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How the Harvard archives reveal that William James was a highly skilled hypnotist

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau.

The Houghton Library at Harvard University is well-known for housing an important quantity of unpublished data related to William James’s lifelong scientific researches in the broad field of Psychology. Therefore, when digging into the philosopher’s personal library – in his notes, manuscripts and letters – one is astonished, if not startled, to stumble upon a staggering amount of documents dealing with ‘induced somnambulism’, entranced mediums, hallucinations as well as many private reports from unorthodox healers, drug-experimenters and the like.

This material has long been ignored by historians, as it was usually related to James’s controversial involvement with the British Society for Psychical Research and therefore considered irrelevant. A minute historical study of this material, however, leads us to propose another point of view; namely, the hypothesis that, thanks to that very material, one can rebuild a coherent lifelong ‘research program’ which is not prima facie clearly visible in James’s published writings – yet highly significant in appraising his thought and character as well as his important scientific and medical contribution.

A key document in this respect is a never-published handwritten list of a dozen booklets, which James’s wife entitled ‘Valuable and highly prized by WJ’, and which shows the way in which throughout his scientific career James undertook what we could call ‘systematic experimentations on altered states of consciousness’. The aim of this talk is to present some of the main steps of James’s research program with an emphasis on his initiation to the practice of hypnosis during the 1880s, and to show that he came to master various techniques for inducing secondary states of consciousness for experimental purposes.

This talk is part of the HPS History Workshop series.

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