Category: Writing History


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

In a recent article Chris Roe  stated: “A powerful means of imposing scientific dogma is through textbooks, which do not passively and transparently describe a discipline, but instead actively circumscribe it. By the presence or absence of topics and by the way they are represented, the authors determine for the reader the boundaries of legitimate concern and appropriate practice. In this way the boundaries are policed and transmitted from generation to generation” (What are psychology students told about the current state of parapsychology? Mindfield, 2016, 7(3), 86-91, p. 86). I believe this has affected negatively views of the historical role of parapsychology in relation to psychology and psychiatry, as seen in the traditional historiography of these fields. In the rest of these comments I will discuss this issue, focusing, to a great extent, on some of the articles I have published during the last 15 years or so.

Chris Roe 2

Dr. Chris Roe

Unfortunately many historians have contributed to perpetuate the view that psychical research was not important to psychology or to psychiatry. An early example was Edwin G. Boring’s (1886-1968) highly influential A History of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950), a book that influenced most of our older teachers of psychology and that was a standard textbook for many years. In this book psychical research was considered to be at the periphery of psychology, and it was only mentioned in the book in notes at the end of a chapter (p. 502). The lack of importance of psychical research is also assumed by many other writers who do not even mention the field in their writings, among them Daniel Robinson in An Intellectual History of Psychology (3rd ed., Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

Boring History Experimental Psychology

Fortunately there are indications in the last decades that the situation is changing. Perhaps this is related to the attention historians of science and medicine have payed to “marginal” disciplines and movements, some of whom argued that these movements, and the ideas that came from them, contributed to science and to culture at large. Although not all historians agree, many oppose the view that occult and mystical views were a factor that always hindered the development of science. In fact, the opposite has been argued, considering such topics as contributing factors to the development of science (see the overview of W. Applebaum, (2005). The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press).

Applebaum Scientific Revolution

An important early work bringing such a perspective to psychic phenomena was Henri F. Ellenberger’s (1905-1993) The Discovery of the Unconscious (New York: Basic Books, 1970). Although the emphasis of the book was on the more conventional work of individuals such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Pierre Janet (1859-1947), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), which led to the development of ideas about the unconscious mind and psychotherapy, Ellenberger gave a place to ideas coming from mesmerism, psychical research, and Spiritism affecting the study of the mind. Not only did he acknowledged the work of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), but he wrote: “Automatic writing, . . . was taken over by scientists as a method of exploring the unconscious . . . . A new subject, the medium, became available for experimental psychological investigations, out of which evolved a new model of the human mind’ (p. 85).

Ellenberger The Discovery of the Unconscious

Frederic Myers 4

Frederic W.H. Myers

Later writers have argued for the importance of the study of psychic phenomena for the development of ideas about non-conscious activities of the mind, thus placing psychical research as a positive influence, not as a mere obstacle in the development of psychology as a science, or as an absurd field. Examples include Adam Crabtree’s From Mesmer to Freud (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), Régine Plas’ Naissance d’une Science Humaine (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2000), and Eugene Taylor’s William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), among others.

Crabtree From Mesmer to Freud

Plas Naissance

Taylor William james Consciousness

In her book Plas (2000) resists the image of psychic studies as an “infantile malady” or as an “amusing bizarreness” of some psychologists (p. 13). Interest in the “marvelous” (including psychic phenomena) shown by psychologists is presented by Plas as an influential force in French psychological studies, particularly in terms of the development of ideas about the unconscious mind.

Regine Plas 2

Dr. Régine Plas

Of course we have to acknowledge that not everyone accepts this view. But it is encouraging to see the above mentioned publications, and the fact that some mainstream historians argue that it would be a mistake to exclude psychic phenomena and other “marginal” topics from the canon, and that they “contributed mightily to the constitution of modern psychological medicine” (M.S. Micale, The modernist mind: A map.  In M.S. Micale (Ed.), The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Arts in Europe and America, 1880–1940 (pp. 1-19), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004,  p. 11).

Marc Miale

Dr. Marc Micale

In my own work, consisting of various articles, I have tried to provide information about some of these issues, hoping to influence psychologists and psychiatrists. I do not write to defend the existence of psychic phenomena, nor the validity of their research findings, my intention is rather to present psychical research as an agent of influence, of change, just as so many have written about the role of fields such as neurology or concepts such as materialism, on ideas about the mind. The way I see it the more that the practitioners and researchers in psychology and psychiatry see papers about psychical research in their journals about issues of historical relevance, the more they will get used to the “new” way of seeing these topics as part of the histories of psychology and psychiatry. In any case, at least they will be exposed to the topic, and to arguments defending the idea that psychical research is not an example of a peripheral or a useless pseudo-science.

With this purpose in mind in recent years I have published several papers in the Sage journal History of Psychiatry. These are contributions to a section of the journal called “Classic Text” devoted to presenting excerpts or whole articles or chapters relevant, in a broad way, to the history of psychiatry:

Alvarado, C.S. (2010). Classic text No. 84: ‘Divisions of personality and spiritism’ by Alfred Binet (1896). History of Psychiatry, 21, 487-500.

