William James Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity, by Krister Dylan Knapp
In this insightful new book on the remarkable William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, Krister Dylan Knapp provides the first deeply historical and acutely analytical account of James's psychical research. While showing that James always maintained a critical stance toward claims of paranormal phenomena like spiritualism, Knapp uses new sources to argue that psychical research held a strikingly central position in James’s life. It was crucial to his familial and professional relationships, the fashioning of his unique intellectual disposition, and the shaping of his core doctrines, especially the will-to-believe, empiricism, fideism, and theories of the subliminal consciousness and immortality.
Knapp explains how and why James found in psychical research a way to rethink the well-trodden approaches to classic Euro-American religious thought, typified by the oppositional categories of natural vs. supernatural and normal vs. paranormal. He demonstrates how James eschewed these choices and instead developed a tertiary synthesis of them, an approach Knapp terms tertium quid, the third way. Situating James's psychical research in relation to the rise of experimental psychology and Protestantism’s changing place in fin de siècle America, Knapp asserts that the third way illustrated a much broader trend in transatlantic thought as it struggled to navigate the uncertainties and religious adventurism of the modern age.