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William James and the Psychics

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association.

He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Why did one of the great figures in the history of psychological science, a Harvard University professor who supervised the earliest U.S. doctoral degrees in psychology, spend many years attending séances and ultimately come to support the honesty and integrity of a famous Boston medium? Even in those early days of psychology, most of William James’s colleagues derided mediumship and felt psychics were not worthy of serious study, yet James did extensive research on psychics throughout his career in the hope of finding evidence of an afterlife. A number of biographers have suggested the explanation was personal: James and his wife, Alice, were drawn to psychics in 1885 following the death of their young son, Herman (Blum 2007; Simon 1999). A new book on James’s psychical research suggests that whatever effect Herman’s death might have had, it was far less important than James’s longstanding interest in the possibility of the soul’s immortality. The seeds of James’s fascination were planted in his boyhood and nurtured by many cultural and philosophical forces throughout his life.

Philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910), who taught at Harvard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was one of the most important early figures in the history of psychological science. Official credit for the founding of psychology goes to Wilhelm Wundt, who opened the first psychological laboratory at the University of Liebzig in 1879. The first American laboratory was founded at Johns Hopkins University by G. Stanley Hall, who had briefly worked in Wundt’s laboratory. Hall also earned the first American PhD in psychology—studying under James at Harvard. He also started the American Journal of Psychology and became the first president of the American Psychological Association (Parry 2006).

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