Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Although overviews of psychical research such as the one reviewed here are appreciated, they are not generally considered to be particularly important or influential beyond the panoramic views, summaries, and bibliographies they provide. An exception to this is the book reviewed here, authored by French physiologist Charles Richet (1850-1935), which was translated into English from its second edition as Thirty Years of Psychical Research (New York: Macmillan, 1923).
By the time the Traité was published Richet was well known in psychical research. This was evident from the frequent and multiple citations he received in general French books about the topic. During the 1880s he conducted research about what we would refer today as ESP, as seen in his reports “La Suggestion Mentale et le Calcul des Probabilités” (Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, 1884, 18, 609–674), and “Further Experiments in Hypnotic Lucidity or Clairvoyance” (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1889, 6, 66–83). Later on he was involved with bringing psychical research into the 1889 Congress of Physiological Psychology, the development and publication of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, medium Eusapia Palladino, and the presidency of the SPR. He authored many more papers about psychic phenomena and their study, among them a highly controversial report of materialization phenomena with medium Marthe Béraud.
Richet opened the book stating in the preface that readers expecting “nebulous” discussions about “man’s destiny, about magic, about theosophy” would be dissappointed. Instead he argued he would write about facts without advancing a theory because in his view theories in metapsychics were “astoundingly frail.”
The Traité was divided in four “books” or sections. The first one was a general perspective on metapsychics, which was defined by Richet as “a science which object is phenomena, mechanical or psychological, due to seemingly intelligent forces ot to unknown latent powers in human intelligence.” He classified the field into subjective and objective metapsychics, terms he used to refer to mental and physical phenomena. The section also included a discussion of history in which the author divided the subject in four periods. These periods were denominated by Richet as mythical (up to Mesmer), magnetic (from Mesmer to the Fox sisters), spiritistic (from the Fox sisters to William Crookes), and scientific (starting with Crookes). Richet hoped that his book will start a fifth period.
Richet saw the scientific period as the high point of the history of interest in metapsychic phenomena and separated it conceptually and methodologically from previous movements. In fact, he pictured mesmerism, as well as spiritism and spiritualism, as stages in the development of metapsychics. Previous movements, Richet believed, had too much theory, something that metapsychics must be careful with. But he believed it would have been an injustice to despise the magnetizers and the spiritists. Their work, Richet stated, “contributed to the founding of metapsychics.” But in his view their time was past. Nowadays a medium should not be wasted in informal spiritistic circles “without the use of methods of research adopted by all the sciences, balances, photography, cinematography, graphic registration. Similarly . . . rigorous, strict investigation, similar to those the S.P.R. [Society for Psychical Research] has conducted, is indispensable.”
The second part of the book was about “subjective metapsychics.” Richet started with a section in which he attempted to separate phenomena that could be explained via conventional ideas of the action of the subconscious mind such as automatisms, personation, and pantomnesia (or memories of all the past experiences of the person), from phenomena such as telepathy and the like requiring explanations beyond the conventional (I have presented a reprint of this section elsewhere). He wrote that: “to separate the psychic [psychological] from the metapsychic, we adopt the following criterion: Everything that may be done by human intelligence, even the very profound and skillful, is psychic. Everything a human intelligence cannot do . . . would be metapsychic” (italics in the original).
Two other sections were about chance and observation errors. Such discussions were not only proper in a book like this to show how psychical researchers have been aware of conventional explanations and the precautions they have taken to avoid them, but also served a rhetorical function in that it gave credibility to Richet’s defenses of the reality of the metapsychic realm beyond the counterexplanations of science.
The rest of this part of the book was devoted to what Richet called cryptesthesia. This meant a “hidden sensibility, a perception of things, unknown regarding its mechanisms, and of which we cannot know but its effects.” Richet discussed spontaneous and experimental examples of this faculty. He included his own observations and studies, such as those with a woman he referred to as Alice, and discussed the topic as manifested in mediums such as Leonora E. Piper, and in various ways, among them psychometry and premonitions. The spontaneous occurrences were classified as monitions involving non-serious and serious events (other than death), death, and those perceived collectivelly. Richet mentioned that cryptesthesia showed no time and space limitations. He wrote that the phenomena “is very strange, and we do not understand it at all,” but such lack of understanding did not mean the acceptance of spiritual entities following “savages who attributed forces of Nature to a Divinity . . . .”
