Naturalistic Spiritualisms

Spiritualism was a symptomatic cultural trend of the Victorian period. For decades mediums captivated the worker, the bourgeois, the nobleman, the socialist utopian, the Christian apostate, and people from virtually any and all professions, with their table rappings, levitating furniture, full-form materializations, and messages from beyond the grave. When a message was coming through, whether from the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, the archangel Gabriel, or the sitter’s aunt Nelly, the spirit medium provided the goods. But despite this caricature, which no doubt does full justice to much of the movement, spiritualism also became a heated battleground for deeply natural-philosophic questions: what is Nature, how does she operate, and what can we know about her? Where are the boundaries of the natural to be drawn?

Modern spiritualism is typically said to have been inaugurated when the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York, claimed to commune with departed spirits through “mysterious” rapping noises (one of the sisters later confessed trickery and demonstrated the technique), in 1848. It was always a heterogenous phenomenon, trading on preexistent notions prevalent in the “Burned-Over district” during one of the most intense periods of the American history of religion. Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Christian millenarianism, and folk notions of spirit hauntings and the afterlife are all part of the mixture that became modern spiritualism.

When it was imported to England and Continental Europe a few years later spiritualism became even more diversified, socially as well as on the ideological, religious, and philosophical levels. Seances were held for the tzar family in Petersburg, and in Owenite socialist communes. Its phenomena were taken as proof variously of an afterlife, the agency of demons, hitherto undiscovered vital fluids, and the incredible human propensity for self delusion.

While the “spiritualistic hypotehsis” is fairly obvious, i.e. the hypothesis that spiritualism proves (i) the existence of a soul independent of the body which (ii) survives bodily death and (iii) is capable of communication from the other side, spiritualism posed more than a simple clash of “supernaturalism” vs. “naturalism”. What’s far more interesting is the many nuanced debates among spiritualists, internally and between spokespersons pro- and anti-, over how the phenomena claimed by spiritualism could be viewed as completely “natural”.

For naturalism did not mean one thing, despite a strong ideological front which may have seemed unified from public addresses and polemics by Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and other “scientific naturalists”. They covered a much more unstable state of affairs. Especially among the scientifically trained and well educated portions of the movement, spiritualism became a battleground for some times different naturalistic theories, and opposed views of what nature is, and how it operates. With the emergence of psychical research the spiritualistic seance room was even recast as a laboratory for the testing of hypotheses, and the medium something in between a scientific instrument, a laboratory expert, or a natural phenomenon – depending on the view of the researcher and the hypothesis to be tested.

Indeed, something similar happened to spiritualism in the latter half of the 19th century as happened with Mesmerism earlier. As I wrote about Mesmerism (here and here), the various phenomena and practices associated with it were used in favour of sometimes very different, even opposing theories. For spiritualism, this is no less true. Apart from the various versions of the spiritualistic hypothesis, arguments were constructed which explained spiritualism with reference to hitherto unknown forces, energies or fluids associated with the human organism (I’m tempted to call them “vitalistic” theories), unconscious psychological and/or physiological mechanisms, and the hypothesis of deliberate fraud.

A medium producing ectoplasm, a "substance" fit for naturalistic investigation. Mysterious vital force, or fabric hidden in the stomach or anus?

While the two latter types of theories were frequently raised by critics of the movement, variations of the first one is typical of scientific men who turned spiritualist. The chemist and physicist William Crookes, for instance, discoverer of thallium, inventor of the Crookes tube and pioneer in the use of spectroscopy in chemistry, postulated the existence of a “psychic force” stored up in the organism, which the talented medium could channel to move objects, materialize “spirits” or float in the air. Crookes brought pressure gauges into the seance room to measure the exact quantity of this mysterious new force exerted on levitating tables and musical instruments in the presence of medium D. D. Home.

Darwin’s co-inventor of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace chose a somewhat different, but unambiguously pro-spiritualist avenue when he wrote that “the apparent miracle may be due to some undiscovered law of nature”. Wallace tended to suggest that spiritualism might in fact show us that nature includes much more life and agency than previously thought. He would happily underscore this point with reference to recent discoveries of previously unknown forms of life way to small to be spotted with the bare human eye. Might it not be possible that other non-visible forms of life exist?

These theories, although certainly naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic, did nevertheless entail a deep challenge to conception of what is natural, and the rule of natural law as typically conceived by most scientists. This is a fact of some significance which differentiate their “naturalistic spiritualism” from the arguments of anti-spiritualist naturalists. The latter thought it absolutely necessary, in the encounter of new phenomena, to approach an hypothesis which take into account what is already known and relatively secure.

The psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, for instance, tried to find explanations for the unknown by reference to known mechanisms of the human mind (Natural Causes and Supernatural Seemings, 1886). With knowledge of how the mind could be tricked into seeing things that are not there, sometimes by what would today be called cognitive biases, and in extreme cases by pathological mental illness, it seemed safer to dismiss testimonies than start philosophizing over how natural laws ought to be rewritten if they were true. David Hume’s famous argument against the testimony of miracles had followed the same vein. So did the physiologist, physician and zoologist William Benjamin Carpenter, who preferred to see spiritualism as an “epidemic delusion”, where entire populations become psychologically “primed” to believe the extraordinary to be true almost over night.

Lastly, of course, we find the hypothesis of fraud. This was typically put forward by stage magicians, with professional stakes at risk in competition with spiritualist mediums, and a full arsenal of tricks which could easily reproduce most of the mediums’ feats. The strategy was embraced by the prioneer Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, it was used in high profile by stage magician John Neville Maskelyne, and Harry Houdini famously made a career on debunking spiritualists in the early 20th century. Again, a premiss of the arguments was that if there is a known and well-tested mechanism which can account for the observed phenomena (in this case trickery, illusion and legerdemain), that ought to be preferred for explanations invoking new mysteries. Whether mysteries of this world or another.

Nevertheless, varieties of naturalistic spiritualism have arguably been quite persistent. The resurgence of spiritualism in the post-war 1920s often came with an intellectual taste for neo-vitalism. The entire discipline of parapsychology, typically careful to swallow and reproduce the ordinary ghost story, was founded in the 1930s on suspicions of anomalous psychic and vital functions. The debates of the late 19th century seem to live on in contemporary encounters between skeptics, parapsychologists and believers in various types of “paranormal” phenomena. With variations, of course, but the general shape of arguments and positions are still recognizable.

(This post was inspired by an article by Richard Noakes, “Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural in mid-Victorian Britain”, in Bown, Burdett, and Thurschwell (eds.), The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge University Press, 2004). It makes the general point about the naturalistic controversies surrounding Victorian spiritualism - a whole field which Noakes, primarily a historian of science, has explored in a great number of other excellent articles. I will surely return to his work at later occasions.)


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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. [...] founder of Spiritism, the occult fad of otherworldly communion which swept the world in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Incidentally, the heyday of much Spiritualist activity and belief roughly coincided with the [...]

  2. [...] dedicated to the questions of immortality and survival. The quest brought him not only to observe theatrical mediums in half-lit seance rooms, but also into philosophical speculation and psychological theorizing. In the words of William [...]

  3. [...] of the popular spirit-medium Margery, and argued clearly that psychical research must move away from its connection to spiritualism (which was very strong in Boston after the war). But he also challenged the universities and [...]

  4. [...] and modern science” (I’ve written about previous classes here, here, here, here and here)we talked about the encounter between two influential thinkers of very different impact: [...]

  5. [...] Then follows an article by Joseph Laycock on a fascinating episode in the history of spiritualism: “God’s Last, Best Gift to Mankind: Gnostic Science and the Eschaton in the Vision of John Murray Spear”.  The article looks at another pet interest of mine – the relation of science and technology to esotericism – by discussing Murray Spear’s “New Motor”, a curious device described to him in the 1850s through spiritualist seances. The plans for this engine, which was sometimes called the “Physical Savior”, “Heaven’s Last Gift to Man”, “the New Creation”, the Philosopher’s Stone of All Arts”, and so on, were according to Spear delivered by a group of spirits who called themselves “The Electrizers” – a sub-committee of another spirit group going under the name of “The Association of Beneficients”. This group consisted of such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Seneca, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin – who naturally assumed the position as leader of “The Electrizers”. It’s an absolutely delightful anecdote which I might have to write more about later (meanwhile, I already blogged about spiritualism and science here). [...]

  6. [...] Maudsley, Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley – which again connects to the connections between naturalism and spiritualism I discussed earlier). Interestingly, varieties on the theme of rescuing what’s suspect of”spiritual” [...]

  7. [...] era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and [...]

  8. [...] era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and [...]

  9. [...] and defenders of various types of “natural theology”. Some of this has been mentioned earlier on the blog, concerning spiritualism, occultism, and psychical research. Central physicist of the 19th century, [...]

  10. Thank you for the enlightening quotes and your perspective and history on Victorian spiritualism. I am most aligned with A.R. Wallace’s view, recognizing as one looks historically that there is a trend toward discovery of smaller and smaller particles, and generally the discovery of many things (species, concepts, theories) not previously known.

    Have you heard of the Seth books (Jane Roberts, author and medium who not unlike Leonora Piper published several books on behalf of a “control”)? Specifically, “Unknown Reality” (Parts I and II)? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this material if you have.

    • Yes, I am familiar with Roberts and more generally the similarities of spiritualism and the later “channeling” discourse. The lengthiest discussion of it in the context of scholarship on Western esotericism, that I am aware of, is in Hanegraaff’s _New Age Religion and Western Culture_. He takes Roberts’ Set material as one of the clusters of primary sources for this phenomenon. You might check that out.

  11. [...] know what I might have to say about this, why not check out some previous posts on disenchantment, psychical research, or the relation between science and [...]

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