William James and the Heidelberg Fiasco.
Neuenheimer Landstraße 34, D - 69120 Heidelberg, Germany
- *Corresponding Author:
- Horst Gundlach
34 D - 69120 Heidelberg
E-mail: [email protected]
Accepted date: February 09, 2017
Citation: Gundlach H. William James and the Heidelberg Fiasco. J Psychol Cognition. 2017;2(1):44-60.
During his stay in Europe in 1867 and 1868, William James learned that two physiologists at Heidelberg University, Hermann Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt, were working on transforming psychology into an experimental science. Hesitantly, James went to Heidelberg. After a short stay, he fled what he later called the Heidelberg Fiasco. In spite of this ominous designation, a dense fog of misleading information surrounds his stay in Heidelberg to this day. By analyzing circumstances and context, this paper examines this case, which had the potential to shape James's attitude toward experimental psychology on a long-term basis.
William James, Hermann Helmholtz, Wilhelm Wundt, George Bancroft, Experimental psychology.
William James (January 11, 1842-August 26, 1910) earned his fame and reputation in three fields, which he considered interconnected: Philosophy, psychology, and parapsychology.
As one of the founders of pragmatism, celebrated as the first autochthonous, genuinely American school of philosophy, James occupies a superior position in the history of American philosophy. The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called him the American Plato . Wiltshire said somewhat reserved: “It is fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects” .
James’s rank in the history of American psychology is unsurpassed. The science historian Daniel W Bjork called James “the father of American scientific psychology” . Brinklin goes one step further in generalization by calling him “father of American psychology” . With a measure of reservation, the historian of psychology R and B. Evans declared: “James is credited with founding the first psychological laboratory in America. He has been lionized as the founder of American psychology itself or at least as the first major psychologist in American history” .
James’s third area of scholarly activity also earned him some fame. This segment of his reputation is, however, restricted to those circles that consider research scientifically legitimate in that area, namely in spiritualism or psychical research, later designated by a term invented by Dessoir, ‘parapsychology’. James for some time was president of the London-based Society for Psychical Research and in 1885 he acted as a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research. In his later decades, he spent much time searching for proofs of contact with the Everafter. Blum portrayed this endeavor .
The Heidelberg Fiasco marks the very beginning of his implication with not just any brand of psychology, but with the new or experimental or scientific psychology. This beginning was so wretched and hopeless that it would seem a miracle that at some point in the future he would be given the epithet of “the father of American scientific psychology.”
In 1892 William James wrote a letter to Edward B Titchener (January 11, 1867-August 3, 1927) who was then finishing his doctoral thesis with Wilhelm Wundt in his psychological laboratory at Leipzig University: “I wish I were 20 years younger and had the advantages of you fellows! I am an ‘autodidact’ in psychology, have no native aptitude for experimental work, and begin to be responsible for a laboratory at the age of nearly 50 – a bad combination!”(WJC: William James Correspondence).
Twenty-four years earlier, James had been in Germany, supposedly to study medicine and physiology. There he taught about two physiologists, members of the Heidelberg Medical Faculty, Hermann Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt. They were considered the avant-garde of a completely new way to do research in psychology. James had the desire to join them in order to learn their experimental methods. When he eventually traveled to Heidelberg, he saw his ambition dissolve. In a letter to his mother, James called this abortive journey the Heidelberg crisis (WJC), and in a letter to his father the Heidelberg fiasco (WJC: William James Correspondence).
There can be no doubt that the painful memory of this dramatic Heidelberg event in his earlier life was on his mind when he wrote those sentences in his letter to Titchener. Had he realized his wish to study in Heidelberg with Helmholtz and Wundt, the history of psychology in the United States might have taken a different course, at least in the nineteenth century.
Fairy Tales Offered as History
The awful Heidelberg episode in James’s life has not yet been duly dealt with. There exist numerous prettifying and downright false accounts of his stay in Heidelberg. For example, the German philosopher and psychologist Stumpf, a friend of James’s, summarized as follows: “After an unsuccessful health cure in Teplitz he studied with Helmholtz in Heidelberg, but suddenly he returned to Berlin, and then traveled to Switzerland.”  (Original German version: “Nach einer vergeblichen Kur in Teplitz hört er bei Helmholtz in Heidelberg, reist aber plötzlich nach Berlin zurück, dann nach der Schweiz”. James did indeed do a lot of traveling in Europe, but he never studied in Heidelberg, neither with Helmholtz, nor with Wundt, might one add. As Stumpf disdained Wundt, it is hardly surprising that he would withhold that name in this fairy tale. The source of Stumpf’s questionable report is not known.
Adams wrote that James, “after he had returned once more to Harvard...began to fit up the deserted rooms in the old scientific building with the apparatus he had learned to use at Heidelberg” . James’s early biographer, Perry, told a similar canard: “...in 1868, he studied with Helmholtz at Heidelberg” . The year is correct; the rest is not.
Matthiessen followed suit: “He was studying at Heidelberg with the physicist and psychologist Helmholtz” . It would surely not have been considered an exaggeration had the author mentioned the not unimportant fact that Helmholtz was neither a professor of physics nor of psychology, but of physiology at Heidelberg University. Pochmann declared brashly that James “had learned the experimental methods during his eighteen months in Germany in the sixties” .
Hunt fantasized that James “studied under Helmholtz and other leading physiologists...” . Hothersall offered a further version of this canard: “...the restless James spent 1867 and 1868 traveling in Europe to visit the laboratories of Gustav Fechner, Hermann von Helmholtz, Wilhelm Wundt and Emil du Bois-Reymond” .
Benjamin  presented a slightly bare-bones version, in which he omitted the laboratory of du Bois-Reymond, the only one James had actually seen, if only from an unspecified distance: “Although [James] had no course work in scientific psychology, he had spent some time in 1867-68 in Europe, visiting the laboratories of Fechner, Helmholtz and Wundt” . Taylor manufactured “James’s few weeks in 1867 as a student and auditor of Helmholtz and Wundt” (E Taylor used his fiction to attack Boring, contending that in his History of Experimental Psychology , he used it “to subsume James under the experimental tradition”. I was unable to spot this ‘fact’ of Taylor’s making in Boring. Taylor probably had looked at the page where Boring stated that James went to Germany for a year and a half, adding that “his health was poor and failed him almost completely while abroad so that he did not accomplish his purpose...” That is accurate, give or take a few weeks. However, it says nothing even vaguely similar to “James’s few weeks in 1867 as a student and auditor of Helmholtz and Wundt”) . Hawkins served up a grossly overdone version of the canard, writing that James had studied “experimental psychology at Heidelberg under Wundt and Helmholtz” . Nubiola maintained that James studied with Helmholtz in Heidelberg in 1868 . The varieties of this counterfactual canard are still with us even today.
This paper will examine how and why James came to Germany, what he did there or failed to do, and why his visit to Heidelberg came to the sudden ending that he could not but call a fiasco.
William James Goes to Europe on His Own
William James’s grandfather, also called William James, was a poor immigrant from Ireland who turned himself into one of the richest men in New York. His son, Henry James Senior, inherited the fortune and lived a vagrant life in the US and in Europe, searching for life’s meaning. Finding his inspiration from Emanuel Swedenborg, the spiritually awakened mystic, he published metaphysical tracts and squandered much of his inheritance. He therefore urged his sons to learn a proper profession and took care that they would learn French and German while in Europe.
Henry’s son William was the eldest of five siblings. In his adolescence, he developed artistic and philosophical ambitions. His dominant interest turned to painting. From 1858 to 1859 and from 1869 to 1861, he took lessons from the painter William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. His younger brother, Henry James Junior, the famous writer and novelist, said that William had “declared preference for a painter’s life over any other” .
William’s father, however, exhorted him to give up the romantic dream of a painter’s life and study medicine instead. Therefore, William James went to Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard and began his studies with a course in chemistry in 1861. As a graduate, he did comparative anatomy, and in 1864 he started his medical studies at Harvard Medical School.
In April 1867, James went on a journey to Europe on his own. He had been there before, but never without some members of his family. He already knew about Heidelberg as an agreeable place of residence as is shown by a letter he wrote on September 4, 1857, from Boulogne sur Mer on the English Channel to his friend since childhood, Edgar Beach Van Winkle in New York. He reported his family’s plans to move from France to somewhere else: “We have given up the idea of going to Germany for the present. In the event of our going there our choice of a place of residence fluctuated between Dresden, Francfort, Heidelberg et Bonn”. In 1860, he and Henry Junior were sent to the Rhenish town of Bonn to stay with the family of the teacher Dr. Humpert and to undergo their “determined strict servitude to German,” as Henry later expressed the avowed purpose of improving their German language skills .
William’s departure in 1867 is usually considered hasty and resembling a flight from his medical education, which he disliked according to Feinstein . The reason officially given was his wish to study physiology at one of the new physiological laboratories in Germany. These innovative institutions of research and training were considered the most advanced on the globe and many foreigners, among them many Americans, went to German universities for their professional development (The Spread Of Laboratory Teaching, the ninth chapter in Bonner) . Feinstein may be right in stating that James disliked being trained as a physician. James seemed to consider an education as a researcher in physiology, a discipline fundamental to medicine, as a means to avoid becoming a practicing physician without irritating his father.
