Transpersonal Pioneers: William James


Excerpt from Personality and Personal Growth (6th ed.)
Frager, R., & Fadiman, J. (2005). New York: Pearson Prentice Hall pg.201:


For William James, psychology was bounded by biology on one side and philosophy on the other; it addressed all areas of human experience. James helped introduce psychology to the United States, teaching the first course and establishing the first laboratory. He had already published a fully developed theory of consciousness before Breuer and Freud's (1893, 1895) first ideas were in print. After a period of relative obscurity, his many contributions to psychology have reemerged. His interest in inner experiences passed out of fashion as psychology became more involved in psychoanalysis and in the reductionistic orientation of behaviorism. Moreover the increasing fixation on objective data left little room for James' brilliant and incisive speculations.


Since the 1960s, however, sustained research into the nature of consciousness has been conducted. Researchers concerned with the implications of altered states of consciousness, paranormal phenomena, and intuitive states returned to and expanded on James' original expositions. His ideas are once again being debated as an integral part of the curriculum in education. His theory of emotions has returned to center stage in psychophysical circles, cognitive neuroscience has embraced him, while one of his philosophical contributions-pragmatism-has been gradually and completely absorbed into mainstream thinking.


James' works are free of the kind of petty arguments that currently divide psychological theorists. He was more concerned with clarifying the issues than with developing a unified approach, and he understood that different models were necessary for all understanding of different kinds of data. His explorations defined the field of psychology in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He anticipated, among other things, Skinner's behaviorism existential psychology, much of cognitive psychology, gestalt theory, and the Rogerian self-concept.


James was a self-confessed moral psychologist ('moral' meaning 'conscience' as well as 'consciousness', a term that has almost vanished from our modern vocabulary. Fully aware that no science was value free he reminded other teachers that science always had to be interpreted by someone and that even their most scientific actions always had ethical and moral implications: If your students believe what you are teaching them and act on these beliefs, only then does your teaching have real consequences. James himself took full responsibility for his actions and worked passionately for the side he advocated:


I can't bring myself as so many men seem able to, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over. It's as real as the good, and if it is denied, good must be denied too. It must be accepted and hated and resisted while there's breath in our bodies. (James in H. Jamew 1920, Vol. 1, p. 158)


James' major works, The Principles of Psychology (1890), The Will to Believe (1896), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and Pragmatism (1907), continue to be studied. The only problem is that psychologists generally focus almost exclusively on James' Principles of Psychology and read nothing else after 1890, religious thinkers read only the Varieties and do not normally read The Principles, and philosophers read only The Will to Believe and Pragmatism, ig­noring the rest. Thus, it is no mystery why the questions that James posed remain largely unanswered, even though they are more and more at the center of cur­rent controversies within psychology and philosophy, especially with regard to our understanding of consciousness.


His own model is still probably more all-encompassing than most of the models we are generating today. It can be grasped in a half-dozen historical and conceptual stages. Between 1861 and 1875 James wrote on consciousness within the context of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Between 1875 and 1890 he established the study of consciousness as a laboratory science in the context of physiological psychology and argued for a psychology of individual differences, despite the whining of the Social Darwinists that the individual was insignificant because it was subservient to the species. In 1890 he focused on a cognitive psychology of consciousness, but by 1896 he had turned his attention to a dynamic Psychology of subconscious states. By 1902 he was arguing for the supremacy of mystical states of consciousness over purely discursive ones, and after 1904, while pragmatism was the international rage, he developed a metaphysics called radical empiricism to account for pure experience in the immediate moment, before the differentiation between subject and object-a way of accounting for how we both observe and experience consciousness almost simultaneously. His pragmatism dominated the final phase of his intellectual career despite the fact that radical empiricism remained the core of his metaphysical system, but, in the end, it was presented only as an unfinished arch.

Major Concepts of William James

James explored the full range of human psychology, from brain-stem functioning to religious ecstasy, from the perception of space to psychical research (now called ESP). He could argue both sides of a controversy with equal brilliance. There seemed to be no limit to James' curiosity and no theory, however unpopular, that he was unwilling to consider (MacLeod, 1969). He pursued most vigorously the task of understanding and explaining the basic units of thought. Fundamental concepts, including the nature of perception, attention, habit, will, and emotion, commanded his attention, as did the larger questions of what is consciousness and how it can be studied scientifically.

For James, personality arises from the continual interplay of instincts, habits, and personal choices. He viewed personal differences, developmental stages, psychopathology, and the rest of personality as arrangements and rearrangements of the basic building blocks supplied by nature and slowly refined by evolution.