Alvarado, C.S. (2014a). Classic Text No. 98: ‘Visions of the Dying,’ by James H. Hyslop (1907). History of Psychiatry, 25, 237-252.

Alvarado, C.S. (2016). Classic Text No. 105: William James’ “Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena.” History of Psychiatry, 27, 85-100.

History of Psychiatry December 2013

Alvarado, C.S. (2016). Classic Text No. 107: Joseph Maxwell on mediumistic personifications. History of Psychiatry, 27, 350-366.

Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2012). Classic Text No. 90: ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania’, by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1874). History of Psychiatry, 23, 229–244.

In the “Classic Text” section of the journal the reprinted text is presented with an introduction that provides contextual, biographical and other information that justifies the inclusion of such material in the journal. This is not limited to mental illness, but includes much more, such as general psychological topics, and topics of general cultural and social concern believed to be relevant to the study of the mind and behavior. The journal, edited by historian of psychiatry German Berrios, is also open to psychic phenomena. I have never noticed any prejudice against the topic, as judged by my submissions, which to this day have all been accepted. I have presented much information about psychical research in these contributions.

The point of some of my papers, including those published in other journals, has been to identify the psychical research writings of well-known psychologists (e.g., Alvarado, C.S. (2009). Ambroise August Liébeault and psychic phenomena. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 2009, 52, 111-121). In one of the articles I discussed, with three colleagues, the work of Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920), which included his study of medium Hélène Smith, as reported in his famous book Des Indes à la Planète Mars (translated as From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900; Alvarado, C.S., Maraldi, E. de O., Machado, F.R., & Zangari, W. (2014). Théodore Flournoy’s contributions to psychical research. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2014, 78, 149-168). My colleagues and I wrote in this paper:

Flournoy Des Indes a la Planete Mars

Flournoy From India 2

“His main contribution, both to psychology and to psychical research, was conceptual, and referred to the development of the concept of the capabilities of the unseen mind. This he did mainly through his study of Smith’s mediumship . . . , but also with a few other case studies . . .  His contribution of the construction of this idea, while purely psychological, was developed and nurtured in the context of psychic investigations, as were the psychological ideas of Myers, and to some extent, those of others such as Janet and Richet . . .  From the early days after the publication of Des Indes to more recent developments, Flournoy’s investigation of the Smith case has been cited by many to illustrate the capabilities of the subconscious mind for  producing fictitious manifestations. It is an example of the vast influence that exemplary cases can have on the development of ideas and research, as seen both in psychology and in psychical research” (pp. 162-163).

Another example is William James (1842-1910), who of course has been widely discussed by others. A colleague and I discussed William James as another example of how psychical research contributed to the study of dissociation (Alvarado, C.S., & Krippner, S. (2010). Nineteenth century pioneers in the study of dissociation: William James and psychical research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2010, 17, 19-43., but in some studies accepting the existence of the supernormal. “Unlike Janet and others, James did not use dissociation to explain mediumship and other phenomena in the sense of reducing everything to suggestion and the workings of a secondary consciousness. Instead he adapted ideas, such as Myers’, that assumed the existence of a secondary consciousness and that were not only relevant to pathology, but to the supernormal and the transcendental. James’ acceptance of the supernormal in the case of Mrs. Piper represents a break with Janet and other conventional explorers of dissociation. It was in fact a plea to study and accept the possibility that dissociation and consciousness in general could transcend bodily limitations . . .” (p. 37 ).

William James 4

Dr. William James

James Report Committee Mediumistic Phenomena PASPR 1886

W. James first report about Mrs. Piper, Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1886

More recently I reprinted most of James’ initial study of medium Leonora E. Piper: Classic Text No. 107: ‘Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena,’ by William James (1886)” (History of Psychiatry, 2016, 27, 85-100. As stated in the abstract:

“The purpose of this Classic Text is to present an excerpt of an article about the topic that William James . . . published in 1886 in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research about American medium Leonora E. Piper (1857–1950). The article, an indication of late nineteenth-century interactions between dissociation studies and psychical research, was the first report of research with Mrs Piper, a widely investigated medium of great importance for the development of mediumship studies. In addition to studying the case as a dissociative experience, James explored the possibility that Piper’s mentation contained verifiable information suggestive of ‘supernormal’ knowledge. Consequently, James provides an example of a topic neglected in historical studies, the ideas of those who combined conventional dissociation studies with psychical research.”

