October 31, 2021

1. William James and Hypnosis

Mesmerism was developed around 1780 by Franz Mesmer, a German doctor. Mesmerism was often called “animal magnetism,” and practitioners were called “magnetizers.” Early in his career, Mesmer attached magnets to the patient’s body. He believed that the human body contained a “magnetic fluid,” and this fluid enabled one person to influence another, en-trance another, mesmerize another.

Mesmer’s magnetic fluid was never discovered, but his approach continued to arouse interest, and it evolved into hypnotism. William James practiced hypnotism; he hypnotized some fifty Harvard students, “with the aim of trying to learn more about the physiology underlying the hypnotic trance.”1 James believed that a hypnotized patient could overcome certain illnesses, just as a hypochondriac could acquire certain illnesses. James wrote, “As the mind calls forth disease in hypochondriacs and hysterics, so it should be employed to banish it.”

Freud also practiced hypnosis, which he learned from a French doctor, Charcot. Charcot used hypnosis on patients suffering from hysteria; by talking about their problem, they could become conscious of it, and sometimes overcome it. Freud only practiced hypnosis for a short time; he soon found that similar results could be achieved by conversation, by “free association.”

* * * * *

Phineas Quimby was born in New Hampshire in 1802. As a young man, he suffered from tuberculosis, which was regarded as incurable. He believed that he cured his illness through the powers of the mind, and he felt he could cure others, too.2

Quimby became a traveling healer, using mesmerism, hypnosis, or simply conversation. One of his patients was Mary Baker Eddy, who later founded Christian Science. Unlike Quimby, Eddy emphasized the role of faith in God. Quimby felt that the individual will, the individual mind, had healing power.

Eddy’s Christian Science became a prominent branch of Christianity. I have relatives, on both my mother’s side and my father’s side, who were Christian Scientists. Around 1970, Christian Science seemed to decline, and today it seems moribund.

Quimby is considered the father of the New Thought movement. When William James was struggling with insomnia, he tried what was called “mind-cure” or “mental healing.” His “doctor” was a Quimby disciple named Annetta Dresser. “Annetta’s son Horatio became a prominent New Thought writer, whose works James would treat with respect in The Varieties of Religious Experience.”3 The New Thought movement is an ancestor of today’s New Age movement.

Another NewThought writer who interested James was Annie Payson Call. “Call’s popular self-help books would be based on James’ views about the power of habit. James, in turn, learned much about the importance of relaxation — muscular relaxation — from Call’s work.”4 It seems that, in James’ day, people were becoming less interested in their relationship with God, less interested in the afterlife, and more interested in managing their own minds, their own bodies, their own lives.

In an earlier issue, I discussed an English writer named James Allen:

The power of thought is the subject of James Allen’s As A Man Thinketh. Allen understands that negative thoughts can “arrange” disasters and problems of all sorts, and Allen argues that positive thoughts are just as powerful at arranging positive outcomes. Allen tries to inspire the reader to “think positive” in order to improve his inner state and his outer conditions. “Man is the cause (though nearly always unconsciously) of circumstances.... Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.”

Allen is an important figure in self-help literature, motivational literature. He’s sometimes classified as part of the New Thought movement. He teaches us to manage our thoughts, direct our will, so as to utilize the power of the mind.

Mesmer tried to harness the power of magnetism. Then people felt that magnetism could be replaced with hypnosis. Then it was felt that hypnosis could be replaced by conversation with a therapist. In the absence of a therapist, one could manage one’s own thoughts, and thereby harness the power of positive thinking, the power of will.

2. Our Inner Compass

Recent research indicates that birds, dogs, and even people can sense earth’s magnetic fields. Cells respond to a magnetic field passed over them. Birds use their magnetic sense to help them navigate on a long migration.5

In some cells, electrons become paired with, entangled with, electrons from another atom.6 This particle entanglement is sometimes called “quantum biology.” Entanglement can apparently affect chemical reactions, set the stage for magnetic influence, and “have a major effect on biology.”

This is a murky subject, and the articles I read don’t explain it clearly. But I think we can say that particle-entanglement is a large field, impacting not just quantum physics, but also quantum computing and quantum biology. Particle-entanglement is at the root of what I’ve often called the fundamental connectedness of the universe.

