The Chronicle Review

Haunted by Spirits

Searching for old books by dead philosophers

Stephen Doyle for The Chronicle Review

November 23, 2015

I have a passion for libraries. Not the big public ones or the swanky Ivy League ones, but the little personal ones that are still scattered through the Northeast. Boston is full of them. The grungier the better. Fungus, dirt, scat, words — it’s a delicious mix, a reminder that ideas can still be handled and felt. Most libraries don’t satisfy that desire for physical contact at all. But one did. And I fell in love with it.

It didn’t even look like a library. It used to be the Hathaway Bakery in Cambridge, Mass., wedged between Richdale Avenue and the train tracks that lead to Porter Square. A long brick snake of a building that a century ago was the home of one of the biggest bread factories in New England. Now it housed a discreet, tight-knit community of creatives: architects, writers, and entrepreneurs who had been renting offices and storage space for 40 years.

But you would never know that from the building’s exterior. When I arrived on a February afternoon a couple of years ago, it seemed vacant. Its glazed windows and solid steel doors looked like they hadn’t been opened for ages. As I parked my Subaru, I checked the directions. Maybe I’d misheard. But no, this was it: 33 Richdale.

Victor Kestenbaum is a kindred spirit: He likes to grub around old places, searching for valuable things that other people have discarded as worthless. Over the past 40 years or so, Vic has become very good at it. An emeritus professor of philosophy at Boston University, he spent his career writing about classical American philosophy, arguing that the insights of thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James had been discarded prematurely. We initially bonded over that conviction and discovered that we had a common love for all things dilapidated.

Vic had called the night before: "They’re selling Eugene Taylor’s literary estate. Did you know him?"

Barely. We’d met once, at a philosophy conference. I was a freshly christened graduate student; he was on the verge of retirement. But I knew his work. He had arrived in Boston from Texas in 1977, as a graduate student in psychology, and wound up becoming a renowned scholar on the life and works of William James.

As it happens, William James Hall — a 15-story Modernist monstrosity erected in 1963 — is the home of Harvard’s psych department, where Taylor began his doctoral research. Massive and imposing, it’s the perfect place for a department that embraced James’s hard-nosed, scientific brand of psychology in the second half of the 20th century. Many people still take James, who published The Principles of Psychology in 1890, to be the founder of this approach to the mind. And they’re not entirely wrong: He was a scientist with deep empirical commitments. But for Taylor, that was only part of James’s story.

In his first year at Harvard, Taylor discovered an unpublished set of notes for the lectures that James gave at the Lowell Institute in 1896: "On Exceptional Mental States." Very "exceptional" — telepathy, clairvoyance, automatic writing, the experience of phantom limbs, the occasional and uncanny sense of the unconscious.

Needless to say, this stuff is no longer studied in William James Hall. But Taylor, who would soon be appointed Harvard Divinity School’s William James lecturer, became fixated. He pored over James’s notes and dedicated the next two years of his life to reconstructing the lectures.

Taylor didn’t just study James. He became him, down to the full beard, penetrating eyes, and turn-of-the-century tweed. He completed the reincarnation in 1979 by giving James’s reconstructed lectures at the Swedenborg Chapel, an idiosyncratic, Gothic-looking thing at the edge of Harvard’s campus. The Lowell lectures were equal parts philosophy, historical tribute, and mediumship, and presented James in a new light. He’d been a scientist, but also a séance sitter, a time traveler, a ghost hunter.

Lily Taylor, Gene’s Taylor’s daughter, popped her head out of the warehouse doorway, waved me inside, and, leading me through a maze of concrete and brick, explained the fate of her father’s library. After the Hathaway Bakery relocated, it had rented out parts of the Richdale warehouse for storage, artist studios, and for Taylor’s ever-growing collection of books. He’d moved parts of his collection many times over the years, from apartments to storage units to basements all over New England, finally creating a library and workspace in two of the warehouse’s giant granary storerooms: about 8,000 books packed into 2,000 square feet.

Taylor died in 2013 with no plan in place for his books, and the building was sold to developers a year later. The books had to go. By the end of February. So Ms. Taylor and her brother were selling the collection — for $2 a book. Goodwill was coming at the end of the week to take the leftovers. She gestured to the rows of gray metal bookshelves: "Look around," she said. "Take what you want."

For a moment — but only a moment — I felt as if I would be stealing. Taylor had spent his life, and much of his money, buying up the literary foundations of modern psychology and classical American philosophy, as well as the earliest studies of what at the end of the 19th century was called "psychical research."

