William James

Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity

By Krister Dylan Knapp

400 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 1 table, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3124-0
    Published: May 2017
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3125-7
    Published: March 2017

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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.

About the Author

Krister Dylan Knapp is senior lecturer in the department of history at Washington University in St. Louis.
For more information about Krister Dylan Knapp, visit the Author Page.


“Knapp painstakingly demonstrates just how much time James devoted to psychical research (perhaps more than to any other individual endeavor) and how the lessons James drew from that subject informed several of his key doctrines.”--Reading Religion

“Essential reading for anyone who wishes to have a thorough understanding of James's work in psychology and philosophy, or to assess his substantial contributions to psychical research.”--Fortean Times

“Brilliantly solidifies James's stature as a philosophical psychologist who pioneered the understanding of 'exceptional mental states.' Highly recommended.”--Choice

“Knapp offers a thoughtful and well-argued analysis of the increasing centrality of subjectivity that permeates James’s thought, informed his vision of reality as flexible and fluid, and defines him as a proto-modernist.”--Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“Krister Dylan Knapp gets the center of gravity right in tracing the development of William James’s thought, locating psychical research as a thread that ties his intellectual trajectory together. This is a very significant contribution with broad appeal for those interested in religion, psychology, and philosophy.”--Ann Taves, author of Fits, Trances, and Visions

“Krister Dylan Knapp’s William James helps us better understand why James’s pragmatic approach to religion caught on and why it continues to attract followers today. James’s interest in paranormal activity, telepathy, hypnotism, and communications with the dead was not merely a sideline or a passing phase, Knapp shows, but an enduring, relentless, and critical search for evidence that such things might stand up to scientific scrutiny. In addition to chronicling James’s doggedness in pursuit of psychic phenomena, Knapp shows how closely this pursuit was intertwined with other aspects of James’s work that proved more influential. His discussion of James’s tertium quid offers keen insight into James’s disposition as a thinker, and I expect others will come to rely on Knapp’s thesis.”--Amanda Porterfield, author of Conceived in Doubt