Tag Archive: Charles Richet; Traite de Metapsychique


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

My book about physiologist Charles Richet was just published. Entitled Charles Richet: A Nobel Prize Winning Scientist’s Exploration of Psychic Phenomena (White Crow Books, 2019), it is a collection of my previously published essays about Richet’s interest in psychic phenomena (click here and here).

Richet portada

List of Chapters

Introduction

Chapter 1: Interest in Psychic Phenomena

Chapter 2: Richet’s Metapsychic Autobiography

Chapter 3: Early Ideas and Tests of Mental Suggestion

Chapter 4: Presenting Psychical Research to Psychology (1905)

Chapter 5: The Traité de Métapsychique (1922)

Chapter 6: Richet on “The Limits of Psychic and Metapsychic Science”

Appendix A: Richet on Leonora E. Piper

Appendix B: Observations of Moving Ectoplasm with Medium Marthe Béraud

Appendix C: On the Term Ectoplasm

Appendix D: Is there a Science of Metapsychics?

Appendix E: Bibliography About and by Charles Richet with Emphasis on Psychic Phenomena, compiled by Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, and Renaud Evrard, PhD

Appendix F: Bibliography About the History of Psychical Research

Acknowledgements

References

Notes

Index

Following on my interest in rescuing historical aspects of psychical research from oblivion, I present a six-chapter discussion of Richet’s work with mediums and psychics, and his conception of metapsychics, the name he used to refer to psychical research. The book is presented as a first step to obtain information about the subject, and one I acknowledge needs further and more detailed study.

Charles Richet 9

Charles Richet

The book opens with a chapter presenting an overview of Richet’s work that includes his conceptions about metapsychics, as well as his work on ESP (a term Richet did not use), mental and physical mediums, and his theoretical ideas, including his views about survival of death. Regarding theory, I wrote:

“Throughout his writings, Richet expressed dissatisfaction with the various explanations of psychic phenomena that were being put forward, including the hypothesis of discarnate agency . . .  Nonetheless, Richet presented several speculations over the years. One was the existence of a faculty of cognition that was purely human. In an early paper, he postulated that ESP messages impinged on the ‘unconscious faculties of intelligence’ . . . Other speculations were connected to the old idea, developed before Richet, that various concepts of biophysical forces explained psychic phenomena . . . Throughout his career Richet speculated on the possibility of unspecified vibrations as a way to explain the mental phenomena of psychical research. In an early statement he speculated about the existence of a force emanating from one person to another ‘such that the vibration of the thought of an individual influences the vibration of the thought of a nearby individual’ . . . He wrote in later years: ‘The sixth sense is that one which gives us knowledge of a vibration of reality, a vibration which our normal senses are unable to perceive’ . . .”

Richet Clairvoyance PSPR 1889

Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1889

Richet Annals Beraud 1905

Annals of Psychical Science, 1905

I present more information about Richet’s interests in a chapter in which I reprint an autobiographical essay about Richet’s interests in hypnosis and psychical research. The excerpt, translated from Richet’s Souvenirs d’un Physiologiste (Paris: J. Peyronnet, 1933), not only contributes information about Richet’s intellectual development, but also serves as an example of the limitations of autobiography to provide information about scientists.

Richet Souvenirs

Another chapter is devoted to summarize one of Richet’s most celebrated publications, his article “La Suggestion Mentale et le Calcul des Probabilités” [Mental Suggestion and the Calculation of Probability], which appeared in the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger (1884, 18, 609–674), an important academic French journal covering philosophy, social sciences and other topics that published articles pro and con psychic phenomena (click here). The article is generally remembered today for Richet’s use of probability calculations to assess the results of experimental tests of mental suggestion, a term he defined as the “influence that an individual’s thought exerts over a specific sense, without an appreciable exterior phenomenon on our senses, over the thought of a nearby individual.” Although I summarize this aspect of Richet’s work, I also took the opportunity to remind readers of forgotten aspects of the article. This included reanalyses of thought-transference studies conducted by members of the Society for Psychical Research, the use of motor automatism as an ESP response, some of the features of mental suggestion, and theoretical ideas.

