- Last Call for William James:On Pragmatism, Piper, and the Value of Psychical Research
"William James had always been attracted to interesting women," writes biographer Robert D. Richardson. "Women found him attractive too." He quickly notes that "there has never been so much as a breath of scandal about these friendships. . . . But even if James never ran off for a fling . . . James's women friends were an important part of his life." Yet James was spontaneous and reckless, "a natural philanderer, with a philanderer's lack of interest in settled arrangements" (Richardson 353). What follows is not addressed to any potential scandal in James's personal life; it is, however, a response to what some might consider a scandal in James's professional life, namely, the close relationship that he had with medium research.
It is natural to regard James's psychical research as if it were an affair he was having on his marriage to pragmatism. Bringing up the topic of medium communication among a group of intellectuals—particularly academics—often leads to uncomfortable moments. If one introduces the topic, the default response will be skepticism, if not derision. The reflex among many intellectuals is to regard medium research as a scandal to the kinds of inquiry traditionally undertaken in the academy.
If pragmatism is thought to involve fidelity to the rigidly defined scientific method involving discrete phenomena and clear rational categories, then psychical investigation, which is undertaken with seemingly unscientific, emotional attitudes, is indeed a scandal. The case can be made, however, that James's psychical research involves no particular problem for James's pragmatism, and in fact is continuous with it to the point where, if one is embarrassed by psychical research, one is correspondingly unsure about pragmatism. The pragmatic method, as James understands it, involves an extraordinary fidelity to the consideration of unorthodox experience that is not fixed and discrete, but rather continuous with the flow of emotion and the vagaries [End Page 72] of communication. This unsettling notion of science is aptly illustrated by considering James's interactions with medium Leonora Piper, the Boston housewife who attracted James's attention for nearly twenty-five years of his life. In what follows, James's investigations with Piper will be explained as a natural accompaniment to his pragmatism—a pragmatism that is influenced by James's father, who was familiar with psychical phenomenon in large part due to his interest in Swedenborg. In addition, a pair of contemporary mediums, John Edward and Allison DuBois, will be considered. Along with such consideration will be the question of what, if any, is the value of James's style of medium research today.
The Alluring Mrs. Piper
Piper was considered by James to be the one counterexample to the claim that all mediums are worthless. James and his friends in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) subjected her to what they believed was a rigorous scientific process. Cloistered to avoid information from reaching her, subject to spying from detectives, Piper was still able, without employing extraordinary vagueness, to conjure up enough remarkable information—otherwise known as "dazzle shots"—to keep even the skeptical SPR investigators interested. In order to test the authenticity of her trances—in which she appeared to be controlled by an alien personality—she was subjected to painful and invasive stimulations. As science historian Deborah Blum tells it, the men wanted to test her trance state: "How deep was it? Could it be penetrated, broken by sensations? The men pricked her with pins, burned her arm with a match, held ammonia under her nose. Nothing seemed to disturb the sleeplike daze" (164).
It is not difficult to interpret these actions to have a sexual significance, as if the men were trying to get an affirmation out of a "frigid" woman. But whatever the men's conscious or unconscious motivations for them might be, Piper's lack of natural reactions to these impositions showed either that she was a self-anesthetizing fraud, or that she was indeed in an unconscious state. If Piper were self-anesthetizing, however, then she was able, somewhat remarkably, both to distance herself profoundly from her body and yet be so in...