Leonora Piper 2

Mrs. Leonora E. Piper

 In my first paper exploring the contributions of psychical research to psychology I focused on the work early members of the Society for Psychical Research conducted regarding dissociation. Because I wanted to inform contemporary dissociation researchers, I sent the paper to  dissociation journal (Dissociation in Britain during the late nineteenth century: The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1900. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 3, 9-33). In the paper I focused on work about mediumship and hypnosis, and summarized aspects of Myers’ contributions. I concluded that “it is far too simplistic in historical terms to dismiss psychical research as pseudoscientific or as an example of irrational or plainly wrong ideas that have been superseded as psychiatry and psychology have advanced and have become more scientific. Apart from the fact that psychical research deserves serious consideration, we need to realize that in the context of nineteenth-century developments this field made important contributions to the study of dissociation and to the development of the idea of a secondary self . . . Such considerations remind us that much of our current understanding of the history of dissociation has been itself ‘dissociated’ in the sense of becoming separated from aspects of its origins” (p. 28).

Journal of the SPR Vol. 1

I continued to explore dissociation in other articles. In one I focused on French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) and his discussion of mediumship to illustrate that, similarly to hypnosis and various cases apparently showing the existence of a secondary consciousness, this phenomenon was used in the psychological discourse of the nineteenth-century to argue for the existence of dissociation as a psychological process (Alvarado, C.S. (2010). Classic text No. 84: ‘Divisions of personality and spiritism’ by Alfred Binet (1896). History of Psychiatry, 2010, 21, 487-500).

Alfred Binet Alterations of Personality

Mediumship, I wrote in an essay published in the Brazilian psychiatry journal Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica with other colleagues, provided the context for the development of various ideas about the subconscious mind (Alvarado, C.S., Machado, F.R., Zangari, W, & Zingrone, N.L. (2007). Perspectivas históricas da influência da mediunidade na construção de idéias psicológicas e psiquiátricas [Historical perspectives of the influence of mediumship on the construction of psychological and psychiatric ideas]. Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica, 2007, 34 (supp.1), 42-53). Mediums, and others such as the hypnotized, “became part of a small group of special individuals who led students of the mind to see invisible regions of the psyche. This . . . had implications for dissociation and for diagnostic matters” (p. 50). An example was the work of Pierre Janet, who did not accept the parapsychological aspects of mediumship, but used the phenomena (and the writings of Myers) to support the concept of dissociation and secondary personalities.

Pierre Janet 5

Dr. Pierre Janet

In some papers published in History of Psychiatry, I, and other colleagues, discussed pathological diagnoses informed by mediumship (Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2012). Classic Text No. 90: ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania’, by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1874). History of Psychiatry, 23, 229–244; Le Maléfan, P. Evrard, R., & Alvarado, C.S. Spiritist delusions and spiritism in the nosography of French psychiatry (1850-1950). History of Psychiatry, 2013, 24, 477-491).

Marvin Mediomania 2

Interestingly, and complicating the issue, there were also several formulations of the relationship between dissociation, the subconscious mind and mediumship, as discussed in another of my papers: Alvarado, C.S. Mediumship, psychical research, dissociation, and the powers of the subconscious mind. Journal of Parapsychology, 2014, 78, 98–114. I wrote in the conclusion of this paper:

“Although most medical men held a closed model of the mind (and of dissociation) in which the phenomena were explained mostly by internal resources and a few external influences such as suggestion, few accepted a more open model of mind, such as the one some psychical researchers upheld based on powers that extend sensory and motor capacities beyond the confines of the body. Nonetheless, and as seen in the writings of some such as James . . . . , these psychic or supernormal concepts were part of the same general interest in understanding the mind and its myriad of layers as the more accepted ideas of individuals such as Janet . . . Interestingly, these ideas about the powers or capabilities of the subconscious mind were also connected in some cases to pathology. This was not only the case with those, like Janet . . . reduced everything to intrapsychic concepts, but also with those like Lombroso . . . and Morselli . . . who admitted the existence of the supernormal as a process related to pathologies such as hysteria. But most of the persons discussed here did not write about pathology” (p. 108).

Together with other authors mentioned above, I have been arguing for a more complete history of psychology and psychiatry. That is, one which represents better the past by recovering from the historical record research and ideas that have been neglected by many representatives of the traditional historiography of these fields. This includes other phenomena and issues not emphasized here, such as the study of hallucinations, hypnosis, eyewitness testimony, institutional developments, and other things. While we should not forget that the past of these disciplines was influenced by multiple aspects, and not only by psychical research, interest in the psychic or supernormal was a factor affecting positively some past inquiries about the mind.

*This is a slightly changed version of an article first published in Mindfield, the newsletter of the Parapsychological Association. It has been reprinted here with permission of its editor.

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Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center

[This is the last installment of this series of comments. See the first, second, third and fourth parts of this blog. 

Finally, I will mention the tendency of modern parapsychologists to focus on positive aspects of the past of their discipline. Let me explain.

Parapsychologists tend to present events or developments in their field in terms of achievements, of positive moments or events. Much emphasis is put on the results of work supporting the existence of phenomena and on events such as the founding of organizations and triumphs such as the acceptance of the Parapsychological Association as a member of the AAAS. Such things are certainly part of our past but the overall past, that which has made the discipline, also includes a variety of negative developments that are frequently neglected. I am not referring to those negative accounts written by authors who present interest in psychic phenomena as a history of fraud and deception in general. My point is the consideration of neglected events of different sorts brought out as a way to understand the development of the study of psychic phenomena.

