Eugene Taylor in Memoriam: The Karma of William James

Making pragmatism spiritual

Posted Feb 06, 2013

When he arrived at Harvard from Texas in 1977, Eugene I. Taylor Jr., a psychology graduate student,   found an unpublished manuscript of lecture notes that William James had delivered in the Lowell Institute in 1896 “On Exceptional Mental States.” Those years of the 1890s were central to James’ intellectual development. He had published his classic Principles of Psychology in 1890, and, once he had gotten psychology out of his system, he turned to philosophy, but with about a decade delay as his new ideas ripened. In 1902, he burst back on the scene with his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, which was followed in rapid succession by multiple books on his new philosophy of pragmatism, all careening forth quickly before his sudden death from long-standing heart disease in 1909.

James was a comet, and between his magnum opus in 1890 and his incredibly original pragmatism works of 1902-1909 there was a decade of silence. What was going on in James’ head during that time? How did his psychology evolve into his philosophy?

Almost a century later, the next William James would discover the link: those unpublished lectures on exceptional mental states. Eugene Taylor did yeoman’s work reconstructing the lectures, identifying and finding all the books on which it was based, about 200 of 936 books which had been dispersed within the 3 million books in the Harvard library after donation by James’ family in 1923. Gene found the books, and with the help of devoted assistants, went through all the markings and notes and marginalia in the books, and recreated those lectures. He published the revived Lowell lectures in book form, and then, in 1978-79, when Eugene was appointed the William James lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, he completed the reincarnation of William James by actually giving those lectures again, one by one, completely reconstructed, at the Cambridge Swedenborg Society.

The William James of the 19th century had been resuscitated in the 20th. The lectures were about how abnormal psychological states can give us insights into the nature of reality. They were the link between James’ psychology and his philosophy, and they are still not sufficiently appreciated, especially by philosophers I think, as central to understanding James’ philosophy of pragmatism. Only Eugene Taylor could write about William James and the Spiritual Origins of Pragmatism.

Gene recently passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having lived in the Boston area since his arrival in 1977.  He was an expert on everything William James, in addition to being a historian of psychology of the first stature, a leading figure in the existential/humanist psychology world, and part of the Eastern/Buddhist tradition of spirituality.  He was all these things, but in my experience, he was especially a teacher who opened my eyes to the importance of William James. Gene even looked much like James, with the long salt and pepper beard and the distracted demeanor. James, as we now know, probably had manic-depression: he was a sensitive and labile man, with fits of depression, rapid speech, and bursts of energy. Gene too talked very fast, had ideas which ran in many directions at once, and was a furious writer and reader; but, at the same time, he was something of a loner; although he had a wide circle of acquaintances, few got very close to him.

I met Gene around 1993, when by chance I heard him give a talk at the Swedenborgian Chapel in Harvard Square about William James. He had been and continued to give such talks for about three decades. Truly I was shocked. I thought I was seeing James in person. I asked him to give a talk to residents at McLean Hospital and from there we started a two-decade relationship, which deepened somewhat in his last years. Although he had a Harvard affiliation for 30 years, his main teaching activity was at Saybrook University in California, the American center for existential/humanist psychology. Like James, Gene moved into the field of spirituality and its relation to psychology, especially in his mature work in Shadow Culture

Existential/humanistic psychology, spirituality, and William James are central aspects to who Eugene Taylor was as a thinker. But of these, William James as a man and a thinker was at the core of Eugene Taylor’s being.  Gene was convinced, like James, that there are varied states of consciousness, beyond the usual consciousness of daily life, as well as the buried Freudian unconscious of dreams and wishes and instincts. He was convinced that some states of consciousness touched on the transcendent and spiritual. James wasn’t able to convince himself that séances and trances identified those states. Gene looked more into meditation and mysticism (as had James), and thought he might find them there. We cannot know what Gene himself experienced in his life and around his death, but when he left us, we know that he took a lot of knowledge with him – knowledge that was psychological, historical, spiritual, maybe even mystical.

He lived and worked mostly alone, on the margins of psychology, and Harvard, and society, unlike William James, who despite his intellectual independence, lived and worked at the core of Harvard and had a high degree of intellectual respectability in academia.

Gene was less appreciated. In psychology, the existential/humanist tradition is now peripheral; within that circle, Gene was on the periphery.  William James is mostly studied and discussed in academic philosophy; approaching James from the perspective of psychology made Gene marginal even in the world of James scholars.  The spiritual Buddhist tradition has its institutions and structure; approaching spirituality from the perspective of American pragmatism made Gene an unusual spiritualist.  

He was a peripheral man in the periphery of peripheral fields.   

Like James, Gene was abnormal in an intellectually creative but personally painful way.  Gene put it in his own words, in his reconstruction of James' Lowell lecture on genius:

"A genius may have many creative ideas; a pseudo-genius only one; the common fact between them, however, is that ideas lead to concrete effects, and it is for those effects that a person is ultimately remembered."  

For those of us who knew him, Gene as a person had concrete effects; for everyone else, he has left many creative ideas behind, not just his own, but through a deeper understanding of the history of existential psychology, especially William James. 

"I'm finished, thank you," he said to me and his close friend, psychologist Ed Mendelowitz, in his final days.  "I'm finished, thank you," he repeated.  I put down a glass of water. He was finished with the water. He was finished with us. 

And, now, if karma is to be believed, his soul has been released again, and maybe William James as transmitted through Eugene Taylor will take root again in another sensitive soul, perhaps upon discovering the lectures On Exceptional Mental States, and lead to a new pilgrimage toward a spiritual pragmatism. 

You're not finished, Gene, and we're not finished with you.

(Here are some of Gene's few Psychology Today blog posts from 1994 on religion/spirituality and 1995 on William and Henry James and 1996 on psychedelic drugs).