Thursday, December 10, 2015   9:56 PM

History of Parapsychology VII. On First Volumes of Influential Journals About Psychic Phenomena

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

I recently published a review of the first volumes of three journals that were historically important in the study of psychic phenomena. The review article is entitled “On First Volumes and Beginnings in the Study of Psychic Phenomena: Varieties of Investigative Approaches” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2015, 29, 131-153; if you want a copy write to me at: The journals in question were:Revue Spirite: Journal d’Études Psychologiques, 1858, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1882–1883, and theJournal of Parapsychology, 1937.

In my introduction I mentioned different research styles in the history of psychology, including, for example case studies and experiments. “A similar situation and the topic of this Essay Review is the different approaches in the study of psychic phenomena over time. The purpose of this Essay Review is to introduce to modern readers some of these approaches in the forms of summaries of the contents of three different journals from the past. These are comments about the first volumes of influential publications concerned with the study of psychic phenomena that are probably not familiar to current students of psychic phenomena.”

The Revue Spirite, produced by Allan Kardec, was an important resource in the spreading of Spiritism in France, and elsewhere. Most of the content of the Revue was devoted to mediumistic communications that were seen as authoritative as regards moral, philosophical and scientific issues. There was no attempt at external verification and many of the communications were not verifiable in principle. “In a two-page paper entitled ‘Utilité de Certaines Évocations Particulières’ (Utility of Some Particular Evocations . . .), it was stated that these messages were valuable because the spirits in question ‘have acquired a high degree of perfection’ . . . that allowed them to ‘penetrate the mysteries that exceed the vulgar reach of humanity. . .’ ”

The cases described in this volume were not original investigations, but accounts reprinted from popular sources. “Examples include ‘Visions’ . . . , ‘Le Revenant de Mademoiselle Clairon’ (The Ghost of Miss Clairon . . .), ‘L’Esprit Frappeur de Dibbelsdorf—Basse-Saxe’ (The Rapping Spirit of Dibbelsdorf—Lower Saxony), . . .), and ‘Phénomène d’Apparition’ (Apparition Phenomena, . . .).”

I argued, “to consider the content of the Revue, and Kardec’s work, as a scientific research program . . . begs the question of what science is. It is one thing to observe nature and develop hypotheses based on observed patterns, or to be tested by further observations or actual experimentation, and another thing to use communications through seances, which source is uncertain, as shown in this volume of theRevue, to get teachings and answers to questions about the nature of topics such as the workings of psychic phenomena and a variety of moral and philosophical issues. Similarly, it is one thing to report on non-evidential spirit communications and on cases of apparitions and other phenomena discussed in the press and other sources, and it is another to study these phenomena with attention to evidence.”

A very different approach was that found in the first volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. “ThePSPR was the main organ of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which was of basic importance for the development of parapsychology. Its work . . . systematized research into psychic phenomena in England, but it was also influential in other countries.”

Some of the authors in the first volume of the PSPR were William F. Barrett, Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Henry Sidgwick. “The first volume, containing four issues appearing in 1882 and 1883, was formed of papers reporting on the collection and analysis of evidence for psychic phenomena coming from accounts and from experiments. Some of these were . . . Barrett, Gurney, and Myers’ ‘First Report of the Committee on Thought-Reading’ (1882 . . .) . . .Barrett, Keep, Massey, Wedgwood, Podmore, and Pease’s ‘First Report of the Committee on ‘Haunted Houses’ ‘ (1882 . . .), and Barrett, Massey, Moses, Podmore, Gurney, and Myers’ ‘Report of the Literary Committee’ (1882 . . .). These, and other reports such as Barrett’s ‘On Some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind’ (1883 . . .) and Malcolm Guthrie and James Birchall’s ‘Record of Experiments in Thought-Transference, at Liverpool’ (1883 . . .), point to the empirical approach prevalent in the SPR even if such attempts seem methodologically crude by modern standards.”