In April 1867 James went via New York, Brest, Paris and Strasbourg to Dresden, the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony where he arrived in May 1867. Already in 1857, the family had considered Dresden as a place of residence. For someone intent on studying medicine, however, this was a surprising choice. In those days, there was no university in Dresden or in its environs. There had been a Royal Academy of Surgery and Medicine (Königlich Chirurgisch-Medicinische Akademie) in Dresden, but it was closed in 1864 because it could not comply with the new legal standards for the training of physicians. Whoever wanted to study whatever in Saxony would go to Leipzig, 75 miles away from Dresden. At that university, namely, there was a very famous physiologist, Carl Ludwig, author of an epoch-making two-volume Lehrbuch der Physiologie (1852+1852; 2. ed. 1858+1861) and director of his own physiological laboratory (Physiologische Anstalt). Ludwig attracted students from all over the globe.
James in Dresden and in Teplitz
James did not mention the closing of the Dresden Chirurgisch- Medicinische Akademie in his letters. He might not have even been aware of it. Dresden was definitely not the place to study physiology. Called the Florence on the River Elbe, it was a town of the arts. There were highly esteemed art museums, the new Royal Museum (today the Old Masters Gallery) in the Rococo Zwinger Palace, the Sculpture Collection then located in the Japanese Palace (now in the Albertinum) with its antique sculptures as well as its rich collections of casts of such statues, the Green Vault and other museums. There was also the renowned Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. For somebody intending to become a painter, Dresden was the obvious place to go anywhere north of the Alps. Since James arrived in May, he could justify this choice by the fact that it was too late to enroll in the university for the summer term anywhere anyway.
In the United States, James had suffered from various intestinal and gastric complaints and especially from back pain. Since these afflictions did not disappear in Dresden, he visited a physician whom he mentioned in a letter to his sister Alice. In a letter to his father, he gave his name as Carus. That must have been Albert Gustav Carus (For the identification of James’s physician in Dresden, vd. Gundlach . He was the son of Carl Gustav Carus, famous for a large number of achievements in medicine and in psychology and in addition was also a painter and draughtsman of renown who might indeed have been a role model for James. Both Caruses served as personal physicians to the kings of Saxony, and one has to assume that they ran the most expensive medical practice in the whole of Saxony.
Carus gave James the advice to visit the celebrated spa town called Teplitz, located forty miles south of Dresden in northern Bohemia, which at the time was a part of Austria. At present, Bohemia is a part of the Czech Republic and Teplitz is now better known under its Czech name of Teplice. James checked in at the spa resort that proudly called itself Fürstenbad, i.e., the spa of princes, as it was favored by aristocrats. The Fürstenbad actually did belong to a prince, and it was the most expensive spa in town .
James’s first stay in Teplitz began in August 1867 and lasted one month. He steadfastly endured the daily applications of baths, mud baths, douching [his own word!], of mineral water, curd and whey, which he described to his sister. This stay obviously proved more costly than anticipated.
James in Berlin and the Awakening of his Interest in the New Psychology
In September 1867, James moved to Berlin. He lived in Mittelstraße number 12 not far from the main university building. There were other students living in the same building, among them an American by the name of L. B. Alexander who had started his studies in Berlin at Easter 1867 and might have helped James in finding his way around.
Once settled in Berlin, James wrote a letter to his father and described his back pains, his chronic gastritis, the counsel that Dr. Carus had given him to take the cure in Teplitz, the ensuing expenditures, and his need of additional financial support. After all, the cure had alleviated his afflictions. Nonetheless, he added: “My back will prevent my studying Physiology this winter at Leipsic which I rather hoped to do.” He indicated that he would rather stay in Berlin.
The letter sounds somewhat incongruous. What was the matter with this terrible back that allowed James to study at Berlin University this winter, which he somehow did, and at the same time prevented him from doing the same at Leipzig University? Anyway, the letter confirms that his original intention was to study physiology with Carl Ludwig in Leipzig. We may take note here that during this stay in Europe James at no time went to Leipzig, which was also the home of Gustav Theodor Fechner.
On September 10, 1867, James wrote to his fellow Harvard Medical School student, Thomas Wren Ward. He related his problems with his back, which in a mysterious way was connected to his brother Henry, also called Harry: “I don’t know whether you have heard or not that I found myself last November almost without perceptible exciting cause in possession of that delightful disease in my back, which has so long made Harry so interesting. I said nothing about it ’till a couple of weeks before leaving America, as I hoped it wd. go over, and did not wish to inflict any avoidable pain on Harry & the rest. I thus foolishly put it out of my power to rest as I thought to have done, (for the damned thing showed at first a very strong tendency to disappear after repose) and the consequence was it became so confirmed that I had to throw up my hospital appointment, and fly from a home wh. had become loathsome. I still said nothing about it to anyone but Father, Mother and Harry, for I wanted to keep it secret from Alice and the boys”.
James explained that the pain did not go away, but got worse, that a Dr. recommended a spa by the name of Teplitz and that since his return from Teplitz he felt a great deal better. The aching posterior part of his torso then served to justify his plans for the next term: “I am going to try this winter to stick to the study of the Nervous system and psychology. Unfortunately I shall not be well enough to study the N[ervous] S[ystem] practically. There is an enormous psychological literature (from a physical and inductive point of view) in German”. This remark seems intended to convey the idea that he would not do any work in the physiological laboratory but restrict his studies to reading the pertinent literature. It also indicates that he now no longer wanted to study physiology in general but to focus on the nervous system and on psychology.
In a letter to another friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., written on September 17, James again declared his inability to do any laboratory work: “My wish was to study physiology practically, but I shall not be able”.
Consequently, James studied physiology theoretically in Berlin in the winter of 1867/1868. According to the date given in the printed version of his correspondence, he first attended a lecture on October 31, 1867, as he declared so in a letter to his sister Alice, apparently on that very day. In an earlier letter to his sister written on October 17, he had explained the reason for this late beginning: “The university lectures were to have begun this week, but the lazy professors have all put it off to the last of the month”.
Two things seem mistaken here. First, the statutes of the University in Berlin stipulated that the winter term lectures start on the Monday following October 14. In 1867, the 14th of October was a Monday, consequently that year’s lectures were about to start on October 21. Second, the correct date of James’s subsequent letter could only be from October 21. The day given by the editors of James’s correspondence, October 31, is inconceivable as it was a Thursday, and the University statutes specified a Monday for beginning the lectures. That incorrect date probably resulted from a reading error in deciphering James’s handwriting, and it was certainly not the laziness of the professors that determined the start of teaching at Berlin University as James jocularly announced.
There is another mystery that is not so easy to solve. The position of William James at Berlin University is obscure as he does not figure in the official registry of university students. The university personnel directory (Amtliches Verzeichnis des Personals und der Studirenden der Königl. Friedrich- Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin auf das Winterhalbjahr Michaelis 1867 bis Ostern 1868. James should figure in the chapter Verzeichniss der Studirenden on 20 or in the Nachtrag (supplement) on 52) for this winter and its supplement recorded forty-three students from North America, which was nearly 10 percent of the non-Prussian students and 2 percent of all students. Four Americans studied at the medical school, none of whom went by the name of James or of William, in case the university office mistakenly switched his first name and his surname around. As he was already in Berlin at the beginning of September 1867, he had had ample time to enroll. Perhaps he had applied to join the small number of students who had received special permission from the rector and were thus allowed to audit lectures only, but not to participate in exercises or laboratory work or to receive credit for doing so. Perhaps he did not enroll at all and was only auditing those lectures clandestinely. Whatever the reasons for the absence of his name in the university directory for that semester, he attended lectures anyway.
On November 7, 1867, James related to Thomas Wren Ward what was happening in physiology at Berlin University: “I have begun going to the physiological lectures at the university—there are in all 7 courses and 4 lecturers—I take 5 courses and 3 lecturers”. According to the Berlin University schedules of lectures for the winter term 1867/1868, there were the following physiologists offering lectures: The full professor and famous pioneer of neurophysiology, Emil Heinrich du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), and three of his disciples, the professor extraordinarius Isidor Rosenthal (1836-1915), the Privatdozent Hermann Munk (1839-1912), and the Privatdozent Ludimar Hermann (1838-1914).
According to the catalogue of lectures, Du Bois-Reymond taught The second part of physiology, Du Bois-Reymond and Rosenthal gave Physiological exercises in the Physiological Laboratory, while Rosenthal taught The science of electricity for medical men, and Demonstrations of experimental physiology, Munk offered Physiology of animal procreation and General and special physiology of the nerves and muscles, and Hermann lectured on Physiological effects of gases with experiments and The science of poisons. We do not know which lectures James took, but it is safe to assume that he did not take anything that took place in the physiological laboratory.
In the same letter to Ward of November 7, James wrote: “There is a bully physiological laboratory, the sight of wh., inaccessible as it is to me in my present condition, gave me a sharp pang”.
In his earlier letter to Ward of September 10, James had declared that right now he would study not only physiology but also psychology. The teaching of psychology did not belong in the Medical School but was done by the philosopher Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg (1802-1872). Since James never mentioned his name, it seems that he did not follow his lectures but instead studied psychology from books.
In his later letter to Ward of November 7, James talked again about psychology, this time with much more emphasis: “It seems to me that perhaps the time has come for Psychology to begin to be a science—some measurements have already been made in the region lying between the physical changes in the nerves and the appearance of consciousness (in the shape of sense perceptions) and more may come of it”.
He expounded a new plan of his concerning the science of psychology. His attempt to implement it would wind up being the Heidelberg fiasco: “I am going on to study what is already known, and perhaps may be able to do some work at it. Helmholtz and a man named Wundt at Heidelberg are working at it and I hope if I live through this winter to go to them in the summer”. Who were these Heidelberg professors? Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand Helmholtz (1821-1894), a friend of Emil du Bois-Reymond, at the time was a professor of physiology at Heidelberg University and director of the Heidelberg Physiological Institute. He had become famous for measuring the speed of the nerve impulse and for his research and publications on neurophysiology, on sensory physiology and psychology. His Lehre von den Tonempfindungen was the latest on acoustics. His Handbuch der physiologischen Optik (published in three instalments 1856, 1860 and 1866, completed in 1867) was the latest on vision.
