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Interview with Leon James

New Yorker  Elif Batuman  August 28, 2007

On to the questions. I familiarized myself a bit with your background from your web site, but please correct me if I got anything wrong.

What factors motivated your name change from Jakobovits to James? And when did this change take place? (From your list of publications, the earliest use of "James" appears to be in 1978, the last use of "Jakobovits" around 1992.)

I changed my name in July 1993 after many years of thinking about it. The name "Jakobovits" had to be spelled on the phone, and this provided some annoyance. Also, my students called me "Dr. J" for years and I thought they deserve to have a professor whose name they are not afraid to pronounce. Ironically, some students have trouble with "Leon James" and are calling me "Dr. Leon." One hesitation I had in changing my name is that it would leave a puzzling historical gap in my record as a scientist and author, but ultimately this became less of an issue in my mind.

Would it be accurate to say that your academic approach shifted around the early 1980s, from "traditional" methods of linguistic and psycholinguistic analysis, to a spiritual/ Swedenborgian/ dualist approach? (If not, what would be a better way to put it? I'm not very familiar with this terminology.)

Yes, this may appear so from the record. In my mind my progression evolved in a developmental fashion so that I was thinking in deeper and deeper abstractions about the human mind and how society and individual are interrelated. A major step in my evolving understanding was taken when I discovered the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). I then began to understand that I had been a dualist all along. One of my famous teachers in graduate school, and later a colleague, was Dr. Charles E. Osgood at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) where I spent several years in the 1960s as an Assistant , later Associate, Professor in the Psychology Department.

Dr. Osgood was a past President of the prestigious American Psychological Association and was known for developing ways of measuring empirically the connotative meaning of words and objects. He was a staunch empiricist and materialist, holding up monism for science, which is the unproven belief that thoughts and feelings were material substances in the brain. The mind was nothing but the brain. Meaning and consciousness were nothing but brain operations. But I would argue that conscious awareness of meaning and intentions existed separately from the brain and its chemical activity. Osgood then accused me of being "a dualist in disguise." This was in the 1960s.

In the 1970s I worked on developing ways of mapping the semantics of talk. This was applied psycholinguistic research. I made an amazing discovery in how ideas are ordered when we think and speak. I mapped out semantic units in terms of trigrams, hexagrams, and enneads, that is in units of three, six, and nine. I was getting closer in what I later I called spiritual geography, that is, the universal anatomy of the mental world in the human race.

 In the 1980s I was able to give an objective scientific definition and description of dualism, thanks to my study of the Swedenborg Reports. Today I would describe dualism as the perspective on reality as two worlds, one physical or material in time, and the other mental or spiritual not in time but in eternity. Human beings are born dual citizens with a material body in time on earth connected to a mental body in eternity which is also called the afterlife. At death the physical body is detached and we continue life in eternity through our mental body. We are thus immortal. Our mental body contains the organs of the mind called affective (feelings), cognitive (thoughts), and sensorimotor (sensations). In our daily life here on earth all our thoughts and feelings are located in the mental body, not the physical brain. Thoughts and feelings are not physical objects but mental objects, and these are made of eternal spiritual substances.

At last I had arrived as a scientist. My dualism was now "substantive dualism" because it was founded on a substantial world that contained spiritual substances. The mind and consciousness finally were located in biological organs: the affective organ that contained all our feeling operations, the cognitive organ that contained all our thinking operations, and the sensorimotor organ that contained all our sensations of the world around us. In the 1990s I started teaching theistic psychology, the name I picked for my translation of the Swedenborg concepts into modern scientific psychology.

All this was fully corroborated by Swedenborg's special ability to be conscious in both worlds simultaneously. He wrote 30 volumes containing his observations and interpretations of the afterlife of eternity which he experienced for 27 years on a daily basis. Anyone who examines this evidence from a positive attitude, as I have, will be able to rationally understand what Swedenborg presents. I have done so in my multi-volume project called The Swedenborg Encyclopedia of Theistic Psychology (available at: )

My current project involves the 18-volume work titled Theistic Psychology or The Correspondential Sense of Sacred Scripture, available on the Web at:

Was there a particular moment when you became interested in the idea of spiritual causation of natural phenomena (i.e. in subjects "beyond the scope of investigation" in analytical linguistics)?

In 1981 as I became engaged in the study of the Writings of Swedenborg I started applying it to modern psychology. Before that and throughout the 1970s I had been researching how language and thinking were organized in hierarchies and sets constructed by the language speaking community. In particular I studied ethnomethodology with my wife Diane who was interested in how the human mind organizes information. Her research was in information science and mine was in language learning, so the two of us overlapped in our interest in building psycholinguistic theories. Swedenborg's ideas helped me to develop a biological theory of language and thinking that today I call spiritual psychobiology. He provides much discussion on the anatomy of the mind and how the mental organs grow from birth to eternity in the afterlife.

