“Hypnosis in Spain (1888–1905): From Spectacle to Medical Treatment of Mediumship”. Second Online-First Article from Special Issue on Psychical Research

The second article from an upcoming Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C special issue on psychical research is now available as a pre-print version on the journal’s website. Andrea Graus of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona investigates the remarkable history of the introduction of medical hypnotism in Spain.


Andrea Graus, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain

Andrea Graus

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, some Spanish physicians sought to legitimize hypnotherapy within medicine. At the same time, hypnotism was being popularized among the Spanish population through stage hypnosis shows. In order to extend the use of medical hypnotherapy, some physicians made efforts to demarcate the therapeutic use of hypnotic suggestion from its application for recreational purposes, as performed by stage hypnotists. However, in the eyes of some physicians, the first public session to legitimize hypnotherapy turned out to be a complete failure due to its similarities with a stage hypnosis performance. Apart from exploring this kind of hitherto little-known historical cases, we explore the role of spiritists in legitimizing medical hypnosis. At a time when Spanish citizens were still reluctant to accept hypnotherapy, the spiritists sponsored a charitable clinic where treatment using hypnosis was offered. We conclude that the clinic was effective in promoting the use of hypnotherapy, both among physicians as clinical practice, and as a medical treatment for patients from the less privileged classes of Spanish society.

Hypnotism; Hypnotherapy; Spiritism; Medicine; Popularization of science; Spain

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd.

“Was Sir William Crookes Epistemically Virtuous?” Online First Article of Upcoming Special Issue on Psychical Research

I’m pleased to announce the online first/in-press version of an article to appear in an upcoming special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, dedicated to psychical research and parapsychology in the history of science and medicine. Thanks to the support of Greg Radick, the editor of Studies, I had the privilege to guest-edit this special issue containing eight articles selected from about 24 papers presented at a three-days conference I organised at University College London last year.


Ian James Kidd, Durham University


William Crookes (1832-1919)

The aim of this paper is to use Sir William Crookes’ researches into psychical phenomena as a sustained case study of the role of epistemic virtues within scientific enquiry. Despite growing interest in virtues in science, there are few integrated historical and philosophical studies, and even fewer studies focussing on controversial or ‘fringe’ sciences where, one might suppose, certain epistemic virtues (like open-mindedness and tolerance) may be subjected to sterner tests. Using the virtue of epistemic courage as my focus, it emerges that Crookes’ psychical researches were indeed epistemically courageous, but that this judgment must be grounded in sensitivity to the motivational complexity and context-sensitivity of the exercise of epistemic virtues. The paper then considers Crookes’ remarks on the relationship between epistemic virtuousness and the intellectual integrity and public duties of scientists, thereby placing epistemic virtues in the context of wider debates about the authority of science in late modern societies. I conclude that Crookes’ researches into psychical phenomena offer instructive lessons for historians of science and virtue epistemologists concerning the complexity and contextuality of epistemic virtues, and the profitable forms that future studies of virtues in science could take.

Sir William Crookes; Epistemic virtues; Psychical research; Spiritualism; Virtue epistemology

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

William James: “Telepathy” in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia (1899)

WJThough William James is now mostly remembered as a philosopher, he was one of two ‘founding fathers’ of modern professionalized psychology. While his German counterpart, Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, dismissed empirical approaches to reported psychic phenomena and spiritualism, James on the contrary sought to make the study of unorthodox phenomena a legitimate part of nascent modern psychology. The following article is an entry on ‘Telepathy’ written by James for vol. 8 of Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia (ed. C. K. Adams), pp. 45-47, New York, D. Appleton & Company, 1899, which is here reproduced with accompanying figures. Nicely documenting James’ stance on psychical research, it provides a concise overview of experimental work done on telepathy by some of James’ colleagues in England, France and Germany between about 1880 and1899 and includes a short reference to his sittings with the Boston trance medium, Leonora Piper.

