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William James and the Spiritualists

In response to:

Summoning the Spirits from the February 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of The Perfect Medium [NYR, February 23], Luc Sante writes that William James was “sympathetically inclined, if not actually enlisted in the ranks” of the spiritualist movement. That’s hard to defend, since James was a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research and a member of its Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena. As part of his research, he attended séances and sessions with mediums for more than two decades, and he died hopeful that future investigators might discover the “dramatic possibilities of nature” by verifying the existence of spirit phenomena.

Linda Simon

Chair, English Department

Skidmore College

Saratoga Springs, NY

Luc Sante replies:

Professor Simon enrolls William James in the spiritualist movement on the grounds that he took part in investigations of claims, and that he hoped that spirit phenomena could be verified. But neither inquiry nor hope constitutes belief, and belief thrives best in the absence of any doubt. In the postscript to The Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is eminently a case for facts to testify. Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove ‘spirit-return’…. I consequently leave the matter open” (p. 395 of the Mentor paperback edition, 1958).

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