The Theosophical Society in America

William James, Theosophist

Originally printed in the November-December 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Lysy, Tony. "William James, Theosophist." Quest  88.6 NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000): pg 228-233.

By Tony Lysy 

Tony LysyOn November 17, 1875, Col. H. S. Olcott, the Founder-President of the Theosophical Society, delivered his Inaugural Address in New York City. In that speech, he stated, "If I rightly apprehend our work, it is to aid in freeing the public mind of theological superstition and a tame subservience to the arrogance of science." Later in the talk, the Colonel characterized members of the new Society as "simply investigators, of earnest purpose and unbiased mind, who study all things, prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good."

Olcott’s sense of the "work" that the Society was to undertake and the wide range of topics for its investigation and inquiry harmonized with the interests of a young faculty member in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. While Olcott gave his address, William James was preparing to open the first psychological laboratory in the United States at Harvard University.

James, who became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1882, was acknowledged from 1890 until his death in 1910 as a major writer and speaker in the fields of psychology, philosophy, religion, and psychical research. His fame and influence spread beyond the United States to Great Britain and Europe, and he served as president of three prestigious organizations: the American Association of Psychologists (1893), the Society for Psychical Research (1894–5), and the American Philosophical Association (1906).

William James was born on January 11, 1842. He was the first of five children in a wealthy New York family. His grandfather and namesake, who had immigrated from Ireland, became a millionaire in business and real estate and was known as "William of Albany." One of William of Albany’s major projects was the development of the Erie Canal. His son, Henry James Senior, used the money he inherited to support his own personal search for religious truth and to create an innovative form of education for his five children.

Henry Junior, who was born a year after his older brother, William, rivaled the latter in international fame. Henry was a great American novelist whose works include Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Wilkinson, Robertson, and Alice, who were born within the next five years, never achieved the fame of their two older brothers.

Henry Senior had reacted against his father’s Presbyterian faith by seeking in the works of Swedenborg a more mystical understanding of the world than he could find in Calvin. Swedenborg’s God had incarnated in all of humankind, not just in Jesus. A human society aware of its true nature was to complete the unfinished spiritual work through education, reform, and an altruism transcending egotism. Another follower of Swedenborg, visionary Chicago lawyer Charles Bonney, promoted the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a providential step toward the completion of the divine plan. William James later believed "that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences."

The environment that Henry Senior provided for his children was designed to encourage their natural curiosity and spontaneity. Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne were among the friends of the family who visited the James home in Boston. The financial resources of the family supported frequent trips to Europe and Britain. The children had tutors and were enrolled in private schools in New England and Switzerland. William became fluent in both French and German and stayed in touch with current developments in European thought through his exceptional language skills. The freedom to follow one’s curiosity wherever it might lead, fostered by Henry Senior, later emerge in William’s scientific observation that the human mind is essentially motivated by personal interest and preference, with feeling as an underlying force.

William was initially drawn to a career as an artist. His father, however, doggedly encouraged him to study science instead. In 1861 he went to Harvard, where he studied anatomy, physiology, zoology, and medicine during the next eight years. An 1865 trip to Brazil with Louis Agassiz of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard brought the youthful scientist in touch with the excitement of fieldwork. But William developed a form of smallpox that threatened his vision. Already introspective, his subsequent chronic ill health brought him more and more into touch with what he later called the stream of consciousness.

William James continued to have difficulties with his health for the rest of his life. He received his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1869 but had no desire to practice medicine. He struggled with depression for the next year in a conflict between the freedom stressed by his father’s religious beliefs and the determinism that he was encountering in his scientific work. In reading the works of the French philosopher Charles-Bernard Renouvier in 1870, James found a turning point. On April 30, 1870, he wrote in his diary, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." His belief in free will became a source of energy for his personal struggles with depression and countless other physical ailments over the next forty years. It also became a major feature of his work in both psychology and philosophy.

James was invited to teach physiology at Harvard in 1873. His wide range of interests, however, led to a shift in his teaching responsibilities, which included psychology as well as physiology. In 1878, James married Alice Howe Gibbens and signed a contract with the publisher Henry Holt to write a textbook on psychology. The text, originally scheduled to take two years to write, actually took twelve years of painstaking research and rewriting before it was finally released by a frustrated Holt as Principles of Psychology (1890).

