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Flournoy, Théodore (1854-1920)


A medical doctor and professor of physiological psychology at the University of Geneva, Théodore Flournoy was born in Geneva on August 15, 1854, and died, also in Geneva, on November 5, 1920. He was the son of Alexandre Flournoy and Caroline Claparède, sister of the naturalistÉdouard Claparède.

Interested in philosophy and religion, Théodore Flournoy spent time in Germany to familiarize himself with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whose work he later taught at the university. After becoming a medical doctor, he was appointed a professor of physiological psychology at the University of Geneva in 1891.

His studies of the medium Hélène Smith were turned into a book, Des Indesà la planète Mars, which caused a considerable sensation in psychological and parapsychological circles in Europe and the United States. In it he described the phenomenon of "cryptamnesia," forgotten memories that reappear without being recognized by the subject, who believes they are new. These memories disappear because of their association with childhood sexual emotions. These involve a "subliminal process capable of achieving a degree of complexity and extent comparable to the work of composition and reflection in the thinker or novelist." They are "reminiscences or momentary returns to earlier phases, which have long since been forgotten and which, normally, should have been absorbed during the individual's development instead of recurring in strange forms."

Cryptamnesia is unconscious. "The unconscious possesses a marvelous ability for dramatization, personification, and psychological proliferation; it is endowed with a creative imagination." Flournoy went on to claim that "The unconscious, [is a] submerged sphere from which our instinct for physical and moral preservation confusedly arise, our feelings about sex, about spiritual and physical shame, everything that is most obscure and the least rational in the individual." Concerning dreams, he wrote "By rising up from our hidden source, by throwing light on the intrinsic nature of our unconscious emotions, by revealing our ulterior motives and the instinctive slope of our associations of ideas, the dream is often an instructive probe into the unknown layers that support our ordinary personality."

Flournoy used these hypotheses to explain the supranormal or parapsychological phenomena he studied. They helped compensate for the obscurity and misery of everyday life, attempted to realize sexual desires arising from a forgotten childhood, and served as defenses against internal threats of madness.

Freud was writing about the process of infantile amnesia at the same time, and it is clear just how close Flournoy's claims were to Freud's position. However, unlike Freud, Flournoy does not mention repression or the return of the repressedthe concept that enabled Freud to conceive of a dynamic therapybut limited himself to cryptamnesia, locating the path to consciousness in subliminal activity. Like his friends William James and Frederick Myers, Flournoy did not treat patients; these men were observersthough that did not prevent them from proposing hypotheses for acting on and modifying phenomena.

Concerning the principle of parallelism, Flournoy's aims were diametrically opposite those of Freud. Both men excluded transcendence from their investigations, but Flournoy did so in the hope of discovering it, free of human taint, while Freud tried to eliminate it, especially in postulating the existence of erogenous zones at the start of life and the death instinct at the end, hoping to see the reign of science govern the study of the mind.

In 1901 Flournoy, with his cousinÉdouard Claparède, founded Les Archives de psychologie, a review that was later taken over by Jean Piaget. He corresponded with Ferdinand de Saussure, whom he knew personally, along with other well-known linguists. His son Henri and his grandson Olivier became psychoanalysts. His daughter, Ariane, married psychoanalyst Raymond de Saussure.

Olivier Flournoy

See also: Archives de psychologie, Les ; Claparede,Édouard; Cryptomnesia; Flournoy, Henri; Psychology of the Unconscious, The .


Flournoy, Olivier. (1986). Théodore et Léopold: de Théodore Flournoyà la psychanalyse. Neuchâtel: La Baconnière.

Flournoy, Théodore. (1890). Métaphysique et psychologie. Geneva: Georg.

. (1900). Des Indes à la planète Mars. Paris: Le Seuil.

. (1902). Nouvelles observations sur un cas de somnambulisme avec glossolalie. Les archives de psychologie, I.

. (1911). Esprits et médiums. Geneva: Kundig and Fischbacher.

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Flournoy, Theodore (1854-1920)

Flournoy, Theodore (1854-1920)

Professor of psychology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and a noted psychical researcher. Flournoy was born August 15, 1854, and studied at the University of Strasbourg Medical School. From 1891 to 1919 he taught physiological psychology, experimental psychology, and the philosophy of science at the University of Geneva. He published many important works on medicine and psychology, including Des Phénomènes de Synapsie (Phenomena of Synapsis) (1893), Les Principes de la psychologie religieuse (1903), and Le Genie religieux (1904).

He became interested in mediumship, which led to his writing one of the more famous books in psychical research, Des Indes à la Planète Mars (1900), translated as From India to the Planet Mars in 1901. This was the sensation of the year, and the passage of time has in no way affected its unusual scientific worth or mitigated its absorbing interest. The book deals with the mediumship of Hélène Smith, to whose circle Flournoy was first admitted in the winter of 1894-95. It was published at a time when the work of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, and information on the mediumship of Lenora Piper had prepared a large part of the public for scientific revelation regarding another life.

Flournoy's book, written with erudition and a vivid sense of humor and irony, questioned many Spiritualistic beliefs and threw great doubt on the ascertainability of the extramundane existence of the entities that appear to communicate through mediums. He admitted many puzzling phenomena in the history of Smith's mediumship, however. He found the Hindu reincarnation remarkably real, and he could not offer an explanation for the medium's knowledge of remote historical incidents and traces of the Sanskrit language.

The arguments he advanced to prove that the communicators were subconscious impersonations were most impressive. He saw no reason to surrender this attitude in his subsequent Nouvelles Observations sur un cas de Somnambulisme (Geneva, 1902).

The reality of other psychic phenomena, such as telekinesis, telepathy, and clairvoyance, he did not doubt. He became convinced of telekinesis through his experiences with Eusapia Palladino and he found sufficient proof of telepathy in the re-search of the SPR.

Flournoy investigated the question of apparitions of the dying and the dead as early as 1898 by addressing a questionnaire to the members of the Societé des Études Psychiques and others concerning their personal experiences. He received 72 replies and published his conclusions in February 1899 in the Revue philosophique. Because he did not accept the narratives at their face value he was accused of suppressing evidence.

Feeling honor-bound to publish the correspondence in full, he included it in a later work, Esprits et Médiums, Mélanges de Métapsychique et de Psychologie (Paris, 1911), translated into English in an abridgment under the title Spiritism and Psychology in the same year. It is a book of reference and contains a detailed exposition of his conclusions regarding psychical re-search and survival. Flournoy believed in the survival of the soul but not in experimental communications with the dead. He referred briefly to Lenora Piper's mediumship and the evidence of cross-correspondence but was hesitant in offering telepathy as an explanation.

Flournoy died November 5, 1920.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Flournoy, Theodore. Esprits et Médiums, Mélanges de Métapsychique et de Psychologie. Geneva: Libraire Kundig, 1911. Translated by Hereward Carrington and abridged as Spiritism and Psychology. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1911.

. Des Indes à la Planète Mars. 1900. Translated as From India to the Planet Mars. New York: Harper, 1901.

. The Philosophy of William James. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

LeClair, R. C. The Letters of William James and Theodore Flournoy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

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