Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
The world is a vast place, composed of many cultures and languages. Yet some of us still limit our views to English-language sources of information, a topic I discussed some years back in terms of parapsychology (The Language Barrier in Parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 1989, 53, 125‑139; abstract). In that article I outlined some implications for ignoring material published in other languages.
Here I would like to make an obvious point about the history of the field, a topic with a considerable bibliography (click here, here, here, and here). If we focus only on English-language publications we will have an incomplete view of the historical development of parapsychology. Unfortunately this is precisely what we find in many accounts of the development of the field published in English, particularly those written by parapsychologists. Most of these accounts are based on English-language sources.
Further examples are the history sections of almost all general books about parapsychology published in English in the last decade. I recently read an article that should be published soon about the development of experimental parapsychology that, with a single exception, was based solely on work published by English-language workers. But what about developments coming from places such as France, Italy and Germany? For example, there should be mention of work by such individuals as René Warcollier. If an author is going to limit his or her work in this way they should at least state so, that is, they should present their work as an overview of English-language publications, and not as a more general work.
The same problem is present in reviews of the work conducted with mediums such as Eusapia Palladino. Very few writers covering this medium in English-language publications mention, and even less, discuss, the work published by Jules Courtier and Enrico Morselli (click here and here), in French and Italian, respectively. Those who write about this topic have the right to select their materials, but it is unfortunate that no qualifications are presented.
These works tend to emphasize developments in the English-language world—such as the work of the Society for Psychical Research and of J.B. Rhine and associates—to the neglect of developments in other countries. No one would deny the importance of this work. What I decry here is that reliance on these sources produces an incomplete view of the development of the discipline. But what is worse is that some seem to have accepted these incomplete views as the whole canon, and feel no need even to qualify the obvious incompleteness of their writings.
An example of such distortion is that it is sometimes assumed that what was very important in a country was equally important all around. It may be questioned, to give two examples, that the important work of Frederic W.H. Myers and of J.B. Rhine had the same impact in places other than the UK and the US.
Although there are a few translations available of the work of important figures of the past, they represent but a small percentage of their production. This is the case of the work of individuals such as Ernesto Bozzano, Théodore Flournoy, Charles Richet, and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing. A recent review of the work of Flournoy shows that a general perspective of his work can only be obtained consulting his writings in French.
It is interesting to see that students of physical mediumship writing in English tend to ignore Albert von Schrenck-Notzing’s German writings, such as Physikalische Phaenomene des Mediumismus (Munich: Ernst Reinhardt, 1920; see also the French translation).
Fortunately in recent years there has been an increase in the number of publications in English about developments in France, Germany, and other countries. Most of these works have been produced by historians, not by workers in parapsychology, and includes studies such as LaChapelle’s Investigating the Supernatural: From Spiritism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France, 1853–1931 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) and Wolffram’s The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). But the fact remains that many parapsychologists and other students of psychic phenomena are willfully ignorant of the past of their discipline in places other than the United Kingdom and the Unites States.
The solution, of course is not simple. In addition to the study of other languages, we could encourage the translation of works. I did this for the theoretical section of a paper by French researcher Albert de Rochas. But there are other things that will help.
One of them is the consultation of multi-lingual bibliographies. Two examples are those compiled by George Zorab (Bibliography of Parapsychology. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1957) and Adam Crabtree (Animal Magnetism, Early Hypnotism, and Psychical Research, 1766-1925: An Annotated Bibliography. White Plains, NY: Kraus International, 1988). Unfortunately, there are not many of these works available today.
We could also encourage publications of relevant material. In my capacity of Associate Editor in the Journal of Scientific Exploration I have invited the publication of various articles (which are refereed) covering the work of specific researchers from European countries (such as L. Gasperini, Ernesto Bozzano: An Italian spiritualist and psychical researcher. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 25, 755–773), and reviews of important relevant books from the old days of psychical research.
Over the years I have been trying to do more than complain. I have written several articles about specific topics, mainly summarizing various European publications. This includes aspects of the work of Italian Ernesto Bozzano and the content of the French journal Annales des Sciences Psychiques. Other work I have published includes:
To improve the situation it is essential that English speakers realize they not only need more knowledge about the history of their field in other countries, but that they also have a responsibility to disseminate a more complete and representative historical view of parapsychology in their writings. One thing that they could do is to consult colleagues known to have such knowledge. In the past I have been helped with German materials by persons such as Eberhard Bauer, Gerd H. Hövelmann, and Andreas Sommer. Massimo Biondi has been invaluable with his knowledge of Italian developments. I am glad to acknowledge their assistance publicly.
Another way to improve the situation is to collaborate with such individuals, as I have done on occasion. Examples of this are: Alvarado, C.S., Biondi, M., & Kramer, W. Historical notes on psychic phenomena in specialised journals (European Journal of Parapsychology, 2006, 21, 58-87); and Alvarado, C.S., Nahm, M., & Sommer, A. Notes on early interpretations of mediumship. (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 855-865).
But for the situation to improve we need to be aware there is a problem, and that we can do something about it. This needs to include an expanded vision of history as more than an Anglo-American perspective. Once this is realized, it will be possible to expand our views, including the idea of different cultures and ways of thinking, something related to the topic discussed here.