Part 3 was about physical phenomena. In addition to hauntings (and poltergeists), it included chapters about phenomena infrequently discussed in modern parapsychology, namely telekinesis, materializations, levitation, and bilocation. The later was defined by Richet as the simultaneous presence of a person in different locations. He rejected the existence of objective bilocation as the duplication of the human body, but accepted that apparitions representing the individual could be perceived as if the person was alive and that this represented a modality of cryptesthesia.
Regardless of the fraudulent practices of some physical mediums, Richet was convinced that there were real telekinetic and ectoplasmic manifestations. Among many observations he discussed medium Florence Cook and the famous Katie King materialization, and his own observations with medium Marthe Béraud. Regarding Béraud (later known as Eva C.), Richet presented some notes he compiled in 1906 in which he saw ectoplasmic forms move and take shapes. He also payed attention to many other mediums, among them Linda Gazzera, D.D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, and Stanislawa Tomczyk.
Finally, the fourth part of the book was the conclusion. Richet concluded that the collective weight of all evidence showed the reality of metapsychic phenomena. This, he believed, was the case regardless of criticisms:
“Therefore: 1. there is in us a faculty of knowledge that is absolutely different of our common sensory faculties of knowledge (cryptesthesia); 2. movement of objects without contact are produced, even in plain light (telekinesis); 3. there are hands, bodies, objects, that appear to be formed completely from a cloud and show all the appearances of life (ectoplasmy); 4. there are presentiments that neither perspicacy nor chance can explain, and sometimes they are verified to their smallest details.”
In the conclusion Richet returned to his view that metapsychics should be an empirical specialty which current task should not be the defense of particular models. In fact, if there was a perspective characterizing the Traité it was that of the need to have an ultra-empirical metapsychics with little theoretical content. Consistent with this view Richet stated he was not convinced of any explanation so far offered to account for metapsychic phenomena and that at present (1922) no cohesive theory could be presented. He was particularly critical of explanations based on the concept of discarnate action, something he discussed in other publications. Nonetheless, and regardless of his protestations, Richet was not completely atheoretical. He was positive about the idea that unknown human faculties, and forces, were at work, and, as he discussed in the Traité, he used the concepts of personation and cryptesthesia to explain the manifestation of mental mediumship. Richet also speculated about forces in reference to materializations: “Materialization is a mechanical projection . . . . Is it not a very long way to consider possible, other than projections of heat, light, and electricity, a projection of a mechanical force? The memorable demonstrations of Einstein establish to what extent mechanical energy is similar to luminous energy.” Such idea, while perhaps too vague to be called a theory, was consistent with an old model of biophysical forces present throughout the literatures of mesmerism, spiritualism, and psychical research.
Richet concluded his book with hope for the future, as he did in other publications. Currently, “when everything is still in darkness,” Richet stated that there was a pressing need to move forward with research. “Then Metapsychics will come out of Occultism, as Chemistry was separated from Alchemy.” The situation, Richet continued, may seem to be too dark and difficult to solve. He further wrote: “But this is no reason for not increasing our efforts and labors . . . . The task is so beautiful that, even if we fail, the honor of having undertaken it gives some value to life.”
This book received much publicity when it was first published in 1922. Richet presented it to the prestigious Académie des Sciences, referring to the phenomena in question as “new” and “inhabitual” (Mémoires et communications des membres et des correspondants de l’Académie. Compte Rendu Hebdomadaires des Seances de l’Académie des Sciences, 1922, 174, 429-430). The reception of the Traité was surprising for an introductory book about psychical research. It was repeatedly reviewed as a special book. Examples of this are the long, and not always positive discussions of it in journals dedicated to psychic phenomena, such as the essays of Henry Holt, (A review of Richet. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1922, 16, 655-670.), Ernesto Bozzano (Considerazioni intorno al “Traité de Métapsychique” del Prof. Charles Richet. Luce e Ombra, 1922, 22:103-115), and Oliver Lodge (A textbook of metapsychics: Review and critique. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1923, 34, 70-106). A prominent example of a review appearing in the journals of other disciplines was that authored by Pierre Janet (À propos de la métapsychique. Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, 1923, 96, 5-32).