I also wrote: “From the beginning of the paper Richet let his readers know of the controversial and improbable nature of mental suggestion. He said that the topic at hand was different from the ‘facts commonly admitted by science’ . . . The results of mental suggestion tests are ‘improbable facts; but their improbability is entirely relative; in the sense that none of them contradicts the known facts, acquired by science’ . . . In addition to warning his readers about the incredible nature of the phenomena, he cautioned them to keep in mind the ‘insufficience and impotence of current science’ . . . both to explain many facts of nature as well as mental suggestion.”

Richet and Linda Gazzera

Richet (left) and Italian medium Linda Gazzera

In two other chapters I reprinted excerpts of articles written by Richet that present much information about his attitudes towards metapsychics. One of them was a 1905 paper written as a presentation to a psychology congress, and the other was about what Richet referred to as “The Limits of Psychic and Metapsychic Science.” This consisted of attempts to explain mediumistic phenomena via the faculties of the unconscious mind using ideas such as the creation of mediumistic personalities and stories to accompany them. Of course, this does not mean that Richet did not believe in what others referred to as the supernormal.

This except about “limits” was taken from Richet’s best known metapsychic publication, his famous Traité de Métapsychique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1922), or rather, from the English language translation of the second French edition, Thirty Years of Psychical Research (New York, Macmillan, 1923). One of my chapters is an overview of the first edition of the Traité.

Richet Traite de metapsychique 4

Today we remember this book as an overview of the early literature, as well as a statement of Richet’s beliefs regarding phenomena and explanations, the latter which Richet left for future developments. Then there were sections about phenomena, with many examples of cases and descriptions, and a general conclusion in which Richet strongly argued for the reality of most psychic phenomena and for the lack of explanations that satisfied him.

Furthermore, I wrote: “Richet’s insistence on the collection of facts, to the neglect of theories, made the book his personal manifesto of psychical research. He projected an image of metapsychics as a science, arguing for the existence of a field that had a subject matter and a right to exist. But as much as the book was a summary of facts, it was also Richet’s attempt to construct and promote the subject of metapsychics.”

Richet Notre sixieme sens

More than previous publications on the subject, in France the Traité became an exemplar for the discipline, and one that commanded an incredible amount of attention in the French popular and academic literature at the time, something that has not being realized in general by non-French students of the subject. In the chapter I explore some possible reasons for such prominence, which unfortunately was not enough to gain general acceptance for metapsychics.

In addition, I included various appendices in the book. One, designed for both general readers and those particularly interested in Richet is a bibliography of writings by and about Richet’s metapsychic interests, and one that is not exhaustive. I was assisted in compiling the sources presented by Dr. Renaud Evrard, who has specialized in the history of psychical research in France (click here). Another appendix, mainly to provide contextual information for general readers, is a bibliography of books and articles about the general history of psychical research with emphasis on pre-1940 developments.

Richet L'Avenir de la Premonition

Other appendices have information about Richet’s sittings with medium Leonora E. Piper and Marthe Béraud, and other topics of interest.

Like any writing project, this one could be expanded including other aspects of Richet’s metapsychic career. But it is my hope that these essays, brought to the attention of the general public in this book, will at least remind us of the work of an important pioneer whose search for truth, regardless of limitations, commands respect and admiration. As Richet wrote in his autobiography, cited in my second chapter: “I may be wrong, but the honor of being able to conduct such research gives some value to life”

Image result for charles richet

 

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

Traité de Métapsychique by Charles Richet. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1922. Pp. 815. Available online at GallicaGoogle Books, and Hathi Trust.

 Richet Traite

 

Richet Traite table contents 1

Charles Richet

Charles Richet

Although overviews of psychical research such as the one reviewed here are appreciated, they are not generally considered to be particularly important or influential beyond the panoramic views, summaries, and bibliographies they provide. An exception to this is the book reviewed here, authored by French physiologist Charles Richet (1850-1935), which was translated into English from its second edition as Thirty Years of Psychical Research (New York: Macmillan, 1923).

Richet Thirty Years

Richet Clairvoyance PSPR 1889By the time the Traité was published Richet was well known in psychical research. This was evident from the frequent and multiple citations he received in general French books about the topic. During the 1880s he conducted research about what we would refer today as ESP, as seen in his reports “La Suggestion Mentale et le Calcul des Probabilités” (Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, 1884, 18, 609–674), and “Further Experiments in Hypnotic Lucidity or Clairvoyance” (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1889, 6, 66–83). Later on he was involved with bringing psychical research into the 1889 Congress of Physiological Psychology, the development and publication of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, medium Eusapia Palladino, and the presidency of the SPR. He authored many more papers about psychic phenomena and their study, among them a highly controversial report of materialization phenomena with medium Marthe Béraud.