The American Society for Psychical Research was founded in Boston in 1885. Its mission was to investigate all things supernatural. This was not some nut-job organization, but it was not altogether normal, either. One of its founders, G. Stanley Hall, had come to Harvard to do doctoral work with James in the late 1870s and was awarded the first psychology degree in the United States. With James’s support, Hall organized a group of researchers to explore the possibility of things like spirit contact, divining rods, and telepathy. By 1890, Hall had resigned from the organization, concluding that parapsychology amounted to pseudoscience. But others, like James and his close friend the physician Henry P. Bowditch, marshaled on into the turn of the century. In 1909, James reflected on 25 years of ghostbusting:


At times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions, all in equal measure, so that although ghosts and clairvoyances and raps and messages from spirits are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible of full corroboration.


Despite the bafflement — or perhaps because of it — James and his fellow researchers attended the séances and mind experiments that were conducted regularly through the 1880s and 1890s. Unlike most psychics of the time, however, the members of the psychical-research society documented and published their findings. None of those were anywhere near conclusive, but they did help to push the boundaries of science, to explore an area that science couldn’t quite explain. This record became the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, for members and close associates, and the Proceedings, intended for the general public. Today faithful paranormalists pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to get their hands on these volumes.

And there they were: tucked into a bottom shelf of Taylor’s library, lined up like so many tombstones, bound in red leather — the first run of the Journal and the Proceedings, from 1885 to 1900. These would not be going to Goodwill.

I gingerly pried out the first volume and flipped to the frontispiece: "Henry Bowditch," penned in a tight script.

William James was a scientist, but also a seance sitter, a time traveler, a ghost hunter.

Bowditch was one of the founding members of the society and also a leading physiologist at Harvard. There was no such thing as modern experimental biology in the United States before Bowditch. He set up the first proper lab for Harvard Medical School: two rooms in a rundown building on North Grove Street, right across from what now is the Liberty Hotel. (During Bowditch’s time, the Liberty was the Charles Street Jail, which might explain where Bowditch got the cadavers he needed.) Bowditch was William James’s senior. In fact, he’d invited the young James to join the lab and teach a class on general anatomy. James obliged, grateful for the chance to have a bit of paying work and to temporarily escape the depression he fought for most of his life.

But James was not satisfied for long. Only months after joining Bowditch, he complained that the anatomist’s factual, objective approach missed something crucial in its understanding of human nature. A "fact," James wrote, "too often plays the part of a sop for the mind in studying these sciences. A man may take very short views, registering one fact after another as one walks on stepping stones, and never lose the conceit of his scientific function."

For James, something important was lost: The sense that a human being is more than just a bundle of perceptions and nervous reactions, and more than just a body. He hoped that there was something ethereal, transcendent — something even ghostly — that was free from the constraints of our physical lives. This led James to experiment with nitrous oxide in the early 1880s, in the belief that psychotropics might open portals to other realms of experience.

In fact, James would come to have a personal and more serious stake in the spiritualism of the late-Victorian era. In July 1885, his 18-month-old son, Herman, contracted whooping cough and died. James wanted to believe that the boy was not fully gone. In September, James visited Leonora Piper, a medium who had become a Boston sensation for supposedly channeling spirits. He had his doubts about Piper but concluded that the woman might have what he called "supernormal powers."

I worked my way around the room, a meticulously curated exhibit of William James’s obsession with the supernormal. Piling the Journals and Proceedings into a corner, I glanced at Ms. Taylor, who had settled into an overstuffed chair.

"Two dollars a book?"

She smiled and nodded: "That’s the deal I gave to the other buyers."

Other buyers? My heart sank. She informed me that a few had already made the rounds, which was to say that I was getting the dregs. Some serious cherry-picking had already occurred. There were telling gaps in the shelves, places where first editions of Emerson, James, and Freud should have been. I’d have to take drastic measures. Going on hands and knees, I army-crawled around the bottom shelves and was eventually rewarded. The spine was badly discolored, which had allowed the cherry-pickers to overlook it: a first edition of Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams). It was the only book that rivaled James’s Principles as the most famous in modern psychology.

James had met Freud exactly once, in 1909, at a series of lectures Freud gave at Clark University at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall. At the time, James reportedly conceded the discipline to Freud: "The future of psychology belongs to your work," James had admitted. There was at least an ostensible similarity between the two. Both believed in the force of the unconscious — but that was the extent of their agreement.

Freud developed a complex theory of dreams and a systematic analysis of unconscious urges. Like a dutiful scientist, he tried make the baffling wholly understandable. And that didn’t sit well with James. For starters, it just wasn’t honest.

According to James, on the rare occasions that the unconscious surfaces, it does so in a moment. Something indiscernible bubbles up and then takes over. To say that this surfacing has a general form or is the manifestation of some universal sexual urge, for example, was, at least for James, a weird just-so story about our inner lives. At best, experiences of the subconscious or paranormal could open us to other worlds — as they did in the writings of Proust or Poe or Wilde — but they were highly irregular occurrences that defied purely rational explanation.

