William James is best known for his classic work on the mystical experience The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James had a career as a psychologist, a philosopher, and a teacher. His father, Henry James, Sr. (1811–1882), was a philosopher, a friend of the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and an ardent follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). William's brother, Henry James (1843–1916), was the acclaimed novelist of such American classics as Daisy Miller (1879), The Europeans, and the psychological thriller The Turn of the Screw (1898). James studied both science and art before receiving a degree in medicine from Harvard University in 1869. Two years later, he began teaching courses at Harvard, first in physiology, then in psychology and philosophy.
James's interest in mediumship and the afterlife was closely allied with his research in the psychology of altered states of consciousness. In 1882, while in London, he met Fredric W. H. Myers (1843–1901), Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), Edmund Gurney (1847–1888), and other founding members of the newly formed British Society for Psychical Research (BSPR). James was impressed by Myers, a fellow psychologist, and his theory of the subliminal self, a secondary consciousness containing a number of higher-level mental processes which might be responsible for phenomena otherwise attributed to spirits. Returning to Boston, James, together with Sir William Barret and others, helped establish the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in 1885.
That same year, James was brought to the seance room of Leonora E. Piper (1857–1950), the medium whom many psychical researchers would later declare the greatest mental medium of all time. Taking such precautions as identifying himself with a false name, the psychologist came away from the sitting completely baffled as to how the medium's spirit control had been able to provide accurate information on all the subjects about which he had queried. Although he was never greatly impressed by the phenomena produced by the physical mediums, James began a lengthy study of mental mediums, whom he hoped would be able to exhibit as much genuine phenomena as Piper.
James served as vice president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) from 1890 to 1910 and as president from 1894 to 1895. Although he was a stalwart champion of the scientific research of paranormal phenomena, he never quite found the proof in survival after death which he had hoped to discover through the study of mediumship. William James died on August 26, 1910, at his summer home in Chocurua, New Hampshire.