William James

Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

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Krister Dylan Knapp
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , May
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


William James has long been a figure of great interest to scholars of religion. For some, he has embodied what the discipline can be at its best: open-minded, adventurous, keenly attentive to the details of lived religion, and broadly scientific in his mindset. These scholars are not alone in their fascination with James; he has been a perennial subject among psychologists, philosophers, American historians, educators, and many more who divide his diverse corpus into its many parts. There is one side of the mercurial James, however, to which scholars have not yet paid serious and prolonged attention: his role as a major psychical researcher.

Krister Dylan Knapp’s William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity seeks to fill this gap by being “the first analytical and contextualized history of James’s psychical research” (4). As Knapp notes in a helpful bibliographical essay, James scholars have always known that psychical research—the scientific investigation of super- or paranormal phenomena which gained a large following in the late 19th century—played a part in James’s life and thought. But previous studies have either examined James’s psychical research within the context of narrow disciplinary concerns or understood the subject as a perverse side-project. Knapp’s book is essentially an attempt to overturn both trends by proving what he calls the “Perry-McDermott thesis”: that, to quote Knapp quoting Ralph Barton Perry, James’s interest in psychical research was “‘central and typical’ of his life and thought” (305, 309).

Knapp, a consummate historian, supports this thesis within the body of the book by first examining the biographical and institutional contexts of James’s interest in psychical research, providing particularly useful histories of Spiritualism in the United States and the rise of learned societies and professional scientific organizations in the 19th century. In part two, Knapp examines James’s studies of both physical and mental mediums, arguing that these researches helped hone James’s commitment to empiricism and advocacy of fideism. And in the third and final part of the book, Knapp takes up James’s psychological doctrine of the subliminal self and his metaphysical doctrine of the “sublime reservoir” of consciousness, contextualizing both within trends in French and German psychology, but ultimately concluding that both ideas were crucially informed by James’s arduous work in psychical research.

Throughout all of this, and in his concise introduction and conclusion, Knapp advances another, more constructive thesis: that James’s psychical research both shaped and was the perfect embodiment of a uniquely Jamesian method of inquiry, which Knapp calls the tertium quid (“third way”). Not merely a Hegelian overcoming of oppositions, according to Knapp, James’s tertium quid method of inquiry maintained dualities while finding creative (and sometimes uncomfortable) middle ways that borrowed elements from both extremes. Psychical research was the crown jewel of the tertium quid because it required James to navigate seemingly contradictory positions. Knapp leans on this term to theorize every aspect of James’s life and work that he takes up; thus, James’s central role in the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and his simultaneous distrust of institutions exemplifies his tertium quid; so too does his sublime reservoir theory, which stipulated a sort of immortality based on perceived psychological facts that would be open to future testing, rather than on faith alone. One senses that Knapp is not always wholly sympathetic to this method of inquiry, nor psychical research itself: in his conclusion, Knapp argues that the tertium quid prohibited James from seeing that the evidence for psychical phenomena was really rather weak. “At some point, we must all put our cards on the table,” Knapp writes, “but James’s third way method of inquiry prohibited this” (301).

Finally, Knapp argues that this “third way” method of inquiry was emblematic of larger trends in modernist thought. “Its faith in progress, science, and reason offered a more hopeful alternative to the ‘iron cage’ of modernity inside of Max Weber’s imprisoned Western civilization,” he writes (300). This may be true, but the argument is never really fleshed out in the body of the text. Thus, Knapp perhaps does not adequately defend his broader points about the relationship between psychical research and modernity, leaving certain arguments quietly implicit.

Knapp’s evaluation of psychical research’s influence on James is not, however, comprehensive in one key (and surprising) way: he does not explore James’s religious thought or propensities. Knapp asserts that James was “not a believer or a seeker” and that his interest in psychical research, unlike that of the Sidgwick group in England, came down to a purely scholarly interest “in understanding exceptional mental states” (4, 301). Knapp thus ignores much of James’s writing on religion as well as his reflections on his own religious urges and struggles in his correspondence and elsewhere. Knapp’s disavowal of the import of religion in James’s work with psychical research is also reflected in his choice of sources: Knapp is far more interested in The Principles of Psychology and A Pluralistic Universe than he is with The Varieties of Religious Experience (which was undoubtedly influenced by James’s observations of abnormal psychology in his psychical research). There is another book to be written about the relationship between James’s psychical interests and his religious thought, especially when one considers how crucially psychical research prefigured the psychology of religion that James pioneered.

Despite this omission, however, William James is a valuable contribution to the corpus of James scholarship. Its chief import, perhaps, lies in its details; Knapp painstakingly demonstrates just how much time James devoted to psychical research (perhaps more than to any other individual endeavor) and how the lessons James drew from that subject informed several of his key doctrines. One likes to imagine James’s spirit smiling down on Dr. Knapp, for he too held that the truth of any matter comes down to the details.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel J. Gee is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Krister Dylan Knapp is senior lecturer in the department of history at Washington University in St. Louis.


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