Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Atlantic University
Over the years many articles about psychic phenomena and related topics have appeared in history journals. Some recent examples include such papers as C.S. Alvarado (2010). Classic text No. 84: ‘Divisions of personality and spiritism’ by Alfred Binet (1896). History of Psychiatry, 21, 487-500; and S. LaChapelle (2005). Attempting science: The creation and early development of the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris, 1919-1931. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 41, 1-24. Another indication of interest in the topic are the papers appearing in the current issue of History of the Human Sciences, published by Sage.
The whole content of the issue is devoted to the history of psychical research. The invited editor for the issue, Dr. Elizabeth R. Valentine, writes in the introduction: “The plan was to convene a symposium on the relations between psychical research and mainstream psychology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, comparing the situation in different countries. In particular, we wanted to address imbalances in previous research. First, post-Kuhnian developments in the philosophy of science have led to explorations of the role of social factors in the demarcation of science from pseudo-science, resulting in an emphasis on socio-cultural rather than specifically scientific ones. Second, more attention has been devoted to the role of physicists (such as William Barrett, Oliver Lodge and Lord Rayleigh) than that of psychologists in the early days of psychical research, whereas, prima facie, psychology is as relevant as if not more relevant than physics to psychical research. Finally, work in the sociology of science has focused on the role of ‘boundary-work’ in the demarcation process, thus leading to an emphasis on the rejection rather than the acceptance of psychical research by orthodox scientists.”
Here are the titles and abstracts of the papers:
“Psychical research and parapsychology interpreted: Suggestions from the international historiography of psychical research and parapsychology for investigating its history in the Netherlands” (Ingrid Kloosterman)
One of the reasons the history of parapsychology and its ancestor psychical research is intriguing is because it addresses a central issue: the boundaries of science. This article provides an overview of the historiography of parapsychology and presents an approach to investigate the Dutch history of parapsychology contributing to the understanding of this central theme. In the first section the historical accounts provided by psychical researchers and parapsychologists themselves are discussed; next those studies of sociologists and historians understanding parapsychology as deviant and even potentially revolutionary are dealt with; third, more contemporary studies are examined whereby enterprises such as parapsychology are understood as central to the culture in which they arose. On the basis of this analysis a new direction in the historiography of the subject is suggested in the fourth section, centred upon the relation between parapsychology and psychology in the Netherlands throughout the 20th century. In the Netherlands not only were pioneering psychologists such as Gerard Heymans (1857–1930) actively involved in experiments into telepathy, the first professor in parapsychology in the world – Wilhelm Tenhaeff (1894–1981) – was appointed in 1953 at Utrecht University and in the 1970s and 1980s parapsychology had its own research laboratory at Utrecht University in the division of psychology. This unique situation in the Netherlands deserves scholarly attention and makes an interesting case to investigate the much-neglected connections between the fields of psychology and parapsychology in the 20th century. The connections between psychology and parapsychology might help us to understand why parapsychology came to be regarded as a pseudoscience.
“Psychical research and the origins of American psychology: Hugo Münsterberg, William James and Eusapia Palladino” (Andreas Sommer)
Largely unacknowledged by historians of the human sciences, late-19th-century psychical researchers were actively involved in the making of fledgling academic psychology. Moreover, with few exceptions historians have failed to discuss the wider implications of the fact that the founder of academic psychology in America, William James, considered himself a psychical researcher and sought to integrate the scientific study of mediumship, telepathy and other controversial topics into the nascent discipline. Analysing the celebrated exposure of the medium Eusapia Palladino by German-born Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg as a representative example, this article discusses strategies employed by psychologists in the United States to expel psychical research from the agenda of scientific psychology. It is argued that the traditional historiography of psychical research, dominated by accounts deeply averse to its very subject matter, has been part of an ongoing form of ‘boundary-work’ to bolster the scientific status of psychology.
