William James was born in 1842 in Albany, NY to Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and Mary Robertson Walsh. William was one of five siblings, including novelist, Henry James. All of William’s ancestors were Protestant farmers, merchants, and/or traders, well educated, and highly involved with the church. William’s grandfather went from being a poor immigrant to one of the richest men in New York. After his death, his family inherited his fortune.  

William trained as a physician and taught anatomy at Harvard but was more interested in psychology. He married Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878 and they had 5 children. During that time, William wrote on many subjects and became well known as a philosopher, historian, and psychologist. He taught one of the first psychology courses in America and established a school of psychology known as pragmatism.

William was interested in two schools of thought: associationism and spiritualism. An associationist believes that each experience leads to another in a chain of events. On the other hand, a spiritualist believes that events are attributed to the soul. William recommended using the parts of each philosophy that made the most sense. He concluded that each person had a soul in a spiritual universe that directed the person to perform certain behaviors in the physical world.

William was a founding member and vice president of the American Society for Psychical Research when it began in 1884.  It is the oldest psychical research organization in the United and maintains offices and a library in New York City.  As the chair for the society, he was one of many scientists who convened to investigate the paranormal. The work made him cynical because they identified many frauds, but that did not keep him from believing in the supernatural. 

In 1885, the year after the death of his young son, William had his first sitting with medium Leonora Piper. He was convinced that Piper knew things she could only have discovered by supernatural means. He sat for multiple sessions in in her darkened parlor, taking notes as she presented information that only a mother might know. After evaluating sixty-nine reports of Piper’s mediumship, he concluded that Piper was using telepathy, not speaking to the spirit world. William was sure that the existence of telepathy would be proven in the future.

William retired from Harvard in 1907 but continued to write and lecture. Afflicted with cardiac pain, he sailed to Europe in 1910 to try experimental treatments, but they were unsuccessful. His heart failed later that year while he was at home in Chocorua, New Hampshire.

Additional Reading:

Croce, Paul Jerome (1995) Science and Religion in the Era of William James vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Harnett, Emily (2019) “William James and the Spiritualist’s Phone” Lapham’s Quarterly. https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/william-james-and-spiritualists-phone

Haynes, Renée (1982) The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History. London: Macdonald & Co.

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