Teleathy [from Gr. τήλε, far + παθος, feeling]: thought-transference, or the phenomenon of the reception by the mind of an impression not traceable to any of the ordinarily recognized channels of sense, and assumed to be due to an influence from the mind of another person, near or remote. Thus the sphere of telepathy is not the same as that of clairvoyance, in which it is assumed that the mind of the subject may receive an impression of impersonal facts, or things at a distance. The subject who receives the impression is called the percipient, the one from whom the influence emanates is usually called the agent, in accounts of experiments on this phenomenon.

In the earlier works on animal magnetism there are many reports concerning subjects who are said to have developed the faculty of obeying the unspoken will of their magnetizer, going to sleep and waking, moving, acting, and speaking in accordance with his silent commands. More recently there have been public exhibitors of “mind-reading,” and their performances have been imitated in private circles by the so-called willing-game. In most of these feats the agent is required to think intently of some act while he lays his hands on some part of the so-called mind-reader’s person. The mind-reader, either promptly or hesitatingly, will then usually perform the act. It is safe to assume that wherever such personal contact between the pair is allowed, the percipient is guided by the encouragment or checking which the agent’s hands more or less unconsciously exert upon his at first tentative movements; so that muscle-reading, and not mind-reading, is the proper name for this phenomenon. There are, it is true, reports of success in the willing-game where no contact was allowed; but in the absence of authentic details, they can not be taken as evidence that telepathy exists. For the same reason the earlier mesmeric reports have doubtful evidential value. The operators took too few precautions against “suggesting” to the subjects by other channels than speech what their will might be. It is only within recent years that we have learned to measure the acuteness with which an entranced person with his mind concentrated upon his hypnotizer will divine the intentions of the latter by indications which he gives quite unconsciously by voice or movement, or even by the mere order of sequence of what he does. On these accounts, evidence in the strict sense for telepathy must be sought in a small number of experiments conducted by a few more careful observers since about 1880. These experiments, taken in the aggregate, appear to make it unreasonable to doubt any longer the fact that occasionally a telepathic relation between one mind and another may exist.

James_telepathy_fig_1In a faultless experiment on thought-transference certain precautions must be observed. To avoid previous collusion between agent and percipient the agent should receive from a third party the idea to be transferred; and the latter should, when possible, select it by drawing lots or by some other appeal to chance. This is to exclude the possibility of himself and the percipient being led by number-habits, diagram-habits, or other parallel paths of inner association to a common result. The percipient should not be in the room when the idea is determined on; and when possible it should be chosen in silence, written down, and shown, if it need be shown beforehand, in written form. The percipient should, if possible, do his guessing in another room. In any case he should be blindfolded, and there should be no conversation with him during the performance, the signal that he must attend to his inner impressions being given by bell or other sound. Physical contact between agent and percipient must not occur, and if the percipient writes or draws his result the agent should not look on, since an unconscious commentary by changes in breathing, etc., might reveal to the percipient whether he was going right or wrong.

The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research contain some records of experiments made under approximately faultless conditions. In certain cases the ideas to be transferred were diagrams or drawings. A couple of example will show the success reached when at its best. Fig. 1 is from a series with Mr. Blackburn, agent, G. A. Smith, percipient, in which out of thirty-three trials without contact, though with percipient and agent in one room, there were twenty-five reproductions as good as those here given of a figure prepared and kept outside of the room. Fig. 2 gives the first six trials of a series reported by Malcolm Guthrie, of Liverpool, he being agent and a Miss E. percipient. The conditions seem almost faultless, if the account is accurate, though the figures are simpler than in the former series. In all, with various agents, Miss E. made 150 trials, the majority of which were successful entirely or in part. Sixteen specimens are printed in the report, all about as good as those in Fig. 2.

James_telepathy_fig_2The same Miss E. and a Miss R. were subjected at Liverpool in 1883 to a series of experiments in transferring ideas and sensations of every order, the agents being Mr. Guthrie and others. Out of 713 trials there were but 252 cases in which the percipient either got no impression or described the object wrongly. In the remaining 461 cases the success was either complete or partial.

