William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient

In 1901, when he was fifty-nine, William James delivered the Gif¬ford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. James was an inter¬national academic celebrity. The Principles of Psychology, which appeared in 1890 and which had taken him twelve years to write, had been quickly recognized as the leading summation of develop¬ments in a field transformed by the introduction of laboratory meth¬ods and by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. An abridged edition for students, Psychology: Briefer Course, popularly known as “Jimmy,” appeared in 1892; by the time of the Gifford Lec¬tures, it had sold nearly fifty thousand copies.
The Gifford lectureship was a two-year appointment. James re¬turned to Edinburgh for the second set of lectures in 1902, and that year the lectures were published as The Varieties of Religious Experi¬ence. The Varieties has probably been, over the years, James’s most popular book, read even when his functionalist psychology had been superseded by Freudianism and behaviorism, and his prag¬matist philosophy was in eclipse. It is composed primarily of case histories, collected from all around the world and organized by cate-gory—”Conversion,” “Saintliness,” “Mysticism,” and so on. It looks, in other words, like a psychology textbook, and that is because it is a psychology textbook. The Varieties is not a study of religion; it is, as the subtitle states, “a study in human nature.”
James regarded the investigation of religious experience as a branch of abnormal psychology. He did not think that by treating the subject in this manner he was debunking religion; he thought that by treating it in this manner he was taking religion seriously. His approach reflected the holistic empiricism of which he was pos¬sibly the greatest nineteenth-century exponent: people have reli¬gious experiences, just as people have the experience of seeing tables or feeling cold. We assume that having the experience of see¬ing tables has something to do with there being tables in the world, and that feeling cold has something to do with a change in the tem¬perature. Not everyone has visions or receives mystical revelations; but some human beings do. Those experiences are as psychologi¬cally real as any other state of consciousness, and since conscious¬ness has evolved for the purpose of helping us to cope with our environment—since consciousness is not epiphenomenal, but is an active player in life—there must be something in the universe to which the religious feeling “belongs.” “God is real,” as James put it, summing up what he took to be the common-sense intuition about religion, “since he produces real effects.”
When he published the lectures, James put the sixth and sev¬enth together in a chapter called “The Sick Soul.” “The Sick Soul” is an examination of morbidity—pessimism, disillusionment, anhedo- nia, and various types of melancholy, one of which James calls “panic fear,” and as an illustration of which he offers the following case:
Here is an excellent example, for permission to print which I have to thank the sufferer. The original is in French, and though the sub¬ject was evidently in a bad nervous condition at the time of which he writes, his case has otherwise the merit of extreme simplicity. I translate freely.
“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general de¬pression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own exis¬tence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non¬human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combina¬tion with each other. That shape am J, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrep¬ancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. Af¬ter this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morn¬ing after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and al¬though the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.
“In general 1 dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so uncon¬scious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a per¬fect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melan-cholia of mine had a religious bearing.”

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