Dr. Thomas Gieryn

Dr. Thomas Gieryn

An example of this is the rejection of psychical research, a topic that has been discussed by some historians (for an example click here ). Such rejection may be conceptualized under the concept of “boundary work.” Sociologist Thomas Gieryn referred to this process in his book Cultural Boundaries of Science (1999) as one conducted “for the purpose of drawing a rhetorical boundary between science and some less authoritative residual non-science” (Gieryn, 1999, PP. 4-5). (On the concept of boundary work click here).

Gieryn Cultural Boundaries of Science

Meheust vol. 1 Somnambulisme et mediumniteAn interesting study of this topic is Bertrand Méheust’s (1999) discussion of the rejection of the paranormal from mesmerism in France. He has argued that many of the representatives of the nineteenth-century hypnosis movement in the period between 1878 and 1895 adopted a variety of strategies to eliminate from the newer movement of hypnotism  such phenomena as the healing action of a magnetic agent and clairvoyance. This was accomplished by denying the existence of the phenomena and by reinterpreting the observed effects via physiological and psychological arguments.

Janet Congres PsychologieBoundary work was also shown by psychologists in relation to psychical research in the psychology congresses held between 1889 and 1905. While psychical research was discussed in the congresses, eventually it was rejected, as seen in the proceedings of the fourth congress held in Paris (Janet, 1901). This, like other examples of rejection in the past (e.g., Coon, 1992), represented attempts by psychologists to bolster their scientific reputation by pushing away what they regarded as undesirable and compromising for their field. This is something to which we can all relate, because this type of boundary work is still in full swing.

Zingrone From Text to SelfThe work of critics is also neglected in historical accounts authored by many parapsychologists (for an exception see Zingrone, 2010). My impression is that this neglect may be related in part to the fact that many parapsychologists feel beleaguered by critics, and believe that critics are basically destructive and negative in their work, contributing nothing or little to parapsychology. But while one may understand this reaction, we need to keep in mind that the history of the discipline is not formed solely by those who have produced positive evidence for the existence of psi. Instead it is formed from the interplay of a variety of factors and forces, among them the writings of and arguments made by critics.

Dr. Joseph Jastrow

Dr. Joseph Jastrow

A history that explores only the achievements of those defending the existence of psychic phenomena is only half of a discipline. To understand the development of parapsychology research we also need to study the writings of critics because they were part of the intellectual milieu in which concepts and methods developed. One such example were the works of psychologists such as Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944), who frequently wrote to criticize psychical research. Jastrow, like so many psychologists before and after him, wrote to establish a difference between psychology proper and psychical research, emphasizing what he saw as differences in terms of quality of evidence and the training of practitioners (Jastrow, 1889). Other examples of similar critics are William Carpenter (1813-1885) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947), whose work did much to develop ideas of dissociation and automatic mental action (Carpenter, 1877; Janet, 1889). Whether or not the critics were interested in constructive criticism, and no matter how parapsychologists feel about their objections today, the work of these men was influential at the time and significantly affected the reception of work about psychic phenomena.

Dr. William Carpenter

Dr. William Carpenter

Dr. Pierre Janet

Dr. Pierre Janet

Frank Podmore

Frank Podmore

Of course the issue gets complicated when we recognize that we cannot always classify individuals neatly as proponents or as critics. Almost everyone in parapsychology is also a critic when it comes to specific methodologies, phenomena, or concepts. Many figures from the past were both critics and proponents at the same time, depending on what topics were under discussion. For example, the well-known SPR critic Frank Podmore (1856-1910) who defended telepathy in his book Apparitions and Thought-Transference (1894) and elsewhere, is also remembered for his skepticism about poltergeists and physical mediumship, as can be seen in his Studies in Psychical Research (1897) and Modern Spiritualism (1902). Podmore’s approach contributed much to the critical mentality prevalent in the early SPR, although not everyone agreed with his analyses.

Podmore Studies in Psychical Research 2

 

Podmore Modern Spiritualism Vol 1

Those individuals who negated the existence of ESP and other phenomena were also an important part of the development of the field. Professional historians have no difficulty adopting this perspective, but it does not seem to be shared by some practitioners. In any case, we know that psychical research is not only a defense of phenomena, but also a critical approach to the investigation and understanding of phenomena with various implications about the nature of the mind. The same can be said of its history.

References

Carpenter, W.B. (1877). Mesmerism, Spiritualism, &c.: Historically and Scientifically Considered. London: Longmans, Green.

Coon, D. J. (1992). Testing the limits of sense and science: American experimental psychologists combat spiritualism, 1880-1920. American Psychologist, 47, 143-151.

