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William James: 'The Adorable Genius'


William James' sensitivity to religious experiences
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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The... well, that was James of 1890, but then in 1902 or 1903, whatever it is, there are his Gifford lectures which he gave in Edinburgh on the varieties of religious experience, which show his enormous sensitivity to religious experiences and emotional states of mind. In a way these two books are at opposite poles, but there are many, many other books of James which mediate. But what I somehow want to bring out, or what is crucial for me and all other James lovers – and I think all good neurologists and psychologists have to be James lovers – is the mixture of objective rigour, a sense of physiology, how the nervous system works, how the sense organ works, with a tremendous respect and honouring of the subjective. This got lost later, because a... forms of behaviourism followed James and the notion of mind and subject of states disappeared altogether.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Gifford lectures, Edinburgh, William James

Duration: 1 minute, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012