Another amazing feature of the Swedenborg Reports are the details he gives of the language and script of people who are living in the eternity of the mental world of the human race. Today I refer to this knowledge as spiritual linguistics and numerology. One fascinating feature of it is that it allows us to translate the many expressions in the Bible that use double words or numbers.

Did I understand correctly that you "discovered" Swedenborg in 1981 in the university library? Was this by chance? How did you become so absorbed in S's works?

Yes, my wife Diane and I were browsing in the Bible interpretation section of Hamilton Library on our University of Hawaii Manoa campus in 1981. We came upon a shelf that contained some fifty volumes written by one author. We were astonished and impressed. Diane checked out Volume 1 of his 12-volume work called Arcana Coelestia or Heavenly Secrets, and I checked out Warren's Compendium of Swedenborg which contained about one thousand pages of quotes from Swedenborg's Writings arranged by topics.

An amazing phenomenon occurred. We could not stop reading the books for hours every day. It was a tremendous high to be able to "discover" these volumes by an unknown 18th century writer. It provided a complete rational account of all the issues that confront scientists and non-scientists alike: Who is God? What is eternity? Are we immortal? What is the anatomy of the human mind? How does the human race evolve? Is there life on other planets? What is hidden in the depths of Sacred Scripture? Is marriage eternal? What is life like in eternity? etc. I had read things about some of these topics in the traditional spirituality literature of the world but the Swedenborg Reports were the only objective, rational, and scientific approach to these traditional and puzzling questions.

Traditionally, the topics of God, Sacred Scripture, heaven, and hell have been categorized as belonging strictly to theology and religion, not science and psychology. But if you assume the positive bias, which says that these things could be real, then they suddenly assume a universal and scientific interest as part of the rational study and understanding of reality. Swedenborg's experiences as a dual citizen allowed him to discover empirically how to translate Sacred Scripture into its correspondential that lies hidden to all readers who do not know about the correspondences. My research has led me to develop systematic and objective techniques for translating Sacred Scripture into theistic psychology. This translation process removes the literal sense which is always historical, cultural, ethnic, and even racist. In my future research I hope to prove that the Sacred Scripture of all cultures or religions are written through the same correspondential sense. This is perfectly rational since there is only one God who gives Sacred Scripture to various cultures at various times. All religions are therefore internally unified and make one through the correspondential sense by which they are written. This remains one of the great discoveries still to be known by people everywhere.

The transformation to "Dr. Driving" (beginning with the incident involving your wife's grandmother) occurred in 1982, the same year as your first published work on Swedenborg. Any connection?

Definitely. Swedenborg presents clear evidence that our life after death in the mental world of eternity is constructed from our mental character. Since everyone is born selfish the task of life on earth is to acquire a good character out of the habit and love for human virtues -- having respect for others, being sincere and honest, avoiding harming or inconveniencing anyone. This is called the heavenly character. The opposite is called the hellish character with which we act for our own benefit and convenience with little regard of how it affects others. All those who die with a hellish character surround themselves in the mental world of eternity with a life together with others who are selfish, cruel, and irrational. This kind of negative mental environment creates a mental hell. But all those who die with a heavenly or altruistic character surround themselves in eternity with a life of peace, cooperation, joy, and love in company with like minded others.

So I became very motivated to change my hellish character in all areas of life, fearing to end up in the hells of my mind in eternity. When my wife Diane let me know that she thinks that my driving is selfish, dangerous, and contrary to rational order, I had no choice in my mind but to enter into the long arduous process I called a driving personality makeover. From a hostile and aggressive driver I turned myself into a peaceful, cooperative, and supportive driver. I was tempted many times to quit my efforts and had a series of relapses over the past twenty years, returning again and again to my habitual impatient, competitive, and aggressive driving style. But with the fear of hell in my mind I returned each time to my driver self-modification plan. I reminded myself constantly that if I continued to drive in a hellish manner I am going to my human hell in eternity. This was not a persuasive belief or religious dogma. It was the scientific understanding of reality, the reality of substantive dualism and dual citizenship, the reality of immortality. How this is so is detailed in the 18 volumes of my Theistic Psychology project mentioned above.

My students are seniors in college majoring in psychology and trained in scientific methodology. Needless to say, they are quite amazed at the content of my seminar. Each student is required to write various reports of their understanding of theistic psychology concepts as applied to themselves. A directory with links to access the student reports is found here:

To summarize questions 1-3: what is the relationship (in time or otherwise) between the name change, your interest in Swedenborg, and the reform in your driving habits?