Gieryn, T. F. (1999). Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the line. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Janet, P. (1889). L’Automatisme Psychologique: Essai de Psychologie Expérimentale sur les Formes Inférieures de la Vie Mentale. Paris: Félix Alcan.

Janet, P. (Ed.). (1901). IVe Congrès International de Psychologie. Paris: Félix Alcan.

Jastrow, J. (1889). The problems of “psychic research.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 79, 76-82.

Méheust, B. (1999). Somnambulisme et Mediumnité (1784-1930): Vol. 1: Le Défi du Magnétisme Animal. Le Plessis-Robinson: Institut Synthélabo pour de Progrès de la Connaissance.

Podmore, F. (1894). Apparitions and Thought-Transference. London: Walter Scott.

Podmore, F. (1897). Studies in Psychical Research. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Podmore, F. (1902).  Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism (2 vols.). London: Methuen.

Zingrone, N.L. (2010). From Text to Self: The Interplay of Criticism and Response in the History of Parapsychology. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing. 

*This is the final excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center

[See the first, second, and third parts part of this blog

In this blog, the fourth in a series, I am focusing on another problem in writing about the past, that is, approaching the past in a presentist way. By this I mean presenting past developments basically as they relate to present needs, concerns, and ideas, and not in their own terms, as well as the interpretation of the past from the perspective of the present. While this practice is understandable because it helps practitioners build a professional identity, such an emphasis can be problematic. For example, if the account in question focuses solely on work and ideas of the past that are similar to those of the present, we will end with an account that supposedly “explains” the present but that misses many developments that were important to those who lived and worked in past times. What you end up with may well be a justificatory history but not a study of what actually took place (if that is ever possible considering limitations of documentation and context). It is important, therefore, to remember that parapsychology developed not only through ideas similar to present ones but also from the influence of dissimilar concepts.

Asa Mahan

Asa Mahan

Ideas that are not popular or that are undesirable today tend to be neglected when looking to the past. For example, many in parapsychology today do not believe that psi phenomena have a physical basis in the sense that ESP and PK are explainable by the projection of physical or biophysical forces from the human body. Consequently the topic receives little contemporary discussion in the writings of modern parapsychologists, even those who are historians of the field. But there is a large literature about such forces that was published before and during the initial development of psychical research. For example, many wrote about physical mediumship in terms of force models. Examples include American educator and clergyman Asa Mahan (1799-1889),  English chemist and physicist William Crookes (1832-1919), and Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli (Crookes, 1874; Mahan, 1855; Morselli, 1908).

William Crookes

William Crookes

Enrico Morselli

Enrico Morselli

The same may be said about writings about physical ideas of ESP. To ignore such ideas in our accounts of the development of the field because many today do not believe in physicalistic explanations of psychic phenomena is a distortion of the historical record even though it may be in keeping with modern ideas. I am not calling for a defense of these forces today, but rather to acknowledge the existence of a conceptual tradition generally ignored in historical accounts written by parapsychologists. Failure to treat the past in its entirety may not impact on the work of modern parapsychologists, but it results in an incorrect account of our history and in the elimination from the current record of aspects that contributed to the development of the field.

We may also learn much from historians of science and medicine who study concepts believed today to be erroneous. This is important not only to get a more complete account of past developments, but to understand the work and assumptions of past workers. Examples of this include studies of cosmology, of the humors of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine and other concepts such as the ether.

Aristotelian Cosmology

Aristotelian Cosmology

Porter Micale Discovering the History of PsychiatryAnother issue is that the past is frequently used by scientists to justify the present. As historians Roy Porter and Mark Micale (1994) stated in their anthology of essays, Discovering the History of Psychiatry, “for professional purposes, each generation of practitioners has written a history that highlights those past ideas and practices that anticipate its own formation and consigns to marginal status competing ideas and their heritages” (pp. 5-6).

Levitation of Medium D.D. Home

Levitation of Medium D.D. Home

The same may be said about discussions of the past based only on evidentiality. It is easy to dismiss many important issues from the past if we believe now that specific phenomena do not exist or are weak evidentially. This is also done with topics and phenomena some find embarrassing and threatening to the scientific status of modern parapsychology, such as physical mediumship (and particularly materialization phenomena), poltergeist reports, or the issue of survival of death. Although this serves some present purposes of presenting high standards as researchers and respectable images of the field, it fails to represent the events present in our history and the beliefs of those who worked in previous eras.

Partial Table Levitation with Medium Eusapia Palladino

Partial Table Levitation with Medium Eusapia Palladino

Katie King, Famous Materialization "Produced" by Medium Florence Cook

Katie King, Famous Materialization “Produced” by Medium Florence Cook

 References

Crookes, W. (1874). Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism. London: J. Burns.

Mahan, A. (1855). Modern Mysteries Explained and Exposed . Boston: John P. Jewett.

Morselli, E. (1908). Psicologia e “Spiritismo”: Impressioni e Note Critiche sui Fenomeni Medianici di Eusapia Palladino (2 vols.). Turin: Fratelli Bocca.

