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Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France.

Unruly Spirits: The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France, by M. Brady Brower. Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press. xvii, 202 pp. $85.00 US (cloth), $30.00 US (paper)

M. Brady Brower's Unruly Spirits is a cultural history of the rise and fall of psychical research (what would now be called parapsychology) in France under the Third Republic. According to Brower, the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the pre-paradigm phase in the history of scientific psychology. During this period, psychical research was only the most avant-garde and controversial of many competing schools of thought: it was, in effect, the experimental study of minds without bodies, and of mental events without any corresponding physical events. Psychical researchers based their experiments on the practices and beliefs of the spiritualist movement, which had emerged in the United States in the late 1840s, and had been popularized in France (in the form of spiritism) by Allan Kardec in the 1850s. Though they largely rejected the "spirit hypothesis," and believed that mediumistic phenomena were natural rather than supernatural, they were nonetheless convinced that these phenomena were genuine, that they showed intelligence or intention, and could be studied like any other natural phenomena.

Brower shows how psychical research developed slowly in France compared to some other countries. The French counterpart to the Society for Psychical Research, the Institut General Psychologique, for example, was not founded until 1900, and had failed by 1908--though not before carrying out a series of controversial experiments with medium Eusapia Palladino. Brower also argues that, in France as elsewhere, psychical research was neither fish nor fowl. On the one hand, because of their heterodox views, psychical researchers were often in conflict with "official science"--yet counted many "official scientists" among their number, whose reputations and credentials helped to give the field what little scientific respectability it possessed.

On the other hand, psychical research could never escape its associations with spiritualism and occultism: indeed, it sometimes exploited these associations. Interest in spiritualism revived in France after 1918, as the bereaved sought to contact the spirits of dead soldiers: and psychical researchers took advantage of this renewed interest, founding the Institut Metapsychique International in 1919 and pursuing research into materializations, like the ectoplasmic discharges of medium Eva Carriere. After the mid-1920s, however, psychical research in France went into terminal decline--at the same time, not coincidentally, that the popularity and influence of psychoanalysis and Freudianism began to rise.

According to Brower, psychical research never achieved paradigmatic status because it was inescapably subjective. It was dependent on the performances of mediums like Palladino and Carriere, who were prone to both deception and self-deception, and on the observations of psychical researchers, who were prone to bias and error. No degree of experimental control could eliminate these fundamental problems, or the need for good faith in psychical research. To make matters worse, popular skepticism persisted, no matter how sincere the researchers and rigorous the research. The field's credibility was undermined by debunkers like journalist Paul Heuze, and by the negative results of a series of experiments carried out with Carriere at the Sorbonne in 1922. And in the end, this persistent failure to solve the problem of uncertainty and indeterminacy--or rather, to recognize that this was a discovery rather than a problem--was fatal to psychical research. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, achieved paradigmatic status, in part, because it put this uncertainty and indeterminacy at the heart of its enterprise.

Thus, Brower's title--Unruly Spirits--has many different meanings. From one perspective, the "unruly spirits" were those invoked by mediums, and which persistently refused to behave in the predictable and reproducible manner that scientific research required. From another, the unruly spirits were those of the psychical researchers, who embraced experimental science and a naturalistic worldview, bur could not accept that mind was reducible to matter: they tried to turn the seance-room into a laboratory, but were ultimately unable to control for their own subjectivity. Seldom has a book's title been chosen so well.

In addition to having a good title, Unruly Spirits is a good book, and a significant contribution to any number of historical fields, including the history of "controversial knowledge." While everyone should be familiar, by now, with Isaac Newton's interest in alchemy and Biblical prophecy, many people may be surprised to see Marie Curie taking an interest in table turning and spirit rapping. I would offer just two criticisms. On the one hand, I thought that Brower's account of the connection between the decline of psychical research and the rise of psychoanalysis could have been better and more fully developed. His introduction led me to think this would be a major part of his argument, but it seemed almost like an afterthought in the text.

On the other hand, I found Brower's rather studied neutrality on the value of psychical research and, indeed, on the value of science, could be off-putting at times. While disbelievers in the supernatural and paranormal are often (and sometimes rightly) accused of pseudo-skepticism, believers are equally vulnerable to the charge of pseudo-agnosticism. I personally would have preferred that Brower had made his own position on these matters explicit--especially since history, rather like psychical research, depends on good faith and contains an irreducible element of indeterminacy. After spending so much time reading about the vain efforts of psychical researchers to solve the "problem" of their own subjectivity, it seemed rather strange to find Brower making a similar effort to efface himself from his own text.

D. M. Leeson

Laurentian University
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Author:Leeson, D.M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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