Wundt, by training a physiologist, was an associate professor of anthropology and medical psychology in Heidelberg . In 1857 he had worked for one semester in Berlin in the physiological laboratory under Johannes Müller and du Bois-Reymond. From 1858 to 1865 he had been Helmholtz’s assistant in his physiological laboratory in Heidelberg. Wundt had published books on physiology and psychology and their interdependence, and in 1867 he began offering his courses on physiological psychology (The editors of the William James correspondence characterize Wilhelm Wundt in a few words: ‘German psychologist and philosopher’. This may not be incorrect for his later life, but for the 1860s and for James’s studies in Germany it is misleading. He was still engaged in the Medical Faculty as a physiologist who also worked in the closely associated area of psychology).
Life seems to have gone on in rainy Berlin. On November 19, 1867, James let his sister (The editors of his correspondence presume that James used as his salutation to his sister the nonexistent German word ‘Bälchen’. It must have been ‘Bäschen’, a diminutive used to address a young lady, especially a relative) know: “I have got tolerably well to work and enjoy my lectures at the university intensely”.
In the same optimistic mood, James wrote to Henry Pickering Bowditch (1840-1911), the nearly coeval physiology professor at Harvard Medical School, on December, 12, 1867: “I have been now for 3 months in Berlin and expect the remaining 4 to pass away very satisfactorily. The state of my back (wh. you remember I revealed to you at our last meeting) has been much worse than it was then, but is now I think getting slowly better. It has prevented me fm. going about or getting 1/6 part of the profit fm. my abode here wh. I might have done otherwise. I live near the University and attend all the lectures on Physiology that are given there, but are unable to do anything in the Laboratory, or to attend the Cliniques or Virchow’s lectures and demonstrations. Du Bois-reymond, an irascible man of about 45, gives a very good and clear, yea, brilliant; series of 5 lectures a week and 2 ambitious Jews give 6 more between them wh. are almost as instructive. The opportunities for study here are superb, it seems to me. Whatever they may be in Paris they cannot be better. The physiolog. lab. with its endless array of machinery, frogs, dogs &c. &c. almost ‘bursts my gizzard’ when I go by it, with vexation”.
The Berlin Physiological Laboratory was located in the main university building on the street called Unter den Linden, 10 min away from James’s room in Mittelstraße 12. The ‘2 ambitious Jews’ were Rosenthal and Hermann. Rudolf Virchow was the great clinician in Berlin who taught general pathology and therapy.
James ended this letter with a view into his future: “I shall probably go to Heidelberg in the month of April.” That is, for the coming summer term.
On December 26, 1867, William James wrote a letter to his father, of which only the first part has survived. He began with the sad news: “I am sorry to say that I already need a replenishing of my credit”. His tailor and his bookseller would send their bills soon and thereby deplete his account. After explaining how his money had been spent, he continued: “I don’t think I’ve told you as yet anything about my future plans. Lectures end here near the end of March. I propose then to go to Teplitz again. ...Then I think now of going to Heidelberg. There are two professors there Helmholtz and Wundt, who are strong on the physiology of the senses and I hope I shall be well enough to do some work in their Laboratory. I shall hate myself till I get doing some special work: this reading leads to nothing at all. At present I feel as if, being started by them, I might most likely go home in the fall. So many new things may turn up between now and then however; I may get into some such a good line of work or into such company as to feel like trying another winter”.
Then he exposed his projects for the more distant future, ending on a gloomy note: “As a central point of study I imagine that the border ground of physiology and psychology, overlapping both, wd. is as fruitful as any, and I am now working on to it. But a cultivator thereof can make no money”.
On January 3, 1868, James wrote to Holmes in a melancholy mood. “I have been reading nothing of any interest but some chapters of physiology. There has a good deal been doing here on the physiology of senses, overlapping perception and consequently in a measure the psychological field—I am wading my way towards it ....”
On January 7, 1868, he wrote a long letter to Ward, telling him, among other things: “I am growing more and more attached to Physiology, but feel fearfully old”. James turned 26 four days later.
On January 9, he sent a letter to his sister Alice telling her about his social intercourse in Berlin: “If I wanted I could see all the best society in Berlin with the openings I now have but with my University work, my back is unequal to the task of a larger visiting circle than I have”.
On an unknown date in January, he assured his brother Henry from Berlin: “I am sound of wind and limbs” (Probably a quote from the anonymous novel ‘the red barn’: a tale founded on fact, probably written by Robert Huish (1777-1850).
The Return to Teplitz in Midterm
On January 22, 1868, William James wrote to his father from Teplitz: “Don’t allow yourself to be shocked with surprise on reading the above date till you hear the reasons which have brought me here at this singular season.” He offered two reasons for his surprising departure from Berlin in midterm, “the increasing wear and tear of my life in Berlin and in my growing impatience to get well enough to be able to do some work in the summer”. That means that he wanted to regain his health in order to engage in work, perhaps in laboratory work, in Heidelberg.
The details of his second reason are the interesting ones: “I find myself getting more interested in Physiology...,” a surprising argument for abandoning the ‘very good and clear, yea, brilliant’ physiology lectures in Berlin, and he continued: “...and nourishing a hope that I may be able to make its study (and perhaps its teaching) my profession; and joining the thought that if I came to Teplitz now for three weeks, I could have still another turn at it if necessary in April before Summer Semester at Heidelberg began, to my consciousness that in my present condition I was doing worse than wasting time at Berlin”.
James then said that it was four days ago, which must have been January 18, and a week after his birthday, that he took the train to Teplitz. “Now that I am here I am only sorry I deferred it so long.” A sketch of the amenities of the Fürstenbad followed, then some gossip about American expatriates living in Berlin and a final pacificatory line that “life in Teplitz is favorable to letter writing”. An answer to this letter from Henry James Sr. is not recorded.
On January 27, James wrote to Bowditch, the physiology professor at Harvard: “Finding I was losing my time in Berlin inasmuch as I had been for the past couple of months making no improvement, I came down here...” to Teplitz. “I am bound to jump the damned thing along somehow so as to get doing some laboratory work in summer, and if the present treatments here don’t suffice I shall have another chance in April or May”. One gets the impression that James did not collect the most basic information about Heidelberg University. Teaching would start there on Monday, April 20, 1868 (Anzeige der Vorlesungen, welche im Sommer- Halbjahr 1868 auf der Grossherzoglich Badischen Ruprecht- Carolinischen Universität zu Heidelberg gehalten werden sollen). Late April or May would not be appropriate starting dates for the summer semester.
On February 12, 1868, William James wrote to his brother Henry in an optimistic vein: “...If I get enough improvement fm. this Cure this time to get into a laboratory, it will be a matter to affect the prosperity of my whole future life and turn me from a nondescript loafer, into a respectable working man, with an honorable task before him.” He added that the thirty-day cure would be over next week. This assertion entails nothing less than the conception that Heidelberg was the place, which could turn him into the opposite of a nondescript loafer. We know that Heidelberg would not do the trick, at least not that trick.
Nonetheless, William’s next letter to his brother, written on March 4, 1868, indicates that he was still hanging around in Teplitz. This required an explanation: “I am very sorry to say that the Cure (as they call it here) wh. I finished two weeks ago, has had this time an effect exactly opposite to that of last summer and has me made decidedly worse. ...Being as I am I have judged it more prudent not to go back to Berlin for some time, as it is impossible for me to keep quiet there”. He then served up some novel ideas to Henry who also suffered from back problems: “I had a dream before the effects of my treatment were known that if it did me a great deal of good, I should send home to have you sent here at any sacrifice for it wd. be your only chance of salvation. You could have 3 spells of bathing by October and spend the mean times in Dresden while I should be close at hand in Leipsic in Carl Ludwig’s laboratory and might perhaps go home in the fall, leaving you here to enjoy your recovered strength. Foolish dream!”
The next letter to Henry, written on March 9, was sent from Dresden. It offered no explanation for the quick change of location. That, however, is found in a letter to his sister from March 16: “After waiting 4 weeks in T[eplitz] after the treatment had been given up...I concluded to come here for 3 weeks and then return.” William asserted that he is “about as well as when I went to Teplitz” and sketched his ideas for the immediate future: “If I find my 3rd mild experiment with Teplitz successful, I shall think it my duty to stick in the neighborhood all summer so as to have 2 more courses still”.
On March 23, 1868, in a letter to Arthur George Sedgwick, James mentioned his situation and his plans: “I am here in Dresden loafing as usual till my back let me do something. I go in 3 weeks back to Teplitz. If that fails to cleanse the peccant humours fm. my system, home!”
A letter to his brother Henry, written on April 5, is again sent from the Saxon capital: “You see I am still in Dresden”
On April 16, William addressed the whole James family and said about his condition: “It is now quite as well as before I went to Teplitz, so that all the harm that has done me has been loss of time and pocket. ...In the 3rd course wh. I go on to take to-morrow there can be no risk, as it shall be even milder than the first one wh. was so beneficial”.
