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Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France, by M. Brady Brower

Cover of Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France
Publication Details: 
University of Illinois Press. ISBN Cloth 978-0-252-03564-7; Paper 978-0-252-07751-7
Publish date: 
November, 2010

Reviewed by Renaud Evrard

This review first appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol 75(2).

Matthew Brady Brower is an assistant professor of history at Weber State University. This book is based on his doctoral dissertation in history entitled The Fantasms of Science: Psychical Research in the French Third Republic, 1880–1935 (Brower, 2005). During his research, Brower drew heavily on the archives of the Institut Métapsychique International (IMI) of Paris, which he helped to organize.

Brower follows the developments of psychical research in France (termed “métapsychique/metapsychics” by Charles Richet in 1905) from the advent of spiritism in the mid nineteenth century to the “Querelle de l’Ectoplasme” (Quarrel over Ectoplasm) in the early 1920s. He reads these developments in the light of their interactions with the related disciplines — including nascent psychology, psychoanalysis and surrealism — that emerged with the decline of metapsychics’ popularity. The problem is that, covering such a broad period as it does, and combining such a disparate range of approaches, the study fails to concentrate on any particular theme, which gives it an unfocused feel. It is, however, an excellent contribution to the history of heterodox psychology in France.

The heterogeneity of Brower’s approach can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. He adequately summarises those aspects of the story which have already been extensively analysed by others. However, he has made a major detailed contribution to the history of the Institut Général Psychologique (IGP, which existed from 1900 to 1933) that had remained largely unknown. Brower draws his material from a broad range of sources: the experimental records, exchanges in the press, and even sometimes from psychological records which manifested the latent fantasies of psychical researchers. These demonstrate the wealth of available material, but it is to be regretted that there are some places where a deeper analysis of the various points of view is needed, in order to arrive at a comprehensive history. For example, the “Querelle de l’Ectoplasme” is examined only from the twin perspectives of sociology and the philosophy of science, making some psychical researchers appear naïve, and relegating their observations to the background.

Chapter 1 deals with the reception by French scientists of claims and practices related to spiritism. They had already experienced the controversies concerning animal magnetism (Méheust, 1999), which had created divisions among them. Thanks to François Arago, Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Pierre Janet and Charles Richet, explanations in natural terms, such as ‘psychological automatism’, could be formulated to account for most of the spiritist phenomena; hypnosis and psychical research together would reintegrate them. But France is also the home of Allan Kardec and Victor Hugo, who popularized spiritist practices while combining them with ideologies like socialism. These practices were denounced in terms of psychopathology, and subjected to a number of accusations of fraud. To overcome these problems, the spiritists appealed to the prestige and rhetorical value of scientific discourse.

Chapter 2 focuses on the development of psychical research from 1882 to 1900. Janet’s study on ‘hypnotism at distance’ in the Revue Philosophique, published by Théodule Ribot, and followed by Richet’s article on his experiments on lucidity using cards and statistics, is emblematic of the fertility of this period. Brower explores how the arguments of psychical research were steered towards Victor Cousin’s style of spiritualism (which is not based on a survivalist hypothesis), or in the direction of positivism. But, ultimately, psychical research is somewhere in between: a kind of non-reductionist positivism of mind, or an empirically-based spiritualism. In fact, it is the project of a scientific psychology that will emerge from these epistemological debates during this period.

The foundation and early years of the IGP, as described in Chapter 3, embody this trend. At this point, psychology and ‘para-’psychology are not yet differentiated: they have the same institutions, the same personnel, the same methods, and the same goals. But the IGP was both the location of this fusion and of its eventual divorce. Among the visible cracks were such issues as the name (the IGP was originally called ‘Institut Psychique International’); its direction, with two heads who did not always agree (Janet drawing his ‘clan’ to the psychological, Richet drawing his to the psychical); and the gap between patrons’ and supporters’ ‘psychical’ hopes and the few actual accomplishments of the IGP in psychical research, before the Palladino study (Courtier, 1908). The analysis of the history of the IGP is Brower’s most original and brilliant contribution. He highlights how the IGP juxtaposed various ways of thinking about man, at different levels, and how this gave rise to uncertainties. Brower values that result because, even if the institution did not obtain objective certainties about the reality of mediumistic or magnetic abilities, it hosted profound discussions on the psychology of the scientist. The positivists’ dream was undermined by the realisation that science was a process that entailed subjective judgements, and ‘evidence’ was a far more complex issue than ‘facts’.