Miss X.” has published (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. vi.) a long series of telepathic interchange of experiences over a long distance with “Miss D.,” corroborated by independent entries in their respective diaries. Of 20 such entries 14 refer to a consciousness on the part of Miss D. that Miss X. was at that hour (the hours are quite irregular) playing a certain definite piece of music.

Miss Wingfield was the subject of a series of number-guessings, where out of 2,624 trials there were 275 successes instead of 29, which was the figure probable on the assumption of “chance.” The numbers thought of were the 90 two-digital ones, from 10 to 99. They were drawn at random from a bowl and thought of by the percipient’s sister. In a later series of 400 trials with this percipient the completely right guesses were 27 instead of the chance number 4; there were moreover, 21 guesses with the digits reversed, and 162 with a single digit in its right place.

Similar, though less extended and perhaps less conclusive, series of experiments at guessing ideas have been reported in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings by various experimenters—Dessoir, Schmall [sic; typo for Schmoll] and Mabire, W. J. Smith, von Schrenk-Notzing, and Barrett and Gurney. The observations last referred to were those first published. The subjects were two girls who, four years later when experiments were resumed, were found, when tested in each other’s presence, to be cheating by a code of signals. Much has been made of the breakdown of this case. But very many of the earlier successes recorded of these children occurred when they were singly present, and often when only one experimenter knew the thing to be guessed. Collusion under such circumstances can not well be charged, although willingness to cheat rightly casts vague suspicion on all trials done with the percipient concerned, and shows the importance of making all tests under the conditions described as “faultless” a few lines back. Mr. Rawson finally, in vol. xi. of the Proceedings, gives a striking series of correct card and diagram guesses.

On telepathy in the hypnotic state there are recorded in the Proceedings experiments by Dr. B. Thaw and Prof, and Mrs. H. Sidgwick. The conditions in the latter set seem to have been, on the whole, very careful, though not quite faultless in the technical sense. The agent was the hypnotizer, G. A. Smith. The things to be impressed were usually the numbers (of two digits) on eighty-one lotto-counters, drawn by Prof. Sidgwick from a bag and handed to Mr. Smith to gaze at, while the hypnotized percipient awaited the impression. There were four percipients, with 644 trials made with agent and percipient in the same rooms, and 218 made with them in different rooms. In the former set 131 trials were successful, though the digits were named in reverse order in 14 of these 131 cases. In the latter set there were only 9 successes. The “probable” number of successes by chance would have been in the former set 8, in the latter at most 3. Later, with three of the same percipients and three new ones, Mr. Smith still being agent, Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Johnson report 252 trials and 27 successes (chance number = 4), with agent and percipient in different rooms. Mr. Smith transferred “mental pictures” to five subjects, successfully in 31 out of 71 trials in one room, in 2 out of 55 in different rooms. The subjects of the mental pictures were such things as “a boy skating,” “a baby in a perambulator with nurse,” “a mouse in a trap,” etc.

Prof. Richet has described (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. v.) a series of successes in guessing drawings in the hypnotic state; but as he found that the same subjects succeeded 30 times out of 180 trials in guessing the drawing when it was inclosed in an envelope and unknown to any one present, it is doubtful whether telepathy or clairvoyance be the cause of the success. Control experiments showed that “chance” could give as many as 35 per cent. of good successes at matching pictures made arbitrarily by different persons with others taken at random from a large collection previously prepared. Richet’s hypnotic subjects gave, however, 10 per cent. of good successes in 200 trials, and he concludes the existence of an unknown power.

Thus, to count only systematically pursued experiments, some of which are not mentioned here, there are accounts from more than a dozen competent observers concerning about a score of subjects, all seeming to show a degree of success in guessing very much greater than that which chance would give. Different readers, however, will weigh the evidence differently, according to their prepossessions. Much of it is fragmentary, and in much one or other condition of “faultlessness” in experimenting is violated. The mass, however, is decidedly imposing; and if more and more of this solitary kind of evidence should accumulate, it would probably end by convincing the world.

