Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Longtime followers of my blog may remember an interview I posted a while back with Dr. Renaud Evrard. Renaud, from France, is a clinical psychologist known for his studies of exceptional experiences, as seen in his previous book Folie et Paranormal (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014). He also writes about the history of French parapsychology, which is the topic of the book discussed here.
Dr. Renaud Evrard
The title of the book is Enquête sur 150 Ans de Parapsychologie: La Légende de l’Esprit [Survey of 150 Years of Parapsychology: The Legend of the Mind; Paris: Trajectoire, 2016, 479 pages]. It is an overview of French parapsychology that, regardless of various recent publications, has not an equal in terms of its wide range and detailed information.
Here is the table of contents:
Agénor de Gasparin and Table Turning
Agénor de Gasparin
Timothée Puel and the First Science of the Soul
Pierre Janet and the Enchanted Boundary of Psychic Sciences
Charles Richet, Alone Against All?
Psychology Without Limits : Pierre Curie and the Psychic Force
The Roaring Twenties of Metapsychics: René Sudre Faces Opinion
Between Scientific and Spiritist Enterprise: The Program of Eugène Osty
The Side Roads: René Warcollier and the Meta-Psychoanalysis of Telepathy
The Aborted Parapsychological Revolution: François Favre and the Events of May 1968
The Dark Years: Nicolas Maillard Faces the Mysteries
Can you give us a brief summary of the book?
The books starts with a technical introduction to the demarcation problem (science vs pseudo-science) which is relevant to those interested in the points of contact between the histories of psychology and parapsychology. I focus on the pitfalls and solutions produced by four meta-sciences: sociology, philosophy, history, and psychology of science (and parascience).
The prologue at the beginning of the second chapter summarizes parts of the work of Bertrand Méheust (1999) on how scientists perceived the question of animal magnetism until its explicit rejection by the Academy of Medicine in 1842. I then begin with a history of parapsychology centered on ten French figures, more or less known, each addressing parapsychology in their own way, at the the intersection between their personal and scientific trajectories. By chapter order, these ten figures are Agénor de Gasparin, Timothée Puel, Pierre Janet, Charles Richet, Pierre Curie, René Sudre, Eugene Osty, René Warcollier, François Favre and Nicolas Maillard. Thanks to them, I manage to cover, without being exhaustive, 150 years of parapsychology in France. An epilogue discusses recent debates in France through which we perceive the current marginality of parapsychology.
In the conclusion, I attempted to draw lessons from this story along several axis: the functions of parapsychological heterodoxy for psychology (history of science); construction of scientific credibility and demarcation expertise (sociology of science); the part of natural and social elusiveness as an epistemological obstacle (philosophy of science); and reflexive analysis of the epistemological vices and virtues (psychology of science).
What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?
I have a good general knowledge of parapsychology and I support many initiatives to disseminate correct information on the current state of the discipline. Although I consider it is a discipline which, in its best form, has legitimacy to integrate the scientific and academic community, I don’t adhere to several beliefs that circulate about “psi phenomena.”
My main approach, developed in my Ph.D thesis and previous book, Folie et paranormal (PUR, 2014), is clinical practice with people who have exceptional experiences. As a clinical psychologist, I have wondered for a long time about how to listen to people who think they experience paranormal phenomena. Cultural aspects play an important role in the ability to integrate (for better and for worse) these experiences in models of reality. It is thus normal to wonder how French people cultivate a paradoxical relationship vis-à-vis the paranormal: they are unofficially big fans of paranormal topics and practices, but claim officially to be only Cartesian rationalists who do not accept these topics. The scientific and agnostic approach of parapsychology encounters many problems making its way between these two conflicting currents.
I’m not an historian by training, but I was constantly confronted with this division, being an academic psychologist with an interest in heterodox subjects. I developed in my doctoral thesis a discussion about Western societies’ relationship to the paranormal, which I extended here by concentrating on France and on the historical threads of conflictive relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in psychology.
What motivated you to write this book?
When I began working in a free counseling service for people living with exceptional experiences inside the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris, I quickly discovered some treasures in their archives. Over the years, I have accumulated many documents, but also private archives, testimonies of contemporaries or of descendants of researchers, and have developed an expertise through my interactions with the many researchers who explore parts of this story. At one point, I needed to take stock of what I knew, beyond a few articles and papers that I had disseminated. Many researchers abroad encouraged me to make available this information of which they had a rough knowledge, especially because of the language barrier.
This book started from quite simple research questions: Why France is so far behind, compared to its European neighbors, in the acceptance of a scientific psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences? Why, considering she was on top of the “metapsychics” at the period of Puységur (Méheust, 1999), at the turn of the twentieth century and, again, during the Roaring Twenties, there was never any academic unit to study this domain? Another question concerned the relationship between psychology and parapsychology: many authors claimed that an irreversible divorce had taken place between the two disciplines, but none agree about when and how this demarcation was made. My research leads me to believe that it is rather a dynamic boundary-work that is still ongoing, and in which we participate in relegating parapsychology into history without considering its contemporary development.
Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
This book has many flaws and I hope they will be corrected over time. In each chapter, I also corrected much erroneous information spread by other academic or non-academic historians. But this is quite normal because I accept that my work is part of a series of studies: it would not have been the same without previous significant works (those of Plas, Méheust, Le Maléfan, Lachapelle, Brower, etc.). And I hope it will push others to be more rigorous and precise than I have been in the details of this fascinating story.
One of the benefits of my work – but perhaps my most inexcusable ambition – is that it addresses the contemporary period (after WWII), what is not usually found in other works. Probably I lack hindsight to address these periods, especially when several individuals involved are still alive and have a vivid memory of the events. But I wanted to answer questions that I was not the only one to ask about the different cycles known to French parapsychology and their impact on the current situation.
I think specialists will appreciate all the little discoveries that I present in my book and the re-evaluation of some conclusions. There are also all these unknown figures (Agénor de Gasparin, Timothée Puel, Louis Favre…) that historians do not fail to unearth when researching the topic beyond the work of “great men.” Many anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book, with which I tried to illustrate the contexts of the time. These are presented in each chapter via the presentation of a main historical figure. However, I do not know how the public will welcome this complex narrative, written in a very rigorous and documented style, and one that does not support neither parapsychologists nor skeptics.