As late as 1901, James remarked that "I seriously believe that the general problem of the subliminal … promises to be one of the great problems, possibly even the greatest problem, of psychology." Freud fancied himself as solving this problem once and for all. James, on the other hand, suggested that it had hardly been articulated.

Ms. Taylor sidled over and, looking over my shoulder, read my mind: "My father always said Freud was a bit of a jerk. Just an arrogant scientist. Jung was the real genius." Then she shuffled back to her armchair.

She was right. Jung, the other titan of European psychotherapy, had accompanied Freud to his lectures at Clark in 1909 and reflected on their meeting with James. Jung had gathered from G. Stanley Hall that "James was not taken quite seriously on account of his interest in Mrs. Piper and her extra-sensory perceptions," an interest that James had rekindled at the end of his life.

That was Jung’s opening: "I was also interested in parapsychology," he later reflected, "and my discussions with William James were chiefly about this subject and about the psychology of religious experience." It seems that Freud and Hall steered clear of those discussions. This was probably for the best. Jung described Hall as a "clear-headed man, but decidedly of an academic brand" — in other words, one who was not inclined to commune with apparitions. And Freud was even more averse. He thought the spiritual realm was "illusory," the figment of sick men’s dreams.

In 1908, Freud had chastised Jung for his stubborn refusal to explain away the existence of a poltergeist. Together, the two doctors had spent years listening to the ravings of schizophrenics and neurotics, but a serious falling out was about to occur. When Freud listened to the ravings of a lunatic, he heard the sounds of symptoms to be diagnosed and understood. But Jung sometimes heard something else: the beckoning of a supernatural world.

To Freud this was madness. But, as Ms. Taylor reminded me, Jung believed in spirits. He claimed to have met them. After his meeting with James at Clark in 1909, Jung returned to his home on the shores of Lake Zurich. There, in 1914, he underwent what for Jungians has become a legendary and controversial journey into the unconscious. He heard voices, experienced visions, claimed to have met ghosts and ghouls and gods. He supposedly communed with what he later called "the collective unconscious," a sea of eternal energy beyond rational thought. Jung’s experience in Zurich suggested to him that spirit contact was possible and that spirits infiltrate our lives and continue to exist long after our bodies die. A hundred years later, on the floor of a makeshift library that felt haunted, the idea terrified me.

It was getting late, and I really wanted to go home. But I just had to check the upstairs of the library one last time. Then I’d make a run for it with my boxes of two-dollar books. I scanned the bottom shelves and then, for some reason, paused for a minute. The bookshelves were jacked up a few inches off the cement, just high enough to shove a few slim volumes underneath. Sticking my hand under there was just asking to get bitten.

I groped under those shelves as if my life depended on it. Contact: I felt a smooth spine covered in rubber that felt like a snake. I grabbed it and yanked. It came loose and slid out on the floor in front of me. I was hoping for Jung’s Red Book, documenting his remarkable years in Zurich. I got something better.

What had felt like a snake was actually black electrical tape, a Rube Goldberg binding for a book that should have been under lock and key at an archive. A Treatise of Human Nature. Book II. "Of the Passions." Written by David Hume. Published in London in 1739. This was a first edition. The original cover was a mess — desiccated, chipped, falling apart; the tape was the only thing holding it together. I ran downstairs to show Vic, who had arrived earlier in the afternoon. I was sure it was worth a fortune.

I turned to Ms. Taylor to see what she might want for this one — certainly more than $2 — but I never managed to get the question out. Instead a flow of words congealed in the pit of my gut, suddenly erupted, and spewed from my mouth:


I thought she looked happy. She told me that she’d part with the entire library for $1,500. This was almost as insane as the idea of me carting 8,000 books to our tiny apartment, where I could spend the next three years keeping my toddler from eating, or puking on, the Hume. It seemed like a brilliant idea.

If there were a thinker who could’ve given a rational explanation of my irrational behavior, it was Hume. He was the first to explore the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious forces that he called "the passions," what today we call emotions, desires, and feelings. Book II of A Treatise of Human Nature was his first attempt to get an empirical grasp on what was usually regarded as ungraspable, the most amorphous, but also the most powerful, forces of our mental lives.

In the 1700s, Hume argued that human action is driven by "the direct passions" — desire, aversion, hope, fear, grief, joy — which are reflections of our physical responses to pleasure and pain. This makes good intuitive sense, save for the fact that most of us would like to think that our lives are shaped by our conscious and reasonable judgments. Rubbish, Hume responds: "Reason is and ought only to be a slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Our minds are merely instruments to use in the pursuit of objects of desire. Passion, not reason, sets the goals and purposes of our daily lives.

