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  • Correcting Perry's Misleading Narrative:Historicizing James's "Shady Excursions" into Phrenology
  • Ermine L. Algaier IV

while william james's research in mental healing, psychical research, and religious experience are all well-documented, his foray into phrenology remains unexplored and undeveloped. This paper begins with Ralph Barton Perry's narrative, which portrays James as a believer in the truth of phrenology and as someone who thinks it should be valued as an art. While this depiction of James has not made its way into the recent biographies, there are a few individuals who, in fact, perpetuate this idea within the secondary literature (e.g., Bjork 117–18; Bakan 201). In response, this paper offers a critical assessment of Perry's account by demonstrating that there is sufficient reason to be suspicious of his assertions. The paper is divided into two parts: first, I briefly summarize James's writings on phrenology and, second, I unpack Perry's claims in order to demonstrate that his account originates from undocumented and dubious oral history, largely as a result of misreading Thomas Hyde's (1884) How to Study Character. In the concluding remarks, I suggest that a more historically accurate representation of James's interest in phrenology needs to be grounded within the historical context of the problem of cerebral localization.

James on Phrenology: 1875–1890

Historically, James's brief writings on phrenology span a period of fifteen years. His earliest known public engagement dates back to his 1875 review of Nicholas Morgan's The Skull and Brain, while his last public engagement derives from his Principles of Psychology. Between these texts, James also criticized phrenology in a series of lectures given at the Lowell Institute in 1878. [End Page 17]

First, we readily note that the review of Morgan presents a critical commentary on the state of phrenological inquiry.1 Anecdotally, textual evidence demonstrates that James was rather disappointed that Morgan's book was phrenological. In a letter to W. P. Garrison, the editor of Nation, dated August 1875, James commented that had he known in advance this text was phrenological in nature, he would not have offered to review it (Correspondence 4: 519). Nevertheless, James praises Morgan for his awareness of "the provisional nature of formulas in general and of the formulas of his own art in particular" ("Review" 308).2 According to James, Morgan recognizes that Franz J. Gall's empirical claims would have been less problematic had he referred to "indications," as opposed to "faculties" or "organs" ("Review" 309). James further expresses an attitude that is critical of phrenology by correlating its "almost grotesque" analysis of the "faculties" as being a "crude empiric art" ("Review" 309).

James also suggests the so-called art of phrenology would benefit from a careful reading of the German neuropathologist Dr. Carl Wernicke's work on aphasia, insofar as it represents a "real scientific method" that is able to anatomically ground its theoretical claims ("Review" 309). In addition to the methodological critique, James also criticizes Morgan's failure to provide a serious engagement with Alexander Bain's devastating psychological critique of phrenology which, according to James, has "thrown a flood of light over this whole matter" ("Review" 309).

Shortly after reviewing Morgan, James gave a series of six lectures entitled "The Brain and the Mind" at the Lowell Institute—the same year he began working on Principles. While we do not have full drafts of the 1878 lectures, we may study the existent notes and outlines transcribed by his wife, Alice.3 Robert D. Richardson summarizes the series by explaining that James used the lectures to examine the literature that attempts to make consciousness less mysterious by explaining the physiological activities of the brain. His goal was to break free of the old guard and develop his own approach to introspective psychology (Richardson 194–96). In lecture 5 of the 1878 Lowell Lectures, James offers a critique of phrenology. However, since the extant records are only notes and drafts, we can turn instead toward his more robust and serious engagement published two years later.

In chapter 2 of Principles, a chapter largely overlooked or read only for historic interest, James provides a physiological and functionalist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6489
Print ISSN
1930-7365
Pages
pp. 17-24
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-13
Open Access
No
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