Porter, R., & Micale, M.S. (1994). Introduction: Reflections on psychiatry and its histories. In M.S. Micale & R. Porter (Eds.), Discovering the History of Psychiatry (pp. 3-36). New York: Oxford University Press.

*This is an excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168.

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center (http://Rhine.org)

For the first and second parts part of this blog click on the titles below:

Distortions of Parapsychology History Part I

Distortions of Parapsychological History Part II

Another problem is the common practice of seeing our history through an Anglo-American lens. Over the years I have encountered parapsychologists whose view of the past is generally limited to American and British developments published in English, forgetting the contributions of many other groups. One only has to see some of the writings of parapsychologists whose main language is English to realize that they generally ignore developments that have been published in other languages.

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso

A considerable amount of the work of such individuals as Ernesto Bozzano (1862-1943), Gustave Geley (1868-1924), Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), and Joseph Maxwell (1858-1938) has been published in languages other than English and tends to be neglected. Some argue that they do not know the relevant languages, but few seem interested in taking steps to solve the problem. In addition to learning languages, we can always collaborate with colleagues with knowledge of the necessary languages, something I have done in the past. Unfortunately, and as has been my experience in the United States, sometimes the problem seems to go beyond languages, as seen in lack of knowledge of European works translated into English. This suggests that the problem is not only one of a language barrier, but that there are wider cultural problems here that affect the writings of parapsychologists.

Gustave Geley

Gustave Geley

Not knowing what has been published in other languages reduces our knowledge of the history of parapsychology, and produces incomplete, if not provincial, views of history. It also condemns us to follow particularly American, British, or other perspectives of the past, forgetting that, while there are international commonalities, there are also differences that arise from different cultures, and that those collective differences, together with the similarities, are what form our history. Works about developments in non-English-speaking countries written by historians (and rarely by parapsychologists) will assist us in spreading the information necessary to correct this situation.
Brower Unruly Spirits

Treitel Science of the Soul

We may get some inspiration from the field of world history. This has been described by one of its representatives, Patrick Manning, in his book Navigating World History (2003), as historical work attempting to “portray the crossing of boundaries and the linking of systems in the human past” (p. 3).

Manning Navigating World History 2003

Frederic W.H. Myers

Frederic W.H. Myers

Although no one would put in doubt the historical importance of developments from English-speaking countries it is important to bear in mind that those developments may be seen somewhat differently from the perspective of those who live and work in different countries. The SPR, to give an example, was known and was influential in France. Some of this work, such as that authored by Myers, was cited and translated in the Annales Des Sciences Psychiques (e.g., Myers, 1897-1900). While Myers was known in France, his ideas seemed to have been less influential there than in England and in the English-speaking-world in general. The point here is that one cannot assume the universal equivalence of specific national events or contributions.
Annales des Sciences Psychiques 1891

Brock Internationalizing History PsychologyThe situation is similar in the history of psychology. For example, Adrian C. Brock (2006, p. 3) has stated in his anthology Internationalizing the History of Psychology that American psychologists sometimes assume that behaviorism was international, forgetting that most of its impact was felt in the United States. Following this trend of thought we may ask such questions as the nature of J.B. Rhine’s influence in countries other than England and the United States (for example, see Parra, 2010).

J.B. Rhine

J.B. Rhine

René Warcollier

René Warcollier

Although Rhine was influential in, say, Europe, the influence was not as intense as that felt in the United States. Some Europeans conducted research following Rhine’s experimental procedures as did René Warcollier (1955) in France. But this type of research did not develop as much as it did in the United States where a community of researchers formed around Rhine, where a journal was founded, and where the research transcended parapsychological circles through critical examinations by psychologists (Mauskopf & McVaugh, 1980). In addition, it is clear from the content of the well-known 1953 parapsychology congress held at Utrecht that, by that time, the parapsychological world had not become Rhinean. In fact, there were many who centered their work on theory, philosophy, and spontaneous cases (Alvarado, 2009).

References

Alvarado, C.S. (2009). Alvarado, C.S. (2009). Discussing parapsychology at Utrecht: The First International Conference of Parapsychological Studies. In C.A. Roe, W. Kramer & L. Coly (Eds.), Utrecht II: Charting the Future of Parapsychology (PP. 245-288). New York: Parapsychology Foundation / The Netherlands: Het Johan Borgmanfonds Foundation.

Brock, A.C. (2006). Introduction. In A.C. Brock (Ed.), Internationalizing the History of Psychology (pp. 1-15). New York: New York University Press.

Manning, P. (2003). Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mauskopf, S. H., & McVaugh, M. R. (1980). The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Myers, F.W.H. (1897-1900). De la conscience subliminale. Annales des Sciences Psychiques, 7, 276-301; 8, 170-185, 196-227; 9, 152-172, 225-236, 290-319; 10, 36-52, 96-118, 332-348.

