James, William

WilliamJames (1842–1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who made significant contributions to psychical research, in particular the study of mediums.

William James was born in New York City to a wealthy family. His father, Henry James, was a renowned philosopher who became a follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. James earned a medical degree from Harvard University at age 27, and two years later he began teaching physiology, psychology, and philosophy there. He was particularly interested in trance and mystical states, and had his own profound experiences in middle age.

As early as 1869, he showed interest in paranormal phenomena, and throughout his lifelong involvement in the subject, he maintained an open mind and was thorough about fact-gathering. In London in 1882, he met the key founders of the newly formed Society for Psychical Research (SPR)—Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Sidgwick, Frederic W.H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, Frank Podmore and Richard Hodgson—and participated in their research. In particular he admired Myers, and Myers’s theory of the subliminal self, a secondary consciousness or psychic region in which higher mental processes occur; the theory echoed his own theory of a “hidden self,” developed prior to meeting Myers.

In 1885, James helped found the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) with Sir William Barrett and others. He also founded the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard where psychical research was conducted. He was vice president of the SPR from 1890 to 1910 and president from 1894 to 1895.

James’s most significant contribution to psychical research was his discovery of the Boston medium Leonora Piper in 1885. Her ability so impressed him that he researched mental mediums for the rest of his life (he had little interest in physical mediumship). He was never quite convinced that her spirit controls were truly spirits of the dead, but he leaned toward that belief. In 1890, he delivered his famous “white crow” lecture, stating that “to upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek Demonstration that no crows are black; it is suffi cient to produce one white crow; a single one is suffi cient.” Thus Piper, he said, was a white crow.

While James remained committed to empiricism, he also believed that researchers should not be too strict with mediums. By being yielding, better results were obtained. He desired to see Scientific research include paranormal phenomena.

Although James never explicitly stated he believed in Survival After Death, he did hope that Myers and Hodgson would provide proof after their deaths in 1900 and 1905, respectively. Hodgson, who allegedly became one of Piper’s controls, seemed most promising, but James became disappointed in the lack of proof.

James died on August 26, 1910, in his summer home in Chocurua, New Hampshire. He is frequently cited as communicating through Mediumship, and if all such claims are to be believed, he is one of the busiest spirits on the Other Side.

Further Reading:

  • Burkhardt, Frederic, and Fredson Bowers, eds. The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Feinstein, Howard M. Becoming William James. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.
  • Murphy, Gardner, and Robert O. Ballou, eds. William James on Psychical Research. New York: Viking Press, 1960.
  • Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007