It often happens that old “superstitions” are found to be at least partly true. The basic principle of magic — that distant objects can influence each other, if they were once closely connected — has been verified by quantum physics. Mesmer’s idea that magnetic fields impact people may not be as silly as we thought.7

3. Frevel

Frevel is a German word meaning teasing or disrespect or impiety; it’s related to the English word “frivolous.” One of the goals of education is to replace frevel with respect. Many middle schools say, “Our mission is to teach students to respect themselves and respect other people.”

Respect can be felt not only for people, but for the universe in general. George Santayana said, “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe, and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.” Respect and piety seem especially important nowadays, when belief in God is dwindling. When people believed in God, they were inclined to be humble and respectful toward God, the church, etc.

Frevel should not be confused with play or with humor; one can have respect/piety and still enjoy play/humor. Spitting in church is an example of frevel, it’s neither playful nor humorous.

Perhaps one way to avoid frevel is to have a code, have some kind of moral code. Writers like Kipling and Hemingway depict characters who have a code — the code of the soldier, the code of the hunter, etc. — and thereby avoid frevel. In an earlier issue, I discussed the hunter who violates the hunting code, who commits jagdfrevel (hunting frevel).

Hemingway’s fisherman follows a code and has a kind of cosmic piety: “When he and the boy fished together they usually spoke only when it was necessary.... It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it.”

4. William James and Emerson

Emerson had a high reputation in his lifetime — indeed, he was read far beyond the U.S. Emerson was a close friend of William James’ father, and an acquaintance of William James himself. Emerson’s writings had considerable influence on William James. James said, “posterity will reckon [Emerson] a prophet.... His words [will] take their place among the Scriptures of humanity.” John Dewey, James’ disciple, called Emerson “the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato.”8

Here’s a chart that divides philosophy into Spiritualism and Materialism:

This chart is based on James’ writings, though not made by James.9 Both Emerson and James would come under Spiritualism rather than Materialism, and both would come under Pantheism rather than Theism. Theism would locate God in a particular place, a particular religion, a particular holy book, but Emerson and James saw divinity broadly diffused, so we can call them Pantheists. Or we could say that Theism separates God from Man, while Pantheism identifies God and Man; if we view Pantheism in this way, again we would call Emerson and James Pantheists. When we separate God from Man, we have Dualism; when we identify God and man, we have Monism. James sees a tendency toward Pantheism/Monism in his time:

Dualistic theism [James writes] is professed as firmly as ever at all Catholic seats of learning, whereas it has of late years tended to disappear at our British and American universities, and to be replaced by a monistic pantheism more or less open or disguised.10

Coming back to our chart, we’ve decided that Emerson and James belong under Pantheism rather than Theism. It remains to place them under Absolutism or under “Pluralism or Radical Empiricism.” Pantheists view God, the world, and man as one, whereas Theists view God, the world, and man as three separate things. Within Pantheism, there are two camps. One camp emphasizes oneness, the “all-form”; it says that the world is divine only in its totality. This camp is Absolutism. The other camp emphasizes the many, the “each-form.” This camp is Pluralism or Radical Empiricism. James places himself in the pluralist camp. To which camp does Emerson belong?

If Emerson were a Transcendentalist pure and simple, we would put him under Absolutism. As a Pluralist, James opposed Transcendentalism: “Speaking of the Transcendentalists, [James] wrote: ‘The more absolutistic philosophers dwell on so high a level of abstraction that they never even try to come down.’”11 It’s difficult to place Emerson on our chart because he aimed to steer a middle course between Absolutism and Pluralism. Emerson wrote, “We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life.... The mid-world is best.”12

* * * * *

James often puts a psychological foundation under an Emersonian idea. For example, Emerson had noted that actions are closely related to thoughts/words: “The ancestor of every action is a thought.... Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.” James explained this by saying that the job of the will is to hold an object before the mind; once the mind is paying attention to that object, “immediate motor consequences” often ensue.13 Emerson’s language is general and philosophical, James’ language is more precise, scientific, physiological.

Like Emerson, James wrote about heroism, and how the great man inspires us by his example. The great man, James said, “can stand this Universe.... And hereby he becomes one of the masters and the lords of life.” The phrase “lords of life” comes from Emerson.

Carlyle had argued that the great man had a special substance, he could be great in any field, at any time. Emerson, on the other hand, had argued that the great man was “representative” of a certain era, and a certain psychological type. According to Emerson, what made Shakespeare great wasn’t that he possessed the substance “Greatness,” but rather that he represented the Elizabethan Age, and he represented The Poet.

