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James Sully (1842-1923)*

James Sully was born at Bridgwater, near Bristol. After attending a number of dame schools, he went to school in Yeovil and Taunton and then went to work in the office of his father and his uncle.

Later, while attending the Baptist College in Regent’s Park, he read for an arts degree at the University of London, graduating in October 1866.

In January 1867 he went to Göttingen to study Hebrew under Heinrich Ewald, the Oriental scholar. He arrived in mid-term and spent it as ‘hospitant’. He heard Ritter, the historian of philosophy, and R.H. Lotze (1817-1881). During the next term he attended philosophy and psychology under Lotze. He left Göttingen in the winter semester of 1867-8 and went to Halle University. His stay coincided with the 50 years’ commemoration of the union of Halle and the older University of Wittenberg. Visiting professors were Kuno Fischer from Jena and E. Hitzig from Heidelberg. John Stuart Mill received an honorary degree.

After visits to Dresden and Munich, he returned to London to visit Croom Robertson, who was to support his several applications for university chairs. He took his MA degree in 1868, with a gold medal in philosophy - Alexander Bain was his examiner.

In 1869 he became classical tutor at the Baptist College, Pontypool. In this year he sent a paper on the psychological study of the free will to John Morley of the Fortnightly Review, who later accepted an article on music in November 1870. For many years Sully continued writing and reviewing for the London periodicals - The Fortnightly, the Contemporary Review, The Academy, the Saturday Review, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Nineteenth Century, etc. This work often included the academic; for example the ‘Basis of musical sensation’ embodied some of the fruits of his study of Helmholtz. In 1870 he became tutor to Morley’s stepson and assisted Morley with his correspondence and proof-reading.

In the winter of 1871-2 he went to Berlin. His special work consisted of anatomical studies in the physiological laboratory of Du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), and attendance at lectures on physiological optics by Helmholtz (1821-1894).

Back in London in 1873, he was asked to contribute an article on aesthetics to the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He also wrote on dreams for the Britannica. In 1874 he published Sensation and Intuition, and in 1877 Pessimism. Wundt wrote favourably of it.

In 1878 he was appointed Examiner in Logic and Psychology in the University of London and in the following year, Lecturer in Theory of Education at the Maria Grey Training College and later at the College of Preceptors. Then followed a series of books : Illusions (1881), Outlines of Psychology (1886), The Human Mind (1892), Studies of Childhood (1896), Children’s Ways (1897), Essay on Laughter (1902).

Beginning in 1874 he frequently visited G.H. Lewes and George Eliot, meeting there Tennyson, W.K. Clifford, Ernst Haeckel, Leslie Stephen, Michael Foster. He was also a member of the ‘Sunday Tramps’, ‘who escape from the dreary London Sabbath once a fortnight and take a walk of between twenty and thirty miles’. Leslie Stephen was ‘Captain of Tramps’. Included in the group were George Meredith, Frederick Pollock, Edmund Gurney, Carveth Read, W.P. Ker and F.W. Maitland. William James also was one of Sully’s closest friends. James had suggested to Sully the title for his book The Human Mind. When James died in 1910 Sully wrote of him: ‘[he was] one of the strong supports of my life’.

In 1892 Sully succeeded George Croom Robertson (1842-1892) in the Grote Chair of Mind and Logic at the University of London, from which he retired in 1903. He was made an Honorary Member of the British Psychological Society in 1910.

* The text here is adapted from John Kenna’s ‘Biographical Notes on the Ten Founding Members’, published in Steinberg, H. (Ed.) (1961) The British Psychological Society 1901-1961. Supplement to the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society.

See also 'James Sully' by Elizabeth Valentine

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