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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has probably been, over the years, James’s most popular book, read even after his functionalist psychology was superseded by behaviorism and when his pragmatist philosophy was in eclipse.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.”1

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 a bad nervous condition at the time of which he writes, his case has otherwise the merit of extreme simplicity. I translate freely.

Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non- human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.

In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”

On asking this correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words, the answer he wrote was this:

I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”2

As everyone now knows, the business about the Frenchman was a pretense. In 1904, the Varieties was itself translated into French, and the translator, a man named Frank Abauzit, wrote to James requesting (understandably) the original text for this passage. “The document,” James wrote back, “…is my own case—acute neurasthenic attack with phobia. I naturally disguised the provenance! So you may translate freely.”3 Abauzit was a friend of the Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy, who was a friend of James’s; they shared an interest in psychic phenomena—spiritualism, mediums, trances, and so on. In 1911, a year after James’s death, Flournoy published a little book called La Philosophie de William James, in which he quoted the passage in the Varieties about the vision of the epileptic and then cited James’s letter to Abauzit confessing the deception. And that is how it became known that the story is autobiographical.

Edwin Holt, an American psychologist, and William James, Jr., one of James’s sons, published an English translation of Flournoy’s book in 1917, but they deleted the material about the vision of the epileptic patient: neither the quotation from the Varieties nor the reference to James’s letter appears. In 1920, though, the passage about the patient was quoted and the experience was identified as James’s own in The Letters of William James, edited by his oldest son, Henry; and it has turned up in virtually every account of James’s life ever since. It has been the cause of endless biographical mischief; for although the vision of the epileptic has an important place in the story of James’s thought, it does not have an important place in the story of James’s life.

This may seem counterintuitive. James called the story, in his letter to Abauzit, “my own case,” after all, and there is no reason to believe he made that up. It is the story of a kind of crisis, and biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives, in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a “breakthrough” or arrives at a “turning point” before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains. The vision of the epileptic is an obvious candidate for such a crisis in the life of William James, and most biographers have elected it to the office. But that is the wrong place to put it.

In the standard narrative of James’s life, the vision of the epileptic is paired with a second experience, which is said to represent his recovery or breakthrough. This is what might be called the Renouvier episode. Information about this experience also surfaced in the 1920 edition of James’s Letters. In this case the source is a diary James kept from 1868, when he was twenty-six and studying in Germany, until 1873, when he accepted an offer to become a member of the Harvard faculty. The entry for April 30, 1870, when James was living with his parents in Cambridge, reads as follows (the reference in the second sentence is to the second of the Essais de critique générale, entitled L’Homme [1859], by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier; the later reference is to Alexander Bain, a British psychologist and follower of John Stuart Mill):

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and contemplative Grüblei [in this context, “grubbing among subtleties”] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little for speculation; much for the form of my action; recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. Principiis obsta [“Resist beginnings”]—Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits. I will see to the sequel. Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [“contemplations”], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation. Passer outre [“To go on”]. Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall [consist in? the page is torn here] doing and suffering and creating.4

  1. 1

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt (Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 407.

  2. 2

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 134-135.

  3. 3

    William James to Frank Abauzit, June 1, 1904, quoted in “Appendix VI,” in The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 508.

  4. 4

    Quoted in The Letters of William James, edited by Henry James (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920), Vol. 1, pp. 147-148 (bracketed material is mine). The original diary is in the William James Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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