#388 – William James as Progenitor of Transpersonal Psychology with Mark B. Ryan PhD

Mark Ryan

Transcript

Mark B. Ryan PhD is Associate Dean of the Wisdom School of Graduate Studies of Ubiquity University. Prior to joining the Wisdom School, he was Titular IV Professor at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, Mexico, where he also served as Dean of the Colleges, Master of José Gaos College, and Coordinator of the graduate program in United States Studies. For more than twenty years he was Dean of Jonathan Edwards College and a teacher of American Studies and History at Yale University. He holds Ph.D. and M. Phil. degrees from Yale, an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. from the University of St. Thomas. Mark is author of A Collegiate Way of Living (Yale University, 2001), articles in various journals on higher education, and articles in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and related publications on transpersonal thought. He served for fourteen years on the Board of Trustees of Naropa University, is past chair of the Board of Directors of Wisdom University, and current Chair of the Jonathan Edwards Trust at Yale. He is certified by Grof Transpersonal Training as a practitioner of Holotropic Breathwork, and currently teaches regularly for the Wisdom School and at the C. G. Jung Educational Center of Houston. Click here to go to the article discussed in this interview.


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2 Comments

  1. John Knight
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    I have to admit, I was very excited when I saw there was an episode about William James. Although I’d heard vaguely about the man before – with nothing more than passing mentions – I only ‘discovered’ the man during my history of
    psych unit and was instantly drawn in: James has since become one of my all time favourite psychologists and I gave special attention to James in my assignment that semester. Like you, I also find him to be astonishingly contemporary; his viewpoints amazingly fresh and just as applicable now as they were in the late 19th century.

    I can indeed confirm that James was an enormous influence on Jung. For instance, I’m have Jung’s Collected Works #8 sitting in my lap, and in this volume alone, there are eight references to James. And if you turn to the end
    of the paper, Psychological Factors Determining Human Behaviour (1936), Jung marks the end of the paper with this special mention of James:

    “In my survey, far too condensed, I fear, I have left unmentioned many illustrious names. Yet there is one which I should not like to omit. It is that of William James, whose psychological vision and pragmatic philosophy have on more than one occasion been my guides. It was his far-ranging mind which made me realise that the horizons of human psychology widen into the immeasurable”.

    Terminology wise, I have to admit that I share Freud and Jung’s strong dislike for the term ‘subconscious’ (both men publicly called for the term’s rejection due to its strongly misleading and inaccurate nature), and although the term is not acceptable in a Freudian or Jungian context, the term is probably warranted in a 19th century context, particularly in the influential days of Janet and the like. However, for James’s own use of terminology, Jung states that “James speaks also of a “transmarginal field” of consciousness and identifies it with the “subliminal consciousness” of F.W.H. Myers” (On The Nature of the
    Psyche, 1946). Is this correct?

    During our psych history unit, one particular quote of James struck me as especially profound, and has stayed with me ever since:

    “Science may be operating within a system larger than itself that it cannot observe”.

    Now how’s that for contemporary? I truly feel that James is one of the most exciting psychologists that has ever lived, and if there were any justice in the way history is remembered, the name of William James would be every
    bit as famous as Freud or Jung.

  2. Mark Ryan
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Much appreciation to Mr. Knight for his insights, and for his passion for William James. I’m especially grateful for that citation from Jung’s “Psychological Factors Determining Human Behavior”: “It was his far-ranging mind which made me realize that the horizons of human psychology widen into the immeasurable.”

    One of my favorite quotations from James capturing that sensibility is his comment from the “Conclusions” to The Varieties of Religious Experience: “The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. So far as our ideal impulses originate in this region…we belong to in a more intimate sense than that in which we belong to the visible world….” This is a sensibility that is compatible with, say, Vedanta (James himself quotes the Chandogya Upanishad: “That art Thou!”).

    Though James looms large in philosophy departments and studies of intellectual history, primarily as an originator of pragmatism, this side of his thought, rooted in his psychical research and affirming mystical experience, has seldom shined through in academic circles. It’s a side, however, that seems to be gaining more and more currency in a larger intellectual world, beginning with the pioneering studies of Eugene Taylor, and the publication of James’s collected Essays in Psychical Research (in the Harvard Works of William James), in the 1980s. Judging from the kinds of citations of James that I find cropping up as I explore my own fields of interest, the enthusiasm that Mr. Knight and I share for James is a happily growing phenomenon.

    Mr. Knight asks whether Jung’s characterization of James’s terminology is correct, that is, that James “speaks of a ‘transmarginal field’ of consciousness and identifies it with the ‘subliminal consciousness’ of F.W.H. Myers.” My response would be, yes. In his earliest essay on the subject (“The Hidden Self” of 1890), presenting the studies of Janet and Binet, James used the term “sub-conscious,” and he later touted Frederic Myers’s studies of what Myers termed “subliminal consciousness.” But some of James’s own formulations are more spherical in imagery: they speak of a consciousness that exceeds the “margins” of our normal awareness. This is how he summarized the concept for his audience at the Gifford Lectures, in 1901: “I cannot but think that the most important step forward that has occurred in psychology since I have been a student of that science is the discovery, first made in 1886, that in certain subjects, at least, there is not only the consciousness of the ordinary field, with its usual center and margin, but an addition thereto in the shape of a set of memories, thoughts, and feelings which are extra-marginal and outside of the primary consciousness altogether, yet must be classed as conscious facts of some sort, able to reveal their presence by unmistakable signs.” He then immediately makes reference to Myers’ use of the term “subliminal” as referring to the same hitherto “unsuspected peculiarity in the constitution of human nature.”

    My thanks to Mr. Knight for his sharp focus on these matters.

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