Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center
Finally, I will mention the tendency of modern parapsychologists to focus on positive aspects of the past of their discipline. Let me explain.
Parapsychologists tend to present events or developments in their field in terms of achievements, of positive moments or events. Much emphasis is put on the results of work supporting the existence of phenomena and on events such as the founding of organizations and triumphs such as the acceptance of the Parapsychological Association as a member of the AAAS. Such things are certainly part of our past but the overall past, that which has made the discipline, also includes a variety of negative developments that are frequently neglected. I am not referring to those negative accounts written by authors who present interest in psychic phenomena as a history of fraud and deception in general. My point is the consideration of neglected events of different sorts brought out as a way to understand the development of the study of psychic phenomena.
An example of this is the rejection of psychical research, a topic that has been discussed by some historians (for an example click here ). Such rejection may be conceptualized under the concept of “boundary work.” Sociologist Thomas Gieryn referred to this process in his book Cultural Boundaries of Science (1999) as one conducted “for the purpose of drawing a rhetorical boundary between science and some less authoritative residual non-science” (Gieryn, 1999, PP. 4-5). (On the concept of boundary work click here).
An interesting study of this topic is Bertrand Méheust’s (1999) discussion of the rejection of the paranormal from mesmerism in France. He has argued that many of the representatives of the nineteenth-century hypnosis movement in the period between 1878 and 1895 adopted a variety of strategies to eliminate from the newer movement of hypnotism such phenomena as the healing action of a magnetic agent and clairvoyance. This was accomplished by denying the existence of the phenomena and by reinterpreting the observed effects via physiological and psychological arguments.
Boundary work was also shown by psychologists in relation to psychical research in the psychology congresses held between 1889 and 1905. While psychical research was discussed in the congresses, eventually it was rejected, as seen in the proceedings of the fourth congress held in Paris (Janet, 1901). This, like other examples of rejection in the past (e.g., Coon, 1992), represented attempts by psychologists to bolster their scientific reputation by pushing away what they regarded as undesirable and compromising for their field. This is something to which we can all relate, because this type of boundary work is still in full swing.
The work of critics is also neglected in historical accounts authored by many parapsychologists (for an exception see Zingrone, 2010). My impression is that this neglect may be related in part to the fact that many parapsychologists feel beleaguered by critics, and believe that critics are basically destructive and negative in their work, contributing nothing or little to parapsychology. But while one may understand this reaction, we need to keep in mind that the history of the discipline is not formed solely by those who have produced positive evidence for the existence of psi. Instead it is formed from the interplay of a variety of factors and forces, among them the writings of and arguments made by critics.
A history that explores only the achievements of those defending the existence of psychic phenomena is only half of a discipline. To understand the development of parapsychology research we also need to study the writings of critics because they were part of the intellectual milieu in which concepts and methods developed. One such example were the works of psychologists such as Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944), who frequently wrote to criticize psychical research. Jastrow, like so many psychologists before and after him, wrote to establish a difference between psychology proper and psychical research, emphasizing what he saw as differences in terms of quality of evidence and the training of practitioners (Jastrow, 1889). Other examples of similar critics are William Carpenter (1813-1885) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947), whose work did much to develop ideas of dissociation and automatic mental action (Carpenter, 1877; Janet, 1889). Whether or not the critics were interested in constructive criticism, and no matter how parapsychologists feel about their objections today, the work of these men was influential at the time and significantly affected the reception of work about psychic phenomena.
Of course the issue gets complicated when we recognize that we cannot always classify individuals neatly as proponents or as critics. Almost everyone in parapsychology is also a critic when it comes to specific methodologies, phenomena, or concepts. Many figures from the past were both critics and proponents at the same time, depending on what topics were under discussion. For example, the well-known SPR critic Frank Podmore (1856-1910) who defended telepathy in his book Apparitions and Thought-Transference (1894) and elsewhere, is also remembered for his skepticism about poltergeists and physical mediumship, as can be seen in his Studies in Psychical Research (1897) and Modern Spiritualism (1902). Podmore’s approach contributed much to the critical mentality prevalent in the early SPR, although not everyone agreed with his analyses.
Those individuals who negated the existence of ESP and other phenomena were also an important part of the development of the field. Professional historians have no difficulty adopting this perspective, but it does not seem to be shared by some practitioners. In any case, we know that psychical research is not only a defense of phenomena, but also a critical approach to the investigation and understanding of phenomena with various implications about the nature of the mind. The same can be said of its history.
Carpenter, W.B. (1877). Mesmerism, Spiritualism, &c.: Historically and Scientifically Considered. London: Longmans, Green.
Coon, D. J. (1992). Testing the limits of sense and science: American experimental psychologists combat spiritualism, 1880-1920. American Psychologist, 47, 143-151.
Gieryn, T. F. (1999). Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the line. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Janet, P. (1889). L’Automatisme Psychologique: Essai de Psychologie Expérimentale sur les Formes Inférieures de la Vie Mentale. Paris: Félix Alcan.
Janet, P. (Ed.). (1901). IVe Congrès International de Psychologie. Paris: Félix Alcan.
Jastrow, J. (1889). The problems of “psychic research.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 79, 76-82.
Méheust, B. (1999). Somnambulisme et Mediumnité (1784-1930): Vol. 1: Le Défi du Magnétisme Animal. Le Plessis-Robinson: Institut Synthélabo pour de Progrès de la Connaissance.
Podmore, F. (1894). Apparitions and Thought-Transference. London: Walter Scott.
Podmore, F. (1897). Studies in Psychical Research. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Podmore, F. (1902). Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism (2 vols.). London: Methuen.
Zingrone, N.L. (2010). From Text to Self: The Interplay of Criticism and Response in the History of Parapsychology. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.
*This is the final excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168