Seemingly on April 5, actually on May 5, James wrote to Bowditch from Teplitz and for the first time in months the words Heidelberg, Helmholtz and Wundt reappeared: “You see I am again in this bathing place...In 10 days I start for Dresden where I shall stay at least 1 month and perhaps longer trying to husband the good effects of this bathing by rest and not work them right off as I have hitherto done. Then it is most probable that I shall go to Heidelberg. ...I go to Heidelberg because Helmholtz is there and a man named Wundt fm. whom I may learn something of the physiology of senses without too great bodily exertion and may perhaps apply the knowledge to some use afterwards. The immortal Helmholtz is such an ingrained mathematician that I suppose I shall not profit much by him. How long I stay in H[eidelberg] will depend on what I can gain there and on the state of my back. It’s a delicious place to live in, people say, altho’ the swabian german is laughed at by those of the north”. Obviously his Northern informants were not linguists. The Heidelberg dialect is not even remotely Swabian, but Rheno- Franconian and it is not advisable to tell Heidelbergers you liked or disliked their Swabian way of talking.
On May 14, 1868, James wrote to his sister Alice from Dresden: “I stay here a month or 6 weeks to give the baths a fair chance of working, and then go to Heidelberg. I have given up the thought of doing anything at Physiology, for I cannot work in a laboratory and it was in the 1st disappointment of this decision that I felt like throwing business and going home. But I am sure that if I only stay through next winter in Heidelberg I shall not only reap the harvest of my noviciate (dreary like all noviciates) in German affairs ‘as such,’ but also gain a good deal besi des wh. I never should at home”. Eventually, the desired journey to Heidelberg would obtain an approximate date. It should take place in the middle or at the end of June 1868. But soon that date would be overturned.
On the following day James began a long letter to Holmes, which took him several days to finish. On the May 18, he wrote: “I had hoped until the end of my visit to Teplitz last winter that I might be able to get working at Physiology, not that I have any special interest in its details, but that there is work there for somebody to do, and I have a (perhaps erroneous) suspicion that psychology is not à l’ordre du jour until some as yet unforeseen steps are made in the physiology of the Nervous system; and if I were able by assiduous pottering to define a few physiological facts however humble I should feel I had not lived in vain. But I now see that I can probably never do laboratory work, and so I am obliged to fall back on something else. ...I shall continue to study or rather begin to, in a general psychological direction hoping that soon I may get into a particular channel. Perhaps a practical application may present itself some time”. At the end of this letter James stated: “I leave here in a month or so for Heidelberg”.
On May 24, James said in a letter from Dresden to Thomas Wren Ward: “In January, finding the activity of Berlin was hurting my back, I escaped to Teplitz, took a severe course of treatment combined with ‘faradization’ for a month and found myself so much worse for it that I judged it prudent to stay another month before coming away.” We learn that James on top of baths, mud baths, douching, mineral water, curd, and whey also received electric currents, the latest in faddish unspecific treatments of ailments eluding diagnosis, especially of a neurological or neurotic kind. His wretched condition after one month of undergoing these torments is a plausible consequence.
His experiences in Dresden were not salubrious, either. “When I was last here I hurt myself by running about too much in the Picture gallery...” He also mentions visiting the gallery of casts of antique sculptures. Then he admitted having relinquished his plans for his future: “I have now given up all idea of ever doing anything at physiology, and for the last 2 months my mind has been off the tolerably steady mechanical track in wh. I had succeeded in keeping it in Berlin”. He therefore exchanged reading physiology for Homer, in “Dutch” (‘Dutch’ is an earlier English word for German, as in ‘Pennsylvanian Dutch’, from the German self-appellation ‘Deutsch’), as he added, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
Near the end of that long letter he stated the intention that: “Probably in 6 weeks I shall go to Heidelberg [sic!?]; and it is likely that I stay there all winter studying Psychology in some shape or other. I don’t know now exactly what practical use I can put it to, but something may turn up. I feel a sort of confidence in these thick Germans, in their honesty and earnestness at a ***. That means that he rescheduled the date for his journey to a town, the name of which he forgot how to spell correctly. It would now take place in the first half of July.
On June 15, still in Dresden, James wrote to Bowditch and evaluated the top German physiologists: “In Germany the tradition is that Ludwig is ‘the best teacher of Physiology’. Brücke in Vienna seems to be considered next. He lives in his laboratory &c, &c. Helmholtz, who is perhaps the 1st scientific genius now above ground, is said to be a very poor teacher although he has the finest laboratory. Du Bois Reymond in Berlin does not pay much attention to his students. The real teacher there is a wretched looking little Jew named Rosenthal, who also lives in the laboratory and is saturated with physiology and with goodness and virtue of any kind.” Eventually, reflecting on Bowditch’s plan to come to Germany, James mentioned Heidelberg: “I think it probable that it will be most advantageous to me to spend the winter in Heidelberg though I can’t be sure till I get there. ...I shall (D. V.) (Dieu voulant or Dieux voulants. French for ‘God or the Gods willing’) be in Heidelberg on Sept. 1st”. This is the next rescheduling of his Heidelberg travel plans. But soon the rescheduling is again rescheduled. On the same day, on June 15, 1868, James wrote to Elizabeth Carey Agassiz: “In a fortnight I am going to Heidelberg, where I shall probably spend the winter”. Something important must have happened between the writing of these two letters.
On June 17, he wrote to Catherine Elizabeth Havens: “As for myself I have decided to start for Heidelberg next week”.
On Tuesday, June 23, 1868, William announced to his sister, this time addressed with another German diminutive as Beloved Alicechen: “In three days I start for Heidelberg. Address me there poste restante, till you hear further”. We may infer that if James wanted to stick to this schedule, he would have had to leave for Heidelberg on Friday, June 26, 1868, to travel to the town and the university that had been on his mind at least since November 1867. From his suggestion of writing him poste restante, we may also infer that he did not intend to stay there for just a few days. We will learn soon that he did not stick to this seemingly definite schedule.
Communicating about Arriving in Heidelberg
William James’s next recorded letter was put into writing on Friday, July 3, 1868. It was dispatched not in Heidelberg, but more than 400 miles away in Berlin. The recipient was Henry James Sr., his father. His eldest son had some explaining to do. This is how he began: “My dear father—You will doubtless after my last letter be astonished to read the above [Berlin] address. The fact is I have been to Heidelberg and fled again under the influence of a blue despair which seized me for a week. Now that I am cheerful again I do not think I did unwisely. I should not have been able to stand the monotony of Heidelberg. It is a mere village shut between two precipitous hills, the scaling of wh. constitutes the only recreation of the place. As I am inadequate to that all that remains is to take a turn down a sunny village street and then back to my room”.
This is less a description of the ‘delicious place to live in’, the town that is the destination of multitudes of tourists, but rather a product of his need to defend his actions, which James must have strongly felt. When he made his short visit there, Heidelberg had about 16 000 inhabitants, which is not the typical size of a village. Next to its two Gothic and three baroque churches, it even had a chapel for persons of the Anglican creed, something one would not normally find in a German village. Nor would a university be among the typical attractions of such villages.
Next to the monotony of the town or rather ‘village’, there were other impediments to James’s designs: “One of the men I went to hear does not lecture, and in the vacation of 2 months which begins 6 weeks hence I should find myself absolutely without any source of diversion outside of my own periphery as the university closes and everyone scatters. I have learned now by experience, that, my old resource of walking off tedium and trouble being taken away from me, I require being somewhere in reach of conversation, music, French and English newspaper or at least the sight of rushing affairs that a large city gives, to keep of sound mind”.
Already there are new plans in the making. James will stay in Berlin for a month, then spend the vacation in Dresden. Next winter he might be in Vienna with Bowditch.
Near the end of the letter one finds the most pressing problem and the abominable term ‘fiasco’: “This Heidelberg fiasco has made a big hole in my letter of credit. I don’t know what you think of my expenses here which we expected to be so much less”.
At the very end James promised to write a more satisfactory letter shortly. This letter is indeed not very satisfactory. One learns hardly anything about his journey except that he was in Heidelberg and soon left for spurious reasons. The next letter written six days later surprisingly in Dresden on July 9, addressed to his mother: “My dear mother—I wrote a line to Father last Friday from Berlin which I suppose you have already got and been surprised by. I think I did quite right to quit Heidelberg, though I’m sorry I had to make the expensive journey there to come to the conclusion it was no place for me. I shall now stay for an indefinite time here as it is by far the pleasantest place in Germany for the summer... Unfortunately the board is to the tune of 50 Thalers a month. In a room I could live much cheaper, but...”
Only in the middle of this letter did James remark on his Heidelberg journey: “In my Journey to Heidelberg I was admitted in to the intimacy of several Russian princesses &c, and queer fish some of them were. Others were very delectable. I also made the acquaintance at Heidelberg of Mrs. Grymes, mère, an old French lady of the ancien régime with black spectacles who amused me very much by her anecdotes &c. ... [more gossip]...I enclose you the photograph of Helmholtz Prof. at Heidelberg, begging you to notice how mean is the lower part of his immortal face. He is probably the greatest scientific genius extant notwithstanding, and in his company your despised child can well afford to let rebound the shafts of your ridicule. I think after this Heidelberg crisis that there will be no difficulty about my settling down to study here [in Dresden!]. My back remains about as it was before I went to Teplitz”.
This does not say much about the aim of his journey, which was taking up studies in Heidelberg, but it produces the impression that the journey as well as Heidelberg were not quite that unbearably ‘monotonous’.
On the next day, July 10, James wrote to his brother Henry. This time he once again offered only unimportant bits of his travels. The word ‘Heidelberg’ does not even appear: “I wish you could have seen a so-called Russian princess whom I travelled with lately and who told me all about her conjugal troubles. Her husband (the great Hanoverian statesman, Graf Münster) procured a divorce fm. her and married one Lady Harriet Sinclair (who wrote the book called dainty dishes wh. I believe mother has.) Learning that I was a Doctor this lady gave me various interesting details about her divers accouchements (—or ‘enfantillages’—Mme. Grymes told me of a German who spoke French with great severity and precision, saying that his wife ‘est morte dans son second enfantillage’)”.