The two-volume work was a great success. The depth and breadth of its scholarship and the lively style of its author made James an international celebrity. It was quickly translated throughout the world and was destined to be included as a volume between Dostoevsky and Freud among The Great Books of the Western World. An abridgement, Psychology (Briefer Course), was published in 1892 with James’s cautious recognition that the mixture of empiricism and metaphysics of his pioneering work was far from a definitive portrayal of human complexity: "This is no science, it is only the hope of a science."

James was now secure professionally and began to devote himself entirely to the traditional problems of philosophy. The philosophy faculty at Harvard, which included James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana, was one of the strongest in the world. C. S. Peirce, a friend of James who participated in the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, was never on the faculty but nonetheless had made a lasting impression on James through his concern for clarifying the meaning of ideas by grounding their implications in observable actions or changes, a method Peirce called "pragmatism." The question James borrowed from Peirce was "In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true?"

In 1896, James gave an address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, which, when published the next year as The Will to Believe, led to an invitation to give the Gifford Lectures in Scotland. James proposed, "Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead." He went on to call "the decision between two hypotheses" an "option" and distinguished three kinds of options. Following the electrical metaphor, an option can be "living" or "dead." An option can also be either "forced" or "avoidable" and either "momentous" or "trivial."

James then utilized those distinctions to categorize the situations humans face with regard to religion. If one regards religious belief as not true under any circumstances, there is no "living" option with respect to it. But if one genuinely thinks a "living" option is involved and envisions the possible benefit of religious faith as a "momentous" one that is also "forced," since any hesitation or suspension of belief sabotages the possibility of the gain through faith, an act of faith is preferable to skepticism. James reached this conclusion:

To preach skepticism to us as a duty until "sufficient" evidence for religion be found is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true.

James observed the benefits some people gain through their beliefs, and he defended them against the growing skepticism grounded on what he saw as a narrow interpretation of scientific method.

James supported every individual’s right to "will to believe" in a religious creed that seems to correlate with good consequences such as "healthy-mindedness" or an attitude of optimism toward meeting the challenges of life. Just as his depression had lifted in 1870 when he chose to believe in free will, James saw the basic attitude one has toward life as a central source of direction and energy.

In his paper "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," published in The Will to Believe, James tries to counter the dismissal of psychical research by materialistic scientists who did not find any "electricity" in spiritual explanations. James was strongly of the opinion that the irregular phenomena or "unclassified residuum" encountered in any scientific domain are worth investigating since they may lead to a new and more complete vision of reality. He found the "contemptuous scientific disregard" of the many mystical phenomena recorded throughout history disappointing, given the openness of the scientific ideal. James observed that "animal magnetism" or "Mesmerism" was "stoutly dismissed as a pack of lies by academic medical science the world over" until the nonmystical theory of "hypnotic suggestion" was found acceptable to the scientific establishment.

For James, the territory claimed by the Society for Psychical Research was being investigated by people with impeccable academic credentials, who rightly saw the issues involved as "momentous" rather than "trivial." He presented, with suitable caution, the conclusion of Frederic Myers:

The truth [is] that the invisible segments of our minds are susceptible, under rarely realized conditions, of acting and being acted upon by the invisible segments of other conscious lives. This may not be ultimately true (for the theosophists, with their astral bodies and the like, may, for aught I now know, prove to be on the correcter trail), but no one can deny that it is in good scientific form.

James did not, unfortunately, show the same caution with regard to Richard Hodgson’s report on Madame Blavatsky, and he apparently accepted its erroneous conclusions without objection.

The titles of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion at Edinburgh show the scope of the work that catapulted James to an even greater fame than his Principles of Psychology had. "The Reality of the Unseen," "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness," "The Sick Soul," "The Divided Self and the Process of Its Unification," and "Conversion" promised to be practical, as readers sought to find themselves in his taxonomy and look for hints on how to improve. More than ever, James became a source of advice when his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and Talks to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals were published in 1899. In his talk to students entitled "What Makes a Life Significant," he urged his audience to hitch their wagons to creative work for progress on Earth in every conceivable field.

The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), originally delivered as the Gifford Lectures, proved to be an amusing and elegant treatment of the possibilities and powers of things unseen, dismissed by both materialistic science and dogmatic religion. Some critics point out that James increased his investigation of mediums, clairvoyants, and healers in his psychical research after the loss of his parents and infant son over a three-year period. But by the time the young son died in 1885, James was capable of shifting effortlessly between the perspectives of physiologist, psychologist, philosopher, and psychical researcher. At heart, he was an observer of life in its broadest strokes, an empiricist who so loved varieties of every possible kind that he felt mockingly suspicious of words like "oneness" and "unity."

