Ghost Hunters: William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

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What if a world-renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University, a doctor and scientist acclaimed as one of the leading intellects of the time, suddenly announced that he believed in ghosts? At the close of the nineteenth century, to great public and professional astonishment, William James-the great philosopher, a founder of the American Psychological Association and brother of Henry James-did just that and embarked on a determined, lifelong pursuit of scientific ...

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Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

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Overview

What if a world-renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University, a doctor and scientist acclaimed as one of the leading intellects of the time, suddenly announced that he believed in ghosts? At the close of the nineteenth century, to great public and professional astonishment, William James-the great philosopher, a founder of the American Psychological Association and brother of Henry James-did just that and embarked on a determined, lifelong pursuit of scientific evidence to prove it.

James came together with two other brilliant and charismatic thinkers of the day-Richard Hodgson, a converted skeptic, and James Hyslop, a natural grandstander who would often visit mediums unannounced, a hooded mask covering his face-to form the core of the American Society for Psychical Research. They eventually merged with the British Society for Psychical Research, adding to the group the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and his tiny, ferociously smart wife Eleanor, as well as the mythically handsome Edmund Gurney and others. While studies of ESP and ghostly visitations have occurred since the days of the society, at no other time have scientists of the caliber of James and his colleagues devoted themselves in such an ambitious and driven way for evidence of a life beyond. James and his band of brothers staked their reputations, their careers, even their sanity, on one of the most extraordinary (and entertaining) psychological quests ever undertaken, a quest that brought its followers right up against the limits of science.

This riveting book is about the investigation of the ghost stories-the instances of supernatural phenomena that could not be explained away-and it is about the courage and conviction of William James and his colleagues to study science with an open mind. At the heart of the story is the ongoing tension between empiricism and spiritualism-between a way of explaining the world that is grounded in the purely tangible and a way that is grounded in a mixture of the evident and the hidden. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Deborah Blum uses her extraordinary storytelling skills and scientific insight to explore nothing less than the nexus of science and religion. It is a territory as fascinating to us now as it was to William James and his colleagues then.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When a world-renowned Harvard professor becomes a committed ghost hunter, educated people want to know why. William James's lifelong pursuit of visitors from the Other Side aroused skepticism and mirth, but the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience remained undeterred by critics or fraudulent occultists. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Deborah Blum artfully weaves the story of a 19th-century intellectual who staked his reputation on spirits.
Anthony Gottlieb
Blum tells her literally wondrous tale very well.
— The New York Times
Dennis Drabelle
… for believers and agnostics alike, Ghost Hunters contains a wealth of lively and provocative reading.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In a compelling tale with resonance for today, Blum evokes a surprising sympathy for her band of tough-minded intellectuals-among them philosophers, psychologists, even two future Nobelists-who, around the turn of the 20th century, pursued the paranormal in an attempt to bridge the gap between faith and science at a time when religion was besieged by the theory of evolution and a new scientific outlook. Foremost in the Society for Psychical Research in America was the brilliant philosopher and psychologist William James, who like the others, risked his reputation in this unorthodox pursuit. Blum unearths the history of their research, their passionate friendships and debates, as well as their private doubts about the meaning of their work. Much of the society's efforts were devoted to exposing charlatans, but even the most dogged of the members, Richard Hodgson, was baffled by Boston's Leonora Piper, a reluctant medium of rare gifts. As Hodgson obsessively studies this medium, the story grows weirder and weirder, but Blum, who was nominated for an L.A. Times Book Award for Love at Goon Park, tells it straight, never overdramatizing the strange events. She achieves deep poignancy at moments that in less gifted hands could have seemed most laughable. The result is a moving portrait of a fascinating group of people and a first-rate slice of cultural history. (Aug. 7) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In both Britain and the United States from roughly the 1850s to World War I, the general public was treated to a string of sensational presentations by mediums, a few of whom appeared to be genuine. The result was a widespread fascination with reaching the afterlife through such means as s ances and planchette boards (forerunners of the Ouija board), which set the stage for the classic Victorian confrontation between religion and the emerging power of science. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Blum (The Monkey War) examines this conflict by reviewing the history of the British Society for Psychical Research and its U.S. counterpart, the American Society for Psychical Research, both of which aimed to find scientific proof of the existence of the supernatural. The author thoroughly covers the groups' principal members and their work, including philosopher and American Psychological Association founder William James, brother of novelist Henry James. She keeps the story moving and fleshes out each character. Her clearly written presentation of the history, frauds, and personalities involved in this unique slice of Victorian life is recommended for all history of science collections.-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An account of fin-de-siecle investigations into the murky worlds and weird works of mediums, mesmerists, rhabdomancers and spiritualists. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Blum (Science Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Love at Goon Park, 2002, etc.) has done her homework; she seems to have read all the relevant correspondence and publications of the scientists and psychologists who, around the turn of the 20th century, tried to determine if there was scientific basis for spiritualism. Although her focus is on the redoubtable William James, she offers much about his colleagues in the ghost-busting business, including William Crookes, William Fletcher Barrett, Edward Gurney, Richard Hodgson, Fred Myers, Henry Sidgwick, James Hyslop and others. The author also focuses sharply on two women with apparent powers: the medium Leonora Piper and the Italian telekineticist Eusapia Palladino, who could make curtains billow and tables hang in the air. Blum excels at demonstrating how troubled James and his cohorts were by their investigations. In some cases, they simply could not find scientific explanations for the stories they were gathering, or for what some of them had witnessed. In her trances, Piper said things that astonished them; Palladino flummoxed more than one cocky skeptic. Blum also does a fine job of showing how the scientific community was embarrassed and angered by the fact that some of its most respected members were pursuing research into the paranormal. Perhaps the most extreme reaction came at Columbia University, where a group of professors demanded that Hyslop abandon psychical research. What's largely missing here is the author's perspective. Blum seems content to relate ratherthan to analyze; her text lacks analysis. She ends with the patent observation that the conflict between science and the supernatural endures. A useful but oddly uncritical summary.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594200908
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/3/2006
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994). Her other books include Sex on the Brain (Viking, 1997) and Love at Goon Park (Perseus, 2002). She has written about scientific research for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and now serves on an advisory board to the World Federation of Science Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences.

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Table of Contents

1 The night side 7
2 A spirit of unbelief 33
3 Lights and shadows 51
4 Metaphysics and metatrousers 75
5 Infinite rationality 105
6 All ye who enter here 131
7 The principles of psychology 157
8 The invention of ectoplasm 185
9 The unearthly archive 209
10 A prophecy of death 237
11 A force not generally recognized 267
12 A ghost story 295
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2006

    Mediums beware!

    Excellent. Well written and highly readable. At the turn of the century these maverick early psycologists, and scientists do everything they can to debunk the spiritualist movement and mediums in particular, but in the end are more convinced than ever of life after death.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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