All of this might seem deeply romantic, but for Hume it wasn’t. His were the findings of a strict scientist who wanted to discover what made humans tick. James knew that there was much to recommend Hume’s view. He admired Hume’s empirical approach to human nature, one that anticipated James’s own work in The Principles of Psychology. And James, like Hume, wanted to place the passions at the center of his account of personhood and agency.

But James was concerned about the implications of Hume’s hard-nosed empiricism. In the words of James’s colleague and neighbor, Josiah Royce, one could follow Hume and try to get a scientific hold of one’s inner life, but "it will seem to shrivel to nothing under your hands." Hume analyzed the passions to death. By the time he was done, there was nothing genuinely passionate left — just the sense that our lives were controlled by disparate, impersonal powers.

Hume was a causal determinist: one who believes that every event is caused by another (or series) of events in a strict, law-like fashion. There was pitifully little room for freedom in Hume’s model, and even less for unexplained spirits. That suited Freud — who shared Hume’s skepticism and materialism — but it didn’t agree with James and Jung, who thought a world reduced to causal forces was far scarier than one haunted by ghosts.

I was still afraid of ghosts, but I was more frightened of losing the library and resigning myself to its seemingly inevitable destruction. So I stayed into the early evening and let the spirits do their work. I called my partner, Carol, and laid out my plan to save the books. We could use the money from our daughter’s college fund. We’d borrow a little more to hire a U-Haul and beg a few friends to help make the move. We could temporarily store the books in our living room and second bathroom (and perhaps our daughter’s bedroom), and then slowly move them to our offices at the philosophy department, where we both worked. The plan was perfect.

Except Carol wanted no part of it. To her it seemed ill-advised, exhausting, fanatical. I argued with her like someone possessed. These books were priceless (at least to me). Taylor had spent his life creating a library of the transcendent, the eternal, and now it was going to be scattered to the winds? Such cosmic unfairness was unacceptable.

Carol, a philosopher who is more committed to reason than I am, told me that I was free to do whatever I wanted, but that what I wanted — to rent a U-Haul and move 8,000 books to our apartment of 986 square feet — was psychotic. I hung up and considered the possibility of renting another storage unit. I could pick up a truck, finish the job in the early hours of the morning, and Carol would eventually forgive me.

Where did those ideas come from? I have no idea. But at the time, they seemed to emanate from the dusty stacks of books that were slowly growing in the back of my Subaru. Taylor wanted me to have them. So did his daughter. So did James and Jung and Bowditch and Royce. And I had to respect their desires. I told Ms. Taylor as much, and that I would call later that night to set up a time to pick up the collection.

She seemed relieved. Her father had given his life to these books. It would’ve been sad to see his sacrifice go to waste. At least the books would be safe with me. And she made a prediction: that I would care for them exactly as her father had.

The idea to save the library seemed to emanate from the dusty stacks of books in the back of my Subaru.

Today psychic prediction is regarded as a crazy way to manage your future. But it wasn’t always so; seers were the grand advisers of the ancient world. Herodotus tells us that in the sixth century BC, the Lydian king Croesus consulted the oracle at Delphi before invading Persia. The oracle advised the king: "If you cross the river, a powerful empire will be destroyed." Croesus took this to mean the Persian empire. So he crossed the river. Of course, he’d got the message all wrong. The powerful empire that was on the brink of destruction was his own.

Over the course of the afternoon, I’d learned something about Eugene Taylor. He had a passion for books, with the gall to work on the margins of a discipline for half a century and a fervent desire to explore forbidden questions. It was an inspiring story. But I’d learned other things. Taylor was a recluse; his best friends were his books; his academic work had often edged out his family; his academic salary had been spent on the library’s preservation; his daughter both loved and resented him and his books.

In 1983 Taylor published his reconstruction of James’s Lowell lectures, "On Exceptional Mental States." That same year, Taylor’s daughter turned 1. She told me that her father had taken her aside on her birthday to pose for a photograph. With his book. They were his children. And it was unclear which one was Taylor’s favorite.

I never got that U-Haul. Goodwill came and went, and the books were scattered far and wide. James would have been happy to know that the Hume was worth next to nothing. Thanks to its moldy pages, it could have been ground up and sold on the street as a hallucinogen. But that was about it. It resides in our living room, next to my daughter’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

At some point, I will die, and most of my books also will end up at Goodwill. That’s not as tragic as I used to think. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James suggests that mystical experience is defined by a temporary but deep-seated sense of connection with something beyond the ken of our normal lives. This sense is fleeting but very real — so real that it reverberates through the rest of our lives. In some people, this mystical experience leads to a sort of belief. Not the dogmatic sort, but what James calls pervasive "zest" for life. Zest: the feeling of a keen passion. The word’s origin is unknown.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His book American Philosophy — A Love Story will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the spring.