Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

The British organization that became the focus for the emerging field of psychical research in the nineteenth century. Its establishment was proposed on June 6, 1882, at a meeting, by Sir William F. Barrett, and on February 20, 1882, the society came into being. Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, was elected president. The first council included Barrett, Edmund Gurney, Balfour Stewart, F. W. H. Myers, Richard Hutton (all non-Spiritualists) and W. Stainton Moses, Dawson Rogers, Morell Theobald, E. N. Bennett, George Wyld, and others (all Spiritualists). The investigation of Spiritualist phenomena was to be the focus of the society's work. Eleanor Sidgwick, Frank Podmore, and Richard Hodgson were among the first to join.

The objects of the society consisted of the following points:

1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence that may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognized mode of perception.

2. The study of hypnotism and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.

3. A critical revision of Reichenbach's research with certain organizations called sensitive, and an inquiry whether such organizations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognized sensory organs.

4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.

5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.

6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects.

The early activity of the society was devoted to an experimental investigation of thought transference. They established it to their satisfaction as a fact. Equally important to this achievement was the discovery of the authors of Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers, and Podmore) that between death and apparitions a connection existed that was not due to chance alone. The report of the committee on the Census of Hallucinations came to the same conclusion. It was largely attributable to the SPR's investigation that hypnotism was officially received by the British Medical Association.

Hysteria, haunted houses, Reichenbach's phenomena, the divining rod, multiple personality, automatic writing, and trance speaking were other subjects taken up in due course.

Very valuable work was done in the study of cross-correspondence and in the investigation of the mediumship of Leonora Piper. The specific subject of communication with the dead was not included in the original program of the society, but the presumption for evidence became so strong that much of the SPR's activity was devoted to its consideration.

In 1889, the American Society for Psychical Research was affiliated. From 1887 until his death in 1905, Hodgson was in charge and concentrated most of his activity on the mystery of Piper's trance communications. This investigation is one of the most memorable events in the whole existence of the society, for, to the satisfaction of many distinguished psychical researchers, it dealt with the question of survival and the possibility of holding intercourse with the departed. Hodgson himself accepted the evidence of survival, to the great jubilation of Spiritualists, for, in the words of E. Dawson Rogers, then president of the London Spiritualist Alliance, "he was a very Saul persecuting the Christians." Officially, however, the society reached no conclusions, and in the century of its existence it has made no collective pronouncement on the question of survival, maintaining that the constitution of the society precludes a collective opinion.

At first the cooperation between the SPR and the Spiritual-ists was friendly. The line of distinction was that psychical researchers only attempted to establish the veracity of the phenomena whereas Spiritualists not only considered them proved but also attributed them to the action of disembodied spirits. Sympathy, however, soon changed to hostility as the society refused to endorse, and then in many ways became antagonistic to, the views of the Spiritualists (in spite of the personal views of many of the society's members).

Spiritualists objected to the extreme suspicion and the frequently voiced charges of fraud by psychical researchers and said that their standard of evidence, when they wished to prove fraud, was far more elastic than when the genuine occurrence of phenomena was in question.

Early resentment was shown for the treatment of mediums Kate Fox-Jencken (one of the Fox Sisters ), Henry Slade, and William Eglinton, and that this feature of the situation remained constant through a great many years is best evidenced by the statement of Sir Oliver Lodge in his book The Survival of Man, published in 1909: "It has been called a society for the suppression of facts, for the wholesale imputation of imposture, for the discouragement of the sensitive, and for the repudiation of every revelation of the kind which was said to be pressing itself upon humanity from the regions of light and knowledge."

It cannot be denied that a certain bias against physical phenomena was observable in the society. The exposure by Hodgson of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, cofounder of the Theosophical Society, of performing the same kind of tricks that were present throughout Spiritualism, appears to have prejudiced the society against this side of psychical research.

Eusapia Palladino was branded an impostor in 1895, and it was only after the society's commitment had been reduced to an amusing anachronism by many years of competent investigation all over Europe that the case was reopened in 1908. A committee was delegated to sit with her in Naples; the later verdict was in favor of Palladino.

E. N. Bennett, who was assistant secretary to the society for 20 years, published a book in 1904 under the title Twenty Years of Psychical Research. It is a review of the work of the society and states:

" the question of the movement of tables without contact is exactly in the state in which it was left by the Dialectical Society in the year 1869. In all the series of the Proceedings there is no light whatever thrown on this simple phenomenon. Some investigation was made as regards direct writing and spirit photography, but to a large extent with negative result.'

As far as the official attitude of the society is concerned the question is in about the same state even now. In a century of research, not a single physical phenomenon has been established as an unquestionably genuine fact. This attitude of reserve and the gradual dying out of the first famous group of psychical investigators dimmed the luster of the society for many years. The society could have never been accused of being unduly credulous. Only the most hostile and defensive of debunkers could disagree with William James in his widely read volume, The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1902), "In fact, were I asked to point to a scientific journal where hard-headedness and never-sleeping suspicion of sources of error might be seen in their full bloom, I think that I should have to fall back on the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research."

The reserve shown by the society, so necessary if the findings of psychical research were to be integrated into the larger body of scientific knowledge, led to criticism by those who had too quickly jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Otherwise outstanding scientists such as Gustav Geley scathingly criticized the society's report on Eva C. The William Hope scandal reflected on the good reputation of the society. In public protest against its methods, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resigned his membership in 1930. His example (as pointed out in an indictment by H. Dennis Bradley ) was followed by some other members supporting his views. This indictment was published in the daily press in March 1931 but elicited no public reply on the part of the society.

