanding ourselves and the universe. Years before Einstein's equations completely overturned traditional concepts of space, time, and energy, James insisted intuitively on a sense of humility and wonder before the cosmos. "We are amazed," he wrote, "that a Universe which appears to us of so vast and mysterious a complication should ever have seemed to anyone so little and plain a thing." In this centennial year of his death in 1910, it's time for a closer look at his visionary perspective. 

A Life of Contradictions 

Born in New York City in 1842, William James was the oldest of five children raised by wealthy and progressive parents. (One of his brothers, Henry, became renowned as one of the greatest American novelists of all time.) His paternal grandfather, William, an Irish emigre, had amassed a huge fortune in Albany real estate and commerce, and been involved in building the Erie Canal. Among the ten children he sired was Henry James Sr., an intellectual drawn to mystical theology and philosophy, especially the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Suffering from alcohol dependency from the age of ten, Henry Sr. was an erratic father who unsuccessfully sought a literary career and moved his large family from one locale to another in the United States and Europe. His ponderous writings were sincere but limited in appeal, and eventually he had to publish them himself. Nonetheless, the elder James hobnobbed with important American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts, and with the British historian Thomas Carlyle. He also provided the best private tutors for his children and encouraged their creativity.

But when William in his late teens announced his intention of becoming a professional painter, Henry Sr. squelched the idea as financially impractical and demanded that his son embark upon the more lucrative career of physician. Faced with his family's undeniably dwindling fortune, William reluctantly agreed and was graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1869. During the nearly forty ensuing years, his career at Harvard in psychology and philosophy was the complete antithesis of professional conventionality, with investigations into mystical experience, trance mediumship, ghostly phenomena, and the scientific evidence for immortality.

William James's life overflowed with contradictions. More than a century ago, he boldly declared that we use only a fraction of the inner energy available to us. Yet he was personally plagued by long periods of lethargy and creative immobilization. He extolled the strength we may draw from ascribing to an optimistic view of the world, yet often brooded uncontrollably on the pain he saw around him. He repeatedly condemned the scientific establishment for its male-dominated, exclusionary approach to learning. Yet despite frequent misgivings and complaints, he faithfully served the academic world for nearly his entire professional life before resigning to pursue his own intellectual goals. He underwent ridicule for espousing a spiritual orientation to mind and body, health, and happiness. Yet he confessed that he had never once experienced any sensation of the divine or transcendent; a one-time experimentation with nitrous oxide gave him a feeling of cosmic unity but not of God or the divine. 

Varieties of Religious Experience 

After earning his medical degree at Harvard, James taught courses in both physiology and philosophy, and established America 's first psychology laboratory. In 1878, he gained a contract with Henry Holt Publishers to write the first major textbook for the fledgling discipline of psychology'an initially captivating offer. But chronically prone to bouts of depression and lethargy, James found himself plodding along with the project with increasing boredom and dissatisfaction. After devoting an exhausting twelve years to producing Principles of Psychology finally published as a two-volume set in 1890'he was eager to embrace broader issues of human personality and potentiality. By the mid-1890s, James had relinquished directorship of Harvard's psychology laboratory to Hugo Munsterburg and turned his attention to "Exceptional Mental States—the title of his influential series of lectures delivered in 1896-97 at Boston 's Lowell Institute. As masterfully reconstructed by the contemporary psychologist Eugene Taylor, James's presentations addressed such intriguing and still poorly understood phenomena as dreams, hypnotism, and cases of multiple personality and apparent demonic possession. His aim? To build a comprehensive psychology of the human unconscious.

By the early 1900s, James was at his creative peak in 1901—02 his lifelong interest in humanity's exalted capabilities culminated in his masterful essays on "The Varieties of Religious Experience." Delivered as the Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh , they represent his most cohesive work on the psychology of religion. True to character, James initially refused the invitation in the late 1890s, claiming illness and fatigue. But also true to his nature, he eventually relented and eagerly took up the project. We can be thankful that he did'for without such external prods, this gifted iconoclast often lacked the motivation for sustained intellectual activity.

In these lectures, James brought together the strands of over thirty years of thought. While some of the issues he raised can be found in other sources of his writing, James was at his most eloquent and concise in these particular talks. He focused on one crucial notion: that we as humans encompass inner capacities that we ordinarily fail to use or even recognize. Moreover, he contended:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there. 

James conceded that disease sometimes induces strange feelings and thoughts. But he denounced what he called the "medical materialism" of the times'which dismissed all atypical perceptions of the cosmos as signs of emotional disturbance or physical illness like epilepsy. Rather, James argued, some of humanity's most revered spiritual thinkers attained their inspiration when in unusual mental states. Furthermore, he observed that a striking generality underlies the mystical experiences described by these figures. From the ancient Hebrew prophets and Buddhist lamas to medieval Sufi masters and Catholic saints, there is a commonality underlying their perception of the universe'and our place in it'that transcends time and culture.

Another of James's prescient notions in these lectures is that the mind and body constitute a unity. Long before the contemporary boom in holistic health and wellness, he stressed that moods exert a powerful effect on physical well-being. He provided a few illustrative case histories of dramatic "mind cures" (as they were then called) and urged that medicine and psychology take such phenomena seriously. He also said that a cheerful, optimistic outlook on life promotes physical health; conversely, the more cynical and negative we are toward others, the greater our likelihood of illness. This notion is now becoming a mainstay in the health care field.