I became a reformed driver -- from aggressive to supportive, from hostile to peaceful, from risky to predictable, from scofflaw to respect for highway regulations. The impetus for this critical self-modification effort was my new scientific understanding of the relationship between my daily habits of character and my fate in eternity, either heavenly or hellish. The name change reflects this character regeneration. "Jakobovits" is Slavic for "Son of Jacob." In Swedenborg's Writings the Old Testament character known as Jacob symbolizes monism or materialism in intellectual outlook and self-interest in motivation. The character of "James" in the New Testament symbolizes the regenerated personality, modified from intellectual materialism to enlightened dualism towards eternal life. The "Jakobovits" driver within me is selfish, competitive, hostile, and impatient. The "James" driver within me is peaceful, cooperative, emotionally intelligent, and rational. When my Jakobovits character drives I feel stressed out and take risks that endanger others. When my James character drives I feel relaxed, supportive, and safety conscious.

My wife Diane had an important role to play in my modification efforts and I recommend to all couples to work on partnership driving contract (available here: ) It definitely improved our marriage because partnership driving allows women passengers to say out loud what they are feeling as they are being driven. My wife is allowed to say these things to me (and does) while I drive: Please slow down. Or: Do not move over to the fast lane. Stay here. Or: Put your signal on now. Don't wait. Or: You took that turn too fast. Or: Don't get behind this truck. Or: Watch out for that pedestrian. Stop here. And so on. This is called partnership driving because the passenger is given rights by the driver to tell the driver what not to do.  I receive many Dear DrDriving letters from desperate women complaining that their husbands or boy friends abuse them in cars by refusing to drive in a way the women find comfortable and safe. 


A minor fact-checking question: is it true that you originally adopted the name "Dr. Traffic," and then changed to "Dr. Driving," to avoid copyright infringement on "Mr. Traffic"?

Yes. I was participating in electronic discussion forums and signing my messages as "Dr. Traffic." A few weeks later I received an email from Kenny Morse saying that he has copyright on "Mr. Traffic" and that my using "Dr. Traffic" was an infringement. He suggested that I use "Dr. Driving" especially since I was interested in the psychology of driving while he was interested in the social and legal issues relating to traffic laws, licensing, and instruction. So by mutual agreement we carved out the new Internet world into these two zones of focus about driving and drivers. When I get a Dear DrDriving Letter about traffic laws and licensing I forward it to Mr. Traffic who then provides the answer. Kenny Morse is very knowledgeable about these topics. I answer all letters having to do with driving psychology issues.

It's worth mentioning that I received an avalanche of hostile and aggressive comments by others in these forums that brings drivers who love to berate other drivers. Naturally I was not a success in that group since I was making arguments against driving aggressively, against venting about other drivers, and for altruism and community on the roads. The intensity of the hostility amazed me. You can read some these comments in this file: and also in this one:

Where were you born, and where did you grow up? What languages did you grow up speaking? What was your family's religious background?

I was born in Rumania in 1938. My parents were of an orthodox Jewish background and became refugees during World War II. They moved to Belgium, then to Canada. From there I moved to the U.S. The languages I learned from ages 1 to 20 were as follows: Yiddish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Rumanian, Flemish, French, Classic Latin, Classic Greek, German, Spanish, English, Esperanto. English was my 11th language at age 15. Today I still speak English with a slight foreign accent.


What are your thoughts about the use of comedy in driver education?

At first I thought it was strange but then I got used to the idea. In 2000 Dr. Diane Nahl, Dr. Arnold Nerenberg, and I cooperated in the creation of the RoadRageous Video Course which is distributed by the American Institute for Public Safety (AIPS). When they produced the video they decided to use some of the comedy school approach to the presentation of the materials in the video course. I think it succeeds because the class participation format is attractive for adults and gives them the opportunity to get involved as a method of learning about their faulty driving personality traits. The audience of adults appear to get animated as they play-act the driving situations and rules. They are less self-conscious in a classroom setting. But I am not familiar with the range of variation and innovation that are being practiced in driving comedy schools around the country so I can't comment on that.

The important feature of the RoadRageous Video Course is that it focuses on affective objectives involving the driver's feelings, attitudes, and emotions. I explain what these objectives are in this file:

It may be worth quoting them here:

1. To strengthen the desire for lifelong driver self-improvement
2. To neutralize or weaken existing negative driving attitudes
3. To strengthen and inculcate positive driving values
4. To learn how to transform self-centered goals into highway community goals through activities that weaken one's identification with aggressive models and strengthen one's identification with supportive driving models
5. To prepare drivers to deal effectively with aggressiveness or provocation by other drivers and with their own aggressiveness and road rage.

My sense is that Americans more commonly acknowledge the emotionally fraught nature of many other aspects of everyday life (real estate, cigarette-smoking, diet, stock market, etc.), than that of driving. (At least, this was the case with me, before I started researching this article.) Would you agree? If so, why do you think it is?