Paper by Richet about medium Marthe Beraud's materialization phenomena (in Annals of Psychical Science, 1905)

Paper by Richet about medium Marthe Beraud’s materialization phenomena (in Annals of Psychical Science, 1905)

Richet opened the book stating in the preface that readers expecting “nebulous” discussions about “man’s destiny, about magic, about theosophy” would be dissappointed. Instead he argued he would write about facts without advancing a theory because in his view theories in metapsychics were “astoundingly frail.”

Franz Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer

The Traité was divided in four “books” or sections. The first one was a general perspective on metapsychics, which was defined by Richet as “a science which object is phenomena, mechanical or psychological, due to seemingly intelligent forces ot to unknown latent powers in human intelligence.” He classified the field into subjective and objective metapsychics, terms he used to refer to mental and physical phenomena. The section also included a discussion of history in which the author divided the subject in four periods. These periods were denominated by Richet as mythical (up to Mesmer), magnetic (from Mesmer to the Fox sisters), spiritistic (from the Fox sisters to William Crookes), and scientific (starting with Crookes). Richet hoped that his book will start a fifth period.

William Crookes

William Crookes

Richet saw the scientific period as the high point of the history of interest in metapsychic phenomena and separated it conceptually and methodologically from previous movements. In fact, he pictured mesmerism, as well as spiritism and spiritualism, as stages in the development of metapsychics. Previous movements, Richet believed, had too much theory, something that metapsychics must be careful with. But he believed it would have been an injustice to despise the magnetizers and the spiritists. Their work, Richet stated, “contributed to the founding of metapsychics.” But in his view their time was past. Nowadays a medium should not be wasted in informal spiritistic circles “without the use of methods of research adopted by all the sciences, balances, photography, cinematography, graphic registration. Similarly . . . rigorous, strict investigation, similar to those the S.P.R. [Society for Psychical Research] has conducted, is indispensable.”

First Chapter of Richet's Traite

First Chapter of Richet’s Traite

The second part of the book was about “subjective metapsychics.” Richet started with a section in which he attempted to separate phenomena that could be explained via conventional ideas of the action of the subconscious mind such as automatisms, personation, and pantomnesia (or memories of all the past experiences of the person), from phenomena such as telepathy and the like requiring explanations beyond the conventional (I have presented a reprint of this section elsewhere). He wrote that: “to separate the psychic [psychological] from the metapsychic, we adopt the following criterion: Everything that may be done by human intelligence, even the very profound and skillful, is psychic. Everything a human intelligence cannot do . . . would be metapsychic” (italics in the original).

Chapter of Subjective Metapsychics

Chapter about Subjective Metapsychics

Reprint of telepathy drawings from an experiment published by the Society for Psychical Research

Reprint of telepathy drawings from an experiment published by the Society for Psychical Research

Two other sections were about chance and observation errors. Such discussions were not only proper in a book like this to show how psychical researchers have been aware of conventional explanations and the precautions they have taken to avoid them, but also served a rhetorical function in that it gave credibility to Richet’s defenses of the reality of the metapsychic realm beyond the counterexplanations of science.

Leonora E. Piper

Leonora E. Piper

The rest of this part of the book was devoted to what Richet called cryptesthesia. This meant a “hidden sensibility, a perception of things, unknown regarding its mechanisms, and of which we cannot know but its effects.” Richet discussed spontaneous and experimental examples of this faculty. He included his own observations and studies, such as those with a woman he referred to as Alice, and discussed the topic as manifested in mediums such as Leonora E. Piper, and in various ways, among them psychometry and premonitions. The spontaneous occurrences were classified as monitions involving non-serious and serious events (other than death), death, and those perceived collectivelly. Richet mentioned that cryptesthesia showed no time and space limitations. He wrote that the phenomena “is very strange, and we do not understand it at all,” but such lack of understanding did not mean the acceptance of spiritual entities following “savages who attributed forces of Nature to a Divinity . . . .”

