William James & the Case of the Epileptic Patient

The Correspondence of William James

edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis, by Elizabeth M. Berkeley

In 1901, when he was fifty-nine, William James delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. James was an international academic celebrity. The Principles of Psychology, which appeared in 1890 and which had taken him twelve years to write, was quickly recognized as the leading summation of developments in a field that had been transformed, within James’s own lifetime, by the introduction of laboratory methods and by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. An abridged edition for students, Psychology: Briefer Course, popularly known as “Jimmy,” appeared in 1892; by the time of the Gifford Lectures, it had sold nearly fifty thousand copies.

The Gifford lectureship was a two-year appointment. James returned to Edinburgh for the second series of lectures in 1902, and that year the lectures were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Varieties has probably been, over the years, James’s most popular book, read even after his functionalist psychology was superseded by behaviorism and when his pragmatist philosophy was in eclipse. It is composed primarily of case histories, collected from all around the world and organized by category—“Conversion,” “Saintliness,” “Mysticism,” and so on. It looks, in other words, like a psychology textbook, and that is because it is a psychology textbook. The Varieties is not a study of religion; it is, as the subtitle states, “a study in human nature.”

James regarded the investigation of religious experience as a branch of abnormal psychology. He did not think that by treating the subject in this manner he was demystifying religion; he thought that by treating it in this manner he was taking religion seriously. His approach reflected the holistic empiricism of which he was possibly the greatest nineteenth-century exponent: people have religious experiences, just as people have the experience of seeing tables or feeling cold. We assume that having the experience of seeing tables has something to do with there being tables in the world, and that feeling cold has something to do with the temperature. Not everyone has visions or receives mystical revelations; but some human beings do. Those experiences are as psychologically real as any other state of consciousness, and since consciousness has evolved for the purpose of helping us to cope with our environment—since consciousness is not epiphenomenal, but is an active player in life—there must be something in the universe to which the religious feeling “belongs.” “God is real,” as James put it, summing up what he took to be the common-sense intuition about religion, “since he produces real effects.”

When he published the lectures, James put the sixth and seventh together in a chapter called “The Sick Soul.” “The Sick Soul” is an examination of morbidity—pessimism, disillusionment, anhedonia, and various types of melancholy, one symptom of which James calls “panic fear.” And he offers the following case:

Here is an excellent example, for permission to print which I have to thank the sufferer. The original is in French, and though the subject was evidently in …

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Letters

The Strange Case of William James: An Exchange April 8, 1999