“Hallucination or materialization? The animism versus spiritism debate in late-19th-century Germany” (Heather Wolffram)
This article considers a long-neglected episode in the disciplinary evolution of the border sciences in Germany: the so-called animism versus spiritism debate. While historians have long acknowledged the significance of this dispute, which introduced a range of new hypotheses and nomenclature to the field, there has been little detailed analysis of it. Looking closely at the arguments of the main combatants, this article attempts to highlight not just the complex multi-frontal conflicts that took place during the late 19th century between academic psychologists, spiritists and psychical researchers over the parameters and proper objects of the nascent field of psychology, but also the epistemological and methodological battles between spiritists and psychical researchers over the nature of both psychology and the unconscious. It is concluded that researchers such as Hartmann and Aksakow in their pursuit of a new scientific psychology based on the phenomena of the unconscious were just as representative of contemporary psychology as were Wundt and his colleagues.
“Spooks and spoofs: Relations between psychical research and academic psychology in Britain in the inter-war period” (Elizabeth R. Valentine)
This article describes the relations between academic psychology and psychical research in Britain during the inter-war period, in the context of the fluid boundaries between mainstream psychology and both psychical research and popular psychology. Specifically, the involvement with Harry Price of six senior academic psychologists: William McDougall, William Brown, J. C. Flugel, Cyril Burt, C. Alec Mace and Francis Aveling, is described. Personal, metaphysical and socio-historical factors in their collaboration are discussed. It is suggested that the main reason for their mutual attraction was their common engagement in a delicate balancing act between courting popular appeal on the one hand and the assertion of scientific expertise and authority on the other. Their interaction is typical of the boundary work performed at this transitional stage in the development of psychology as a discipline.
“Psychology and psychical research in France around the end of the 19th century” (Régine Plas)
“Metapsychics in Spain: Acknowledging or questioning the marvellous?” (Annette Mülberger and Mónica Balltondre)
The present article deals with a kind of parapsychology called metapsychics (metapsíquica) as conceived and practised in Spain between 1923 and 1925. First we focus on the reception of a treatise by Richet that evoked both support (Ferrán) and criticism (Mira). Then we examine some experiments on clairvoyance performed at the Marquis of Santa Cara’s home, dealing chiefly with the rise and fall of a case of prodigious vision. The analysis gives special attention to the question of how metapsychics was understood and to which discussions it gave rise. The authors argue that the project of metapsychics must be understood within a frame of two tendencies, namely, the increasing popularization and the demarcation of science that were under way in modern society.
“Sándor Ferenczi and the problem of telepathy” (Júlia Gyimesi)
Sándor Ferenczi, the great representative of the Budapest School of Psychoanalysis, had a lifelong interest in psychical phenomena. Although his ideas on the psychoanalytical understanding of spiritualistic phenomena and telepathy were not developed theories, they had a strong influence on some representatives of psychoanalysis, and thus underlay the psychoanalytic interpretation of telepathy. Ferenczi’s ideas on telepathy were interwoven with his most important technical and theoretical innovations. Thus Ferenczi’s thoughts on telepathy say a lot about his psychoanalytical thinking and attitudes, and illuminate the significance of his greatest innovations in the context of psychical research.
“The Fukurai affair: Parapsychology and the history of psychology in Japan” (Miki Takasuna)
The history of psychology in Japan from the late 19th century until the first half of the 20th century did not follow a smooth course. After the first psychological laboratory was established at Tokyo Imperial University in 1903, psychology in Japan developed as individual specialties until the Japanese Psychological Association was established in 1927. During that time, Tomokichi Fukurai, an associate professor at Tokyo Imperial University, became involved with psychical research until he was forced out in 1913. The Fukurai affair, as it is sometimes called, was not documented in textbooks on the history of Japanese psychology prior to the late 1990s. Among earlier generations of Japanese psychologists, it has even been taboo for discussion. Today, the affair and its after-effects are considered to have been a major deterrent in the advancement of clinical psychology in Japan during the first half of the 20th century.
I am grateful to Dr. Elizabeth R. Valentine for her support of this blog and for her help to obtain photographs of the authors of the above mentioned articles.