“Frederic Myers will always be remembered in psychology as the pioneer who staked out a vast tract of mental wilderness and planted the flag of genuine science upon it.” With these words the far more famous American psychologist and philosopher, William James, concluded his 1901 obituary of British classicist, amateur psychologist and founding member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Frederic W. F. Myers (1843-1901). According to James, Myers’ work would set a new standard for the psychological sciences of the 20th century. More than a decade into the 21st, the name is mostly remembered by parapsychologists and historians with an interest in the quirkier twists that psychology could have taken.
Myers was educated a classicis, and a school inspector by profession, but spent most of his intellectual attention on the prospective discipline of psychical research. Disenchanted with Christianity and dissatisfied with the worldview of the scientific naturalists, he exhibited an intellectual yearning, at the same time scientific, religious and philosophical, which was not uncommon of his generation. Most of all, Myers wanted to find proof that something of the human psyche survived the death of the physical organism.
According to one of his biographers, F. M. Turner (1974), the problem of death and immortality had haunted Myers since his childhood, when at the age of six he saw a mole crushed to death by a cart. Asking his mother what became of the poor mole now did not produce comfort, when she replied that the mole would never live again. “[T]he first horror of a death without resurrection rose in my bursting heart,” Myers recalled, 45 years later.
Whether this childhood event primed him for things later to come or not, the fact remains that Myers’ life work was 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 James, it led him to produce an entirely romantic and “gothic” psychology.
More specifically, it led him to produce the theory of the “Subliminal Self”. This concept, which was intended to encapsulate a full theory of the human psyche, was first suggested to the SPR in 1892. In broad strokes, the point was that “the stream of consciousness in which we habitually live is not the only consciousness which exists in connection with our organism”, and that this habitual consciousness is not even necessarily in any privileged position. Particularly, Myers distinguished between the supraliminal and the subliminal – a parallel to distinctions between the conscious and unconscious which had been developing for some time already, e.g. in the works of Janet, Charcot, and Freud. In Myers’ scheme, the supraliminal was our everyday waking consciousness, while everything which was subliminal – “below the border” – was unknown, part from sudden ruptures and irrationalities.
Pioneering into the subliminal region and charting out its anatomy was Myers’ goal in psychology. In it, he found both a rubbish heap and a treasure trove. The “rubbish” of our evolutionary baggage, quirks instincts, irrational passions and behaviours which we have accumulated as a species and which from time to time emerge from our biological organism. The subliminal treasure, on the other hand, stemmed from a far more exalted source. Building on what was essentially a neoplatonic cosmology and anthropology, the continuum of personality, of interpenetrating layers of being, which Myers conceptualised, held room for a part of the psyche, the “soul”, belonging outside of terrene existence. Mixing neoplatonism with 19th century physics, Myers called this otherworldly place the “metetherial” existence, beyond the ether, the universal medium of energy which also mediated between the physical and extra-physical worlds.
Myers’ quest in psychical research and abnormal psychology was thus to find traces of such “higher faculties”. Not surprisingly, he found them in the mediumistic phenomena of spiritualism. Telepathy, the ostensibly “extra-sensory” form of communication which Myers himself coined the term for (one of many neologisms for which he was responsible), was a favorite.
Myers’ main work was only published two years after his death, as Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). This two volume book combined cases, notes, and essays written and collected over a couple decades of psychical research. It introduced Myers’ theories in full, his classification schemes and neologisms, and many commentaries on the direction of both science and religion.
The profound fascination for these bizarre psychological phenomena and behaviours was what William James referred to in his obituary. In it, he made a distinction between the “classic-academic” psychologist, which had been the dominating type, and the “romantic”. In the classic-academic outlook of the human psyche, James contended, the mind was portrayed like a sunlit terrace: “But where the terrace stopped, the mind stopped; and there was nothing farther left to tell of … .” By contrast, the romantic immersed himself in obscurities:
“[O]f late years the terrace has been overrun by romantic improvers, and to pass to their work is like going from classic to Gothic architecture, where few outlines are pure and where uncouth forms lurke in the shadows. A mass of mental phenomena are now seen in the shrubbery beyond the parapet. Fantastic, ignoble, hardly human, or frankly nonhuman are some of these new candidates for psychological description. The menagerie and the madhouse, the nursery, the prison, and the hospital, have been made to deliver up their material. The world of the mind is shown as something infinitely more complex than was suspected; and whatever beauties it may still possess, it has lost at any rate the beauty of academic neatness.”
Despite many approvals and clear reverence for Myers’ work, James remained more cautious when it came to the actual claims about the immortality of souls. In questions such as these, James was more comfortable being the agnostic than his friend and colleague in psychical research (James himself was a founder of the American SPR, as well as its president). He even admitted that the many advantages of Myers’ scholarship would be “of no avail … if one has struck to a false road from the outset.”
“should it turn out that Frederic Myers has really hit the right road by his divining instinct, it is certain that, like the names of others who have been wise, his name will keep an honorable place in scientific history.”
More than a century after these words were written, it feels safe to say that the honorable place was never obtained. As it turned out, however, the man writing the obituary has had a much stronger claim to that position.
(For references, see: F. M. Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in England, Yale University Press, 1974; F. M. W. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, 1903; W. James, “Frederic Myers’ Service to Psychology, Proceedings of the S.P.R. Vol. 17 (1901)).
This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.