Part 3 was about physical phenomena. In addition to hauntings (and poltergeists), it included chapters about phenomena infrequently discussed in modern parapsychology, namely telekinesis, materializations, levitation, and bilocation. The later was defined by Richet as the simultaneous presence of a person in different locations. He rejected the existence of objective bilocation as the duplication of the human body, but accepted that apparitions representing the individual could be perceived as if the person was alive and that this represented a modality of cryptesthesia.

Chapter about Objective Metapsychics

Chapter about Objective Metapsychics

 

Florence Cook

Florence Cook

Regardless of the fraudulent practices of some physical mediums, Richet was convinced that there were real telekinetic and ectoplasmic manifestations. Among many observations he discussed medium Florence Cook and the famous Katie King materialization, and his own observations with medium Marthe Béraud. Regarding Béraud (later known as Eva C.), Richet presented some notes he compiled in 1906 in which he saw ectoplasmic forms move and take shapes. He also payed attention to many other mediums, among them Linda Gazzera, D.D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, and Stanislawa Tomczyk.

Linda Gazzera

Linda Gazzera

Drawings Illustrating Richet's Observations with Marthe Beraud

Drawings Illustrating Richet’s Observations with Marthe Beraud

Richet Traite Stanislawa Tomczyck

Richet Traite Stanislawa Tomczyck

Finally, the fourth part of the book was the conclusion. Richet concluded that the collective weight of all evidence showed the reality of metapsychic phenomena. This, he believed, was the case regardless of criticisms:

“Therefore: 1. there is in us a faculty of knowledge that is absolutely different of our common sensory faculties of knowledge (cryptesthesia); 2. movement of objects without contact are produced, even in plain light (telekinesis); 3. there are hands, bodies, objects, that appear to be formed completely from a cloud and show all the appearances of life (ectoplasmy); 4. there are presentiments that neither perspicacy nor chance can explain, and sometimes they are verified to their smallest details.”

In the conclusion Richet returned to his view that metapsychics should be an empirical specialty which current task should not be the defense of particular models. In fact, if there was a perspective characterizing the Traité it was that of the need to have an ultra-empirical metapsychics with little theoretical content. Consistent with this view Richet stated he was not convinced of any explanation so far offered to account for metapsychic phenomena and that at present (1922) no cohesive theory could be presented. He was particularly critical of explanations based on the concept of discarnate action, something he discussed in other publications. Nonetheless, and regardless of his protestations, Richet was not completely atheoretical. He was positive about the idea that unknown human faculties, and forces, were at work, and, as he discussed in the Traité, he used the concepts of personation and cryptesthesia to explain the manifestation of mental mediumship. Richet also speculated about forces in reference to materializations: “Materialization is a mechanical projection . . . . Is it not a very long way to consider possible, other than projections of heat, light, and electricity, a projection of a mechanical force? The memorable demonstrations of Einstein establish to what extent mechanical energy is similar to luminous energy.” Such idea, while perhaps too vague to be called a theory, was consistent with an old model of biophysical forces present throughout the literatures of mesmerism, spiritualism, and psychical research.

Richet concluded his book with hope for the future, as he did in other publications. Currently, “when everything is still in darkness,” Richet stated that there was a pressing need to move forward with research. “Then Metapsychics will come out of Occultism, as Chemistry was separated from Alchemy.” The situation, Richet continued, may seem to be too dark and difficult to solve. He further wrote: “But this is no reason for not increasing our efforts and labors . . . . The task is so beautiful that, even if we fail, the honor of having undertaken it gives some value to life.”

This book received much publicity when it was first published in 1922. Richet presented it to the prestigious Académie des Sciences, referring to the phenomena in question as “new” and “inhabitual” (Mémoires et communications des membres et des correspondants de l’Académie. Compte Rendu Hebdomadaires des Seances de l’Académie des Sciences, 1922,  174, 429-430). The reception of the Traité was surprising for an introductory book about psychical research. It was repeatedly reviewed as a special book. Examples of this are the long, and not always positive discussions of it in journals dedicated to psychic phenomena, such as the essays of Henry Holt, (A review of Richet. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1922, 16, 655-670.), Ernesto Bozzano (Considerazioni intorno al “Traité de Métapsychique” del Prof. Charles Richet. Luce e Ombra, 1922, 22:103-115), and Oliver Lodge (A textbook of metapsychics: Review and critique. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1923, 34, 70-106).  A prominent example of a review appearing in the journals of other disciplines was that authored by Pierre Janet (À propos de la métapsychique. Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, 1923, 96, 5-32).