In Jamesian theory, there are some contradictions. And James was keenly aware of this state of affairs, knowing full well that what holds for one aspect of his approach may not apply to others. Instead of attempting to create a grand and unified scheme, he indulged in what he called pluralistic thinking-that is, holding to more than one theory at a time. James acknowledged that psychology was an immature science, lacking sufficient information in its formulation of consistent laws of sensation, perception, or even the nature of consciousness. Thus he was at ease with the multitude of theories, even with those that contradicted his own. In an introduction to a book that questioned his own ideas, James wrote: "I am not convinced of all of Dr. Sidis's positions, but I can cordially recommend this volume to all classes of readers as a treatise both interesting and instructive, and original in a high degree" (Sidis, 1898, p. vi).


In the conclusion to Psychology: Briefer Course (1892a), the abridged edition of his famous textbook, he admits to the limits of psychology-limits that still exist today.


When, then, we talk of "psychology as a natural science," we must not assume that means a sort of psychology that stands at last on solid ground. It means just the re­verse; it means a psychology particularly fragile, and into which the waters of meta­physical criticism leak at every joint. A string of raw facts; a little gossip and wrangle about opinions; a little classification and generalization on the mere descriptive level; a strong prejudice that we have states of mind, and that our brain conditions them. This is no science, it is only the hope of a science. (pp. 334-335)

The Psychology of Consciousness

James, in laying out the scope of psychology, said that the discipline would consider any and all "mental states" as its data and would investigate their origins and their linkages to physical and physiological data in order to be useful for education, medicine, religion, and any other activity that needs to consider the control of the mind (1892b). He studied a wide range of states of consciousness and, in so doing, did not draw a fixed line between abnormal and normal experience. Portions of his work on altered states, religious states, hypnosis, and paranormal states were ignored. However, as psychology has evolved new methods of investigation, these areas are once again being actively researched. "The study of consciousness ... is emerging as a field of study because of the ardent interest of people scattered throughout the many arms of psychology and well beyond" (Goleman & Davidson, 1979, p. xvii). Professional associations such as the Biofeedback Research Society and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology publish journals and support new lines of inquiry. Indeed, the entire neuroscience revolution could be said to focus on the biology of consciousness. There has been corresponding popular interest, as articles and best-selling books about consciousness appear regularly. The growing interest in consciousness research across a host of disciplines has not yet yielded any definitive answers. One reason may be that, as Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry describes it, there is a dynamic interweaving between the riddle of consciousness and the changing scientific worldview (1995).

A few areas have particular implications for personality theory. Research findings on psychedelic substances, biofeedback, meditation, and hypnosis have challenged some basic assumptions about consciousness and the nature of reality. New methods, new instruments, and a renewed willingness to investigate subjective phenomena are providing a scientific foundation for James' philosophical speculations.


Even after almost a century, however, we cannot yet answer the question of what consciousness is-because it may not be answerable within our usual ways of explanation-but we are learning more about the contents of consciousness and the forms that it takes. Ornstein (1972) argues, as have many others over the centuries, that consciousness can never be understood using an objective approach alone. "There is no way to simply write down the answer, as we might give a textbook definition. The answers must come personally, experientially" (p. ix).


Altered states of consciousness can be triggered by hypnosis, meditation, psychedelic drugs, deep prayer, sensory deprivation, and the onset of acute psychosis. Sleep deprivation or fasting can induce them. Epileptics and migraine sufferers often experience an altered awareness in the aura that precedes attacks. Hypnotic monotony, as in solo high-altitude jet flight, may bring on an altered state. Electronic stimulation of the brain (ESB), alpha or theta brain-wave training, clairvoyant or telepathic insights, muscle stimulation (light flicker at certain speeds) may bring on a sharp change in consciousness. (Ferguson, 1973, p. 59)


The research has shifted from how to induce states of consciousness to a better understanding of what can be learned from the experiences themselves. And, the reader should not be surprised to find that James, with his model that consciousness is a field with a focus and a margin, was already pursuing these lines of investigation 100 years ago.


The span of James' interests is unequaled. He was as concerned about the experiences of the saints as he was about the biological substrata of behavior. Only after James was psychology divided into specialties, like the lands of a great monarchy divided by the ruler's children into smaller, easier-to-govern portions. Contemporary psychology continues to bow to James in passing but still exhibits an unwillingness to embrace his determination to observe the broad spectrum of individual experience directly.


Students interested in James' entire corpus can refer to the Harvard edition of James' Collected Works (Burkhart, Bowers, & Skrupskelis 1975-1988). Meanwhile, there are lamentably few psychology books one can recommend simply for the pleasure of reading them. James' Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is one; Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals (1899) is another.


James' complete Principles of Psychology (1890) included numerous theories in various areas of the discipline, each supported by data. New psychology texts contain a variety of theories, each one supported by much more data than James provided. However, even though current theories have more research to substantiate their respective merits, we are still not much closer now to resolving theoretical differences than we were in 1890 (see Wolman & Knapp, 1981, for an example). Most of the same debates continue unabated today (Robinson, 1993; Staats, 1991). Although many portions of his mammoth textbook are dated, his own remarks, speculations, and colorful examples still are quoted and remembered. His writing is stunning.