All that James disclosed to his brother were these risqué recollections, which he certainly would not let be known to his mother. They may be unimportant, but they have the huge advantage of permitting identification of the Russian lady who spoke so openly to the ostensible ‘doctor’. Graf Münster was Georg Herbert, Graf zu Münster-Ledenburg (since 1899 Fürst zu Münster von Derneburg, 1820–1902). In 1847 he married the Russian real, not so-called, Princess Alexandra (The editors of the Correspondence of William James use the French form of the female of the name ‘Alexander’, ‘Alexandrine). Galitzin (1823–1884), widowed Princess Dolgorukov or Dolgoruki, daughter of Mikhail Mikhailovitch, Prince Galitzin (in another transcription Golitsin) and of Maria Arkadievna, Princess Suvorov- Italijsky. Princess Alexandra had six ‘enfantillages’ or children and was divorced in 1864. In 1865 Georg Herbert zu Münster married Harriet St. Clair-Erskine (1831–1867), author of the best-selling Dainty Dishes, Receipts.
The name of the Russian princess allows us to identify the date of James’s arrival in Heidelberg. The daily Fremdenblatt für die Stadt Heidelberg No. 21 of Thursday, June 25, states that the following persons were present on June 24 at Hotel Victoria: His Serene Highness Prince Gortschakov and her Serene Highness Princess Gortschakov with family from Russia. Her Serene Highness Princess Galizin with family and servants from St. Petersburg.
The first-named Prince is Alexander Mikhailovich Gortschakov (1798–1883), then the Russian foreign minister. Since this June 24 is the first day they are mentioned in Fremdenblatt, they must have arrived in Heidelberg and checked in at Hotel Victoria on that day
The newspaper Heidelberger Zeitung in their daily column on tourists in Heidelberg on Friday, June 26, page 4, confirmed the arrival of those same persons at Hotel Victoria on June 24. The other Heidelberg newspaper, Heidelberger Journal, printed the same information in its edition of June 27, 1868.
These travelers consistently mentioned in the Heidelberg newspapers apparently constituted the traveling party James called the “several russian princesses &c and queer fish some of them,” whom he met when on the train to Heidelberg. One must assume that they all traveled in the expensive first class coach. One must deduce that William James arrived in Heidelberg not as planned on June 26, following his letter to his sister, but already on the 24th.
The same edition of the daily Fremdenblatt für die Stadt Heidelberg also stated the presence of the family Grymes from America with their servants, also at Hotel Victoria. They had arrived some time earlier in town. Mary Helen Grymes was the daughter of William James’s uncle, John Barber James, married to the New York physician, Charles Alfred Grymes. His mother, Suzette, was the ‘old’ Mrs. Grymes whom James mentioned.
William James himself is not mentioned among the foreign guests in the Fremdenblatt lists, neither on the 24th, nor on any other day in June 1868. There can be no doubt, however, that he spent some time in Heidelberg and that he arrived together with the Russian aristocrats on June 24. It is probable that he stayed in one of the less conspicuous inns or boarding houses, a fair number of which are listed in the Heidelberg address register, their guests not considered worthy to figure in the Fremdenblatt. It is unlikely that he stayed in one of the better hotels under the rubric of unnamed servants. It is not quite so unlikely that he was invited by some of the affluent persons whom he knew to stay in the hotel in a bed in one of the suites already paid for without officially checking in.
There was no lack of tourists by the family name of James in Heidelberg. On June 29, one James checked in at the Hotel Victoria, and the full text is ‘James and family from America’, which should exclude William. Another James stayed overnight at Hotel Holländischer Hof near the Neckar bridge on the same days. Again the complete text in Fremdenblatt excludes William James. It says ‘James and wife from London’.
Another American received noticeable mention in the Fremdenblatt, though not in James’s letters. On June 23, one Bancroft, ambassador from America, checked in at the Hotel Prinz Carl. He stayed there until the 28th or 29th. Since June 25, he is referred to in more detail as ‘His Excellency Bancroft with domestic(s), ambassador from America’. The German word for domestic was abbreviated to ‘Bed.’, which could mean a singular or a plural. It may be tempting, but it would be of no avail to speculate that this denoted William James. I will deal with Bancroft’s unacknowledged leading role in William James’s ‘Heidelberg fiasco’ soon.
A Short Summary of the Remaining Months of James’s Stay in Europe
Before looking closer at what happened in Heidelberg, a summary of James’s further adventures and misadventures in Europe might aid in putting the Heidelberg fiasco in the proper context of his journey.
On August 7, 1868, James wrote again to his father, not from Berlin, but this time from Dresden. After a few introductory words, he said: “I don’t know what you will think of the money I am spending nor how you will be able to keep me—I propose making another journey, into Switzerland this time. I met in Berlin a month ago a man named Colladon, now M. D., one of the old Geneva students, who told me of an establishment, he thought at Interlaken for the treatment of Rheumatism &c. by Ice. I am now waiting to hear fm. Colladon the precise address, write to the man and according to his answer, start”. There is no more mention of Heidelberg or the Fiasco. Now relief is not sought any longer in Teplitz, but in Interlaken, a small town in the Swiss canton of Berne, situated between two lakes and Alpine mountains, a destination famous for various Alpine sports and amusements.
On August 17, James sent a letter to his cousin Katherine Temple Emmet from Montreux on the Swiss side of the Lake Geneva. He had traveled from Dresden to Zurich to Montreux for a vacation and planned to proceed to Geneva and probably to Interlaken.
On August 26, James wrote to his brother Henry. The letter was posted in the spa town of Divonne in the department of Ain in the East of France near Geneva where he was taking a course of treatments in a hydro-therapeutical establishment. Three days later he wrote to Catherine Elizabeth Havens from the same establishment. He explained that he had been unable to find the Interlaken institution that would use ice in an attempt to cure him, that on consulting physicians in Geneva, he received the advice to turn to Divonne and that he might go to Vienna in winter, possibly even to Paris.
On September 18, James was in Paris writing to Bowditch that he had paid a visit to Charles Édouard Brown-Séquart, who had been a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School from 1864 to 1867. James and Bowditch had been his students. Brown-Séquart harbored the idea of founding a laboratory in Paris, in which James had invested some hope. He moreover intended to attend lectures by the Paris physiologists Étienne Jules Marey and Claude Bernard in winter.
There were further letters from Divonne, in which he complained about lumbago and chronic gastritis. In one of these letters to Bowditch, he expressed his preference for Vienna to Paris: “...I dread the expenses of Paris...I hate to give up another winter of German reading and german influence generally. I can gain more fm. it, I feel certain, than from anything in France. If I give up this cure as a failure, it seems now as if I ought to go to Vienna in spite of your being in Paris. I have cut off from Physiology entirely as a hopeless job—and in the past six months have been in such a used up condition as to have done no study at all worth the name.”.
On September 22, 1868, he wrote another begging letter to his father and indicated that he was undecided whether he should go to Paris or to Vienna for the winter.
On October 5, still in Divonne, he wrote another letter to his father, in which he refused to return home to the USA: “About my coming home—I decide to stay the winter out, not so much for the sake of study (for leading the life I do, I have no advantages here which I should not get at home) but because I think a voyage in my present state wd. be too damaging to my dorsum, and a recovery undesirably tedious, to express it mildly”.
Back in Paris on the next day, October 6, James wrote to Bowditch, telling him that Brown-Séquard had said that he had not found any rooms suitable for his laboratory, an announcement James did not really believe. He shortened the physiologist’s name to B. S. (The corresponding expletive was in use in James’s times) .
Back in Divonne, James wrote to Thomas Wren Ward on October 9: “I dropped out of Heidelberg very soon on finding how lonesome the life there was to be. I can’t study half the number of hours I used to...” adding: “I have not got started on any line of work yet, but am hovering and dipping about the portals of Psychology”.
One wonders if it would be appropriate to call James a Heidelberg dropout. His remark on his feared lonesome life in Heidelberg seems singularly misguided in hindsight. In winter 1868/1869 there were 29 students from North America enrolled, 5% of all Heidelberg students. In the fall of 1868, a widowed Mrs. Elizabeth or Eliza Putnam Webb Gibbens and her three daughters, Alice, Mary, and Margaret, settled in Heidelberg not far from Hotel Victoria . Upon returning to the US after some years spent in Heidelberg and Dresden, the eldest daughter, Alice Howe Gibbens (1849-1922), became Alice Gibbens James, William’s wife, on Wednesday, July 10, 1878. Incidentally, this was followed by a nervous breakdown on the part of William’s sister, Alice .
On October 14, 1868, James wrote to Bowditch from Geneva, declaring that he had given in to the urging of his family and would go home. All study plans for Vienna or for Paris were cancelled.
On November 7, 1868, he boarded a ship in Brest and after fourteen months in Europe, he sailed away for home. On November 18, he landed in New York and then returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his family, thereby ending his European odyssey.
Seven months later, on June 21, 1869, he received a medical doctor’s degree and a license to practice from Harvard University, a degree that he did not yet have when in the company of the Russian ladies on the train to Heidelberg.