In the Gifford Lectures, James defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." In his last lecture, he listed the following as chief characteristics of the religious life:

1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;

2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;

3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof--be that spirit "God" or "law"--is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:

4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.

5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.

In a postscript to his conclusions, James made a confession of his own position, distilled through the alchemy of his interdisciplinary struggle to be faithful to both the observable and the invisible, which he and others had experienced in different ways:

Notwithstanding my own inability to accept either popular Christianity or scholastic theism, I suppose that my belief--that, in communion with the Ideal, new force comes into the world and new departures are made here below--subjects me to being classed among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type.

James coined expressions like "the practical cash-value" of a word but seems to have had difficulty in appreciating metaphor in mystical scriptures. After reading a rich passage from The Voice of the Silence to his Edinburgh audience, he stated:

These words, if they do not awaken laughter as you receive them, probably stir chords within you which music and language touch in common. Music gives us ontological messages which nonmusical criticism is unable to contradict, though it may laugh at our foolishness in minding them.

James could understand others being moved by the "musical compositions" of mystical scriptures. But expressions like "the Soundless Sound" seemed to him to be unsound counterfeits, lacking the cash-value he ultimately demanded in his later work.

James devoted his remaining years to an attempt to articulate his philosophical thinking in a fuller and more systematic way. He published Pragmatism in 1907, in which he introduced this distinction:

The Tender-Minded

The Tough-Minded

Rationalistic (going by principles)

Empiricist (going by facts)

Intellectualistic

Sensationalistic

Idealistic

Materialistic

Optimistic

Pessimistic

Religious

Irreligious

Free-willist

Fatalistic

Monistic

Pluralistic

Dogmatical

Skeptical

Carl Jung later noted that his Psychological Types (1921) was a project similar to this simple attempt by James to delineate two types of "mental make-up." James’s dichotomy displays the polarities that he himself had struggled with. It is not surprising to find his notion of the pragmatic method, when applied appropriately, as "a mediator and reconciler" that "unstiffens" theories. He suggested the adoption of "a pluralistic monism," for example, when his pragmatic analysis showed that the "world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but just as indubitably it is many, if you look at it in another."

James thought his adaptation of Peirce’s idea of pragmatism would prove to be a method of settling metaphysical disputes by tracing the "respective practical consequences" of each notion or concept employed. He particularly objected to what he called "magic words" or "solving names," which had some power perhaps similar to music in enchanting humans into a false sense that their problems had been solved and their questions had been answered:

All the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul, draw the admiration that men have lavished on them from this oracular role.

James maintained that "on pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it." But "magic words", though lacking "cash-value" from his perspective, continued to flow with full electrical charge as the currency of his critics and adversaries in philosophy, religion, and psychical research.

James’s last works, The Meaning of Truth and A Pluralistic Universe (1909) and the posthumously published Some Problems of Philosophy(1911), are efforts to answer the critics of his Pragmatism (including Peirce). He dedicated his last work "to the great Renouvier’s memory," perhaps as a final testimony of the life-long effects of his "first act of free will" forty years earlier. James realized that he had not succeeded in presenting his work as a full system and left this humorous note with the manuscript: "Say that I hoped by it to round out my system, which now is too much like an arch built on one side."

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both met James when they visited Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1909. In one of his autobiographical writings, Freud recalls a walk he took with James:

He stopped suddenly, handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch up as soon as he had got through an attack of angina pectoris which was just coming on. He died of that disease a year later; and I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.

Jung wrote, "I spent two delightful evenings with William James alone and I was tremendously impressed by the clearness of his mind and the complete absence of intellectual prejudices." The internationally celebrated psychologist and philosopher had met two figures whose own forms of interdisciplinary alchemy took Depth Psychology in new directions.

Martin Marty, in the foreword to a recent collection of papers entitled The Vision of James, points to James’s relevance today as a philosopher who "more than any other American and more than most of the other moderns, invites readers into his world for a conversation." When James bemoans the thought of "a shallow wig-pated age," one can understand his vision of the "actual universe as a thing wide open" in the same way one understands the growing astronomical data charting the mysteries of the universe or multiverse.

At a crucial period of history, James attempted to synthesize religion, philosophy, and science. He was fearless in his study of psychical research and maintained a high international reputation despite those critics who dismissed his spiritual interests. He remains an interesting writer who is a catalyst for and kindred spirit to the type of investigator Olcott spoke of in his Inaugural Address.


Anton Lysy, PhD, is Dean of Studies of the Olcott Institute and a student of depth psychology and transpersonal psychology as they relate to Theosophy.