The Demons of William James

Religious Pragmatism Explores Unusual Mental States

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Tadd Ruetenik
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     169 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Tadd Ruetenik leads his readers down an odd but thought-provoking journey in The Demons of William James: Religious Pragmatism Explores Unusual Mental States. As can happen with books tackling complicated philosophical concepts, it takes a bit of reading to fully capture what Ruetenik is trying to accomplish with his approach, but the energy is well spent.

Ruetenik’s goal is to identify the demonic in social settings using William James’ pragmatism and examples throughout history (3). Ultimately, he wants the reader to see that social groups actually create demons and inflict them upon scapegoats, such as mediums (individuals who have contact with the spirit world). Ruetenik’s demons are complex in that they are not necessarily evil, and are summed up as alienated ideas or trickery from unseen beings. For example, a demon might expose an uncomfortable truth or secret about someone through a medium. The aim of this book is not to prove whether or not demons supernaturally exist, but to show how they manifest in the lives of many people over time. In fact, the demons that Ruetenik explore turn out to look a lot like the humans who experience them—communally or individually.

In chapter 1, Ruetenik describes the James family and their personal encounters with demons. While the stories help the reader gain a footing in what a demonic experience looks like, they also help explain why James became so fascinated by physic research. Even though he was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in the late 19th century, many academic sources fail to address his fascination of the supernatural. Ruetenik addresses this spiritual fixation forthright, given that the pursuit of some sort of proof of the supernatural was one of James’ life goals. 

In chapter 2, Ruetenik spends time with James as an adult alongside Leonora Piper, a persuasive medium. While James never experienced a true conversion, he always felt that there was some truth to communication with the spirit world. While Piper often made convincing claims, most of the people that she manifested appeared flat, as echoes of their former selves. She even channeled one of James’ close friends, and yet the personality remained so unconvincingly bland that he could not be persuaded. In this chapter, Ruetenik firmly establishes the need for a pragmatic approach in his work. If the echoes of the people who had passed on were useful, then they should be studied. However, if they are not useful and simply trite observations on the shortness of life, then what is the point of studying or channeling them at all? What is to be gained? This theme runs throughout this book: what is there to be gained from these encounters? 

In chapter 3, Ruetenik analyzes the example of the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem Witch Trials illustrate how demons are created by groups of people and placed upon scapegoats within the community. When Salem residents rose up against the group of accused witches, they were reacting against the presence of demons. Yet, what the people were actually reacting against were their communal demons; the parts of their humanity that they were uncomfortable with, or alienated from, were cast into the supposed witches. This is the chapter in which Ruetenik’s primary argument unfolds: communities take their demonic echoes or feelings and push them onto a convenient target that can be removed. The demonic and the human are virtually indistinguishable, whether the demonic be supernatural or not.

In chapter 4, Ruetenik returns to his discussion of the usefulness of demons. This chapter was a joy to read as it contained popular cultural references and a very practical approach to more recent mediums in the 20th century. In the first section, he addresses the mediums Susy Smith and Jane Roberts who claimed to channel James’ spirit. While their stories are not particularly persuasive, given how different Spirit James looks from Historical James, Ruetenik considers both of their accounts carefully, mining them for something useful and helpful. Generosity proves difficult for even Ruetenik given the flat perspectives offered by Spirit James. I found this section of the book refreshing. In historical accounts, a spirit narrative after the death of the subject would be discounted altogether, whether useful or not. For Ruetenik’s purpose, all sources might be helpful.

After his exploration of the two James mediums, Ruetenik then discusses modern-day mediums such as Jon Edward from the popular television series Crossing Over (2001-2004). Ruetenik’s approach is again useful, as he takes pieces of religious studies that many other authors would not take seriously, and places them into broader discussions of usefulness and what it means to manifest demons. For example, he describes Edward as a medium who helps people by giving them connection with their dead loved ones. If Edward simply gives people closure and comfort, his method is not harmful and can be helpful (144). In chapters 5 and 6, Ruetenik makes similar arguments about the usefulness of alien abductions and Near-Death Experiences. In his final chapter, he reiterates his argument that the community creates demons and transmits them into the individual, such as a medium or a witch.

The disturbing piece of Ruetenik’s analysis is that demons and humans cannot be distinguished from one another. In fact, groups of humans are what create demons in the first place. I believe that Ruetenik accomplished his goal of revealing the ambiguous nature of the demon, and although this type of book is not for everyone, the interdisciplinary approach makes it more accessible. I would recommend it to anyone interested in religious experiences, James, or Spiritualism in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Courtney Lacy is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tadd Ruetenik is Professor of Philosophy at St. Ambrose University.


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