Different from the Revue, the SPR had high evidential standards with cases. As stated in the “First Report of the Committee on ‘Haunted Houses’ ”, published in 1882: “In the first place, we . . . begin by tracing every story to the fountain-head. But we do not consider that every first-hand narration of the appearance of a ghost, even from a thoroughly trustworthy narrator, gives us adequate reason for attempting further investigation. On the contrary, our general principle is that the unsupported evidence of a single witness does not constitute sufficient ground for accepting an apparition as having a prima facie claim to objective reality. To distinguish any apparition from an ordinary hallucination . . . it must receive some independent evidence to corroborate it. And this corroboration may be of two kinds; we may have the consentient testimony of several witnesses; or there may be some point of external agreement and coincidence—unknown, as such, to the seer at the time—(e.g., the periodic appearance on a particular anniversary, or the recognition of a peculiar dress), to give to the vision an objective foundation.”

The volume also had the beginnings of an experimental tradition in the study of ESP, something that would be developed in later volumes. An example was “Records of Experiments on Thought-Transference, at Liverpool,” by Malcolm Guthrie and James Birchall (1883). Furthermore there were instructions about precautions to follow in conducting such experiments.

“While the PSPR included some reports of experiments (and this became more frequent in later volumes), this approach was not the main one taken by SPR researchers. But it was the research style predominant in theJournal of Parapsychology.” This is clear in the first volume of this publication, appearing in 1937. 

The Journal of Parapsychology (JP) came from Joseph Banks Rhine research group at Duke University and represented an experimental and quantitative research tradition. “According to my count of types of paper in the first volume, excluding correspondence and notes, there were 16 experimental reports, 4 editorials, 3 reviews of specific topics, 3 summaries and reviews of specific experiments, and 3 discussions of statistical issues.”

“Examples of experiments include ESP studies such as J. G. Pratt’s . . . ‘Clairvoyant Blind Matching’ . . . , J. L. Woodruff and R. W. George’s ‘Experiments in Extra-Sensory Perception’ . . . , Lucien Warner’s ‘The Role of Luck in ESP Data’ . . . , and Vernon Sharp and C. C. Clark’s ‘Group Tests for Extra-Sensory Perception’ . . . The experimental approach was not limited to proving the existence of ESP. TheJP carried interesting experiments to study ESP in relation to other variables, such as J. B. Rhine’s ‘The Effect of Distance in ESP Tests’ . . . , Margaret H. Pegram’s ‘Some Psychological Relations of Extra-Sensory Perception’ . . . , and Edmond P. Gibson’s ‘A Study of Comparative Performance in Several ESP Procedures’ . . . In addition, several studies were reported about ESP tests with special participants.”

In conclusion: “The journals discussed here . . . had to carve out their own territory, so to speak, when they started. TheRevue appeared in a context in which mesmerism was better known, a movement that was not always open to spiritism . . . Similarly, to some extent thePSPR and the JP represented ‘new’ beginnings in terms of spiritualism and psychical research, respectively. However, it would be wrong to reduce everything to breaks and discontinuities. In fairness, the issue was more one of general trends, and it is important to recognize that there were clear conceptual and methodological connections between the movements.”

“While different, the three journals presented in their pages material showing empirical attempts to study psychic phenomena, even though they represent different research styles. Of the three approaches—the teaching of the spirits, the analyses of testimony, and the conducting of experiments—only the last two are still pursued in parapsychology. In fact, I doubt that today many parapsychologists . . . will consider the use of mediumistically obtained teachings as a reliable approach to study psychic phenomena, although one may argue that it may be useful to generate hypotheses that may be put to test by other means. But leaving aside modern standards and practices, we must admit that Kardec saw his work as empirical, different from faith, an attempt to collect information from the natural world, albeit from an unusual source.”

“Different from the above, the PSPR and the JP, not to mention other journals . . . , emphasized cases and experiments as the means to generate knowledge for psychical research. Later developments within the SPR and the Duke group, as articulated in the PSPR and the JP, significantly affected the study of psychic phenomena, transforming it into a more systematic endeavor . . .”


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