Thursday, November 12, 2015   7:58 PM

History of Parapsychology II: Théodore Flournoy

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

One of the most interesting early figures in the psychological study of mediumship and other phenomena was Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920). In my last published paper, with several colleagues, we reviewed his main psychical research-related work: Carlos S. Alvarado, Everton de Oliveira Maraldi, Fatima Regina Machado, and Wellington Zangari, “Théodore Flournoy’s Contributions to Psychical Research” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2014,78, 149-168; available from the first author:

Theodore Flournoy

Théodore Flournoy

Here is the abstract:

“In this paper we review the main contributions of Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854–1920) to psychical research. Flournoy always advocated the scientific study of psychic phenomena as an important area that should not be ignored. After a short discussion of Flournoy’s attitudes to psychic phenomena we focus on his main work, his study of Hélène Smith (1861–1929) published in Des Indes à la Planète Mars (1900), in which he summarized communications about previous lives in France and India, as well as those coming from the planet Mars, which Flournoy attributed to subconscious abilities involving imagination and cryptomnesia. In addition, we review his other investigations of mental mediums, observations of physical mediums, and writings about telepathy and precognition. We argue that Flournoy’s work with mental mediums made him a significant contributor to the study of the capabilities of the subconscious mind, work that was important to the theoretical concerns of both dynamic psychology and psychical research.”

The paper is divided in the following sections: Biographical Sketch, Early Studies in Psychology, The Psychical Research Context, General Attitude to Psychic Phenomena, Study of and Speculations about Hélène Smith, Other Investigations of Mental Mediumship, Observations of Physical Mediums, and Telepathy and Precognition.

While many in psychology and in other fields rejected psychic phenomena, others studied the topic seriously and defended their reality, as seen in the early work of the Society for Psychical Research, including figures such as Frederic W.H. Myers. We wrote in the paper “that Flournoy was similar to Myers in that he argued that some phenomena, particularly mediumship, had conventional explanations based on the workings of the subconscious mind, but that other manifestations required the acceptance of some supernormal principle. There were, of course, important differences between the two men’s thinking. But for our purpose we want to argue that Flournoy’s work illustrates the interaction of psychical research and the study of the subconscious mind in early psychology.”

Flournoy’s best known work was his analysis of the mediumship of Hélène Smith, the pseudonym of Catherine Élise Müller (1861-1929), who presented “subliminal romances” about life on planet Mars, and previous lives in India and France. As was to be expected, the descriptions of Mars, and the creation of a Martian language, attracted much attention at the time, and even to our days.

As we discussed Flournoy interpreted the phenomena mainly as the result of the medium’s subconscious creations: “To Flournoy the subconscious activity was the expression of a natural and spontaneous creativity . . . Interestingly, Flournoy stated . . . that he believed he had ‘perceived a little telekinesis and telepathy’ in some of his séances with Smith . . . But he did not document this in detail and basically presented it as an impression.”

We had sections in the paper about Flournoy’s writings about telepathy and precognition and his observations of physical mediums. Among the latter were Eusapia Palladino and Stanislawa Tomczyk, who convinced him of the reality of their phenomena.

Among other topics we summarized a little known survey of mediums conducted by Flournoy begun in 1898. We wrote:

“He sent questions to members of the Société d’Études Psychiques de Geneva and received 72 replies, 23 from men and 49 from women. Among other topics, those questions were about when and under what circumstances the respondent realized that he or she possessed mediumistic faculties, how these experiences changed over time, observations of mediumistic faculties in other people and in the medium’s family, and the influence of physical, medical or moral conditions upon mediumship. In this study, unique for its time, Flournoy studied the medium from a psychological and social perspective instead of an exclusively parapsychological one.”

Interestingly, Flournoy accepted that the content of some mediumistic communications were veridical, but he believed that their presentation as coming from spirits was a dramatization of the medium’s subconscious mind.

We conclude stating that Flournoy’s main contributions to psychical research were conceptual, namely showing the dramatic capabilities of the subconscious mind. “Flournoy’s psychological contributions have been acknowledged by some historians of psychology. The influential historian of ideas concerning the unconscious mind, Henri F. Ellenberger, referred to Flournoy’s study of Hélène Smith as a ‘great step forward for dynamic psychiatry’ . . . Shamdasani . . . has noted that Flournoy’s ideas about the subconscious mind were an alternative to Freud’s theories in the early twentieth century, one that emphasized the more creative and constructive aspects of the unconscious.”

Flournoy was “an important representative both of early psychology and of psychical research, and particularly of the interactions of the two fields.” His work “is a reminder that some ideas and studies of early psychology took place in the context of interest in and research on psychic phenomena.”



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