Society for Psychical Research (SPR)
The British organization that became the focus for the
emerging field of psychical research in the nineteenth century.
Its establishment was proposed on June 6, 1882, at a meeting,
by Sir William F. Barrett, and on February 20, 1882, the society
came into being. Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy
at Cambridge, was elected president. The first council
included Barrett, Edmund Gurney, Balfour Stewart, F. W. H.
Myers, Richard Hutton (all non-Spiritualists) and W. Stainton
Moses, Dawson Rogers, Morell Theobald, E. N. Bennett,
George Wyld, and others (all Spiritualists). The investigation of
Spiritualist phenomena was to be the focus of the society’s
work. Eleanor Sidgwick, Frank Podmore, and Richard Hodgson
were among the first to join.
The objects of the society consisted of the following points
1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence
that may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any
generally recognized mode of perception.
2. The study of hypnotism and the forms of so-called mesmeric
trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance
and other allied phenomena.
3. A critical revision of Reichenbach’s research with certain
organizations called sensitive, and an inquiry whether such organizations
possess any power of perception beyond a highly
exalted sensibility of the recognized sensory organs.
4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong
testimony regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or
otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be
haunted.
5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly
called spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their
causes and general laws.
6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing
on the history of these subjects.
The early activity of the society was devoted to an experimental
investigation of thought transference. They established
it to their satisfaction as a fact. Equally important to this
achievement was the discovery of the authors of Phantasms of the
Living (Gurney, Myers, and Podmore) that between death and
apparitions a connection existed that was not due to chance
alone. The report of the committee on the Census of Hallucinations
came to the same conclusion. It was largely attributable
to the SPR’s investigation that hypnotism was officially received
by the British Medical Association.
Hysteria, haunted houses, Reichenbach’s phenomena, the
divining rod, multiple personality, automatic writing, and
trance speaking were other subjects taken up in due course.
Very valuable work was done in the study of crosscorrespondence
and in the investigation of the mediumship of
Leonora Piper. The specific subject of communication with the
dead was not included in the original program of the society,
but the presumption for evidence became so strong that much
of the SPR’s activity was devoted to its consideration.
In 1889, the American Society for Psychical Research was
affiliated. From 1887 until his death in 1905, Hodgson was in
charge and concentrated most of his activity on the mystery of
Piper’s trance communications. This investigation is one of the
most memorable events in the whole existence of the society,
for, to the satisfaction of many distinguished psychical researchers,
it dealt with the question of survival and the possibility
of holding intercourse with the departed. Hodgson himself
accepted the evidence of survival, to the great jubilation of
Spiritualists, for, in the words of E. Dawson Rogers, then president
of the London Spiritualist Alliance, ‘‘he was a very Saul
persecuting the Christians.’’ Officially, however, the society
reached no conclusions, and in the century of its existence it
has made no collective pronouncement on the question of survival,
maintaining that the constitution of the society precludes
a collective opinion.
At first the cooperation between the SPR and the Spiritualists
was friendly. The line of distinction was that psychical researchers
only attempted to establish the veracity of the phenomena
whereas Spiritualists not only considered them proved
but also attributed them to the action of disembodied spirits.
Sympathy, however, soon changed to hostility as the society refused
to endorse, and then in many ways became antagonistic
to, the views of the Spiritualists (in spite of the personal views
of many of the society’s members).
Spiritualists objected to the extreme suspicion and the frequently
voiced charges of fraud by psychical researchers and
said that their standard of evidence, when they wished to prove
fraud, was far more elastic than when the genuine occurrence
of phenomena was in question.
Early resentment was shown for the treatment of mediums
Kate Fox-Jencken (one of the Fox Sisters), Henry Slade, and
William Eglinton, and that this feature of the situation remained
constant through a great many years is best evidenced
by the statement of Sir Oliver Lodge in his book The Survival
of Man, published in 1909 ‘‘It has been called a society for the
suppression of facts, for the wholesale imputation of imposture,
for the discouragement of the sensitive, and for the repudiation
of every revelation of the kind which was said to be pressing itself
upon humanity from the regions of light and knowledge.’’
It cannot be denied that a certain bias against physical phenomena
was observable in the society. The exposure by Hodgson
of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, cofounder of the Theosophical
Society, of performing the same kind of tricks that
Society for Interdisciplinary Studies Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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were present throughout Spiritualism, appears to have prejudiced
the society against this side of psychical research.
Eusapia Palladino was branded an impostor in 1895, and
it was only after the society’s commitment had been reduced to
an amusing anachronism by many years of competent investigation
all over Europe that the case was reopened in 1908. A
committee was delegated to sit with her in Naples; the later verdict
was in favor of Palladino.
E. N. Bennett, who was assistant secretary to the society for
20 years, published a book in 1904 under the title Twenty Years
of Psychical Research. It is a review of the work of the society and
states
‘‘. . . the question of the movement of tables without contact
is exactly in the state in which it was left by the Dialectical Society
in the year 1869. In all the series of the Proceedings there is
no light whatever thrown on this simple phenomenon. Some
investigation was made as regards direct writing and spirit photography,
but to a large extent with negative result.’
As far as the official attitude of the society is concerned the
question is in about the same state even now. In a century of research,
not a single physical phenomenon has been established
as an unquestionably genuine fact. This attitude of reserve and
the gradual dying out of the first famous group of psychical investigators
dimmed the luster of the society for many years.