What Happened in Heidelberg
James’s conduct with regard to physiological laboratories seems peculiar. At the beginning of his journey he seems to have had the idea of going to Leipzig to study with Carl Ludwig in his laboratory. That was a sensible idea since Ludwig belonged to the elite of German physiological scientists, and Leipzig was the nearest university to Dresden. There is no indication that he ever went there. Going to Berlin instead was the next reasonable choice since Emil du Bois-Reymond belonged to the same elite group of prominent physiologists as Ludwig.
Despite living in Berlin, James never worked in his laboratory, allegedly because of his back pains. This can hardly be the only factor. Whoever can endure a course of lectures while sitting on the hard, wooden benches of German universities would also survive standing in a laboratory. Then James suddenly discontinued taking courses in Berlin.
He retreated to Teplitz, nurturing the fresh idea that Heidelberg would be the place for him, with its excellent physiologists, Hermann Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt. However, he procrastinated instead of going there before the beginning of the summer term. When he finally arrived in Heidelberg at midterm, he almost instantly took flight. He then toyed with the idea of going to Vienna to study with Ernst Brücke, the fourth of the leading German physiologists. We have no indication that he ever went there.
Then there was a plan to learn how to work in a laboratory in Paris with B. S. It did not happen. Nor did he try to find a position at another Parisian laboratory. Planning to work in a physiological laboratory and then avoiding it at all cost seems to have turned into a peculiar habit with James and we might add, there was an additional instance of this elusive behavior in his later life.
While staying in Rome in 1873, he wrote to his sister Alice about the German physiologist Moritz Schiff, who had a physiological laboratory in the Reale Istituto di Studi Superiori, the university-like institution in Florence: “My plan is now clearly reduced to this alternative which will be decided about the middle of Jany. If I can then study with Schiff in Florence I will stay on into April. If not, I will return home in February...” It did not work out.
Is the Heidelberg Fiasco simply the outcome of a behavioral habit or are there specific local factors at play? Three questions seem imperative: Why did James not go to Heidelberg before the onset of the summer term? Why did he go there at midterm? What made him panic and leave so abruptly?
There is not much evidence to answer the first question. His reluctance looks like his usual habit of reacting with inaction or flight when faced with the prospect of actually doing laboratory work. His letters relate one part of the story. On November 7, 1867, James mentioned Heidelberg, Helmholtz and Wundt. On November 19, he told his sister with a cautionary ‘probably’ that he would go to Heidelberg in April 1868. On December 26, he disclosed to his father that he thought that he would go there, which he repeated on January 22, 1868, adding that it would be in April. On the same day, he told Bowditch that he would do some laboratory work in the summer, should the Teplitz treatment permit it.
These words might reveal his reason for leaving Berlin at midterm, namely to become reconstituted in Teplitz in time to be fit for work in Heidelberg during the summer term. When April passed without James going to Heidelberg, he nonetheless told Bowditch about his Heidelberg plans on May 5. On May 14, he told his sister Alice that he would go there in about a month or six weeks. That would be the middle of June or beginning of July.
On May 18, he told Holmes that he would travel in a month or so. On June 15, he wrote Bowditch that he would go for the winter term, which meant forgetting about the summer term. But on the same day, June 15, 1868, James told Elizabeth Carey Agassiz that he would go in a fortnight and probably spend the winter in Heidelberg. On June 17, he told Catherine Elizabeth Havens: “As for myself I have decided to start for Heidelberg next week.” And on Tuesday, June 23, 1868, he wrote to his sister that he would leave for Heidelberg in three days. In reality, as we have seen, he arrived in Heidelberg the next day, the 24th.
This is only one part of what happened. There might have been further letters that have not survived. James must have talked to friends, relatives and acquaintances about Heidelberg and his plans wherever he sojourned: in Berlin where he probably learned about Heidelberg, Helmholtz and Wundt as well as in Dresden and in Teplitz. None of this has been documented. Hence, there may be more to the first problem than we can surmise. At least he started moving at midterm, even if that did not seem very expedient for his purposes.
Now to the second question on what might have made him move at midterm after having missed the start of the summer term. There seems to be nothing James wrote in his letters that could shed light on this question. His diary, which he used sporadically, holds no entries for the period between May and the end of July 1868 (Information of Houghton Library of Harvard University on April 13th, 2011. The following six months are just as empty . Thus it appears to be advisable to look for relevant information in local Heidelberg sources. They have already helped to detect the date of James’s arrival in Heidelberg on the 24th of June .
There is the mysterious report in the Fremdenblatt that the American ambassador checked in at Hotel Prinz Carl on June 23, 1868. This is confirmed by the Heidelberger Zeitung, which on June 25 published the arrival on June 23 of “Bancroft ambassador from America,” and on June 26 it stated the continuing presence for the 24th of “His Excellency Bancroft, ambassador, and Godham with spouse from America” at Hotel Prinz Carl. A third confirmation can be found in the Heidelberger Journal. In its edition of June 26, it announced for June 23 the arrival of: “Bancroft, ambassador from America. Mr. and Mrs. Gosham, rentier from America.” Whether the American couple is called Godham or Gosham is probably unimportant. It might have been David Wood Gorham, a longstanding Trustee of the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a Harvard M. D. in 1824, and an old acquaintance of Bancroft’s.
Who is this American ambassador? He is George Bancroft (1800-1891), the historian and diplomat, since 1867 the ambassador of the United States of America for the North German Confederation, which was constituted in 1867 and dominated by Prussia. He was also the American ambassador for the four Southern German States, the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg as well as the Grand Duchies of Baden and Hesse. His residence was in Berlin, but he had quite some traveling to do to visit the Southern German capitals. With the unification of Germany in 1871, he became the ambassador for the new German Empire, comprising the North German Confederation, the four Southern States, and Alsace-Lorraine.
Bancroft had received his education at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and at Harvard. As a young man, he had studied in Göttingen where he received the doctoral degree of the philosophical faculty at a very young age in 1820. Later he continued his studies in Berlin, and during the summer term of 1821 he visited various German towns, among them Heidelberg (Occasionally one can find the assertion that he studied in Heidelberg as well. His name, however, does not figure in the Heidelberg student register . More thoroughgoing literature mentions simply a visit in Heidelberg, as does Handlin . On his time as diplomat in Berlin see Blumenthal Occasionally one can find the assertion that he studied in Heidelberg as well . His name, however, does not figure in the Heidelberg student register . More thoroughgoing literature mentions simply a visit in Heidelberg, as does Handlin. On his time as diplomat in Berlin see Blumenthal. Later he acquired a substantial reputation as Secretary of the Navy, as ambassador in London and especially through his historical works.
The relations between the Bancroft family and the James family were close. Henry James III, the son of William and editor of his father’s letters, observed about the times of his father’s unaccompanied journey to Germany: “Although James’s main purpose was to work at the University, he was luckily not without social resources. George Bancroft, the historian and former Secretary of the Navy and Minister to England, was at this time representing the United States in Berlin and was an old family acquaintance. His and another hospitable family, the Louis Thieses, were a link with home, and at the same time rendered hospitable services to James by helping him to a few German acquaintances ”.
The Bancroft and James families knew each other from their summer holidays in Newport, Rhode Island, as Strouse has stated . The ambassador’s son, John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901), studied law at Harvard. He was a good friend of the younger members of the James family, acting as an escort to Sister Alice James in Newport. Henry James, the brother, called him an “excellent friend” and emphasized that like William he loved painting, which he had learned in Düsseldorf, meaning the Academy of Beaux Arts there .
William James’s letters prove that he was a regular guest of the Bancroft family when in Berlin. It was during his stay in Berlin that James took note of Heidelberg and its distinguished physiologists. It stands to reason that we can assume that he did not hide his enthusiastic desire to go there and study with these scientists.
George Bancroft traveled much as he was responsible not only for the North German Confederation, but also for the Southern States, each with its own capital. 1868 was the year, in which the treaties between the United States and the German States on naturalization of German immigrants were negotiated. The first of these treaties was signed with the North German Confederation in Berlin on February 22, 1868, not entirely coincidentally on George Washington’s birthday. The treaty dealt with the freedom of citizens of the Confederation’s member States to adopt American citizenship without prior release from their original citizenship (The German text of the treaty see in ; the English version in Bevans . Bancroft signed an identical treaty between the US and Bavaria in Munich on May 26, 1868.When Bancroft arrived in Heidelberg, located in Baden, on June 23, 1868, the treaties with the Grand Duchies of Baden, of Hessen, and the one with the Kingdom of Württemberg were not yet ready for signing. When he came to Heidelberg, a town situated nearly equidistant from the three capitals involved, the journals speculated that it was on purpose to engage in further negotiations about these treaties. This was probably correct. After his stay in Heidelberg, he could indeed sign a special treaty with Baden in Karlsruhe on July 19 that differed from the ones that he had signed earlier. The other outstanding treaties followed soon after. On July 27, he signed the Württemberg treaty in Stuttgart. On August 1, he signed the Hesse treaty in the Hessian capital of Darmstadt .
The proclaimed pretextual reason for the Heidelberg journey this paper is about was something completely different from a mission about diplomatic negotiations. Bancroft traveled as the official representative of the US and guest of honor at the unveiling of an imposing monument to the reformer Martin Luther. 1868 could be used for various reasons to celebrate three hundred fifty years of the Reformation. In April 1518, Luther acted as a contender in the Heidelberg disputation with the Augustinian monks. In June 1518 he was summoned to Rome for a heresy trial, but chose not to go there; in October 1518 he was questioned at the Imperial Diet in Augsburg by the Papal Legate and refused to retract.
