William McDougall and the Professionalization of Parapsychology

William McDougall (1871-1938): British psychologist, eugenical agitator, and professionalizer of parapsychology.

It is admittedly with some pride I notice that my very first history of science article has now been published. Since I am essentially an autodidact when it comes to history of science/science studies it was important for me to get through the peer review process of the Journal for the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Additionally, a scholarly discourse on psychical research and parapsychology has been developing on the pages of JHBS over the last few years, especially with articles by Heather Wolffram, Courtenay Grean Raia, and Sofie Lachapelle. I hope to make a modestly contribute to this developing discourse with “A nice arrangement of heterodoxies: William McDougall and the professionalization of psychical research”.

The article tries to achieve two connected things. First, I wanted to introduce and develop some conceptual tools which I have found for the most part lacking in the historiographical literature on parapsychology. Particularly, I found some insights of actor-network theory (ANT) to be helpful, together with Thomas Gieryn’s concept of boundary-work. By combining them I attempted to make a model which could account for parapsychology’s relative success, despite its apparent lack of any scientific breakthroughs worth speaking of. It also helps to compare and begin to explain unsuccessful and successful attempts at institutionalization, which I illustrate in the article.

Secondly, using this model I make an argument for giving more credit to British psychologist William McDougall (1871-1938) when we are discussing the professionalization of modern parapsychology. The parenthood of the discipline has usually been attributed to Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980), who famously worked his parapsychology lab at Duke University from the 1930s. McDougall, who was Rhine’s supervisor and head of department, has been given surprisingly little attention.

Actually, a consequence of adopting an ANT-perspective (yes, it is a silly-sounding acronym) is that we don’t talk about “heroes” and “fathers” so much, so my point was not simply to dethrone Rhine and instate McDougall. Rather I attempt to show how McDougall worked to enlist a number of scientific, religious, ethical, political and philosophical issues and causes into a wide “actor-network” which finally pushed through the institutionalization and professionalization of parapsychology. Rhine was another link in this chain, but McDougall was really more important as the orchestrator.

Exploring the links that were made between psychical research and other issues take us through what I called “a nice arrangement of heterodoxies”. McDougall was an avid supporter of eugenics, a neo-vitalist, a Lamarckian, a strong opponent of behaviorism, and a an outspoken defender of mind/body dualism (or “animism”, as he preferred to call it). And he found connections to all of these in psychical research (the arguments are reconstructed in the article).

Chain of discourses linking psychical research and eugenics (p. 138)

Given these disparate interests of his it is not surprising that McDougall was a man surrounded by controversies. The best known one is probably his dispute with Watson over behaviorism, resulting in their joint publication in 1929, The Battle of Behaviorism: An Exposition and an Exposure. Additionally, his particular views on eugenics and the prevention of degeneration made him rather unpopular; the statement, made the same year as he moved to Boston to take up the William James chair of psychology at Harvard in 1920, that America had a problem with dwindling intelligence ratios did not go very well with his new citizens. One critic dubbed him “an American Nietzschean reactionary” as a consequence.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in establishing an official space for parapsychology. His clear boundary-work was certainly important in this respect. Throughout the 1920s McDougall used opportunities to speak and write clearly about what psychical research ought to be, and what it is not. He took issues with spiritualists, caused a stir which ended in schisms in the Boston SPR after more or less endorsing Harry Houdini’s exposure 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 academic policymakers, to argue his case that psychical research belong in professional academia. Among other strategies, this was done by contesting the concept of agnosticism, described as that “higher kind of ignorance” which  cries “ignorabimus!” in the face of whole fields of knowledge. McDougall was epistemologically more optimistic, and argued that a truly scientific study of man’s “psychic function” was not only possible, but vitally important for science and society.

Joseph and Louisa Banks Rhine

In 1927 he was given the chance. Invited to fill the position as head of a new psychology department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, McDougall started experimenting  with all of his pet subjects. A lab was set up for exploring Lamarckian inheritance in rats – experiments which went on for seven years, claiming significant results and getting good reviews by journals such as American Naturalist and Eugenics Review. At the same time, he investigated “Lady”, the mind-reading horse. More importantly though, he took the ambitious botanist Joseph Banks Rhine under his wing, and gave him the means and supervision to research parapsychology in proper laboratory settings. The outcome is well-known: Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception set the standard for the transformation of psychical research to experimental parapsychology. The Duke laboratory became the HQ for the consequent spread of modern parapsychology to the rest of the world.

Here’s the full reference:

Asprem, E. A Nice arrangement of heterodoxies: William McDougall and the professionalization of psychical research. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 46:2 (2010), 123-143.

Since the abstract is missing from the online edition for some reason, I paste in what I sent them here:

Joseph Banks Rhine (1895–1980) is usually considered the founder of modern professional parapsychology. Through his work at Duke University in the 1930s, he established a working research program (in the Lakatosian sense) for the controversial discipline, setting down various methodological standards and experimental procedures. Despite Rhine’s clear and important influence on modern parapsychology, this article argues that he came to a stage that had already been set. Adopting recent theoretical advances in the study of scientific professionalization, it is argued that Rhine’s mentor, the controversial British psychologist William McDougall (1871–1938), has a stronger claim to the parenthood of modern parapsychology than is typically recognized. Following McDougall’s attempts to carve out and establish an institutional space for professionalized psychical research in the 1920s America, furthermore, takes us to little explored connections between psychical research, Lamarckism, neo-vitalism and policies of eugenics.


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


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Cool! Always wanted to look more closely at J.B Rhine and McDougall. I’ve done work on the history of French psychical research and parapsychology, through Charles Richet in particular. In fact, Lachapelle follows pretty closely on many of the same themes as my Master’s thesis. Vitalism proper is more my subject at the moment, and there are so many fascinating interconnections in this interwar period between esoterism and science that run through that concept.

  2. I’d be interested in hearing more about your MA thesis, and any other work you may be doing on interwar psychical research, or other esotericism-science connections.

  3. Will do. Do you know anything about Hans Driesch? Interesting character…

    • Yes, although he’s not a very central part of what I am doing at the moment, I am interested in Driesch with relation to vitalism, psychical research, and biology in the period. He was a very important link supplying connections between these discourses; a kind of German and scientific counterpart to the literary and philosophical work of Bergson in France.

  4. […] excluded or displaced ancestors also seems to be of relevance for some of my own research. I have argued that the psychologist William McDougall was the real founder of professional parapsychology in the 1930s. While his enthusiasm for eugenics […]

  5. […] United States in the 1920s, the most vociferous enemy of behaviourism was the English psychologist William McDougall, professor at Harvard, and a leading figure in the British and American Societies….[18] Although a respected academic psychologist, McDougall was a controversial figure in his own […]

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