William James

William James


          PROFESSOR OF psychology at Harvard University, achieved his MD in 1869 and later taught physiology and philosophy. One of the founders of the ASPR, president of the SPR in 1894-5, vice-president from 1890-1910.


The discovery of Mrs Piper's mediumship for the SPR was due to Prof. James.

"My impression", wrote James after his first visit to Piper with his wife, "was that Mrs P. was either possessed of super-normal powers or knew the members of my wife's family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did."

James was very careful not reveal his and his wife's name. He went on to say:

"My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me to absolutely reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers."

For 18 months after his first experiments Prof. James was virtually in charge of all arrangements for Mrs Piper's sittings. When, owing to other duties, he dropped his inquires for a period of two years, he wrote to the SPR and induced them to engage Mrs Piper for experiments.

"The result (he wrote of his personal investigations) is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state."

He admitted that a strong presumption in favour of survival exists when the following message, obtained while Miss Robbins had a sitting with Mrs Piper, was submitted to him:

"There is a person named Child, who has suddenly come and sends his love to William and to his own wife who is living. He says L..."

Neither Miss Robbins nor Mrs Piper knew Child who was an intimate friend of William James and whose Christian name begins with L.

In the autumn of 1899 Mrs Piper paid Prof. James a visit at his country house in New Hampshire. There he learned to know her personally better than ever before.

"It was in great measure," writes Alta L. Piper in her biography of Mrs Piper, "due to his sympathetic encouragement and understanding of the many difficulties, with which she found herself confronted in the early days of her career, that my mother was able to adhere unfalteringly to the onerous course which she had set herself to follow."

In an oft-quoted lecture in 1890 Prof James declared:

"To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crow is black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient."

He proclaimed Mrs Piper as his "one white crow".

At Oxford in 1909, in a lecture, he announced his firm conviction that "most of the phenomena of psychical research are rooted in reality."

His most famous works included The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe which were both published in London in 1902.

Source (with minor modifications): An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor (1934).

Articles by William James on this website:

What Psychical Research has Accomplished

On Mediumship


The Scope of Psychology

The Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher

On the Theory of the Soul

Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine



Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2004