The first step to a driving personality makeover is A for Acknowledge, that is, "I acknowledge that I drive with aggressive and hostile feelings against motorists, passengers, bicyclists, pedestrians, road construction crews, and police." This is the most difficult of the three steps and keeps drivers from going to step two, which is W for Witness, that is, "I am a witness to my hostile and aggressive thoughts and feelings." This requires conscious self-monitoring of thoughts and emotions while driving. The third and final step is M for Modify, that is, "I modify my thoughts and feelings behind the wheel by selecting one driving habit for each trip. For instance, every time I feel hostile towards another driver I will count slowly to ten and then talk myself out of that hostile philosophy. After all, it's just a habit we picked up in childhood from our parents and from years of watching aggressive drivers on TV."

But this healthy three-step process of driving personality makeover cannot even start unless the person is willing to take step one, which is to acknowledge or confess one's hostility habits behind the wheel. I think this is the reason that drivers have an awareness gap, thinking that other drivers are aggressive and hostile while they are not. When I make these points on talk radio around the country, people call in disagreeing with me and wanting to vent on something that just happened to them on the road. Their purpose and passion for telling the driving story, often more than once, is to prove to their audience that they were right and a victim while the other driver was the aggressor and in the wrong. But I have to point out what appears clearly from the story, that both drivers acted aggressively. Most aggressive drivers are unaware and unready to admit that they are aggressive.

One of the questions I ask each new generation of students in driving psychology is whether they think that tailgating is illegal, immoral, or both. About 80 percent say that tailgating is illegal, the others do not think so. About 20 percent say that tailgating is immoral as well as illegal, while 80 percent say that tailgating is illegal but not immoral. I ask the same question at the end of the semester. Now 80 percent say that tailgating is immoral not just illegal. I am happy about that growth in maturity, morality, and rationality. Studying driving psychology raises people's emotional intelligence so that they can cope more successfully with their traffic emotions. I think driving psychology should begin in grade 1 and continue every year until licensing in high school. After that drivers who apply for their license renewal need to show first that they have been participating in driver self-improvement programs.

This kind of massive societal retraining will allow the next generation of drivers to let go of the culture of hostility on the road. We will then save every decade in the U.S.: half a million fatalities, 65 million injuries, and 2 trillion dollars (see statistical information compiled on DrDriving site: )

In our book Road Rage and Aggressive Driving (Prometheus, 2000) we present a lifelong driver education program from grade 1 to post-licensing of the elderly. Driving well takes a lifetime to learn. We are just beginning our second century of car society. In the first one hundred years of car society more drivers were killed on our highways and streets than American soldiers in all wars. This year another contingency of 40,000 drivers and passengers will be killed in the U.S. and 1.5 million world wide. Last year more than 6 million people in this country were involved in hospital treatment due to driving crashes. Next year it is estimated that the cost of driving fatalities and injuries in this country will cost about 200 billion dollars. Last year it was estimated to be nearly that. Driving fatalities are the leading cause of death for teenagers. Road rage duels occur daily with drivers killing and assaulting each other.

And definitely let me know if there's anything you would like to add on these subjects that I didn't ask about, or if you have any questions for me.

I often ask people to tell me what they think is the opposite of aggressive driving. Some people say "defensive driving," People who read our book discover that the opposite of aggressive driving is supportive driving. It is called that because aggressive and supportive are the two opposing philosophies of drivers. I found in my research that most drivers are not aware that they are aggressive and see themselves as supportive. But I tell them to use the "think aloud" method behind the wheel which involves speaking your thoughts out loud. It's useful to record yourself and listen to it later, but even if you don't, simply saying your thoughts out loud is very shocking for most people who try this behind the wheel. Drivers who do this exercise come to learn themselves a s drivers, how they really are vs. the reputation they have of themselves as drivers.

Eventually drivers can discover what I discovered when I learned to drive supportively instead of competitively. When I drove competitively and aggressively I kept track how fast each lane was going or how much of a gap the car ahead of me is keeping from the car ahead of them. If the gap was too big, I started ranting and raving in my mind against that "stupid" driver.  If three cars passed me in the other lane I felt depressed and if I passed other cars, I felt elated. If I made the light, I felt good, but if I didn't, I felt bad. This type of "mental driving economy" is very common and people don't realize that they do this until they start monitoring their thoughts and feelings while driving.

I discovered that driving supportively and cooperatively is far more enjoyable than driving competitively and aggressively. When I am in my supportive driving phase I enjoy being peaceful, careful, and helpful to other motorists. Sometimes I even love traffic! But when I revert to my competitive mentality I hate traffic and other drivers. In the past ten years I've been able to stay supportive most of the time.


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