Wednesday, March 30, 2016   2:27 PM

History of Parapsychology: IX: Ideas About Théodore Flournoy’s Classic Study of Mediumship

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

In the article commented here Nancy L. Zingrone and I focus on the reception of Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy’s most important work,Des Indes à la Planète Mars: “Note on the Reception of Théodore Flournoy’s Des Indes à la Planète Mars” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2015,79, 156-164).

As stated in the introduction:

“The book is generally considered a classic of mediumship literature, and was devoted to the mediumship of Hélène Smith, the pseudonym of Catherine Élise Müller (1861–1929). Those who are familiar with the book . . . will be aware that Flournoy presented psychological analyses of the medium’s phenomena. These included her control Leopold, as well as communications about her presumed previous lives in India as a princess and in France as Marie Antoinette, and her travels to and descriptions of Mars, including the development of a Martian language. At the end of his book Flournoy refers to various psychological processes that he believed explained the manifestations, such as the effect of early traumatic events on dissociation, latent emotional tendencies, the suggestibility and auto-suggestibility surrounding mediums in general, and cryptomnesia.”

Des Indes made an impact soon after it was published. Flournoy’s case ‘became a key addition to the other paradigm cases of mediumship and multiple personality that defined the era’ (Taylor, 2009, p. 41). For those convinced of Flournoy’s arguments, the book soon became an exemplar of psychological explanations of mediumship. But for others Des Indes represented an unwarranted and hostile analysis of mediumship.”

Some comments about the book, which was translated into English, appeared in popular publications, such as newspapers and magazines. An example was an article in the North American Review by American philosopher and psychical researcher James H. Hyslop (1900). Who wrote: “Leopold, Marie Antoinette, and the Martian inhabitant ought to have given us some evidence of personal identity, as in the ‘communicators’ of the Piper case, if Mlle. Smith expects us to believe in spirits, and it is their absolute failure to satisfy this demand that justifies M. Flournoy’s sceptical position” (p. 745).

Many others praised the book in scholarly publications. As we wrote:

Des Indes, wrote anthropologist Giuseppe Serge (1841-1936) in his book Animismo e Spiritismo, should be seen as a model of research about phenomena supporting the belief of spiritists (Sergi, 1903, p. 54). In this author’s view, while Flournoy had not explained everything, he had explained much, and his approach provided a ‘starting point for research and analysis’ (p. 55).”

Praise also came from Frederic W.H. Myers. First in a review of the book published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which was later incorporated in his Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. “In his view Flournoy had confirmed his (Myers’s) belief that the action of the subliminal was a continuous process and not a mere sporadic action. Myers argued that it was to be expected that the subliminal mind presented such cases of ‘pseudo-possession,’ cases similar to the action of discarnate spirits. Most of his review of Des Indeswas incorporated later into his last work (Myers, 1903), in which it provided support for his conception of the subliminal mind. Here Myers referred to the case as his ‘culminant example of the free scope and dominant activity of the unassisted subliminal self’ ” (Myers, 1903, Vol. 2, p. 144).”

Finally, we mentioned the critiques of spiritists, among them French engineer Gabriel Delanne. He was “sceptical of the capabilities of the subconscious mind and considered Flournoy an ‘adversary of spiritism’ (Delanne, 1902, p. 463).

In the Revue Spirite another critic stated: “More changing that Proteus, more subtle than X-rays, more learned that a psychologist, the ‘Subconscious’ of M. Flournoy has all the skills, all the faculties, all knowledge. A child of the scientific imagination, gifted at birth with all talents by the wand of the ‘Glossolalia’ fairy, it has been created to respond to all the spiritist objections, and you can be assured that it will not abandon its mission” (Conscient, 1902, p. 187).

Overall the reception to Des Indes reflected the multiple conception of the mind existing at the time. For some psychologists it was an affirmation of the powers of non-conscious levels of the mind, and an incredible argument for spiritists, who felt threatened by Flournoy’s use of psychological ideas.

“Paying attention to the reception of Flournoy’s work both adds to our understanding of his research, and allows us to situate him in a wider historical context. By illustrating the complex way in which philosophers, physicians, and psychologists—from those skeptical of the notion of spirit agency and those who defended it—thought about mediumship and the subconscious mind, we can better understand the competing interests and theoretical views that were prevalent in the era . . . Knowledge of these issues may be useful to students of intellectual history and the history of science and medicine, as well as to current students of mediumship in their attempts to evaluate the reception of modern claims about the source of such ‘communications.’ ”


Conscient, H. (1902). La Société d’Études Psychiques de Genève. Revue Spirite: Journal d’Études Psychologiques, 45, 187.

Delanne, G. (1902). Recherches sur la Médiumnité. Paris: Librairie des Science Psychiques.

Hyslop, J.H. (1900). “From India to the Planet Mars.” North American Review, 171, 734–747.

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

Sergi, G. (1903). Animismo e Spiritismo. Turin: Fratelli Bocca.

Taylor, E. (2009). The Mystery of Personality: A History of Psychodynamic Theories. New York: Springer.






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