His famous phrase “Here I stand. I can do no other” (Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.” This assertion of Luther’s is undocumented) was allegedly spoken at the Diet in Worms not in 1518, but some years later in 1521. Nevertheless in 1856 dignitaries in Worms founded a society for the erection of a monument commemorating Luther’s stay in Worms. Ten years later three days of feasting from June 24 to 26, 1868, accompanied the unveiling of the massive bronze memorial that included larger-than-life statues of Luther and everyone important in the Reformation. The unveiling itself, the highlight of the celebration, took place at eleven o’clock on June 25. The assembled guests were also imposing and included the king of Prussia and further royal, grand ducal and other crowned heads, diplomats, eminences, university professors and other celebrities enriched the festivities, among them the US representative, Dr. George Bancroft .
One should keep in mind that Prussia and three of the Southern German States were ruled by Protestant dynasties, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse. They had been wartime enemies of Prussia just two years before in 1866. Now the heads of these States all met in Worms to demonstrate their national reconciliation to the world, and especially to France. Even Queen Victoria of England asked the King of Prussia to convey her good wishes to the assembled dignitaries.
The supplement of the Worms’ journal, Wormser Zeitung, of June 24, numbered Bancroft among the registered guests as number 441, the ‘ambassador of the United States’. It is not unusual that he stayed in Heidelberg instead of Worms. Thanks to the increasing tourism in search of Rhine Romanticism, immensely facilitated by the building of a network of railways, Heidelberg possessed a booming hotel business, whereas Worms was surely overcrowded on this occasion.
There was a railway leading from Heidelberg to Worms that took less than an hour. The treaty on naturalization with the Grand Duchy of Baden, which was nearly ready to be signed, had to be discussed, if possible, on Baden’s soil.
In addition, friends and admirers of Bancroft, mostly university professors, had been organizing an honorary banquet for Bancroft in Heidelberg on the evening of Friday, June 26.
It seems completely reasonable to conclude that George Bancroft, when preparing his journey to Worms and Heidelberg, recalled that the son of his friend and friend of his son, William James, had expressed his intense wish to go to Heidelberg. What better chance to introduce him to the grandees of Heidelberg and Heidelberg University than the occasion of an honorary banquet with himself as the guest of honor. He would have written or had his son write to James to stop procrastinating and travel from Dresden to Heidelberg to join in the occasion.
When James had written to his sister on June 23 that he would travel to Heidelberg in three days, consequently on June 26, he probably had not calculated that on that date he would arrive too late to participate in the banquet. It must have been that as soon as he realized this, he revised his plans and went earlier, thereby meeting the Russian princesses on his way. It also made sense for Bancroft to arrive in Heidelberg on the 23rd in order to proceed to Worms on the next day or days.
Bancroft’s travel preparations and probably a very energetic hint from him to James seem to furnish a plausible answer to the second question, namely why James traveled in midterm and specifically on that particular date to Heidelberg instead of at the beginning of the summer term or of the winter term.
The Heidelberger Journal brought a report on the honorary banquet of June 26 in its issue 150 of June 28: “The banquet in honor of the American ambassador in Berlin, Herr Bancroft, took place yesterday evening in the Museum (This was the building of the Heidelberg Museum Society which stood were one today finds the building named New University. The word ‘museum’ in this context meant a place of the Muses, of scholarly leisure, not a depository for collecting and displaying objects) on the occasion of his stay in town. Many persons attended. This reporter counted one hundred participants, among them many Americans. Privy counselor Bluntschli proposed the toast to the celebrated guest.”
Johann Caspar Bluntschli, the Heidelberg professor of constitutional law and a member of the first Baden Chamber, very probably participated in the negotiations about the naturalization treaty between Baden and the United States which, as has been remarked, differed in some particulars from the text of the treaties already signed by Prussia as well as Bavaria.
The newspaper report enumerated the main points of George Bancroft’s rejoinder, in which he emphasized the essential similarity between Germany and America and the historical significance of the Reformation. Then Professor Cleveland from Philadelphia gave a speech in English. This must have been Samuel McCoskry Cleveland (1841-1912) who worked at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from 1868 to 1869 as an instructor of rhetoric and oratory, from 1869 to 1874 as professor of elocution . Then the Heidelberg historian Heinrich von Treitschke proposed another toast. It is interesting to observe that although Bancroft’s scholarly reputation rested on his historical publications, it was the professor of constitutional law who proposed the main toast, whereas the professor of history only played a secondary role.
The Heidelberger Zeitung of June 28 brought a similar report on the banquet and further mentioned that after Treitschke, the Heidelberg professor of philosophy, Eduard Zeller, gave a speech on the spiritual and cultural relationships between the US and Germany. In its edition of June 30, 1868, the same journal printed the speech of professor Cleveland und added a preface of its own in English: “For the benefit of those Americans who are not so familiar with the German and those who were not present on the occasion, we give in English the remarks made by Professor Cleveland of Philadelphia on the evening of the 26th, at the dinner given by the University to the Hon. George Bancroft, the American Minister at Berlin”.
This sentence makes Heidelberg University the official host of the banquet, whereas the Heidelberg Journal had said that it was friends and admirers of Bancroft. In either case, it was a splendid opportunity to present William James to important people from the university. What we do not know is why it did not generate any success for him.
The journal Freiburger Zeitung of June 30, 1868, from the distant south of Baden considered this Heidelberg banquet important enough to publish their own report. This indicates that it was not just of local importance. On July 1, this journal added a long essay on the felicitous relationship between the United States and Germany, the second part of which appeared, probably not coincidentally, in the issue of July 4.
This banquet was a significant event, in which George Bancroft was invited to play the central role. There is no report available assuring us that William James was present. However, it would hardly be realistic to assume that he was so shy as to forgo this extraordinary opportunity to make contact with members of the university.
Bancroft did not return to Berlin immediately. On July 2, he arrived in Stuttgart, the Württemberg capital for further negotiations on naturalization. This date shows that it was not in his company that James left Heidelberg and went to Berlin. The question remains unanswered why he chose Berlin as his next destination on his flight from Heidelberg before then leaving Berlin to return to Dresden.
Having discussed the first question of why James did not go to Heidelberg at the beginning of the summer term without finding a better answer than that this fit into the behavior pattern that he had adopted in Europe; having discussed the second question of why he so surprisingly went there at midterm and obtaining the simple answer that Bancroft urged him to do so; we are now left with the third question of what made him panic and leave Heidelberg so abruptly?
Richardson conjectured that James had not found an opportunity to meet important people in Heidelberg and therefore fled: “He seems to have had no letters of introduction, no entrée to the homes or the classes of great men”. We may discard this hypothesis. What better luck could he have had than being in the company of the honored guest of a festive banquet with the Heidelberg upper crust in science and humanities. Obtaining a formal introduction would surely have been better than any letter of introduction and indeed was in all likelihood the very purpose of his surprise trip on June 24 in light of the evidence presented here.
Richardson also offered a second hypothesis: “Overwhelmed, perhaps, by feelings of inadequacy or insignificance, he fled back to Berlin, where his mood of course darkened horribly”. This might have been the case, but Richardson offers no explanation why these feelings should have overwhelmed James more in Heidelberg than elsewhere.
Another hypothesis commonly expressed about the cause of his flight was his wretched health. George A. Miller claimed that his hopes of studying in Heidelberg “were thwarted by continued ill health . So does Bjork: “Illness, however, prevented him from studying with Wundt.” Unless these authors mean mental ‘ill health’ or ‘illness’, this sounds spurious. Why should he take the trouble of traveling to Heidelberg if his physical condition would have prevented him from realizing his dream anyway? There must have been something else that caused his flight.
One may ask why he remained dead silent on the presence of Bancroft in Heidelberg in his letters to his father, his mother, and his brother, chatting instead about intimate tales that Russian princesses divulged or about hollow causeries by Suzette Grymes. Did he try to prevent his family from asking Bancroft himself for his side of the story? This we do not know.
James’s lamenting to his father about the prospect of being lonely in Heidelberg sounds histrionic. With 24 American students there in the summer term, with plenty of tourists from diverse countries, including the US, and announced in the dailies, he would have had to be extremely timid if he did not find any company, even if he did not want to mingle with some of the many students from the various German provinces.
His complaint that the summer holidays would start soon was not really serious. He did not have to travel all the way to Heidelberg to find that out.
He was also pathetic when he complained about the claustrophobic geographic situation of Heidelberg between those ‘precipitous hills’. Mark Twain, who ten years later came to Heidelberg, gave a different picture, speaking not only about the ‘steep ridges’ in Twainian hyperbole, but also about ‘the vast dim expanse of the Rhine valley’ , which is completely flat and might induce agoraphobia in the sensitive.
The Final Pieces of the Puzzle
William James had a further complaint. He said that one of the two men, under whom he wanted to study in Heidelberg, did not teach. At first glance this seems strange. A look into the Heidelberg schedule of lectures (Anzeige der Vorlesungen, welche im Sommer-Halbjahr 1868 auf der Grossherzoglich Badischen Ruprecht-Carolinischen Universität zu Heidelberg gehalten werden sollen. Heidelberg: Karl Groos) for the summer semester 1868 suffices to prove that each of the two men, Helmholtz and Wundt, announced their respective share of lectures. Full Professor Helmholtz offered a course on Human Physiology, daily from 8 to 9 and Saturday from 8 to 10. He also gave a course on Practical Exercises in the Physiological Laboratory, Monday to Friday in the morning. Associate Professor Wundt offered Psychology including Mental Diseases, four times a week and Philosophical Results of Physical Research, two times a week.
There is a striking difference. Whereas Helmholtz indicates the days and hours of his sessions, Wundt is very vague about his own days or hours. James was indeed right: one of them did not teach and that person was Wundt.
