Eugene Taylor was only 66 years of age when he passed away on January 30th, 2013. Taylor was a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Harvard Divinity School, and earned his Ph.D. at Boston University. Saybrook University was his academic base but he was also a research historian of psychology at Harvard Medical School, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Psychology and Religion, and an internationally renowned scholar on the work of William James. There is an interesting obituary, of sorts, in Psychology Today. “Only Eugene Taylor could write about William James and the Spiritual Origins of Pragmatism,” Dr. Nassir Ghaemi wrote in the February 6th article.
He was an expert on everything William James, in addition to being a historian of psychology of the first stature, a leading figure in the existential/humanist psychology world, and part of the Eastern/Buddhist tradition of spirituality. He was all these things, but in my experience, he was especially a teacher who opened my eyes to the importance of William James.
His books include William James on Exceptional Mental States; Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America; The Mystery of Personality: A History of Psychodynamic Theories; and William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin.
There’s an interesting story behind that first book, the one about exceptional mental states. The William James Society published an interview wherein Taylor tells us about the remarkable discoveries he made while combing through the William James Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library, which includes books and notes from James’s personal philosophical library. To make a long story short, Taylor rediscovered, reconstructed, and then re-delivered the long-lost series of lectures that James had given in 1896. The full title of Taylor’s book is William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures.That is why Psychology Today called him “the reincarnation of William James.”
He published the revived Lowell lectures in book form, and then, in 1978-79, when Eugene was appointed the William James lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, he completed the reincarnation of William James by actually giving those lectures again, one by one, completely reconstructed, at the Cambridge Swedenborg Society.”
James was making the transition from psychology to philosophy when he originally delivered the talks, and so they provide a clearer picture of that crucial transitional phase in James’s intellectual life. For James scholars, or Pragmatists in general, Taylor discovered the missing link in the evolution of James’s thought and, to mix my metaphors, the lectures reconstructed in his book are an unburied treasure.
James had given more than one series of Lowell lectures. The first series he gave in 1878 on “the Brain and Mind” became major chapters of The Principles of Psychology. The last series he gave was “Pragmatism,” in 1906, which became the seminal book of the pragmatist movement, Pragmatism. But the one in 1896, hardly anyone knew about it,” Taylor said. “[T]he lectures had never been published and the materials had to be reconstructed to find out what the ideas were that lay behind the notes.”
Eugene Taylor was also featured in an old (1985) New York Times article titled “WILLIAM JAMES: STATURE RAISED IN NEW APPRAISAL,” wherein he is portrayed not only as the man who “unearthed hundreds of pages of James’s notes” but also as one who “is leading the effort to elevate James” in general. He thought James was way ahead of his time and, as far as I can tell, Taylor never stopped defending him. On a personal note, I was grateful to have some of his more recent work on James’s radical empiricism as a resource for writing my thesis on Pirsig and James. For the purpose of comparing those two figures, I don’t know of anyone more helpful than Taylor.