William James and the American Society for Psychical Research, 1884-9

Thanks to a travel grant from the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) I was able to present a paper at this year’s British-North American Joint Meeting of the BSHS, CSHPS, and HSS in Canada. The presentation distilled a small part of a chapter in my forthcoming study on the formation of modern psychology and psychical research. Here is the abstract:


ProcASPRAbstract: Co-founded in 1884 by William James, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) is commonly referred to as a counterpart of its namesake in Britain, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Questioning standard accounts of the early ASPR as an equivalent of the SPR, this paper reconstructs its formation and activities in juxtaposition to those of the British Society until 1889, when the original ASPR dissolved and became the SPR’s American Branch. I argue that rather than following William James in promoting the radical empirical research programme typical of the SPR in Britain, other ASPR psychologist members – notably G. Stanley Hall, Joseph Jastrow, and George S. Fullerton – successfully policed the boundaries of the fledgling psychological profession from within the ASPR by polemically undermining the work of James and the SPR, whose studies in telepathy and automatisms were then internationally negotiated as legitimate fields of scientific psychology. Paying close attention to the involvement of psychologists and science popularizers in American psychical research, this paper highlights the enormous significance of ‘materialism’ and ‘superstition’ as complementary late-nineteenth century bogeys determining the legitimate research scope of fledgling psychology in the US and beyond.

While historians commonly think of the ASPR as the American equivalent of the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the main argument of my paper was that some of the more active members of the original ASPR actually refused to investigate alleged psychic phenomena in the vein of William James and his colleagues at the British SPR. Instead, they helped originate the modern standard explanation of open-minded tests of the contested phenomena by elite scientists such as William James, Balfour Stewart, Oliver Lodge, William Crookes, J. J. Thomson, the 3rd (and later also the 4th) Lord Rayleigh, Pierre and Marie Curie and many others in terms of an intrinsically regressive, quasi-pathological need to believe in magic.

In the context of similar polemical attacks on elite psychical research by Wilhelm Wundt and other psychologists particularly in Germany, I briefly discussed James’s close collaboration with Frederic W. H. Myers and Edmund Gurney at the British SPR, whose studies of psychological automatisms and telepathy James thought was the scientifically most fruitful branch of experimental psychology. When James helped found the ASPR in 1884, he hoped to consolidate a national network of like-minded researchers, but even with eminent (but passive) scientific members such as Asa Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, the project soon turned out to be a failure. Less than five years after its inception there were hardly any active researchers let alone funds, and the Society became the American Branch of the English SPR before it was dissolved and finally revived as an independent organization in the early twentieth century.

A fairly active hardliner within the original ASPR who sought to prevent rather than promote psychical research was the Harvard embryologist Charles Sedwick Minot. When the ASPR was in the process of forming, Minot published an unsigned plug for the new Society in Science magazine, stating his own prospects and expectations:


“Now, spiritualism is an evil in the world, – in America it is a subtle and stupendous evil; a secret and unacknowledged poison in many minds, a confessed disease in others, – a disease which is sometimes more repulsive to the untainted than leprosy. … To those gifted with a clearer intelligence and purer moral sense, there is a moral duty in one aspect of the proposed studies. A hope that psychical research may liberate us from a baneful superstition is a stimulus to inaugurate the work of the American society; yet a scientific man cannot calculate all the after-effects of his labor, but must toil for the truth with blind devotion” (Minot, 1884, pp. 369-70).

Minot’s solemn vow to “toil for the truth with blind devotion” to the contrary, his publications in the ASPR Proceedings and notes in Science magazine were mainly limited to polemical assaults on the English work, while demonstrating that he hadn’t bothered studying the reports he attacked. And through ex cathedra pronouncements severely misrepresenting the actual work of James and his British colleagues, which became readily absorbed and promulgated by the press even though they were effectively rebuked by James and others, he did not differ from other hardliners in the ASPR. Apart from Minot, these were president Simon Newcomb, the philosopher Josiah Royce, and, perhaps most importantly, psychologists George S. Fullerton, G. Stanley Hall, and Joseph Jastrow, whose rhetoric and polemical strategies were almost indistinguishable from those of Minot.


I concluded my talk by arguing that the short story of the first incarnation of the ASPR highlights some major historiographical issues in the history of science. Studying the role of radical empirical approaches to the occult during the formation of psychology as a modern profession, and trying to understand not only why people have believed but also fervently disbelieved in alleged psychic phenomena, offers fertile opportunities for historians interested in the complexities of science-religion relationships. And the making of modern psychology as a hitherto unexpected site of discovery for continuities of notions reminiscent of early modern natural magic provides plenty of food for thought to rethink ingrained notions of scientific naturalism.

© Andreas Sommer





6 thoughts on “William James and the American Society for Psychical Research, 1884-9

  1. Congratulations on your talk/paper! I look forward to the book.

    You may be interested in some German literature I stumbled upon. This link goes to a short write-up on Spiritualist phenomenon in the first volume of Hans Gross’ Archiv fuer Kriminal-Anthropologie und Kriminalistik.


    The AK-AK is noteworthy because Gross was a working partner with Krafft-Ebing on his Psychopathia Sexualis, as well as being close to the Austro-Hungarian intelligence community. Gross’ son, Otto, was one of Sigmund Freud’s first promoters.

    Gross and Naecke, the other editor, took an interest in spiritualism early on and Gross looked at these phenomena as part of his criminology and psychology work. His journal may give further insight on why establishment science has been so quick to dismiss research as a “quasi-pathological need to believe in magic”. I think its fair to say that early psychologists approached spiritualism from the very cynical and perhaps even misanthropic viewpoint of forensic science.

  2. Many thanks for this, Elizabeth!

    This sounds very relevant for my book since it also covers the German context. Alas, there is no access to the Haithi Trust Library from the UK – could you provide details of the article (year and perhaps page numbers), so I can look it up elsewhere?

  3. Of course, here is the ‘World Cat’ reference link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/9115376

    It bothers me that the catalog entry only contains volumes from 1916 onward, the journal was started in 1898. I am not affiliated with any US universities (most are Haithi partners), but if you have a colleague who is, they can download the entire PDF of the journal and email it to you. (It’s out of copyright.)

    Failing this, I’d be happy to send you images of the inaugural article on spiritualism and/or images of the indexes for the years 1898-1918, which contain a few pieces that might be of help.

  4. Andreas, as soon as I started studying these issues it seemed to me that “true science” and “true religion” were joined together in the secularist agenda. These quotes you bring here show me that there is something more then my intuition.

  5. Something else came to my attention which will be of interest– Domeier’s “The Eulenburg Affair” has a chapter on Eulenburg’s use of Spiritualism as a tool for influencing the Kaiser and politics abroad– apparently the German ambassador to Britain was expelled for his role spreading the intelligence network in London.


    There is probably an “intelligence” or at least a “counterintelligence” angle to some scholars’ vehement rejection of psychical research. Maybe AH tensions with Prussian elite explain part of Freud’s attitudes to Jung’s research too.

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