Henry Holt's Review of Richet

Henry Holt’s Review of Richet

There is no question that the book was comprehensive, and systematic, and this made it valuable as a general introduction to the subject. It is in fact one of the best overviews of psychical research for the period in question. Richet’s insistence in the collection of facts, to the neglect of theories, made the book his personal manifesto of psychical research. He projected an image of metapsychics as a science, arguing for the existence of a field that had a subject matter and a right to exist. But as much as the book was a summary of facts, it was also Richet’s attempt to construct and promote it.

Richet SouvenirsHowever, both in the Traité as well as in latter publications, such as his autobiographical memoir Souvenirs d’un Physiologiste (Paris: J. Peyronnet, 1933) Richet described the discipline as being in a preliminary stage of development. Nonetheless, he stated in this latter book, “I am convinced it is the science of the future” (p. 156).

Unfortunately Richet’s neglect to summarize theoretical models properly and to include systematic discussions or research methodologies weaken the status of the Traité as a rigorous textbook. I believe the empirical approach defended by Richet in the book would have received support from the latter.

For many, particularly in France, the Traité became an exemplar of the “new” science, and this took place in spite of much criticism. Why, one may ask, did Richet’s book attained such a status? After all, the content of the Traité was not innovative or revolutionary so as to command so much attention and respect. In fact, in many ways the Traité was rather dry and uninspired. I believe there are at least two aspects to consider in discussing this issue.

Ceccarelli Shaping Science with RhetoricFirst, Richet’s book cannot be dismissed as just a relatively unimportant exercise in synthesis. In fact, this characteristic of the book is one of the aspects identified by Leah Ceccarelli in his Shaping Science with Rhetoric (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) as being important to produce influential books that assist in the development of interdisciplinary communities. Synthesis is present in the Traité in the form of a modest non-theorethical integration based on the accumulation of facts presented to show the existence of a subject matter. Ceccarelli believes that such influential books present two other characteristics, the development of an “authorial persona,” and the fact that the text is addressed to more than one audience. The first point perhaps includes Richet’s strong and repeated ultra-empirical and anti-survival stances, while the second may also be present in that several audiences benefitted from the work: scientists, psychical researchers, and the general public. While I do not want to push this view too much, it seems to me that the book could be studied in more detail from this perspective.

Richet Abrege HistoireSecond, the author commanded much attention due to his eminence. Richet–who worked in so various fields as aviation, eugenics, history, literature, pacifism, philosophy, psychical research, psychology, and sociology–was a well-known and highly respected intellectual. He published much research on physiological topics such as animal heat, breathing, stomach acid, serotherapy, and anaphylaxis. He also had several important academic positions and honors before the publication of the Traité. This included being editor of the Revue Wolf Brain Mind Medicine RicherScientifique, Professor of Physiology at the Faculte de Medicine in Paris, member of the Academie de Medicine and of the Academie des Sciences, and Nobel prize winner for his work on anaphylaxis. In addition, Richet had many social advantages. His wealth and high social position, coming both from his father and from his mother’s family, allowed him many personal connections that facilitated publishing and being heard in different forums. On these issues see S. Wolf, Brain, Mind and Medicine: Charles Richet and the Origins of Physiological Psychology (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993).

Revue Scientifique, edited by Richet, with article by him

Revue Scientifique, edited by Richet, with article by him

All this meant that a treatise about psychic phenomena from such a man would not be ignored and would be seen as a more important event than publications on the topic by less eminent individuals. His persona was a social and intellectual beacon that attracted many, who would either praise or condemn him for his positive belief in the existence of metapsychic phenomena and for his involvement with the topic.

Modern researchers will find the Traité of value for several reasons. The book is a reference work presenting many summaries of studies, bibliographical references, and evidential claims about psychic phenomena for the pre-1922 period. In addition, those current researchers who are not familiar with the old psychical research literature will find in this book a window into the past, a past somewhat different from the present, as seen in the emphasis on gifted subjects, such as psychics and mediums, on the phenomena of physical mediumship, and on the issue of survival of death.

Richet

Richet

These comments first appeared as a book review in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. They are reprinted with permission from the journal’s editor.