Chapter 4 deals with Charles Richet, the physiologist and Nobel laureate, who was at the forefront of psychology and psychical research in France for sixty years. Brower starts with Richet’s novel, Soeur Marthe (1889), published under a pseudonym, which highlighted the way subjectivity overrides the desire to objectify the human, on the basis of the story of a physician who makes ‘mental suggestions’ ( i.e. hypnosis at distance) to a woman. Presciently, the novel describes the figure of the ‘mystified scientist’, a position that Richet would himself later assume in the face of the controversies surrounding metapsychics, especially those which involved the physical medium, Marthe Béraud (Eva C). Unfortunately, though Brower does highlight Richet’s errors and epistemological biases, the chapter does not deal satisfactorily with the strengths of his approach.

Chapters 5 and 6 briefly describe the early years of Institut Métapsychique International of Paris (this was dealt with earlier by Lachapelle, 2005), focusing on the controversies surrounding the physical phenomena of mediumship. Brower mainly comments on the popular reception of metapsychics in the context of post-war bereavement: Oliver Lodge’s Raymond, the money allocated to psychical research from spiritualist patrons, the resurgence of idealism against materialism, and the theme of the immortal dead. Brower follows the sceptics’ criticisms of the metapsychists’ methodology, whose counter-arguments seemed weak. Often metapsychists seemed to attribute replication failures to the fragility of paranormal phenomena and of those who produced them, both of which were supposed to be extremely sensitive to the physical and psychological conditions of examination.

Unexpectedly, Brower assesses the penetration of Freudian ideas in France at the end of Chapter 6 and again in the Conclusion. Psychoanalysis emphasised the subject beyond science, but is this really what Frederic Myers and other psychical researchers were discussing? Brower concludes that the French public became tired of metapsychics, to the benefit of psychoanalysis and surrealism. This seems a fair verdict, but the argument would have benefited from intermediate steps (with discussion of psychoanalysts and metapsychists such as Jean Vinchon and Maryse Choisy; the interest of psychoanalysis for psychical researchers; and the absorption of metapsychics into surrealism).

In particular, Brower should not have assumed that the decreasing popularity of metapsychics was a clear indicator of its decline. Indeed, the metapsychics’ methodology has continually evolved, primarily in response to criticisms from insiders. Thus in 1926 Osty introduced infra-red devices to capture both the physical phenomena of mediumship and any attempts at fraud, devices which facilitated the study of Rudi Schneider (Osty & Osty, 1932). The value of Warcollier and Osty’s studies of telepathy and metagnomy outweigh the disbelief of some critics who, like Paul Heuzé, were outraged by the ‘ectoplasm’. More broadly, parapsychology has been separated from spiritism and has become part of academia. Brower stops too early (about 1923) in his investigation to be really able to bury metapsychics. However, he correctly points out that the phenomena and their study are bound by a form of elusiveness which is reinforced by social and ideological reactions as strong as their subversive potential. Brower seems to fall into the trap of the sceptical rhetoric that locates the death of parapsychology in 1900 (Plas, 2000), 1905 (Le Maléfan, 2004), 1935 (Lachappelle, 2002) or in 2009 (Hyman, 2010), instead of encouraging other researchers to contribute to its history.

Notes, bibliography and an index round out the book.


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   Republic, 1880–1935
. Doctoral dissertation in history, Rutgers, The State University of
   New Jersey, New Brunswick.
Courtier, J. (1908) Rapport sur les séances d’Eusapia Palladino à l’Institut général
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, 407–546.
Epheyre, Ch. [Richet, Ch.] (1889) Soeur Marthe. Revue des deux mondes 93, 384–431.
Hyman, R. (2010) The demise of parapsychology, 1850–2009. The Skeptic 22(2), 17–20.
Lachappelle, S. (2002) A World Outside Science: French Attitudes Toward Mediumistic
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1. Doctoral dissertation in history, University Notre-Dame.
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(1), 1–24.
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Osty, E. and Osty, M. (1932) Les pouvoirs inconnus de l’esprit sur la matière. Paris: Alcan.
Plas, R. (2000) Naissance d’une science humaine: La Psychologie (Les psychologues et le
   merveilleux psychique)
. Paris: PUF.