Fourth Pre-Print Article from Psychical Research Special Issue now Online: Shannon Delorme on William Carpenter and Spiritualism in Victorian Britain

In the fourth of eight articles from the upcoming Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C special issue on psychical research, Shannon Delorme (Oxford University) takes a closer look at one of the most vocal British 19th-century opponents of spiritualism and animal magnetism, the physiologist William B. Carpenter.

PHYSIOLOGY OR PSYCHIC POWERS? WILLIAM CARPENTER AND THE DEBATE OVER SPIRITUALISM IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN

Shannon Delorme, University of Oxford

Abstract

William B. Carpenter

William B. Carpenter

This paper analyses the attitude of the British Physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter (1813–1885) to spiritualist claims and other alleged psychical phenomena in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It argues that existing portraits of Carpenter as a critic of psychical studies need to be refined so as to include his curiosity about certain ‘unexplained phenomena’, as well as broadened so as to take into account his overarching epistemological approach in a context of theological and social fluidity within nineteenth-century British Unitarianism. Carpenter’s hostility towards spiritualism has been well documented, but his interest in the possibility of thought-transference or his secret fascination with the medium Henry Slade have not been mentioned until now. This paper therefore highlights Carpenter’s ambivalences and focuses on his conciliatory attitude towards a number of heterodoxies while suggesting that his Unitarian faith offers the keys to understanding his unflinching rationalism, his belief in the enduring power of mind, and his effort to resolve dualisms.

Keywords

Spiritualism; Psychical research; Neurophysiology; Unitarianism; William B. Carpenter; Religious naturalism

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

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