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.
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.)
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.