James followed Emerson. “In his essays on ‘Great Men and their Environment’ and ‘The Importance of Individuals,’ James [paralleled] very closely Emerson’s teaching on the subject.”14 James argued that the age makes the man as much as the man makes the age: “Cromwell and Napoleon need their revolutions, Grant his Civil War.”15

In his essay “The Over-Soul,” Emerson advised the young person not to worry about the future, but to patiently cultivate his garden: “Accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition.” James made a similar argument:

Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out.

Emerson stressed the importance of potential rather than achievement:

Our life seems not present so much as prospective; not for the affairs on which it is wasted, but as a hint of this vast-flowing vigor. Most of life seems to be mere advertisement of faculty; information is given us not to sell ourselves cheap; that we are very great. So, in particulars, our greatness is always in a tendency or direction, not in an action.16

According to Emerson, the specifics of our belief-system aren’t as important as our will to believe: “It is not what we believe concerning the immortality of the soul or the like, but the universal impulse to believe, that is the... principal fact in the history of the globe.” The specifics of our worldview may be false, but our will to believe is true. We can build a new philosophy based on this will, a philosophy that includes earlier denials and earlier affirmations. Emerson wrote,

A new picture of life and duty is already possible... a doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have. The new statement will comprise the skepticisms as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.

I’m reminded of Hegel’s idea that all philosophies are partly true, all philosophies present a facet of the truth. And when Emerson speaks of ‘including the oldest beliefs,’ I’m reminded of my own view that there’s a deep wisdom in the primitive worldview; primitive beliefs should indeed be included in the Philosophy of Today. Emerson gives us a glimpse of the new approach to philosophy, the approach taken by James and Nietzsche, the approach that focuses on the will, the psychological approach. This new approach to philosophy turns philosophy “inside out,” or perhaps I should say, “outside in.”

When Emerson speaks of “the universal impulse to believe,” there’s an obvious parallel with James’ “will to believe.” Carpenter says that Emerson’s argument “with its italics and its carefully chosen phraseology, would, I believe, inevitably suggest a comparison between James and Emerson.”

It’s not the philosophical system that matters, it’s the philosopher that matters. Power, energy, vigor, truth, divinity — all are in the individual. Emerson and James would approve of the Chinese saying, “It’s not Truth that makes man great, it’s man that makes Truth great.” It’s not the system of thought that Emerson emphasized, it’s “man thinking.” James took the same view, James “described philosophy as ‘in the full sense only man thinking — thinking about generalities rather than about particulars.’”17

While Emerson emphasized the potential of the individual, did he overlook the dark side of human nature? According to James, Emerson had “too little understanding of the morbid side of life.”18 James felt that he himself had plumbed the depths of despair, he had been to hell and back, he had thought of suicide and then experienced rebirth, he was “twice born.” James found these experiences in Christian writers, but not in Emerson. James wrote, “The orthodox theology contains elements that are permanently true, and that such writers as Emerson, by reason of their extraordinary healthy-mindedness and once-born-ness, are incapable of appreciating.”19

Carpenter summarizes the relationship between James and Emerson thus:

The general philosophic attitudes of James and of Emerson were largely the same... James’ writings contain many parallels to Emerson’s both in ideas and in phrasing... The two men believed in the value of great men, in self-reliance and in the existence of some kind of ‘Over-Soul’... Emerson anticipated vaguely some of James’ theories of psychology and of pragmatism... [Emerson] suggested the title of The Will to Believe.

In 1903, James delivered a speech in Concord (Concord was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Emerson’s birth). James concluded his speech thus: “Beloved master, as long as our English language exists, men’s hearts will be cheered and their souls strengthened and liberated by the noble and musical pages with which you have enriched it.” At this stage of his life, James was an accomplished public speaker; as his biographer (Robert D. Richardson) puts it, “James was now a great speaker.”19B

As James admired Emerson, so too he admired Whitman. “Whitman was more modern to James than was Emerson, and expressed many of the same ideas and feelings.”20 Like Emerson, Whitman was a champion of “man thinking,” of the knower rather than knowledge, of the potential of the individual. James said of Whitman, “To feel ‘I am the truth’ is to abolish the opposition between knowing and being.”21 James said that Whitman “is accounted by many of us a contemporary prophet.”22 Carpenter says that James quotes Whitman in “The Will to Believe, Varieties of Religious Experience, and Pragmatism, always with approbation.” After quoting Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, James called it “a divinely beautiful poem.”

