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Edit: only my name appears, but the post has been written by Yukie and me! Mathias

After an introductory talk by Anne, on the stairs of the Widener, we proceeded to the Houghton Library, where James’s manuscripts are kept (together with Peirce’s manuscripts and many others).

Professor David Lamberth, one of the most prominent James Scholars, author of William James and the Metaphysics of Experience1, gave a presentation of William James’s Life and Works, with a special emphasis on physiology and psychology. Regarding James’s biography, we strongly advise you to check the very nice multimedia exhibition hosted on the Houghton website and entitled “Life is in the transitions”.  You will find plenty of details on James, pictures, everything that is needed to get a first idea of his Life.

Prof. Lamberth built his presentation  on a series of 11 documents, and each one of them could provide ideas and incentives for a research.

1. The first item was William James’s Notebook for his courses in Chemistry, when he was at Lawrence Scientific School in 1861-62. As David Lamberth explained, this double page gives a sense of WJ’s “frustrated” mind. Very often, several things were disputing James’s attention. Very often also, James had to do something with his hands, drawing for example. The fact is that James had a special interest to painting: he was trained under William Morris Hunt, at Newport.

After his notes on mathematics, then on the course, you can see a sketch of what is certainly one of his professors.

Leslie Morris,  Curator at the Houghton, explains that his notebooks are filled with sketches of his professors and of women. The notebook is also interesting in that one sees WJ’s actual handwriting; after he got married in 1878, his wife Alice wrote a lot of his letters under dictation. Henry James, William’s brother, dictated his last works, and this is still a matter of speculation whether this can influence the very style of an author.

Of possible interest to the students of the Spring School: a good deal of manuscripts, in particular those preparatory to the Principles, are heavily annotated and edited by James, which gives a privileged perspective on his own process of creation.

2. The second item, dated 1889, provides an example of an experiment with a man prone to go in trance. On the left, you can see a description of what is going on, written by William James; he was consistently and genuinely interested in what was then called “psychical research”, but he did so, as we can see in one of his last texts, “Confidences of psychical Researcher”, in the spirit of debunking fraud and seeing what was left.

3. The third item is a selection from the manuscripts of James’s Principles of Psychology (1890). You can see his notes on attention and assimilation, the dynamic functions of the brain, and physical measurements to account for the dynamic functions. The basic assumption is that the task of psychology is to correlate what we know about the mind and the states of the brain. Still, this does not that every notion was eventually naturalized: James had an interest in the Will, as you can in the chapter XXVI of the Principles, and there, one can notice the influence of non-naturalist philosophers such as his own father, Henry James Sr, and the French Charles Renouvier.

An interesting document, from this standpoint, is WJ’s diary (1868-1873), and  his entry for April, 30, 1870 records: “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.” James’s interest  in philosophical topics was then never totally absent when we wrote the Principles.



4. Is an excerpt from WJ’s Lowell Lecture on exceptional mental states 96. James, while he was writing the Principles, discovered the work of the French psychologists Charcot and Pierre Janet, and undertook intense research on abnormal psychology, which proved to be a quarry for his Varieties of religious experience (1902). To get an idea of this research, you can look at the edition/reconstruction of the Lectures and to Eugene I Taylor’s WJ on Consciousness beyond the margin.

5 is from an Advanced course in psychology of the feelings: James develops here his idea of the margin and introduces the metaphysical concept of “pure experience”, which became in the next decade a key notion of WJ’s Radical empricism. WJ emphasizes on “the given thing” that is present to analysis, which develops and becomes more complex; some readers see there a possible analogy with Bergson’s “durée”.

6. is WJ’s Notebook for the Gifford Lectures (aka Varieties of Religious Experience). He first had planned 10 lectures on the descriptive psychology of religion and he soon added lectures on what makes it plausible. Another interesting characteristic here: WJ always moved between psychology and the interpretation of psychology.

The varieties is the second best-sold nonfiction book for the XXth century, through 38 editions in 12 languages.

During this period, he contracted severe heart problems, after a too long and exhausting mountain walk; this gravely impaired his health until his death in 1910.

7. Is an album of pictures of Famous people and friends: Lotze, Wundt, Mill, Spencer, Hodgson, Pillon, Wundt, Mill… Henry Jr, son of WJ, described is as an ‘anthropological’ collection.

Here on display: Charles Renouvier and François Pillon

8. Is a proposal for the creation of society for Psychopathological Research. Established displines sometimes prevent the progress of knowledge, and he felt that there was a specificity of Psychopathology, deserving new societies.

9. Is a letter to Théodore Flournoy (one of WJ’s 3500 letters). It is dated, Sept, 28, 1909, WJ gives an account of his meeting with Freud at Clark University (an event organized by Granville Stanley Hall). James saw the interest of Freud’s exploration of the “twilight region”, but also complained that Freud and his followers were “obsessed with fixed ideas”, and that he did not see the use of Freud’s theory about dreams.

10. are 2 volumes from WJ’s library. Here you can see Spencer’s own Principles of psychology (1855); they are heavily annotated and James used them both for his courses and for a devastating critique of Spencer published in 1878 (Spencer’s definition of mind as correspondence).

11. Last but not least is a letter by Pierre Janet (July, 24, 1887, sent from Le  Havre). Pierre Janet is responding to a query by William James, who then looked for experimental confirmations of his theory of emotions, as published in 1884.


How are you responding to WJ’s works? To the documents you have seen? Is there a connection with your own research?

Something that we missed and that could contribute to this page?

Please share your thoughts below.

1. Lamberth, David C. William James and the Metaphysics of Experience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.