THE FOUNDERS OF THE SOCIETY FOR PSYCHICAL RESEARCH
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882. Among its members were some of the foremost intellectuals of Victorian England, including Arthur Balfour, later Prime Minister, and three famous physicists (Lord Rayleigh, J.J. Thompson, and Oliver Lodge). The American philosopher and psychologist William James was also associated. These names do figure in this book but they are not the main characters in the story, for Gauld is not writing a history of the Society but rather a study of three of its most prominent members (Henry Sidgwick, Oliver Gurney, and Frederick Myers), who did much to shape the way in which scientific investigation of the paranormal developed in the nineteenth century. Thus it is mainly the founders Gauld is concerned with, rather than the Society itself. They had indeed been conducting research for a number of years before the SPR was formally inaugurated.
For all three men, the main reason they were interested in the paranormal was the wish to find a way of stilling their religious doubts. By the late nineteenth century the advance of scientific knowledge had made the religious ideas of earlier times appear less certain than they had been, and Sidgwick, in particular, felt it was essential to enlist science itself in an attempt to discover a firm empirical foundation for belief. Earlier in the century the rise of Spiritualism in the USA had stimulated a corresponding wave of interest in alleged paranormal phenomena in other countries, including England from about 1852, and it was against this background that the three friends began their investigations. Sidgwick married Arthur Balfour's sister, Eleanor; she was a formidable intellectual in her own right and became deeply involved in the group's researches.
This research was on a massive scale and dealt with a variety of phenomena. A huge survey was carried out of phantasms of the living, especially so-called crisis apparitions. Much of this was done by Edmund Gurney, evidently a man of great ability and also charm, who unfortunately died tragically at a young age, possibly by suicide. Though severely affected by this tragedy his friends continued the work, and carried out a further similar study of phantasms of the dead. The later part of the nineteenth century is notable for the large number of mediums who lived at that time, and several of these were investigated. Some produced physical phenomena, notably Eusapia Palladino, others were mental mediums. Fraud was of course an ever-present question in these cases and the group were fully aware of this, doing as much as they could to eliminate the possibility.
The group did not achieve a consensus about the central question: did their investigations yield firm proof of post-mortem survival? Sidgwick had doubts and so did Gurney; Myers was finally convinced and so too was another prominent investigator, Richard Hodgson, who had initially been sceptical. Mrs Sidgwick also moved cautiously towards belief. Myers, indeed, went on to elaborate a theory of the "subliminal self" to explain how survival worked, linking this with full-blown cosmological speculations.
This is a fascinating study. Gauld is a respected academic psychologist, and his comments on his subjects carry considerable authority. In an epilogue he presents a judicious discussion of the status of the evidence that the founders of the SPR obtained for the existence of paranormal phenomena. This is well worth reading in full. He concludes that there is at least enough evidence to show that crass materialism won't do justice to the facts. Whether or not one agrees with this, he has at least shown that Sidgwick and his friends were not totally naive, gullible, or deluded; they were trying to do something serious and their work at least deserves our serious attention.
%T The Founders of the Society for Psychical Research
%A Gauld, Alan
%I Routledge & Kegan Paul
%P xii + 387 pp
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