Seminar 8: ‘William James and “the laws of health” in nineteenth-century America’

‘William James and “the laws of health” in nineteenth-century America’

The eighth and final HSMT seminar of Michaelmas Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 28th November (Week 8) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Emma Sutton.

Sutton’s central research interest is the history and philosophy of concepts of health. Her PhD thesis examined this topic from a biographical perspective, looking at the American philosopher and psychologist William James’s explorations of different understandings of health and their social, philosophical and religious contexts: ‘Re-writing the laws of health: William James on the politics and philosophy of disease in nineteenth-century America.’ Sutton’s post-doctoral research extends her focus further into the twentieth century and explores the links between child-rearing ideas and practices and concepts of psychological health.

The nineteenth-century American philosopher and psychologist William James is known for his writings on the physiological study of psychology, the psychology of religion, and as one of the founders of the philosophical school of pragmatism. His work, whilst well-respected by his professional colleagues, also received an extremely wide popular dissemination, and contemporary scholars have probed his writings in an attempt to discern his political message to the masses. In this seminar, Sutton argues that James’s politics do not fit easily within conventional academic concerns with the categories of class, gender and race. Instead she proposes that James was occupied with what may be characterised as a politics of invalidism and health; a response to the growing and, as he saw it, increasingly disturbing cultural authority of medical concerns, values and normative expectations. She will explore how James’s ethico-political manifesto may be read as a reaction against both the hygienic guidelines for healthy living, “the laws of health”, and also the state legislation that aimed at restricting therapeutic practices to the orthodox medical profession.

We hold two primary texts by William James at the Wellcome Unit Library: the first, a (well-loved) copy of William James : a selection from his writings on psychology (WMA/Jame/K), edited with commentary by Margaret Knight. It contains extracts from several of James’ works, including Principles of Psychology – proclaimed by the blurb as ‘one of the greatest books on the subject in any language’. James, the book says, ‘begins at the beginning, and he deals with fundamentals (…) in a way which keeps the reader in a continual state of intellectual excitement, amusement and surprise’. We also hold Psychology (BF131.J2 JAM 1920), an abridgment made by James of the Principles in order to make it more accessible to the student of psychology.











William James’ work lies within a wider narrative of psychology and psychiatry, and Edward Shorter’s A history of psychiatry : from the era of the asylum to the age of Prozac (RC438 SHO 1997) helps to give James’ work a backdrop, as well as briefly discussing him in a study of the American origins of psychoanalytics. James was a contemporary of Freud, corresponding with the Austrian neurologist and sharing some of his influences. As such, Freud’s converts by Vicki Clifford (BF51.C55 CLI 2007 and online) is another relevant title to consider, and considers the relationship psychotherapy has with religion.










More general works on public health in America include Sickness and health in America : readings in the history of medicine and public health by Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers (R151 SIC 1985), which offers a comprehensive overview of the social history of medicine in the US. Tying into some of the themes Sutton will be examining, Faith in the Great Physician : suffering and divine healing in American culture, 1860-1900 by Heather D. Curtis (BT732.5.C88 CUR 2007) offers an examination of the politics of sickness, health and healing during the nineteenth century.










Emma Sutton has published several journal articles, and access is available for university members to one such article, ‘Interpreting “Mind-Cure”: William James and the “Chief Task…of the Science of Human Nature”’, at this URL:

Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

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