Studying the Life and Work of Frederic W.H. Myers*

Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Atlantic University

Frederic W.H. Myers

The history of psychical research is full of fascinating figures who devoted their lives, or significant parts of it, to the study of telepathy, apparitions, mediumship and other phenomena. A particularly important one was classical scholar and inspector of schools Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901). Myers was an early pioneer in psychical research and in psychology, and the leading theoretician of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). He was involved in the founding of the SPR, in the empirical study of psychic phenomena and survival of death, and in the development of the concept of the subliminal mind. His best known work is his book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903).

There has been a small resurgence of interest in Myers in the last decade or so, as seen in works listed in the bibliography that appears below. A notable example is the biography published by Trevor Hamilton, Immortal Longings (2009). In these comments I would like to focus on the future of “Myers’ Studies,” if I may be allowed to designate the admittedly scarce and underdeveloped literature about his work in this way, at least compared to other figures in the history of psychology and science.

Suggestions about future studies regarding Myers may take at least two approaches. One of them is that of conducting research on psychic and other psychological phenomena following Myers’ ideas (Alvarado, 2004; more important in this regard is the work of Kelly et al., 2007). However, there is still much to do from an historical approach that does not emphasize the validity of Myers’ ideas, nor research done to test hypotheses based on them. I will focus on this in the remaining of this essay.

Even though a number of previous historical studies of Myers and his work have been published, there is much more work to be done to bring a better understanding of the man, his work, his influence, and his place in psychology and psychical research.

Frederic W.H. Myers

The variety of topics studied in relation to such figures as Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud can provide many suggestions about research directions that may further develop our historical understanding of Myers. One area I find particularly important is the reception of Myers’ ideas. It is no surprise that most previous writers on the subject limit themselves to how Myers was received in England, where Myers worked and was better known. But such focus limits our views of his overall influence or lack of it.

 

Boris Sidis

There has been little interest in how Myers was discussed in the United States, except for discussions of William James. According to Fuller (1986) both Boris Sidis and Morton Prince incorporated some of Myers’ ideas in their thinking. There are a few other exceptions, but the American literature has not been well explored.

There is even less work focusing on discussions published in non-English speaking countries. A good example is the neglect of French writings. The abridged French translation of Myers’ Human Personality, La personnalite humaine, sa survivance, ses manifestations supranormales (Myers, 1905), was reviewed in many generally ignored forums. These include Joseph Maxwell’s (1906) comments in L’annee psychologique. Maxwell believed that Myers was original only in the way in which he presented and supported his ideas, but in Maxwell’s view Myers ideas were not very different from spiritistic doctrine.

 

Emile Boutroux

Going beyond La personnalite humaine, many French publications included mention of Myers’s work. An anonymous writer in the newspaper Le temps stated that “Myers . . . is one of the most universally recognized authorities on matters of subconscious psychology. The scientific research work he founded and inspired with systematic and exact observations of second sight, of correspondences of thought, is one of the most solid that there are” (Nouvelles de l’Etrangere, 1904). Myers was mentioned, and criticized, in an article about novelties in psychology published in the Journal des debats politiques et litteraires (Bordeau, 1906). This author credited Myers with having rejuvenated animism and with providing a scientific framework for its support. This entailed bringing together mysticism and an empirical approach, something that made Myers a “positivist Swedenborg.” Another critic, philosopher Emile Boutroux (1908), wrote a paper about the subliminal self in which he stated that Myers showed the existence of subconscious processes, but said that some of the facts Myers used were “very difficult to prove” (p, 114).

Another issue is the exploration of Myers in relation to the psychology of his time. Related to reception is the need to explore how psychologists saw his ideas. The attitudes of several students of the subconscious mind towards Myers concept of the subliminal can be seen in Subconscious Phenomena, a book containing several articles about concepts of the subconscious mind by influential workers in the field originally published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Munsterberg et al., 1910). Some negative views of Myers were expressed by Bernard Hart, Morton Prince, and Theodule Ribot.

 

Theodule Ribot

Another issue related to psychology was Myers’ interactions with psychologists. This may include Myers’ participations in the international congresses of psychology held between 1889 and 1900. An example of a particularly interesting moment was the following that took place during the 1889 congress held at Paris (Statistique des Hallucinations, 1890). In addition to Myers, others such as Joseph Delboeuf, Pierre Janet, Charles Richet, Henry Sidgwick and Julian Ochorowicz were present. Richet reminded the group that some members of the congress wanted to discuss the phenomena of “transmission of ideas,” while Janet asked the representatives of the SPR present at the discussion to summarize their work. Myers followed Janet and talked about aspects of the SPR’s throught-transference work. Examples of dialogues such as this are important because they show Myers interacting with other figures in the congress, illustrating his transcendence of SPR circles. I wonder how much more we may learn by exploring Myers’ personal and epistolar contact with psychologists.