Parra, A. (2010). J. B. Rhine y su impacto en la parapsicología experimental hispano-parlante. Psychologia Latina, 1, 121-128.

Warcollier, R. (1955). Le problème des écarts négatifs en ESP: Emploi d’un test de barrage. Revue Métapsychique, 1(1), 15-24.

Note: *This is an excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168.

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center (http://Rhine.org)

[For the first part of this blog see: https://carlossalvarado.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/distorsions-of-parapsychological-history-i/]

Another influence that distorts the history of parapsychology is the tendency of some parapsychologists to focus on the early research of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), while work conducted elsewhere, in such places as Italy, France and Germany, is barely mentioned. The work of recent scholars has shown the richness of this sometimes forgotten literature.

Monroe Laboratories of Faith

Wolffram Stepchildren

Proceedings SPR Too much of an emphasis on SPR material may blind us to the existence of different conceptual traditions, the following is an example. Partly because of the philosophical-psychological emphasis of the SPR, and because of suspicions of fraud, SPR researchers paid less attention to physical mediumship than other groups. I made a comparison of articles about mental and physical mediumship published in the SPR Proceedings and in the French journal Revue Métapsychique for the period 1920-1930 that revealed that the SPR Proceedings had a higher proportion of papers about mental manifestations as compared to physical ones, while the French journal showed the opposite (Alvarado, Biondi & Kramer, 2006). Such trends alert us to the existence of specific interests or styles in psychical research that characterize the mentality of research groups or countries.

Fanny Moser

Fanny Moser

Similarly, too much of an emphasis on men can lead to the neglect of the contributions of many women, a topic I have discussed before in another paper (Alvarado, 1989). It is common to mention such prominent women as Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936), Louisa E. Rhine (1891-1983) and Gertrude Schmeidler (1912-2009). But we neglect many others whose work was also very influential. Among them I may mention Lydia Allison (1880-1959), Juliette Bisson (1862-1956), Esther M. Bond (1913-1963), Laura Dale (1919-1983), Betty Humphrey (b. 1917), Fanny Moser (1872-1953), Helen Salter (1883-1959), Gerda Walther (1897-1977), Margaret Verrall (1859-1916), and Zoë Wassilko-Serecki (1897-1978).

Juliette Alexandre Bisson

Juliette Alexandre Bisson

Zoë Wassilko-Serecki

Zoë Wassilko-Serecki

Dr. Margaret Rossiter

Dr. Margaret Rossiter

In my paper on women in parapsychology I argued that the issue is not merely one of saying that there have been women in parapsychology, but that their contributions need to be seen from their particular point of view. Because of women’s position in society they have frequently occupied positions of support and administration that are subordinate to those of men. Margaret Rossiter covered this extensively in her book Women Scientists in America (1982) as she reviewed women’s work in science. In turn, the importance of these supportive roles — particularly in eras in which no other role was available to women workers — are generally ignored by parapsychologists who write about the history of their field. It is important to take into account women’s lack of opportunities, like those of minorities in general, and the connection of such social limitations to difficulties in obtaining education or once having obtained an education at great difficulty, to being unable to find anything other than a support position. Parapsychology’s past is gendered. Men and women have enjoyed different opportunities and privileges both in their intellectual development and in the work they have been able to accomplish.

References

        Alvarado, C.S. (1989). The history of women in parapsychology: A critique of past work and suggestions for further research. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 233‑249.
        Alvarado, C.S., Biondi, M., & Kramer, W. (2006). Historical notes on psychic phenomena in specialised journals. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 58-87.
        *This is an excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168.

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center (http://rhine.org/)

In these comments I will not discuss the past literature proper, but will focus instead on some problems that produce an incomplete and unbalanced view of the past development of our discipline. These issues are important because, having a more complete grasp of their subject, parapsychologists may improve their writings and may acquire a different sense of the complexity of factors behind their discipline. Furthermore, these new perspectives will affect the views of students and newcomers of the field as well.

In summary, it is my hope that these comments—addressed to parapsychologists who write about aspects of the history of our field—will help us expand the reach of such writings.

***

Overall, and to quote from historian Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down (1972/1985), “most of our history is written about, and from the point of view of, a tiny fragment of the population, and makes us want to extend in depth as well as in breadth” (p. 16). The following are examples of this problem.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle

One of the main ways in which history in general may be distorted is through what has been called the “great man” approach. As expressed by Scottish historian and writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840), “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great men who have worked here” (p. 3).

Ever since Carlyle, and even before, much of history has been written with emphasis on the exceptional and heroic qualities and work of a few individuals. The point here is not to deny that specific individuals—men such as Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), Charles Richet (1850-1935), Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (1862-1929), and J.B. Rhine (1895-1980)—made important contributions to the development of the systematic and scientific study of psychic phenomena. In fact, we need more work about influential figures who distinguished themselves for their work, productivity, and leadership. But history also needs to include the less prominent if only because the past is a collective construction and not only the product of the elites.