In these lectures, James advocated a new pathway to understanding humanity and the cosmos. With a mature perspective absent from some of his earlier essays, James outlined his vision for a synthesis of the spiritual and scientific modes. "I believe that the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature," he wrote. "The [mystical] experiences which we have been studying this hour plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for." Praising the insights of both the scientist and the mystic, James declared that "science and religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house...neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other's simultaneous use."

The Gifford lectures were published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James doubted that the subject would be of widespread interest, but he was utterly wrong. The book was immediately popular and became his best-known work, sparking special excitement among educated religious people. Both Protestant and Catholic clergy reviewed it favorably in the United States and abroad. For the rest of James's life, he was to receive a seemingly endless stream of letters and articles from people around the globe who wished to report their own transcendent experiences or who simply shared his vision of a new age of enlightenment. The book also brought James a steady royalty income, enabling him to resign comfortably from Harvard several years later. 

The Final Years 

James was buoyed by the intense and unexpected reaction to his Gifford lectures. He felt ready to begin his magnum opus'a comprehensive work on metaphysics, to be based partly on the investigations of his British friend Frederick Myers (who had died in 1901) and other "psychic researchers." Though James never completed this ambitious effort, he was convinced that the often quirky and confusing phenomena revealed in hypnosis, mediumistic trances, severe mental illness, and mystical episodes, harbored the secrets of human existence.

Nevertheless, James insisted throughout his career that he had never experienced any of the exalted mental states discussed in Varieties or his other writings. Late in life, he responded to a survey of religious beliefs and practices. He replied that his views on the deity were mainly for "social convention" and that he felt "foolish and artificial" when trying to pray. Around the same time, he confided in a private letter, "My position is simple...I have no living sense of commerce with a God. The Divine, for my active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts."

We should not take such statements as fact too readily, however, for James frequently seems to have displayed a higher acuity. For one thing, he characterized certain reports by great mystics as having "the ring of truth"?suggesting that he must have possessed some inner awareness to guide him in such matters. Moreover, from his boyhood days, and in his later adolescent involvement in painting, James retained a remarkable sensitivity to the beauties of nature. Some of his landscape descriptions from camping and hiking expeditions resonate with a sense of mystery and delight. Indeed one particular episode in 1898 had all the features of a soaring peak experience, if not a mystical one. He vividly depicted that night in the New York Adirondack wilderness: 

The temperature was perfect either inside or outside the cabin, the moon rose and hung above the scene before midnight, leaving only a few of the larger stars visible, and I got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital [kind]...I spent a good deal of [the night] the woods, where the streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the Gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding and indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral Gods of the inner life....It was one of the happiest...nights of my existence.

In 1907, James finally resigned from Harvard. He had submitted his resignation several years before but had agreed to withdraw it after strong persuasion by university officials. This time he was adamant, for he had come to view the whole academic system as antithetical to real discovery and regretted that the United States had ever modeled its higher educational system on the ponderous and pedantic German approach. Now he felt exhilarated by his new sense of freedom after more than thirty-five years of college teaching. Reflecting these creative bursts within, that same year he published a remarkable essay, "The Energies of Men." This provocative article'first delivered as the presidential address before the American Philosophical Association'was widely reprinted at the time but lapsed into obscurity until recently.

Most of us, James observed, go through life using only a tiny part of our innate abilities. Some days we feel we are roaring with inner energy and drive and are able to accomplish a great deal; all too commonly, though, we are tired and bored, barely able to finish our workday, and collapse home exhausted. In short, we typically feel "as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us...we are making use of only a smallest part of our possible mental and physical resources." But for all we know, James suggested, we may have mental "second winds" hiding inside us'just as we do physically'which swing into action only when we push ourselves beyond our ordinary limits. Consequently, he praised yoga and other ancient disciplines as sophisticated tools for training and developing our latent mental capacities.

In this visionary address, James also mapped out his exciting vision of a psychology'and a science'of the future. Strongly influencing psychologist Abraham Maslow a half-century later, and anticipating current explorations, James insisted that what we need most are careful studies of the most successful, creative men and women in every walk of life. "We ought somehow to get a topographic survey made of the limits of human power in every conceivable direction . . . and we ought to then construct a methodical inventory on the paths of access, or keys" to awaken these powers within us. This notion is now central to the growing edge of many fields of human endeavor today.

In this regard, James initially viewed Freud's then-obscure work in Vienna as valuable, but later came to reject it as overemphasizing sexuality. In 1909 he met Freud at a conference at Clark University . James was taken by Freud's obvious brilliance and noted that he and his band of disciples "can't fail to throw light on human nature." But James also commented, "I confess that he [Freud] made on me personally the impression of a man with fixed ideas."

In the following summer of 1910, James died after suffering from protracted heart complications. He was sixty-eight years old. Several of his last papers dealt with the nature of mystical experience and his continuing struggle to make sense out of such elusive events. A few months before his death, James issued a popular article entitled "The Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher." While conceding the baffling nature of much of what he had witnessed over the past quarter-century, he asserted, "I wish to go on record for . . . the presence, in the midst of all the humbug, of really supernormal knowledge. By this, I mean knowledge that cannot be traced to the ordinary sources of information?senses, namely."

In this lucid piece, James came no closer than before to unraveling the mystery of our full capabilities. But perhaps he was never more poetic than when summing up his lifetime of searching for our deepest nature. "Out of my experience, such as it is," he wrote, "one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges, and that is this, that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The trees commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean's bottom....It is through following these facts, I am persuaded, that the greatest scientific conquests of the coming generation will be achieved."


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Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University . He has authored many books on psychology and spirituality, including most recently The Kabbalah Reader: A Sourcebook of Visionary Judaism (Shambhala).