William James, Nitrous Oxide, and the Anaesthetic Revelation

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine

Publication Date


Document Type



Anesthesia and Analgesia | Anesthesiology | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Philosophy | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


William James greatly influenced the fields of psychology, philosophy, and religion during the late 19(th) and early 20(th) centuries. This was the era of Modernism, a time when many writers rejected the certainty of Enlightenment ideals. Positivism, which rose to prominence in the early 19th century, had emphasized physical phenomena, empirical evidence, and the scientific method. Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), with its theory of natural selection, provided an explanation for the evolution of species apart from a divine Creator. Within this context, William James served as a "mediator between scientific agnosticism and the religious view of the world." James' own experience inhaling nitrous oxide played an important role in shaping his views. For James, the use of nitrous oxide served a key role in elucidating some of his most central ideas: 1) the value of religion, and the emphasis on mysticism and revelation (as opposed to theology and doctrine) as religion's foundation; 2) the universe as pluralistic (as opposed to absolutist, constant, eternal), driven by chance, experience, and change.


Drug-induced inspiration, Nitrous oxide, William James

DOI of Published Version



J Anesth Hist. 2018 Jan;4(1):1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.janh.2017.10.012. Epub 2017 Dec 1. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Journal of anesthesia history

Related Resources

Link to Article in PubMed

PubMed ID