Wundt himself in his autobiographical recollections recalled a peculiar behavioral pattern of Heidelberg students, at least of those at the Medical School. Excepting some subsidiary subjects needed for a few examinations, they would only attend lectures of full professors, who also acted as examiners and not those of associate professors, who were not examiners. During his years as an associate professor, Wundt was hoping for an offer of a post for a full professorship at any university since in Germany it was (and still is) very rare and exceptional to obtain a promotion from associate professor to full professor, while staying at the same university where the candidate did a Habilitation.
In his recollections Wundt added dolefully that this arrogant student tradition was the reason that for a number of years he did not get the chance to prove to the world that he was capable of actually giving full courses . Hence, James was right about Wundt, but he did not have the full story. Had he paid a visit to Wundt and voiced the opinion that he would love to attend his lectures, Wundt would have been rather pleased, and James would have had the good fortune to establish a personal relationship immediately to this professor in search of students who was only ten years older than he was. A remark in James’s review of Wundt’s Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie proves that he had no idea why Wundt did not teach during that term. There he said that Wundt would “study each new subject by giving a year’s course of lectures upon it” . Wundt would announce such courses on the blackboard and in the Anzeige der Vorlesungen, but student habits prevented him from actually giving them.
Then there was the full professor Helmholtz, “probably the greatest scientific genius extant” in James’s own judgment. Here one finds a problem of a completely different nature. On May 28, 1868, the University of Bonn, where he had been before going to Heidelberg, had sent him a letter of inquiry asking if he would like to return to Bonn. This was divulged by the Heidelberger Zeitung on page 1 on July 7, but one may assume that the relevant people at Heidelberg University knew about it earlier.
When James was in Heidelberg, Helmholtz had not yet made up his mind, at least not publicly. Would the call to Bonn University be a major problem for somebody as mobile as James? Why should he not follow Helmholtz to Bonn, a place he himself had been before? There was a catch, however. Bonn University had called Helmholtz for a chairmanship, not of the Physiology Department, but for the Physics Department. That was not unwelcome for Helmholtz and in 1871 he would accept exactly such a call from Berlin University. However, that non-medical subject area constituted a real problem for James. He was in no way prepared to study physics, even with Helmholtz. Going to Bonn with Helmholtz, therefore, was not an option. It was not until the autumn 1868 that Helmholtz declared that he would stay as a physiologist in Heidelberg.
Factually, there was nothing, about which we know in Heidelberg that would have prevented James from realizing his dream of studying there in winter 1868/69. One must assume that once in Heidelberg, he picked up hearsay and rumors about the two luminaries that he desired so dearly to encounter, whether at the Bancroft Banquet, in hotels or in student taverns. He lacked the customary American assertiveness and failed to contact the two men to obtain firsthand information. He rather let his peculiar habit prevail of avoiding the challenge of gaining access to a laboratory. He “fled again under the influence of a blue despair” as he told his father. Note his word ‘again’.
There is no evidence that James spoke with either Helmholtz or the more accessible Wundt during his short stay in Heidelberg in 1868. His biographer, Ralph Barton Perry, said vaguely: “He had caught a glimpse of Helmholtz and Wundt that was all” . It might have been even less than a coup d’oeil. In 1882, on another European journey, James went to Leipzig where Wundt was now a full professor. He sat in one of Wundt’s lectures, and he was received by Wundt in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind and later imitated all over the globe. There is nothing in his report to his wife Alice, hinting that he had recognized Wundt’s countenance after all these years or had failed to do so. It rather sounds as if it was the very first time that he had ever seen him.
The Heidelberg Fiasco was the outcome of the interplay of deficient information gathering and a personal propensity toward escapist behavior in perplexing situations.
Repercussions of the Heidelberg Fiasco
In post-fiasco times James slowly but radically developed a revaluation of the emotional values that he had attached toward work in psychological laboratories and also toward the “man named Wundt at Heidelberg”, “one of the men I went to hear” who did not lecture.
In the 1870s in reviewing Wundt’s Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie, James observed without any trace of animosity: “If, through a large part of it, the reader finds that physiology and psychology lie side by side without combining, it is more the fault of the science than of the author. He has registered no detail without doing his best to reduce and weave it in with the mass. Indeed so uninterrupted is his critical elaboration, that we can think of no book (except perhaps the “Origin of Species”) in the course of which the author propounds so many separate opinions ”.
One reads a similar observation near the ending: “Wundt’s book has many shortcomings, but they only prove how confused and rudimentary the science of psycho-physics still is. More workers and critics are wanted in the field, propounders of questions as well as of answers. Whoever they may be, they will find this treatise indispensable for study and reference”. Insufficiencies are not the fault of Wundt; they are inherent in the present condition of ‘psycho-physics’. There are not enough persons investigating the field, but for whoever is doing it, Wundt’s book is indispensable and of a similar quality as is Darwin’s Origin.
Compare these comments from the 1870s to James’s unfavorable judgments in the 1880s, especially to the trope on Wundt cut up like a worm. In a letter to Stumpf of February 6, 1887, James pulled out all the stops and let it rip. Here only a few bits of his grumbling and grousing: “[Wundt] aims at being a sort of Napoleon of the intellectual world. Unfortunately he will never have a Waterloo, for he is a Napoleon without a genius and with no central idea which, if defeated, brings down the whole fabric in ruin. ...Cut him up like a worm, and each fragment crawls; there is no noeud vital in his mental medulla oblongata, so that you can’t kill him all at once—But surely you must admit that, since there must be professors in the world, Wundt is the most praiseworthy and never too much to be respected type of the species. He isn’t a genius, he is a professor,—a being whose duty is to know everything, and have his own opinion about everything, connected with his Fach.” And so on and on.
James’s target was one of his two scientific idols during large parts of his ‘important years of my life’ when he was reading his books and longed to become a disciple of Helmholtz and Wundt. Idolatry followed by iconoclasm. This was, of course, in a private letter. James could not quite strike up this ferocious tune in his publications, but his rancorous emotions are nonetheless perceptible as when he opined in his Principles: “Within a few years what one may call a microscopic psychology has arisen in Germany, carried on by experimental methods, asking of course every moment for introspective data, but eliminating their uncertainty by operating on a large scale and taking statistical means. This method taxes patience to the utmost and could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored. Such Germans as Weber, Fechner, Vierordt and Wundt obviously cannot...” .
The Australian historian of psychology, William Matthew O’Neil, was puzzled over the reproach against Wundt when James said: “...that Wundt’s theorizing lacked any central doctrine from which its more restricted propositions depend. In some ways this is an odd complaint by a professed empiricist. James himself has since been said to have been no systematist and to have harboured at the one time illmatched, indeed contradictory, views” .
James’s emotional reversion of the reversible figure of experimental psychology must have happened at the beginning of the 1880s when James first began work on his Principles. In his critique of Hermann Ebbinghaus’s study on memory, he commenced sarcastically: “The human energy no longer freezes itself in fish ponds and starves itself in cells; but near the north pole, in central Africa, on alpine ‘couloirs,’ and especially in what are nowadays called ‘psycho-physical laboratories...” . Had he read the book, he might have noticed that Ebbinghaus neither had such a laboratory nor had he worked in one. Actually, he had done his research in one of the imperial palaces in Potsdam. In any case, James took the opportunity to deliver his message about the worth of experimental psychology.
In a letter to Münsterberg, written on August 22, 1890, James described his emotional attitude toward experimental work with the strong term ‘hate’: “...for I naturally hate experimental work (Taylor thought it pertinent to specify this hate of James’s: “What James really hated, of course, was German experimental laboratory work”. Unfortunately, he did not proffer any source for this profound insight of his. We only know that James never carried out any such work, especially not with Helmholtz or Wundt although there were times when he yearned for it) myself, and all my circumstances conspired (during the important years of my life) to prevent me from getting into a routine of it, so that now it is always the duty that gets postponed”. It seems obvious that James’s stay in Germany in 1867 and 1868 happened in ‘the important years’ of his life.
Writing this confession to Münsterberg, unpalatable memories of his Heidelberg Fiasco and his botched opportunity to be more than an ‘autodidact’ in psychology were certainly on his mind as they also were when writing to Titchener in 1892, mixed with some bitterness that younger people used the opportunity to become professional psychologists in a psychological laboratory under the tutoring of Wundt.
This emotional potpourri combined with sheer horror, which he confided to Stumpf more than once. While undergoing a course of treatments at the spa in Bad Nauheim, he wrote on August, 30, 1899: “I have now-a-days a perfect horror of experimental psychology, for which fortunately Mün[s] terberg is exclusively responsible”. Two months later, in another letter from Bad Nauheim to Stumpf of September 10, 1899, James expressed the same dismay: “I fear I am ceasing to be a psychologist and becoming exclusively a moralist and metaphysician. I have surrendered all psychological teaching to Münsterberg and his assistant and the thought of psychophysical experimentation and altogether of brass-instrument and algebraic-formula psychology fills me with horror.”
Edna Heidbreder discovered a specific trait in James’s psychology: “His thought developed independently of the new experimental psychology, took full cognizance of it, dismissed parts of it, included and assimilated large masses of it; but it was not transformed by it. There is a trace of Yankee isolation in James’s psychology...” .
She did not realize that James’s interest in psychology started with his fascination for the new kind of scientific and experimental psychology, of which he had become aware in the publications of Helmholtz, Wundt and other physiologists. Then he found the gates of laboratory heaven closed, for whatever personal or impersonal reason or cause. Would it be unjust to suspect the taste of sour grapes in his antagonistic judgments made in the not so important later years of his life?
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