WILLIAM JAMES AND LIFE AFTER DEATH
A. W. Orr
San Francisco, CA
December 12, 2013
WILLIAM JAMES AND LIFE AFTER DEATH
William James’ views about life after life death can be summed up in two words, not proven. Over the course of his career he encountered the question repeatedly. He considered it, he pondered it, and he explored it. In the end his views did not significantly change. At the same time he found the idea fascinating and was continually intrigued by the possibility of it. James interest in the question of life after death appears to have grown out of his interest in psychic research. After first briefly reviewing the sources of that interest, some of James’ writings about eternity, immortality and life after death will be presented chronologically. The approach will confirm the consistency of his views over time despite subtle variations. In order to understand William James’ views about life after death certain common misconceptions about him need clarification. First, he was a psychologist not a philosopher. Second, he sought a firm scientific basis for all his views. Third held that ultimately scientific validity could be found in human matters that cannot be quantified. Fourth, he accepted the reality of individual human experience even when the experience transcended perceptual knowledge. Note even when accepting personal reality he never presumed the universality of that reality.
According to Eugene Taylor (1996) two early-unsigned articles by James show he had a major interest in the nature of consciousness by1865. This interest may well have led James to explore the sub-conscious and multiple states of consciousness. It became a central concept in his psychology. As a result he became interested in psychical research as well as the hypnotic states being explored in France. In 1869, because of this interest he wrote a review of a book about psychical research by Epes Sargent (James, 1986). Much of the review dealt with
Sargent’s discussions of spiritualists and mediums. The question of life after death is implicit when observing mediums who avow they communicate with the dead. James’ review expressed fascination with psychical research but said it called for verifiable facts. In 1870 he wrote in his diary about a hallucination he personally experienced (James, 1967). This personal encounter with an altered-state of consciousness may also have heightened James’ interest in psychical research. His interest led him to be associated with the London Society for Psychical Research. Here James encountered the thinking of F. W. H. Myers, one of the founders. Myers wrote extensively about life after death. James was also familiar with the work of Gustav Fechner one of the German psychophysics experimentalists. He often refers to Fechner’s opinions in his writings about psychical research (James, 1986). Like Myers, Fechner wrote about life after death. In 1903 James reviewed a book by Myers that concerned the survival of human personality after death, and in 1904 he wrote the introduction for the English translation of Fechner’s book theorizing life after death. James comments on these will be deferred until they occur chronologically.
James’ became interested in the spiritualism of psychic mediums who claimed communication with the dead (Taylor, 1996). Validity of the psychic experiences of mediums directly involved the existence and meaning of life after death. In 1885 through his wife James became acquainted with a Boston medium, Mrs. Piper. She was one of the mediums who claimed to communicate with the spirit world. James’ observations of Mrs. Piper’s séances and his communications with and about her also show his views on life after death. Last James referred to the question of life after death in his lectures, books, and correspondence. Much of James’ writings about psychical research remained unpublished and unknown for decades. This began to change when Gardner...
References: Fechner, G. T. (1904, 2005). Little book of life after death (2nd Edition) (M. C. Wadsworth,
James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from
James, W. (1902, 2009). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Scotts Valley, CA: IAP.
James, W. (1967). The writings of William James: A comprehensive edition (including annotated
Murphy, G. & Ballou, R. O. (Eds.). (1960). William James on psychical research. New York:
Taylor, E. (1996). William James on consciousness toward the margin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
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