Meanwhile there are other kinds of telepathy which, illogically perhaps, impress the believing imagination more than high percentages of success in guessing numbers can. Such are cases of the induction of sleep in hypnotic subjects by mental commands given at a distance. Pierre Janet, Richet, Gibert, Ochorowicz, Héricourt, Dufay, Daniex, Tolosa, Latour, and others are the relaters of these observations, of which the most important evidentially are those made on the celebrated somnambulic subject, Madame B., or “Leonie.” Out of one series of 25 trials with this woman, there were 18 complete and 4 partial successes. Mr. Ochorowicz vouches for some of these, and gives also a long series in which silent commands were acted out by another hypnotic subject of his own, both he and she being, however, in the same room. The most convincing sort of evidence for thought-transference is given by the sittings of certain “test-mediums,” of which the best worked-out case is that of Mrs. Piper, published in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings for 1890-92-95). This lady shows a profuse intimacy, not so much with the actual passing thoughts of her sitters as with the whole reservoir of their memory or potential thinking; and as the larger covers the less, so the present writer, being as convinced of the reality of the phenomenon in her as he can be convinced of anything in the world, probably makes less exacting demands than he otherwise would on the sort of evidence given for minor grades of the power.

The authors of the word telepathy have used it as a theory whereby to explain “veridical hallucinations” such as would be the apparition of a person at a distance at the time of his death. The theory is that one who is dying or passing through some crisis is for some unknown reason peculiarly able to serve as “agent” and project an impression, and that the telepathic “impact” in such a case produces hallucination. Stated thus boldly the theory sounds most fanciful, but it rests on certain actual analogies. Thus a suggestion made to a suitable subject in the hypnotic trance that at a certain appointed time after his awakening he shall see the operator or other designated person enter the room, will post-hypnotically take effect and be followed at the appointed time by an exteriorized apparition of the person named. Moreover, strange as the fact may appear, there seems evidence, small in amount but good in quality, that one may, by exerting one’s will to that effect, cause one’s self to appear present to a person at a distance. As many as eight persons worthy of confidence have recently reported successes in this sort of experiment. The writer knows a ninth case, impossible to publish, but where the evidence (as far as taken) is good. Now the committee on the census of hallucinations of the Society for Psychical Research find that the “veridical” ones among them—those, namely, in which the apparition coincides with the death of the person which appears—are 440 times more numerous than they ought to be if they were the result of mere chance. For the particular data and logic by which this figure is obtained, see the report in vol. x. of the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings. Of course, if such a conclusion ever be accepted, and if the telepathic theory of such apparitions be credible, the probability that telepathy is the cause of success in the smaller number-guessing cases would be greatly re-enforced. The whole subject, so far as definite observation goes, is still in its earliest infancy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—J. Ochorowicz, De la Suggestion mentale (Paris, 1887); Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, passim; F. Podmore, Apparitions and Thought-transference (1894).


The Case of Glossolalia. Lecture by Vincent Barras

UCL/British Psychological Society History of the Psychological Disciplines Seminar Series

Monday 28th July

Professor Vincent Barras (University of Lausanne)

Plays between Reason, Language and Gods: The Case of Glossolalia 19-20th Centuries

BarrasGlossolalia, or speaking in tongues, plays a surprisingly important role in discussions between theologians, psychologists, and psychiatrists at the turn of the 20th century on the relationships between religious psychology, mental automatisms, subliminal processes and inner language and in the formation of modern psychology itself. Its role in the formation of modern psychology will be reconstructed, with particular emphasis on the debates around the Swiss theologian Emile Lombard’s masterpiece of 1910, “Concerning glossolalia in the early Christians and similar phenomena.”

Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.

Location: Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.

Amateurs, Empiricism, and the Tedium of Psychical Research. Guest Post by Alicia Puglionesi

bio_alicia-puglionesiAlicia Puglionesi is completing her doctoral dissertation in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. Her project, ‘The Astonishment of Experience: Americans and Psychical Research, 1885-1935,’ deals with the emerging boundaries between professionals and amateurs engaged in the study of the mind around the turn of the twentieth century. Email: apuglio1@jhmi.edu

“The phenomena [of psychical research] are as massive and wide-spread as is anything in Nature, and the study of them is as tedious, repellent and undignified. To reject it for its unromantic character is like rejecting bacteriology because penicillium glaucum grows on horse-dung…”
William James, “The Confidences of a Psychical Researcher,” The American Magazine (1909): 585.

As a compliment to Benjamin T. Mitchell’s post about William Thomas Stead and the popularization of occult studies in Britain, I want to offer a perspective on the American scene in the same period. Although American scientists shared the concerns of the SPR’s “Brahmins” about the unreliability and suggestibility of a fad-following public, they also hoped to build upon successful models of amateur data-gathering deployed in American meteorology, astronomy, and natural history. They attempted to discipline the enthusiasm and curiosity of amateurs, distributing standardized experimental protocols and forms. Despite a vocal consensus among both amateurs and experts that the accumulation of such empirical data was the best way forward for a truly scientific psychical research, few satisfying conclusions were derived from such data in the 1880s and 90s. Instead, amateur participation appears, in the archive, as excessive and unruly, overflowing the forms designed to contain it and producing an “inchoate accumulation” rather than a system of scientific facts.

American psychical research tried to demarcate itself as a scientific discipline in the 1880s, with advocates calling for the production of large quantities of data for statistical analysis. They suggested playing cards, numbers, colors, and dice as targets for the “percipients” of telepathic communications. In a typical experiment, an agent would draw a playing card or roll the dice and concentrate on the result, while the percipient attempted to receive this message from the agent without any communication through the “known avenues of sense.”

Figure 1: a schematic depiction of a thought-transference experiment from the 'Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research,' with the agent looking at a figure hidden from the percipient, and the percipient attempting to reproduce it.

Figure 1: a schematic depiction of a thought-transference experiment from the ‘Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research,’ with the agent looking at a figure hidden from the percipient, and the percipient attempting to reproduce it.

These experiments were, by most accounts, repetitive and dull – even William James, an outspoken advocate for psychical research, found them “repellent and undignified.” The discourse around mundanity in psychical research matters in relation to the rise of data-driven “normal science,” since this paradigm as a privileged form of scientific knowledge-making dates to the mid-nineteenth century, with astronomy, psychophysics, and meteorology exemplifying the epistemic value of diligently recording many, many observations.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, a journalist and popular novelist, rhapsodized on the heroism of scientific drudgery in an 1885 article for the North American Review about the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR):

“Here we have to deal with an inchoate accumulation of mind-facts or soul-facts…land-slides of material…Did it seem a dubious experiment to flood the English-reading world with little circulars asking for authentic cases of mind-reading? These men know what they are about, and why they are about it…[they] must condescend – to the infinite drudgery of discovery.”


Figure 2: Form for recording weather observations distributed by the joint meteorology committee of the Franklin Institute and the American Philosophical Society in 1834.

The late nineteenth century saw a diverse array of characters cast in the role of producers of scientific data (although the supreme drudgery of collation was left to those with some expertise). Farmers in rural Michigan, high school teachers, homeopathic doctors, and railroad engineers contributed to the networked, amateur research enterprises that proliferated in the United States before 1900. Like William James, amateur psychical researchers were motivated by a metaphysical concern with the “continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.”


Figure 3: an automatic die-thrower and tally-keeper, by which “the labor of keeping a correct record may be much lessened,” is recommended in the ASPR’s Circular No. 4, “Directions for Making Experiments.” Optimistically, the instrument depicted seems to have reached 875 rolls of the dice.

As in most scientific undertakings, in psychical research the “tedious and repellent” was held in tension with the longing for a unified vision of mind and cosmos. Publicly, James trumpeted the nobility of “patient study,” but in his private correspondences he admitted a personal incapacity for such work – he found it “almost intolerable.” Not surprisingly, many of the amateur investigators to whom the American Society for Psychical Research addressed its requests for data felt very much the same way.

Dismissive depictions of the amateur psychical researcher as an enthusiast seeking consolation following the loss of a loved one had a repellent quality for many university-trained psychologists, like Joseph Jastrow and G. Stanley Hall, working to establish their discipline within the academic sciences. Jastrow caricatured the psychical researcher as“a mere dilettante, an amateur collector of curious specimens.” Other leaders in American psychology, namely William James, believed that psychical research was at the center of their project and could be carried out scientifically.

Figure 4: Form for recording a card-guessing experiment. Blank A, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p.14

Figure 4: Form for recording a card-guessing experiment. Blank A, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p. 14

Given that they expected telepathy to be “spontaneously-occurring” – distributed across the population with certain sensitives being more receptive than ordinary people – psychical researchers coming from the academy would need to reckon with the perception and reality of the amateur psychical researcher in order to collect the very data that they needed to argue for this pursuit as a science. Thus, they needed to enlist a wide swath of the American public in the mundane task of generating (mostly negative) results. Towards this end, the ASPR developed standardized forms for experiments and disseminated protocols for conducting telepathy studies.

These forms circulated in the society’s proceedings and in popular publications ranging from The St. Louis Republic to the New York Magazine of Mysteries; psychology professors at schools including Dartmouth, Harvard, and the University of Minnesota passed them out to students. Their design and means of distribution were very much modeled on the information-gathering methods of meteorologists and astronomers. The methodological guidelines, the grid with space for hundreds of identical trials, were designed to impose scientific discipline on rampant popular interest in psychical phenomena.


Figure 5: Form for recording a number-guessing experiment, Blank B, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p. 16.

Within established disciplines, configurations of power, expertise, and authority determine the contributions of researchers who occupy different roles. Amateur psychical researchers had few reasons to limit themselves to the role that the ASPR envisioned for them. Although they valued the quantitative paradigm that called for the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of card-guessing experiments, they, like Melville’s Bartleby, often preferred not to. A correspondence between the ASPR and a potential contributor of experimental data could quickly veer into the topics of wireless telegraphy, demonic possession, or the role of atmospheric pressure in human behavior, with the promised experiments diminishing in interest until forgotten.

Amateurs’ engagement, or lack of engagement, with the requested experimental procedures of organized psychical research suggests their unwillingness to accept a particular definition of the shared object of investigation. Although, rhetorically, they embraced the secular study of the mind through systematic “collecting, collating, and colligating,” they were inexorably drawn to speculate on meaning, narrative, and experience.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, attempting to rouse psychical researchers to Darwin’s “superhuman patience of observation and recording,” posed the question, “Why, then, should not a man keep tally of the relative number of times that a blindfold subject will select the right card from a pack?” Certainly, this practice promised to answer the questions of psychical research in the heroic-mundane idiom of normal science. However, many amateurs answered that a man should not keep such a tally because it was dull work. The kind of reward they expected from their research differed in kind from Darwin’s “masterpiece of…relentless logic.”

© Alicia Puglionesi

William James on Exceptional Mental States

Eugene Taylor in 2009 (photograph by Andreas Sommer)

Eugene Taylor in 2009 (photograph by Andreas Sommer)

Eugene Taylor, whose death in January 2013 was a heavy blow to history of psychology and William James scholarship, was one of the few modern historians to fully acknowledge and try to make sense of James’s by no means casual occupation with spiritualism, telepathy and other unorthodox areas of inquiry. The main fruits of Taylor’s attempts to repair major historiographical shortcomings in James scholarship were two books. The first, William James on Exceptional Mental States, is a reconstruction of a lecture series held by James in 1896, years after the ‘father’ of the modern psychological profession in America had announced his official departure from psychology. In his second book, William James: On Consciousness Beyond the Margin , Taylor picked up the thread and provided a more general study of the centrality of the unorthodox and exceptional in the formation of James’s psychological and philosophical ideas.

As a somewhat belated nod of gratitude to Eugene, who cheerfully guided my work in the James papers at Harvard in 2009 and 2012, I’m posting a previously unpublished review of the Lowell Lectures, which I wrote about a year before I first met him.

William James on Exceptional Mental States. The 1896 Lowell Lectures, reconstructed by Eugene Taylor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983, ISBN 0-684-17938-5, xviii + 222 pp.

WJ_EMS_coverWilliam James (1842-1910) was undoubtedly one of the most versatile and independent thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Far less known than his ‘classical’ writings, such as The Principles of Psychology, Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience, are James’s works in psychopathology and psychical research. In fact, James scholars have typically failed to assess the impact of these more exotic but interconnected interests on the formation of his main works in psychology and philosophy, which remain topical up to the present day.

James’s open-minded but critical engagement with the ‘occult’ was never tacit. He published extensively on psychical research, called himself “one of her foster-fathers”(James, 1896, p. 649), and tirelessly advocated its relevance for nascent scientific psychology in many of his writings and in letters (see, for example, see Murphy & Ballou,1961, and James, 1986). Yet, James’s long-standing interest in the problems of mental healing, telepathy and trance mediumship has been passed over by most of his biographers in seemingly embarrassed silence (see, for instance, the assessment by Ford, 1998).

That this curious neglect translates almost directly to a lack of historical interest in James as a psychopathologist is one of the implicit lessons of the present volume. It documents the significance of James’s involvement with the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR, whose President James became in 1894) for his ideas from about 1883, most notably studies in automatisms, hypnotism and subliminal cognition as pioneered by James’s British friends Edmund Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers. Taylor traces how studies of trance mediumship, hypnotism, hallucinations in the sane and James’s resulting belief in the reality of telepathy decisively informed his views on mental phenomena commonly labelled ‘unconscious’ (James preferred ‘extra-marginal’, or Myers’s term, ‘subliminal’), and how they differed from other, now popular ideas (particularly those of Sigmund Freud), which were just beginning to form.

The core themes underlying and connecting each of the eight lectures on topics as seemingly disparate as ‘Dreams’, ‘Witchcraft’, and ‘Genius’ lie in James’s appeal to the relativity of the morbid, and a concession to the prevalence of psychopathological nuclei in all of us. For James, “health is basically an affair of balance”, and he captures his philosophy of psychiatry thus:

“Hypnotism equals sleep. Hysteria with all its symptoms equals hypnotism. Double personality simply concerns the buried idea that collects experiences until it assumes an apparently independent form. Demon possession equals an optimistic mediumship. Witchcraft is explained simply as mass hysteria over neurotic symptoms. And finally, we know that insane genius, while perhaps more romantic, now flattens out” (p. 163).

The book has only minor flaws, mostly spelling errors (particularly of foreign book titles). These aside, Taylor’s reconstruction of James’s Lowell Lectures is a major contribution to the history and historiography of psychopathology and the ‘occult’. Moreover, it should be compulsory reading for clinicians, who typically demonstrate next to no familiarity with the history of the contested question of the relationship between mental health and exceptional experiences.


Ford, M. (1998). William James’s psychical research and its philosophical implications. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 34, 605-626.

James, W. (1896). Psychical research. Psychological Review, 3, 649-652.

James, W. (1986). Essays in Psychical Research (Burkhardt, F. H., & Bowers, F., eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, G., & Ballou, R. O. (Eds.). (1961). William James on Psychical Research. London: Chatto and Windus.

© Andreas Sommer

Psychedelics and Psychotherapy: A Historical Workshop

A half-day workshop with presentations from the members of the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines on the interaction between psychedelics and psychotherapy

UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines
Saturday, 26 July 2014, 14:30 to 21:30
Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place
University College London


2:30 pm- 2:45 Registration

2:45- 3:00 Introduction

3:00- 3:45 Matei Iagher “LSD Psychotherapy in Britain: Ronald Sandison’s case.”

3:45- 4:30 Sarah Marks “Psychedelic Psychiatry under Communism: The Prague LSD Psychotherapy Projects.”

4:30- 4:45 Tea & Coffee

4:45- 5:30 Jelena Martinović “Bootstrappers seeking to understand creativity:

Psychotherapy and experimental science in the 1960-80s.”

5:30- 6:30 Roundtable with Prof. Sonu Shamdasani

6:30- Wine

Cost: £25

Registered students (bring proof of ID): £15

UCL staff/students: free

To register, click here.

For further details, contact: Matei Iagher, matei.iagher.10@ucl.ac.uk


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