James advocated an active, involved role of psychology-in-the-marketplace for the science he helped to establish. It mattered to him what people did with their lives, and he felt that psychology could and should be helpful to them. In many ways, we are still in his debt and in his shadow. The broad spectrum of phenomena he laid out for psychology to investigate is wider than most psychologists have dared put forth. James was what we would call today a humanistic psychologist, keenly aware of the moral responsibilities inherent in teaching and counseling others. Humanistic psychologists have claimed him as an early founder in this regard (Taylor, 1991). He was also a behaviorist, convinced that behavior was the primary and fundamental source of information. As well, James was a transpersonal psychologist, sensitive to the reality of higher states of consciousness and intrigued with the effects those states had upon those who experienced them.


His insistence that there was much to be learned from the examination of mental healers, psychics, and visionaries has been validated by contemporary research on altered states of consciousness.


Beyond psychology, James has had a lasting effect on education (particularly through his colleague and friend John Dewey and Dewey's followers) and on philosophy-not only on pragmatism but on phenomenology as well (Edie, 1987). While various of James' ideas have come in and out of fashion in academic psychology, no one (including his most severe critics) ever suggested that the way he portrayed his findings and ideas was anything less than inspiring

Highlights of James' Theory

  • James defined psychology as "the description and explanation of states of consciousness as such." The field of psychology was defined by his explorations and findings.
  • Concerned more with clarifying issues than with developing a unified approach, James understood that different models were useful in the understanding of different kinds of data.
  • The personal continuity that is recognized each time one awakens is the self. It has several layers: the biological, the material, the social, and the spiritual. Like consciousness, it is simultaneously continuous and discrete.
  • There is no individual consciousness independent of an owner. Every thought is part of a personal consciousness. Consciousness always exists in relation to some person. The same exact thought can never occur twice.
  • Thought is continuous, within each personal consciousness. Each thought emerges from a stream of consciousness, taking part of its force, content, focus and direction from preceding thoughts.
  • Consciousness is selective. Attention and habit are major variables in what an individual chooses and what determines the choice.
  • Awareness has two aspects, a definite portion and a vague portion, a nucleus and a fringe. What we are aware of at any given moment is what we attend to. What is on the fringe comprises the web of feelings and associations that give meaning to the content.
  • Consciousness is a field, with a focus and a margin.
  • Rejecting the notion that the mind is passive and that experience simply rains upon it, James felt that before something can be experienced, it must be attended to. Experience is utter chaos without selective interest, or attention.
  • Habits are actions or thoughts that are seemingly automatic responses. They diminish the conscious attention the individual needs to pay to his or her actions. Withdrawing attention from an action makes it resistant to change, although easier to perform.
  • Bad habits are the most obvious and prevalent obstacles to growth in daily life. New possibilities are prevented through resistance to changing a habit.
  • Will is the combination of effort (overcoming distractions, inhibitions, or laziness) and attention (focusing consciousness). Will is necessary to bring the individual close to the transformed state of mystical union and cosmic or unitive consciousness.
  • Human beings have an underlying drive to increase their own well-being.
  • An emotion depends on feedback from one's body. Developments in psychopharmacology partially support this general position.
  • The organism is best served by a balance between expression of feelings and detachment. An attitude of healthy-mindedness is necessary. No less than a transformation of reality is the proper aim of one's ideals.
  • Pragmatism: if no practical differences exist whether all idea is true or false then further discussion of it is pointless.
  • Unexpressed emotions, errors of excess, and what James termed a "certain blindness" are obstacles to growth. Blocked or bottled-up emotion, positive or negative, can lead to mental and physical illness.
  • The psychology that James introduced addressed all areas of human experience bounded on one side by mysticism and by biology of the other. He did not separate abnormal, normal, or transcendent experience in his study of a wide range of states of consciousness. He saw them all as part of a single continuum.
  • Basic assumptions about consciousness and the nature of reality are questioned by research with biofeedback, psychedelic drugs, hypnosis, and meditation. Current research on subjective phenomena parallels the work of James on altered states, religious states, paranormal states, and hypnosis.
  • James described the self as an experience of many selves in a constantly fluctuating field. This seems congruent with the finding that a person may lose what is termed personal identity without feeling a loss of actual identity.
  • Any theory of personality that does not take into account altered states of consciousness is an incomplete description of fundamental human experience.
  • The part of consciousness holding our unaltered awareness is but a small part, and a special case with its own limitations and rules.
  • Specific states of consciousness are accessible through specialized training.


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