Charles Richet

Charles Richet

Charles Stuart

Charles Stuart

This implies that there were many other less-known figures whose work converged with the work of the better-known individuals. Their work helped the better known individuals to achieve and create the work for which they are known today. These often ignored colleagues deserve our attention if we are interested in realistic views of the past. A case in point are the individuals surrounding and working with J.B. Rhine. In addition to J. Gaither Pratt (1910-1979) and Louisa E. Rhine (1891-1983), there were so many others who were important to the work such as Betty Humphrey (b. 1917) and Charles Stuart (1907-1947).

Edmund Gurney

Edmund Gurney

Discussions of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) have been dominated by emphasis on figures such as Frederic W.H. Myers, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and Edmund Gurney (1847-1888). While their work was essential we also need to remember there were also other figures involved in the development and research conducted by the Society. For example much more could be written about other important figures such as Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), Eleanor M. Sidgwick (1845-1936) and Alice Johnson (1860-1940), not to mention even lesser known figures.

There is also a general tendency to refer to the scholars and scientists who formed the council of the early SPR with no acknowledgement that some of them were spiritualists. Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891), and of others such as E. Dawson Rogers (1823-1910), Morell Theobald (1828-1908), and William Stainton Moses (1839-1892) were among these.

Wedgwood, a philologist, was one of the vice presidents of the early SPR, and one the authors of the first report of the Committee on Haunted Houses (Barrett, Keep et al., 1882). Furthermore, he participated in many SPR meetings, and contributed cases to the spiritualist literature (e.g., Wedgwood, 1881). Like other spiritualist members of the early SPR Wedgwood fulfilled an important function in that he criticized the assumptions and methods of SPR researchers in their own publications (e.g., Wedgwood, 1887).

William Stainton Moses

William Stainton Moses

Moses is remembered today by many but mainly as a medium. He was also an early SPR Vice-President and an active member who participated in such tasks as the collection of cases for the Society (Barrett, Moses et al., 1882). His writings show that he was also a serious student of psychic phenomena with a considerable knowledge of the literature on the subject. His expertise was also visible in his editorship of the spiritualist journal Light, a job he held for several years. Moses’ studies of psychic phenomena included a books about mediumistic communications (Moses, 1879) and detailed article discussions about such phenomena as materializations (Moses, 1884-1886).

Hereward Carrington

Hereward Carrington

There is a similar need for expansion in discussions of early parapsychology in the United States of authors who focus on well-known individuals such as James H. Hyslop (1854-1920), William James (1842-1910), and Australian Richard Hodgson (1855-1905). One hopes that the scope of the history of American psychical research may be expanded to cover a variety of additional figures. One example was Hereward Carrington (1880-1958), known in his early career for his discussion of mediumistic and other forms of trickery (Carrington, 1907). He was born in St. Saviour, Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, but conducted his psychical research from the United States. Others include publisher and lexicographer Isaac K. Funk (1839-1912), physician Rufus Osgood Mason (1830-1903) and minister and writer Minot J. Savage (1841-1918).

Isaac K. Funk

Isaac K. Funk

References

Barrett, W.F., Keep, A.P.P., Massey, C.C., Wedgwood, H., Podmore, F., & Pease, E.R. (1882). First report of the Committee on Haunted Houses. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1, 101-115.

Barrett, W.F., Moses, W.S., Podmore, F., Gurney, E., & Myers, F.W.H. (1882). Report of the Literary Committee. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1, 116-155.

Carlyle, T. (1840). On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. London: Chapman and Hall.

Carrington, H. (1907). The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism. Boston: Herbert B. Turner.

Hill, C. (1985). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. (Originally published, 1972)

Moses, W.S. [under pseudonym of M.A. Oxon]. (1879). Spirit Identity. London: W.H. Harrison.

Moses, W.S. [under pseudonym M.A. Oxon]. (1884-1886). Phases of materialization: A chapter of research in the objective phenomena of spiritualism. Light 4, 9-10, 19-20, 31-32, 41-42, 51-52, 61-62, 71-72, 81-82, 91-92, 101-102, 111, 121-122, 131-132, 141-142, 151-152, 161-162, 289-290, 299-300, 309-310, 319-320, 329-330, 339-340, 349-350, 381, 391-392, 413-414, 433-434, 443-444, 459-460, 483-484; 5, 485, 497, 508-509, 525-526, 536-537, 548-549, 560, 580-581, 592, 603-605, 615-616, 627-628; 6, 8, 19-20, 32-33, 44, 58, 68, 80-82, 92-94, 105, 129-130, 135-136, 166, 188, 195, 211-212, 220, 233-234, 253, 263-264, 273-274, 281-282.

Wedgwood, H. (1881). Haunting of an old chateau at Baden Baden. Light, 1, 369-370.

Wedgwood, H. (1887). “Phantasms of the Living.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 3, 82-83.

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*This is an excerpt from a previously published article: Distortions of the past. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2012, 26, 147–168.