William James and Social Justice Science Fiction


By Joseph Orosco


By now, it’s well known that William James was the inspiration behind Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”  But he seems to have made a big impact on another writer of social justice science fiction:  Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.

Le Guin explains that she was reading James’s essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”  and came across the following passage:


“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

This set the main ethical background for Le Guin’s widely read tale of the utopian society of Omelas.

James’ psychological theories would form the basis of another novel to examine racial justice in the United States.  Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was a prolific African American author around the turn of the 20th century.  She was known for exploring racial themes using the popular genre of the romantic novel.



In 1903, she published the novel Of One Blood:  Or, The Hidden Self.  It tells the story of a young medical student of African American heritage, Reuel Briggs, who travels to Africa on an expedition.  Briggs has always been able to pass as white, and never expressed any interest in his Black heritage, until he finds himself confronted with the knowledge that he’s actually a king of a long lost African civilization.

When Briggs is first seen in the novel, he is reading a work entitled The Hidden Residuum.  The phrase comes from James’s 1890 essay “The Hidden Self.”  In the essay, James explores the idea of a personality composed of forgotten memories that can sometimes be accessed by hypnotism.  Briggs shows interest in mysticism and spiritualism in the novel, and there are other aspects of time travel once he begins to unveil his repressed ancestry.

James’s theory of self provided Hopkins with ways to talk about the conflicted identity processes of African Americans, demonstrating a connection with another one of James’s students—W.E.B. DuBois and his notion of “double consciousness.”  She went on with her social justice activism, using some of the research from the novel, to write a popular education pamphlet, “A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendents.” (1905)


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