Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

When Max Dessoir’s (1867-1947) creation and use of the term parapsychology to designate the study of a particular set of phenomena is discussed, writers place his first published use of the term in 1889 (see, for example Thalbourne, M.A., & Rosenbaum, R.D. (1986) The origin of the word “parapsychology.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 53, 225-229). However, the term was used with a different meaning in 1887 in an unsigned article in the journal Science: “Mental science: Para-psychology” (Science, 1887, 9, 510-511).

Max Dessoir

Max Dessoir

In its early years Science carried news and reviews about psychological topics. The note in question, concerned with psychopathology, appeared in a regular section about psychological topics called “Mental Science”.

The anonymous author of the note stated that “the term ‘para-psychology’ may be invented to apply to those weirdly imaginative systems of thought by which some intellects strive to satisfy their inner longings, and to make the world seem rational” (p. 511). An example of this mental delusion was a case of an architect who went to India to study “internal truth” and developed a system of symbols, presented in a series of drawings. There were five stages of evolution in his system, the fifth of which was described as so ideally spiritual as to entirely surpass our finite conceptions, and only glimpsed perhaps now and then by a supersensitive clairvoyant” (p. 511). This fifth stage was said to “require a fourth dimension to do it justice . . .” (p. 511).

This “para-psychological system” was accompanied by “a fanciful application of arithmetical, geometrical and harmonic progression . . .” (p. 511). The whole project was described as a “sad spectacle of misused talent (and that can be seen in any insane-asylum) . . . [that] illustrates the great danger of mono-ideism, and of that unchecked imagination which has prepared so many victims to the snares of a mad symbolism” (p. 511).

Such early use of “parapsychology” was clearly not meant to designate the field of study to which the word refers today. Instead it was invented as a label for a delusional system of thought, something “beside” normal psychology. The frequent use of “parapsychology” to refer to the systematic study of psychic phenomena had to wait till later German authors popularized the term, as can be seen in the title of the Zeitschrift für Parapsychology (since 1926). Later on the term was used in the United States to designate the experimental approach to the field. But that is another story.

Zeirschrift fur Parapsychologie

This note appeared before in Psypioneer, 2006, 2, 248-249.