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. See Robert D. Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 42

One might compare Mesmer’s magnetic fluid to ether. In both cases, something physical was imagined, hypothesized, to explain a mysterious phenomenon; the phenomenon seemed less mysterious if it could be ascribed to a physical substance. back

2. People who struggle with illness often become healers. In an earlier issue, I mentioned a Chinese healer who struggled with illness in his early years. Wikipedia has an article called Wounded Healer. back
3. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 43 back
4. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 43

Perhaps Call’s ideas on muscular relaxation intersect with the ideas of Frederick Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique. As I wrote in an earlier issue, Alexander was “a Shakespearean actor who was losing his voice during performances. After observing himself in mirrors, Alexander decided that he was tensing his muscles and holding himself incorrectly. When he relaxed his muscles and held himself erect, his symptoms went away.” back

5. Can people sense earth’s magnetic fields? One article says “humans are actually still capable of detecting Earth’s magnetism... though it’s not conscious.” Can some people bring this unconscious feeling into consciousness? In other words, can some people develop a sense of Earth’s magnetic fields — develop their “inner compass”?

Do primitive people, and perhaps children, have a more developed magnetic sense? When Thoreau was in Maine, he marveled at how his guide, a Native American, could always sense north, south, etc. “I asked him how he guided himself in the woods.... ‘Oh, I can’t tell you,’ he replied. ‘Great difference between me and white man.’ It appeared as if the sources of information were so various that he did not give a distinct, conscious attention to any one, and so could not readily refer to any when questioned about it, but he found his way very much as an animal does.” back

6. What is entanglement? If particle A and particle B are entangled, a change to particle A’s spin will cause a change in particle B’s spin, regardless of how far away the two particles are. Particle entanglement might be compared to a close relationship between two people — twins, for example. If one has an accident in London, the other will sense it in Boston. So people can be “entangled” just as particles can be entangled. Entanglement is a fundamental property of matter, of living things, of the universe in general. back
7. Magnetic fields can sometimes influence people in a negative way. There seems to be a link “between environmental electromagnetic field exposure and childhood leukemia.” back
8. Quoted in Frederic I. Carpenter’s “Points of Comparison between Emerson and William James,” jstor.org/stable/359243. back
9. I found the chart in Carpenter’s essay. Carpenter says that the chart is based on James’ Pluralistic Universe, Ch. 1. back
10. A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture 1

James writes, “Those of us who are sexagenarians have witnessed in our own persons one of those gradual mutations of intellectual climate, due to innumerable influences, that make the thought of a past generation seem as foreign to its successor as if it were the expression of a different race of men. The theological machinery that spoke so livingly to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of nothing, its juridical morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an ‘intelligent and moral governor,’ sounds as odd to most of us as if it were some outlandish savage religion.” back

11. “Points of Comparison between Emerson and William James”

Insofar as Emerson was a Transcendentalist, James criticized him. Carpenter speaks of James’ “decided distrust of Emerson's ‘transcendentalism,’ especially in his earlier writings.” But there was another Emerson, a Pluralist Emerson, who had a “drastic perception of differences.”(Carpenter quoting James) For the Pluralist Emerson, “the Over-Soul is never so important as the individual receptor. In him the absolutist always gives way before the individualist.”(Carpenter) back

12. Carpenter, quoting Emerson’s essay “Experience” back
13. See Carpenter, pp. 463-464 back
14. Carpenter back
15. Quoted in Carpenter back
16. From the essay “Experience.” Part of the quotation is in Carpenter. back
17. Emerson uses the phrase “man thinking” in his address “The American Scholar.” The James quote is from Carpenter, who found it in James’ Some Problems of Philosophy. back
18. Carpenter back
19. Carpenter, quoting a letter written by James back
19B. See Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 72 back
20. Carpenter back
21. Quoted in Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 28. The quote is probably from James’ essay “The Sentiment of Rationality” — or rather, from one version of that essay.

Whitman lived until 1892, when James was 50, so James had ample opportunity to visit Whitman at his NewJersey home. As far as I know, James and Whitman never met. back

22. Carpenter, quoting James’ essay “On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings” back