The Astonishment of Experience: Psychical Research as Citizen Science

Alicia Puglionesi is the 2016-2017 Consortium NEH Postdoctoral Fellow. 


Many psychology textbooks pay sidebar tribute to William James as the “founder of American psychology,” thanks to his role in establishing the first psychological laboratory at Harvard. Even James's biographers, however, struggle to make sense of his lifelong engagement with psychical research, the investigation of telepathy, clairvoyance, and spirit phenomena that joined this prestigious scientist and philosopher with a broad cross-section of the American public in the collaborative study of supernormal experiences.
Psychical research has, in recent years, become a focal point of historical and literary studies about the origins of the modern psychological subject. Its nineteenth- and early-twentieth century practitioners investigated supernormal mental phenomena using methods that they regarded as highly scientific and controlled. However, they relied on self-observation and self-report, forms of knowledge-production regarded with growing suspicion by laboratory scientists. James famously clashed with his Harvard colleagues over this question, and his empiricism allied him with a sizable public seeking recognition for their experiences within scientific institutions. By the 1930s, psychical researchers had largely split off from the mainstream of American science, and the new academic discipline of psychology held their efforts in low regard. Understanding this process of marginalization, essentially the birth of a pseudo- or para-science, is of great interest to historians of science and culture, as it tracks the professionalization of the behavioral sciences and a concomitant transformation of subjectivity.
Many studies reveal important relationships between psychical research and spiritualism, modernism, and the scientific establishment. None, however, look at the practitioners of psychical research as a network of knowledge producers, who used a variety of media to communicate evidence and debate questions of belief and doubt. My dissertation places psychical research in the context of nineteenth-century amateur sciences, like natural history and meteorology, practiced by ordinary people as part of a widespread enthusiasm for the scientific method in nineteenth-century American culture. Because the evidence gathered by amateur psychical researchers took the form of testimony, anecdotes, and reports, the science of the mind that they attempted to construct was very different than the one emerging from psychological laboratories. Rather than studying the standardized subject of behavioral psychology, psychical researchers clung to a methodology that centered individual experience, as both an object and a tool of investigation.
Despite its recovery as part of a buried intellectual lineage leading to what Henri Ellenberger termed the “discovery of the unconscious,” the actual practices of psychical research are still poorly understood. They stand at a juncture between natural historical and laboratory approaches to the study of mind, and their forms of evidence and experimentation are often unrecognizable without this context. Case reports of psychical researchers describe everything from premonitions of death to the telepathic guessing of playing cards. By amassing a huge body of such anecdotes, psychical research aimed to deduce scientific facts about the nature of consciousness. Members of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and similar regional societies served as the foot-soldiers of this data-collection project, clipping articles, conducting parlor seances, and experimenting tirelessly on their hapless family and friends. Though intrigued by the possibilities of telepathy and spirit communication, they looked to the scientific method to determine the validity of such phenomena. Some were avowed spiritualists, others virulent anti-spiritualists, but both camps used the terminology of Baconian empiricism to argue their positions.
I take a bottom-up approach to the history of psychical research in America, placing an emphasis on public interest and participation as a way of contextualizing heterodox psychological and parapsychological movements throughout the twentieth century. By incorporating literature on the history of scientific societies, amateurism, and the boundary between experience and experiment, my project proposes an alternate lineage for the behavioral sciences. The emergence of academic, laboratory psychology in early-twentieth-century America has been taken as the starting point, but I argue that an expanded view of psychology, encompassing its roots in psychical research and spiritualism, is crucial to understanding the ongoing resonance of investigations of mind and brain for the American public.
My study, then, contributes to the literature on “popular understandings of science” by arguing that this term does not capture the participatory nature of nineteenth-century sciences, and that the self-observation of psychical researchers is only one well-documented instance of an amateur community integrating their firsthand experiences with scientific models of mind. The development of the modern psychological subject and the trajectory of American psychology was influenced in ways that have not yet been fully acknowledged by the ghostly survivals of amateur psychical researchers.
A National Endowment for the Humanities postdoctoral fellowship at the Consortium allowed me to conduct additional archival research and re-write substantial portions of the dissertation for publication as a monograph. I visited collections at the Newberry, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society. Much of this work focused on the history of meteorology and archaeology, examining how they formed organized networks of amateur observers and developed methodologies which psychical research would imitate. 
Conversations with Consortium colleagues led me to write an additional chapter for the book, dealing with the relationship between psychical experiences and mental illness. This question had hovered over the dissertation, but I intentionally left it untouched out of concern that it might reinforce a reductive pathological explanation for psychical and spiritualistic phenomena. However, it became clear that the development of this pathologizing impulse was itself an important factor in the marginalization of psychical research and parapsychology. Unspoken anxiety about mental health, and the distress of people coping with disturbing experiences, pervades much of the correspondence that I worked with. I found an active, if coded, discussion within the community of psychical researchers about how to delineate the boundaries of sanity and how to construct criteria for acceptable evidence. Though investigators felt unfairly stigmatized by the materialist stance of clinical psychiatrists, they also recognized the authority of psychiatry and sought to harness it for their own discipline-building projects, namely, the establishment of a psychopathological clinic dedicated to experimental treatments of mental illness.
Questions and feedback from the Consortium's fellows and working group participants led me to pursue this important line of inquiry, without which my book manuscript would be incomplete. I could not have embarked on a new avenue of research without the time and support afforded by this fellowship. Moreover, my discoveries in the archives led me to outline a second book project that expands on a dissertation chapter about landscape and public memory. With the foundations of this next project in place, I look forward revisiting the archives of Consortium member institutions in coming years.
Alicia Puglionesi