Other possibilities for future historical studies include: (1) early personal and intellectual factors affecting Myers (e.g., Josephine Butler, classical training); (2) later influence of particular individuals on Myers’ thought (e.g., Carl du Prel, Pierre Janet); (3) guiding concepts in Myers’ work (e.g., previous ideas about the subconscious mind, ideas of evolution); (4) development of Myers’ ideas (from early 1880s writings to later years); (5) Myers’s analytical methods (e.g. study of gradations of the phenomena, classifications); (6) comparisons of Myers’ subliminal to the concepts of the subconscious of others (e.g., Janet, Prince); (7) specific topics discussed by Myers (e.g., apparitions of the dead, physical phenomena); (8) Myers’ writing style (e.g., rhetoric, use of metaphors); (9) Myers’ use of knowledge from other areas (e.g., psychology, neurology); (10) relationship between Myers and other figures (e.g., Henri Bergson, Charles Richet); (11) the infiuence of Myers on other individuals (e.g., Oliver Lodge, Theodore Flournoy); (12) the influence of Myers on movements or fields (e.g., spiritualism, psychical research); and (13) the dissemination and popularization of Myers’ ideas (by authors such as Frank Podmore and Rufus Osgood Mason).

Frank Podmore

I am aware that some of these topics have been discussed, but I believe that they could be pursued more deeply or with different emphases. One can only hope that previous historical studies of Myers will be extended along these lines so as to obtain a wider view of his accomplishments, and of his place in the intellectual history.

Myers with his Children
(Sylvia and Harold)

References

Alvarado, C.S. (2004). On the centenary of Frederic W. H. Myers’ Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Journal of Parapsychology, 68, 3-43.

Bordeau, J, (1906). Nouveautes en psychologie [Novelties in psychology]. Journal des debats politiques et litteraires (28 August), 1.

Boutroux, E, (1908) Le moi subliminal [The subliminal self]. Bulletin de l’Institut General Psychologique, 8, 107-122.

Fuller, R. G. (1986). Americans and the Unconscious. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, T. (2009). Immortal Longings: F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Kelly, E. F., Kelly, E. W., Crabtree, A., Gauld, A., Grosso, M. and Greyson, B. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Maxwell, J. (1906) Revue de metapsychique (Spiritisme, telepathie, sciences occultes) [Metapsychic review (Spiritism, telepathy, occult sciences]. L’annee psychologique, 12, 525-549.

Munsterberg, H., Ribot, T., Janet, P., Jastrow, J., Hart, B. & Prince, M. (1910). Subconscious Phenomena. Boston: Richard G. Badger.

Myers, F. W. H. (1903). Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (2 vols.). London: Longmans, Green.

Myers, F. W. H. (1905). La personnalite humaine, sa survivance, ses manifestations supranormales [Human Personality, Its Survival, Its Supernormal Manifestations]. Paris : Felix Alcan. [First published in English, 1903]

Nouvelles de l’etrangere [Foreign news]. (1904). Le Temps (4 January), 2.

Statistique des hallucinations [Statistics of hallucinations]. (1890). Congres international de psychologie physiologique (pp. 151-157). Paris: Bureau de Revues.

Selected Bibliography About Myers

Alvarado, C. S. (2004). Frederic W. H. Myers on the projection of vital energy. Paranormal Review, No. 30, 23-28.

Alvarado, C.S. (2004). On the centenary of Frederic W. H. Myers Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Journal of Parapsychology, 68, 3-43. http://www.survival-research.net/downloads/alvarado_myers_jp.pdf

Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Frederic W.H. Myers online: I. General materials and reviews of Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Psypioneer, 5, 162-169. (Online publication: http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/PP5.6June09.pdf)

Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Frederic W.H. Myers online: II. Original writings. Psypioneer, 5, 215-227. (Online publication: http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/PP5.7July09..pdf)

Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Frederic W.H. Myers, psychical research, and psychology: An essay review of Trevor Hamilton’s Immortal Longings: F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 73, 150-170.

Cook, E.W. (1994). The subliminal consciousness: F. W. H. Myers’s approach to the problem of survival. Journal of Parapsychology, 58, 39-58.

Crabtree, A. (1993). From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Chapter 16)

Gauld, A. (1968). The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (pp. 38-44, 89-114, 116-136, Chapters 12 & 13)

Kelly, E.W. (2001). The contributions of F. W. H. Myers to psychology. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 65, 65-90.

Kelly, E. W. (2007). F. W. H. Myers and the empirical study of the mind-body problem. In E. Kelly, et al. Irreducible Mind (pp. 47-115). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kelly, E. W., & Alvarado, C. S. (2005). Frederic William Henry Myers, 1843-1901. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 34. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=177268

Kripal, J.J. (2010). Authors of the Impossible; the Paranormal and the Sacred. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hamilton, T. (2009). Immortal Longings: F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death. Exeter: Imprint Academic

Ryan, M.B. (2010). The resurrection of Frederic Myers. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 42, 149-170. Abstract: http://www.mendeley.com/research/resurrection-frederic-myers/

Taves, A. (2003). Religious experience and the divisible self: William James (and Frederic Myers) as theorist(s) of religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 71, 303-326. Abstract: http://www.mendeley.com/research/religious-experience-divisible-self-william-james-frederic-myers-theorist-s-religion-4/

*Most of these comments are taken from my review of Hamilton’s book published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (2009).

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