William James: radical empiricist

Show Navigation

By | The Researcher’s View

For the next in our series on Crick and Consciousness, Dr Emma Sutton contrasts Francis Crick’s materialist science of consciousness with that of 19th century psychologist William James, who developed a much broader understanding of what ‘counts’ as scientific evidence.

When Francis Crick set himself a new challenge, to crack the scientific secret of consciousness itself, he was adamant that the mind and its workings, would one day succumb to careful biological analysis and experiment. At the end of the day, the mind was no different to the rest of the human body; it was just a fleshy machine, albeit a very complicated one, and once we understood enough about its mechanisms, its neuronal nuts and bolts, we would understand it completely.

William James

William James, 1903. Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1092 (1185).

In developing his studies of consciousness, Crick turned to the ideas of the leading 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James, whose close attention to the psychological notion of “attention” he found particularly suggestive. He referred to his work as “monumental” and cited James’s description of attention as “the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one of out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought”. James’s own explorations of consciousness, however, convinced him of the hubris of a quest like Crick’s. The human mind, for James, proved to be more than the sum of its physical parts.

James’s own attempts to write a comprehensive textbook reducing the complexities of our mental worlds to a ‘scientific’ psychology were, in his eyes, a failure. Philosophy and speculation, mystery and wonder, crept in at every turn.  According to his son, he went so far as to conclude that psychology was “a nasty little subject”, adding that, “all one cares to know lies outside” (Letters, p.2). In spite of James’s personal doubts though, the book he finally submitted to his long-suffering publisher, 12 years after it was commissioned, was to become a classic, later translated into several different languages.


At a time when the discipline of psychology was in its infancy, James’s richly detailed and lucidly written ‘Principles of Psychology’  proved to be an inspiration to other psychologists and members of the public alike. His treatment of the topics of habit and the emotions proved especially popular over time. In terms of nailing the secrets of consciousness however, James’s book opened up a lot more questions than it solved.

This was partly thanks to James’s new-found interests in the domains of mind-cure and psychical research. A few years before he delivered his final manuscript, he began mixing with these two groups whose activities were an anathema to the orthodox medical and scientific professions. Boston, located close by to James’s hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the epicentre of the mind-cure, or faith-healing, movement in the US: a movement that explored the power of the mind and spirit to cure the body. The Society for Psychical Research meanwhile, was an English organisation dedicated to the study of spiritualism, telepathy and other such phenomena, and he first became interested in their work on one of his trips to Europe.

The Society for Psychical Research : its rise & progress & a sketch of its work

William James was President of the Psychical Research Society from 1894-1895. Table in the “Society for Psychical Research : its rise & progress & a sketch of its work” by Edward Bennet, 1903.

James had not previously held a great deal of respect for either lay healers or spiritualist mediums, describing these “wonder-mongers and magnetic physicians and seventh sons of seventh daughters” as “a sort of intellectual vermin” (Correspondence, vol.6, p.125). But his curiosity became aroused by the medical promise that their results and abilities seemed to offer. He became intrigued by the possibility that some of these individuals had privileged access to a level of mental activity that went on below the threshold of ordinary consciousness. This realm of subconscious or unconscious activity was the subject of study by a small number of contemporary neurologists and psychologists who believed that it held the key to a class of illnesses that were caused by toxic memories and emotions buried deep in their patients’  psyches.


William James sitting with Mrs. Walden in Séance. Undated but before 1910. Photographed by “Miss Carter”. Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1092 (1185).

James though, became increasingly persuaded, thanks to his own experimental experiences and those of his colleagues, friends and relatives, that the “wonder-mongers” offered a type of healing that was possibly more profound and powerful than the talking cures and hypnotic treatments studied by his professional colleagues. He was inspired by the theories of the psychical researcher Frederic Myers who claimed that our subliminal consciousness was a channel for genuine telepathic communication and even that it offered access to a kind of “supernormal” healing energy that was available to those who were able to tap into it.

Frederic Meyers

Photograph of Frederic Meyers by Eveleen Myers, photogravure, late 1890s. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ultimately, James came to believe that conventional understandings of what counts as ‘science’ and ‘scientific evidence’ were narrow and misguided. Science, he argued, needed to be prepared to look outside of its test tubes and microscope slides for inspiration and evidence. He later came to coin the phrase “radical empiricism” to explain that he was still a philosopher who believed in basing knowledge on empirical evidence, but that he had a more inclusive understanding of what constituted empirical evidence.

If Crick had read James’s later writings he would have found a point of view that differed wildly from his own ‘science of consciousness’. For James, the realm of subconscious mental activity was not something that could be understood by examining the assemblies of brain cells confined inside our heads. Instead it was a gateway to other entirely separate minds both human and even, potentially, superhuman.


Dr Emma Sutton is a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts