Alicia 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: email@example.com
“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.
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
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