Archive of 2010 PsycBOOKS® Sample Searches Podcasts
Though This Body Be Destroyed—Death in the 19th Century
Death is inevitable, but our relationship to it certainly isn't, not as individuals and not as cultures. Continuing our look at the 19th century, the physical and ceremonial realities of death were very different from those of our century.
Nineteenth century mortality rates were much higher than our own, especially among infants and children, and disease and death were more common visitors. People also sickened, were cared for, and died at home and not out of sight in an institution, so death was a part of the rhythm of life. Much of the research that has been about the period has focused on the rituals of death, photographs of the subject "at peace" in the coffin, the stopped clocks, the flowers and wreaths symbolizing paradise, the survivors' year or years long formal mourning period. What, however, did the principals themselves say about death?
A search on the thesaurus terms "Death and Dying" and "Death Attitudes" conducted in PsycBOOKS and limited by Classic books and the date range 1850 to 1900 returns 26 results. A scan of the records shows little about etiquette, nothing about sentiment.
What does stand out are the author's names—those 24 records include William James, Henry James, and Charles Darwin—and many of the thinkers struggled with the intersection of a new scientific conception of death with that of a religion-based society. For many, the big issue was what happens at death and how to reconcile the two worlds.
Among the records are the following:
Substance and Shadow: Or Morality and Religion in Their Relation to Life: An Essay Upon the Physics of Creation (James, H., 1863). Henry James wrote about death in an essay on John Stewart Mill. He argued that death need not be an end, but could be as much a creative process as birth. "Religion gives interior quickening or soul to the mind, just as a father gives to the child; and science gives it outward body, as the mother gives outward body to the soul of the child." Neither creates the mind, and both are ancillary to creation. Death is simply, like birth, another threshold.
Inviting one to wonder what dinner table conversation was like at the James household, brother William James also tackled the subject in Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1898). He looked at immortality as a human need and the supposed bar of physiological psychology to that need. Science shows that our inner life is a function of the brain, so how can it exist after that organ's decay?
James questions whether life is necessarily a productive function of the brain, as producing is not the only imaginable role. A crossbow trigger or a hammer on a detonating compound do not produce but release. A glass prism refracts light and an organ key releases sound and so are transmissive of function. So, theoretically, may we be released or transformed from our brain.
In Place of Man's Mind in Nature, George Trumbull Ladd (1895) also entered the fray and stated that, in his judgment, "an inquiry into the reasonableness of the believe in immortality should take its start from the psychological point of view." And a tortured web of arguments he wove to conclude "as for us, we have no more respect for much of the newfangled jargon about 'psycho-physical parallelism' than for the old-fashioned talk about 'tenement,' or 'tabernacle of clay.' Yet he too comes round to One Principle of an Other and Absolute Mind that will welcome us each home.
On the Shoulders of Giants
One of the greatest enticements of historical research is the opportunity it gives us to try to see things from an entirely different world view. We can't, of course, completely divorce ourselves from our own times, but to immerse ourselves in the writings of a period is about as close to Time Travel as we can come.
There are periods in history that boil over with new ideas, movements, and change. The late 19th Century was certainly such a period. In the next few months, we're going to journey in PsycBOOKS from 1880 to 1900, crucial years in the young science of psychology.
We'll start with a giant: William James, twice president of the APA, pioneering psychologist and philosopher, and a very interesting guy. James played a pivotal role in the development of psychology in America as well as the Pragmatism movement in philosophy. If we take a look in Classic Books for works authored by William James in those years, we find a wealth of resources. There are 120 book and chapter result records with PDFs of the original works. Among them are the following:
- The Principles of Psychology (Vols. 1 & 2, James, 1890). James effectively redefined the science of psychology. In Vol. 1, he drew on the natural sciences, assuming that thought and feeling are vehicles for knowledge and that psychology can ascertain an empirical correlation between them and definite conditions of the brain, but he also acknowledged the limits of psychology as a natural science. In Volume 2, he examined perception, cognitive processes, and emotional processes, as well as consciousness states and issues of psychogenesis.
- The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (James, 1896). In the title essay, James attempted a "justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude on religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced." It and the other essays come from speeches delivered over the course of years at various colleges, which James described as together expressing a "tolerably definite philosophic attitude that he called 'radical empiricism.'"
On Some of Life's Ideals: On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings, What Makes a Life Significant (James, 1900). As James described his purpose:
I tried to make you feel how soaked and shot-through life is with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view…It is the basis of all our tolerance, social, religious, and political. The forgetting of it lies at the root of every stupid and sanguinary mistake…The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. No one has insight into all the ideals. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.
Spend some time with one of America's most original thinks and one of the great multidisciplinary minds in turn-of-the-century America.
PsycBOOKS: An Introduction to Classic Books
Mark Twain famously said that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." The same idea holds true for research: The difference between building your ideas and research on derivative thinking and the living source can be profound. Though the most recent research tends to get most of the attention, it builds on the work of giants who have wrestled with the great questions that underpin psychology. The best of the new breed of researchers will make sure they study the original works, the landmark texts in psychology and related fields, and not just those ideas as they have passed through the filter of layers of secondary sources.
If your institution subscribes to PsycBOOKS, have you ever spent an hour browsing the Classic Book section of the database? If you haven't, it's well worth the time. Many of these works came from the wonderful Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron. Though it's quite true that your library may have many of these texts scattered in book form on library shelves throughout the classification system, electronic texts indexed by book and by chapter make that historical record far more accessible.
For those of us in the research world, this is a treasure trove. The most cursory look through the records turns up names and works that are among the most illuminating ever produced in Western thought. With almost 1,000 books now available, the earliest text currently in the database is Saint Augustine's Citie of God (1620); other voices from the spiritual tradition include Cotton Mather. Authors come from the world of philosophy and include Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, and Mill. They come from the naturalist world, individuals who revolutionized science and culture like Darwin, Spencer, and Mead. And, of course, they include the pivotal figures of psychology, Freud and Jung; Dewey, Peirce, and James; Piaget, Maslow, Skinner, Money, and Milgram.
In the months ahead we'll explore searches on topics like human capacities, behaviorism, theology, melancholy, evolution, will, hallucinations, illusions, dissociation, and hysteria, to name just a few some of these works and topics in a series of listserv announcements.