The society could have never been accused of being unduly
credulous. Only the most hostile and defensive of debunkers
could disagree with William James in his widely read volume,
The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1902), ‘‘In fact, were I asked
to point to a scientific journal where hard-headedness and
never-sleeping suspicion of sources of error might be seen in
their full bloom, I think that I should have to fall back on the
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.’’
The reserve shown by the society, so necessary if the findings
of psychical research were to be integrated into the larger body
of scientific knowledge, led to criticism by those who had too
quickly jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Otherwise outstanding
scientists such as Gustav Geley scathingly criticized
the society’s report on Eva C. The William Hope scandal reflected
on the good reputation of the society. In public protest
against its methods, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resigned his
membership in 1930. His example (as pointed out in an indictment
by H. Dennis Bradley) was followed by some other members
supporting his views. This indictment was published in the
daily press in March 1931 but elicited no public reply on the
part of the society.
In his Jubilee address in June 1932, Sir Oliver Lodge remarked
that up to that time, in its corporate capacity, the society
had entertained no corporate conviction and reported no
progress except to the extent that it might have committed itself
to a corporate belief in telepathy. He also remarked
‘‘Many of us are now similarly convinced of the reality of a
spiritual world and of its interaction with this world. I wonder
whether it would be premature to say so and thus show that we
are not merely working towards some unknown and perhaps
unprofitable end, but are really in our opinion making
progress. . . . I suggest that time has now arrived and that during
the next 50 years we might announce this as a verified hypothesis
and use it as an explanation of occurrences in which
it is evidently an operative factor.’’
Against criticisms of negative or over-skeptical attitudes, it
must be said that the society has maintained a high standard
of investigation and discussion. The middle period of elitism
and rejection has long passed; the membership has broadened
and the scope of investigations is a wide one. In the middle of
the twentieth century the society went through a shift from emphasis
on psychical research to laboratory experimental parapsychology.
The society has successfully avoided the uncritical
contagion of the ‘‘occult explosion’’ of the 1960s and also the
negative backlash of the 1980s, and has thus retained its leadership
in the scientific investigation of the paranormal in England.
The style of contributions to the society’s Journal and Proceedings
now varies from the simple clarity of a down-to-earth
investigation to the highly technical project heavily structured
with statistical analysis. Members hold a wide variety of viewpoints
and there are lively and stimulating controversies.
The presidential chair of the society has been filled by a veritable
who’s who of the leading researchers in the field and public
personalities who have lent their names to the cause. They
include Henry Sidgwick, 1882–84; Balfour Stewart, 1885–87;
Henry Sidgwick, 1888–92; Arthur James Balfour, 1893; William
James, 1894–95; Sir William Crookes, 1896–99; F. W. H.
Myers, 1900; Sir Oliver Lodge, 1901–03; Sir William Barrett,
1904; Charles Richet, 1905; Gerald William Balfour,
1906–07; Eleanor Sidgwick, 1908–09; H. Arthur Smith, 1910;
Andrew Lang, 1911; The Rt. Rev. Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter,
1912; Henri Bergson, 1913; F. C. S. Schiller, 1914; Gilbert
Murray, 1915–16; L. P. Jacks, 1917–18; John William Strutt
(Lord Rayleigh), 1919; William McDougall, 1920–21; T. W.
Mitchell, 1922; Camille Flammarion, 1923; J. G. Piddington,
1924–25; Hans Driesch, 1926–27; Sir Lawrence J. Jones,
1928–29; Walter Franklin Prince, 1930–31; Eleanor Sidgwick
(President of Honour) and Sir Oliver Lodge, 1932; Dame
Edith Lyttelton, 1933–34; C. D. Broad, 1935–36; R. J. Strutt
(Baron Rayleigh), 1937–38; Henry Habberley Price, 1939–41;
Robert H. Thouless, 1942–44; G. N. M. Tyrrell, 1945–46; W.
H. Slater, 1947–48; Gardner Murphy, 1949–50; S. G. Soal,
1950–51; Gilbert Murray, 1952; F. J. M. Stratton, 1953–55; G.
W. Lambert, 1955–58; C. D. Broad, 1958–60; Henry Habberley
Price, 1960–61; E. R. Dodds, 1961–63; D. J. West,
1963–65; Sir Alister Hardy, 1965–69; W. A. H. Rushton,
1969–71; C. W. K. Mundle, 1971–74; John Beloff, 1974–76;
A. J. Ellison, 1976–79; J. B. Rhine, 1980; Louisa E. Rhine,
1980; A. J. Ellison, 1981–83; D. J. West, 1983–87; Ian Stevenson,
1988–89; Alan Gauld, 1989–92; Archie E. Roy, 1992–95;
David G. J. Fontana, 1995–98; D. J. West, 1998–2000.
In addition to the Journal and Proceedings, the society has
published a number of books and pamphlets on a wide range
of topics concerned with psychical research as well as recordings
of important lectures. It also publishes its own quarterly
Paranormal Review.
The society is headquartered at 49 Marloes Rd., Kensington,
London, W8 6LA, England. Website http
moebius.psy.ed.ac.uk~spr.
Sources
Grattan-Guinness, Ivor, ed. Psychical Research A Guide to Its
History, Principles and Practices, in Celebration of 100 Years of the
Society for Psychical Research. London Aquarian Press, 1982.
Haynes, Renee. The Society for Psychical Research 1882–1982
A History. London MacDonald, 1982.
Thouless, R. H. Psychical Research Past and Present. London
Society for Psychical Research, 1952.