There is no question that the book was comprehensive, and systematic, and this made it valuable as a general introduction to the subject. It is in fact one of the best overviews of psychical research for the period in question. Richet’s insistence in the collection of facts, to the neglect of theories, made the book his personal manifesto of psychical research. He projected an image of metapsychics as a science, arguing for the existence of a field that had a subject matter and a right to exist. But as much as the book was a summary of facts, it was also Richet’s attempt to construct and promote it.
However, both in the Traité as well as in latter publications, such as his autobiographical memoir Souvenirs d’un Physiologiste (Paris: J. Peyronnet, 1933) Richet described the discipline as being in a preliminary stage of development. Nonetheless, he stated in this latter book, “I am convinced it is the science of the future” (p. 156).
Unfortunately Richet’s neglect to summarize theoretical models properly and to include systematic discussions or research methodologies weaken the status of the Traité as a rigorous textbook. I believe the empirical approach defended by Richet in the book would have received support from the latter.
For many, particularly in France, the Traité became an exemplar of the “new” science, and this took place in spite of much criticism. Why, one may ask, did Richet’s book attained such a status? After all, the content of the Traité was not innovative or revolutionary so as to command so much attention and respect. In fact, in many ways the Traité was rather dry and uninspired. I believe there are at least two aspects to consider in discussing this issue.
First, Richet’s book cannot be dismissed as just a relatively unimportant exercise in synthesis. In fact, this characteristic of the book is one of the aspects identified by Leah Ceccarelli in his Shaping Science with Rhetoric (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) as being important to produce influential books that assist in the development of interdisciplinary communities. Synthesis is present in the Traité in the form of a modest non-theorethical integration based on the accumulation of facts presented to show the existence of a subject matter. Ceccarelli believes that such influential books present two other characteristics, the development of an “authorial persona,” and the fact that the text is addressed to more than one audience. The first point perhaps includes Richet’s strong and repeated ultra-empirical and anti-survival stances, while the second may also be present in that several audiences benefitted from the work: scientists, psychical researchers, and the general public. While I do not want to push this view too much, it seems to me that the book could be studied in more detail from this perspective.
Second, the author commanded much attention due to his eminence. Richet–who worked in so various fields as aviation, eugenics, history, literature, pacifism, philosophy, psychical research, psychology, and sociology–was a well-known and highly respected intellectual. He published much research on physiological topics such as animal heat, breathing, stomach acid, serotherapy, and anaphylaxis. He also had several important academic positions and honors before the publication of the Traité. This included being editor of the Revue Scientifique, Professor of Physiology at the Faculte de Medicine in Paris, member of the Academie de Medicine and of the Academie des Sciences, and Nobel prize winner for his work on anaphylaxis. In addition, Richet had many social advantages. His wealth and high social position, coming both from his father and from his mother’s family, allowed him many personal connections that facilitated publishing and being heard in different forums. On these issues see S. Wolf, Brain, Mind and Medicine: Charles Richet and the Origins of Physiological Psychology (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993).
All this meant that a treatise about psychic phenomena from such a man would not be ignored and would be seen as a more important event than publications on the topic by less eminent individuals. His persona was a social and intellectual beacon that attracted many, who would either praise or condemn him for his positive belief in the existence of metapsychic phenomena and for his involvement with the topic.
Modern researchers will find the Traité of value for several reasons. The book is a reference work presenting many summaries of studies, bibliographical references, and evidential claims about psychic phenomena for the pre-1922 period. In addition, those current researchers who are not familiar with the old psychical research literature will find in this book a window into the past, a past somewhat different from the present, as seen in the emphasis on gifted subjects, such as psychics and mediums, on the phenomena of physical mediumship, and on the issue of survival of death.
These comments first appeared as a book review in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. They are reprinted with permission from the journal’s editor.