In his Jubilee address in June 1932, Sir Oliver Lodge remarked that up to that time, in its corporate capacity, the society had entertained no corporate conviction and reported no progress except to the extent that it might have committed itself to a corporate belief in telepathy. He also remarked:

"Many of us are now similarly convinced of the reality of a spiritual world and of its interaction with this world. I wonder whether it would be premature to say so and thus show that we are not merely working towards some unknown and perhaps unprofitable end, but are really in our opinion making progress. I suggest that time has now arrived and that during the next 50 years we might announce this as a verified hypothesis and use it as an explanation of occurrences in which it is evidently an operative factor."

Against criticisms of negative or over-skeptical attitudes, it must be said that the society has maintained a high standard of investigation and discussion. The middle period of elitism and rejection has long passed; the membership has broadened and the scope of investigations is a wide one. In the middle of the twentieth century the society went through a shift from emphasis on psychical research to laboratory experimental parapsychology. The society has successfully avoided the uncritical contagion of the "occult explosion" of the 1960s and also the negative backlash of the 1980s, and has thus retained its leadership in the scientific investigation of the paranormal in England.

The style of contributions to the society's Journal and Proceedings now varies from the simple clarity of a down-to-earth investigation to the highly technical project heavily structured with statistical analysis. Members hold a wide variety of viewpoints and there are lively and stimulating controversies.

The presidential chair of the society has been filled by a veritable who's who of the leading researchers in the field and public personalities who have lent their names to the cause. They include: Henry Sidgwick, 1882-84; Balfour Stewart, 1885-87; Henry Sidgwick, 1888-92; Arthur James Balfour, 1893; William James, 1894-95; Sir William Crookes, 1896-99; F. W. H. Myers, 1900; Sir Oliver Lodge, 1901-03; Sir William Barrett, 1904; Charles Richet, 1905; Gerald William Balfour, 1906-07; Eleanor Sidgwick, 1908-09; H. Arthur Smith, 1910; Andrew Lang, 1911; The Rt. Rev. Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter, 1912; Henri Bergson, 1913; F. C. S. Schiller, 1914; Gilbert Murray, 1915-16; L. P. Jacks, 1917-18; John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), 1919; William McDougall, 1920-21; T. W. Mitchell, 1922; Camille Flammarion, 1923; J. G. Piddington, 1924-25; Hans Driesch, 1926-27; Sir Lawrence J. Jones, 1928-29; Walter Franklin Prince, 1930-31; Eleanor Sidgwick (President of Honour) and Sir Oliver Lodge, 1932; Dame Edith Lyttelton, 1933-34; C. D. Broad, 1935-36; R. J. Strutt (Baron Rayleigh), 1937-38; Henry Habberley Price, 1939-41; Robert H. Thouless, 1942-44; G. N. M. Tyrrell, 1945-46; W.H. Slater, 1947-48; Gardner Murphy, 1949-50; S. G. Soal, 1950-51; Gilbert Murray, 1952; F. J. M. Stratton, 1953-55; G.W. Lambert, 1955-58; C. D. Broad, 1958-60; Henry Habberley Price, 1960-61; E. R. Dodds, 1961-63; D. J. West, 1963-65; Sir Alister Hardy, 1965-69; W. A. H. Rushton, 1969-71; C. W. K. Mundle, 1971-74; John Beloff, 1974-76;A. J. Ellison, 1976-79; J. B. Rhine, 1980; Louisa E. Rhine, 1980; A. J. Ellison, 1981-83; D. J. West, 1983-87; Ian Stevenson, 1988-89; Alan Gauld, 1989-92; Archie E. Roy, 1992-95; David G. J. Fontana, 1995-98; D. J. West, 1998-2000.

In addition to the Journal and Proceedings, the society has published a number of books and pamphlets on a wide range of topics concerned with psychical research as well as recordings of important lectures. It also publishes its own quarterly Paranormal Review.

The society is headquartered at 49 Marloes Rd., Kensington, London, W8 6LA, England. Website:


Grattan-Guinness, Ivor, ed. Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History, Principles and Practices, in Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research. London: Aquarian Press, 1982.

Haynes, Renee. The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History. London: MacDonald, 1982.

Thouless, R. H. Psychical Research Past and Present. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1952.

Society for Psychic Research (Australia)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Society for Psychic Research (Australia)

The Society for Psychic Research was founded in 1933 by Spiritualists who wished to assemble evidence that human personality survives death. Spiritualism, as a religion, has as a major objective obtaining proof that humans survive into a spirit existence. While it carried on occasional research, none of the society's work was scientifically valid, and the major effect of the organization was to stimulate the Australian public's interest in psychical research.

The society continued to function into the 1980s; however, during the last years of its existence it gave up all pretense of being a research organization. It moved its headquarters into a personal growth center and operated a referral agency for various mediums and psychic readers.

Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

views updated May 23 2018

Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

during a lecture given to the society for psychical research (spr) in 1919, carl g. jung said, "i shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything i cannot explain as fraud." still located in kensington, london, the society offers research and data available both in classrooms and lecture halls in london, or over the internet. its said purpose is to advance the understanding of events and abilities commonly described as "psychic" or "paranormal" in a scientific manner. scheduled conferences and lectures are offered on the website in addition to paranormal review, journals, books, and research initiatives.


society for psychical research. 15 october 2001.

Society for Psychic Research (California)

views updated May 21 2018

Society for Psychic Research (California)

Present name of the organization for many years known as the Southern California Society for Psychical Research. Not to be confused with the long-established British organization, the California group conducts research into extrasensory perception, altered states of consciousness, and related subjects, and it issues a monthly newsletter to members.

Current address unavailable.

About this article

Society for Psychical Research

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic


Society for Psychical Research