Psychical Research at the International Congresses of Psychology, 1889–1905

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

I finally published a paper I have been working on for a long time. It is an examination of the presence of psychical research at the international congresses of psychology for the period 1889-1905 (“Telepathy, Mediumship, and Psychology: Psychical Research at the International Congresses of Psychology, 1889–1905.” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2017, 31, 255–292).

Congres Psychologie 1889
Congress Psychology 1892

Here is the abstract:

“The development of psychology includes the rejection of concepts and movements some groups consider undesirable, such as psychical research. One such example was the way psychologists dealt with phenomena such as telepathy and mediumship in the first five international congresses of psychology held between 1889 and 1905. This included papers about telepathy and mediumship by individuals such as Gabriel Delanne, Léon Denis, Théodore Flournoy, Paul Joire, Léon Marillier, Frederic W. H. Myers, Julian Ochorowicz, Charles Richet, Eleanor M. Sidgwick, and Henry Sidgwick. These topics were eventually rejected from the congresses, and provide us with an example of the boundary-work psychologists were engaging in during that period to build their discipline. The height of such presentations took place at the 1900 congress, after which there was a marked decline in discussion on the topic which mirrored the rejection science at large showed for psychical research during the period in question.”

Congress Psychology 1896

Congres Psychologie 1900

The congresses took place in 1889 (Paris), 1892 (London), Munich (1896), 1900 (Paris), and 1905 (Rome). Some of the papers presented, as published in the conference proceedings, were:

Bager-Sjögren, Dr. (1897). Ist es möglich, durch eine internationale Hallucinations-statistik einen Beweis zu erbringen für die Existenz telepathisher Einwirkungen? In Dritter Internationaler Congress für Psychologie, Munich: J. F. Lehmann, pp. 394–402.

Courtier, J. (1906). Sur quelques effets de passes dites magnétiques. In Atti del V Congresso Internazionale di Psicologia edited by S. De Sanctis, Rome: Forzani, pp. 536–540.

Dariex, Dr. [X] (1901). De divers expériences sur les mouvements d’objets matérieles provoqués sans contact par une force psychique agissant a distance. In IVe Congrès International de  Psychologie edited by P. Janet, Paris: Félix Alcan, pp. 632–638.

Dariex Paper 1900 Psychology Congress 1900

Flournoy, T. (1897). Quelques faits d’imagination subliminale chez les médiums. In Dritter Internationaler Congress für Psychologie, Munich: J. F. Lehmann, pp. 419–420.

Flournoy Paper 1896 Psychology Congress

Marillier, L. (1890). Statistique des hallucinations. In Congrès International de Psychologie Physiologique, Paris: Bureau de Revues, pp. 44–47.

Marzorati, A. (1906). Le origini e lo sviluppo del pensiero religioso in rapporto ai fenomeni psichici ed alla facoltà supernormali. In Atti del V Congresso Internazionale di Psicologia edited by S. De Sanctis, Rome: Forzani, pp. 461–462.

Richet, C. (1892). L’avenir de la psychologie. In International Congress of Experimental Psychology. London: Williams & Norgate, pp. 24-26.

Sidgwick, H. (1892). Statistical inquiry into hallucinations. In International Congress of Experimental Psychology, London: Williams & Norgate, pp. 56–61.

van Eeden, F. (1901). Quelques observations sur les phénomènes dits spiritiques. In IVe Congrès International de Psychologie edited by P. Janet, Paris: Félix Alcan, pp. 122–131.

Statistique des Hallucinations (1890). In Congrès International de Psychologie Physiologique, Paris: Bureau de Revues, pp. 151–157.

Rather than recounting a history of success, this episode in the history of psychical research is one of failure in the sense of rejection from psychology. “The eventual rejection of psychical research from the international congresses of psychology is an example of the field’s rejection and ambivalent position within psychology . . . Psychologists’ attempts at professionalization led them to separate themselves from other knowledge claims and perspectives that they felt threatened their status. They engaged in boundary-work, where there is an active defense of practice, methods, and concepts “for the purpose of drawing a rhetorical boundary between science and some less authoritative residual non-science” (Gieryn 1999 . . .) . . .”

Congress Psychology 1905

“The fact that some papers on topics such as veridical hallucinations and mediumship were admitted to the congresses, and that the 1892 congress had Sidgwick and Myers as its President and Secretary, shows some level of acceptance, or tolerance, by the establishment. But it is clear that acceptance of papers in the congress did not mean acceptance of the reality of phenomena beyond conventional principles. The objections presented at the third and fourth congress are an example of this. These discussions show that psychical research was far from being accepted as a part of psychology during the nineteenth century and later . . .”

Henry Sidgwick 3

Henry Sidgwick

 

by Eveleen Myers (nÈe Tennant), albumen print, late 1890s

Frederic W.H. Myers

In addition to the professionalization of psychology, it is possible that the rejection of psychic phenomena from the congresses may have been related to the threat these phenomena may have had for some against the current materialistic paradigm.

But all this psychic work amounted to more than rejection from the congresses. This work presented contributions to the development of the concept of dissociation. Furthermore: “The SPR [Society for Psychical Research] study of hallucinations . . .  was a significant contribution to the furthering of empirical knowledge on the prevalence and phenomenology of hallucinations, regardless of the rejection of the telepathic component . . .  Other contributions to psychology and psychiatry came from the study of mediumship, as seen in Flournoy’s studies of subliminal imagination, and from other observations leading to specific diagnoses and the concept of automatisms . . . This is instructive in that it illustrates how marginal movements, the periphery, or what has been rejected, can have an impact on the mainstream, or the core of a field such as psychology.”

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