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The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914

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An examination of the public fascination with spiritualism and psychical research in Britain from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The book explores the variety of social background, education, and professional expertise that characterized the men and women who attended seances and investigated psychic phenomena, and places them in the context of their ti An examination of the public fascination with spiritualism and psychical research in Britain from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The book explores the variety of social background, education, and professional expertise that characterized the men and women who attended seances and investigated psychic phenomena, and places them in the context of their times without ridiculing their beliefs.


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An examination of the public fascination with spiritualism and psychical research in Britain from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The book explores the variety of social background, education, and professional expertise that characterized the men and women who attended seances and investigated psychic phenomena, and places them in the context of their ti An examination of the public fascination with spiritualism and psychical research in Britain from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The book explores the variety of social background, education, and professional expertise that characterized the men and women who attended seances and investigated psychic phenomena, and places them in the context of their times without ridiculing their beliefs.

48 review for The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914

  1. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Buhs

    Seminal--dated--but still worth reading, to see a first-class mind battle against itself. Janet Oppenheim may not have been the very first historian to take seriously the vogue for spiritualism (and its scientific investigation by the Society for Psychical Research), but her book is exhaustive and did important brush-clearing, making way for a considered investigation of this subject, rather than just dismissing it as an embarrassing historical episode. As far as I know, the book is still the sin Seminal--dated--but still worth reading, to see a first-class mind battle against itself. Janet Oppenheim may not have been the very first historian to take seriously the vogue for spiritualism (and its scientific investigation by the Society for Psychical Research), but her book is exhaustive and did important brush-clearing, making way for a considered investigation of this subject, rather than just dismissing it as an embarrassing historical episode. As far as I know, the book is still the single best introduction to the SPR, its place in British Society, its contours, and the ideas it espoused. Part I--comprised of two chapters--gives an overview of spiritualism's development within Britiain--especially sparked by the anomalous Daniel Dungals Home--and how it appealed to the professional middle-class as well as those parts of the working-class that had the time and inclination for the study of scientific and cultural developments. She comments on the many different organizations that arose around it, especially the SPR, which was staffed by respected, mostly well-bred British men and women, many of whom had distinguished scientific pedigrees. The second section--this time three chapters--pushes her case that spiritualism was a surrogate faith. She notes that many Victorians were torn up by the rise of materialism and the explanatory power of science, and the decreasing credibility of orthodox religion as cultural force. Spiritualism, and its study, appealed to those most caught up in the dynamic in various ways--some saw it as a replacement for Christianity, others as a supplement and support, others as a way to bring the study of spirit back to science and philosophy. Spiritualism necessarily abutted Theosophy, and the two movements shared a great deal--including a largely progressive and liberalizing tendency--but differed starkly over how to understand communion with the dead. That was the founding principle of spiritualism--even if members of the SPR dampened this understanding of spiritualism--while Theosophy looked askance on such practices, worrying about the effects of evil voices speaking as the dead. The third section looks at the relationship between the SPR and science as it is more properly understood. There are again three chapters, on on the relationship between spiritualism and the mind-sciences, one on evolution, and one on physics. The book is gracefully written, and Oppenheim as a firm grasp on manifest subjects about which she writes, as well as an incisive understanding of the people involved. It is a great historical narrative, with all the best attributes of history--story-telling, social context, theoretical structure, rich empirical detail--brought to bear on a topic that seems unworthy: this is the kind of historical monograph one would expect on, say, the Founding Fathers of America, or German philosophers, or some such. That's not to say this topic is unworthy of such consideration--I certainly don't think so--but to say that the book is unjustly known only to specialists, when it should be more widely read. What's most interesting, to me, reading this book some three decades after it was published--and 20 years after Oppenheim died, much too young--is watching the push and pull of her writing against herself, one part of her reaching for large, overarching themes, another part of her pointing to the evidence and detail, which is so messy, and hard to fit into the schema. (In a similar vein, I think of Jonathan Harwood's book on genetics and national styles.) This push and pull is so visible now because her thesis is a bit dated. Broadly speaking, Oppenheim took spiritualism to be a surrogate faith, a way of re-enchanting a world drained of spirit by the rise of materialistic science. She saw it as too closely allied with occultism, a siren song for professionals who were skeptical of the official church, but also looking for something to replace it. Spiritualism, in her reckoning, especially as described by the SPR, was dressed in the clothes of science, but it was never really science: it aped the vocabulary of psychology, evolution, and physics, without really contributing to those disciplines. In the end, she concludes, humbly, that spiritualism is worth studying because those who supported it, and investigated--while mostly offering absurd answers, amid a few that might yet prove correct--were wrestling with fundamental issues of their day, and so should be taken seriously. (Indeed, she even allows there might be some anomalies yet to be explained, such as the mediumship of Homes.) Since her brush-clearing efforts, others have worked over the same, and related material, and come to a more nuanced vision of the place of the SPR in Victorian culture. There wasn't so much of a re-enchantment, as a continued enchantment, with magic and spirit always fitting into descriptions of reality. Nor is it so easy to conclude that spiritualism was a pseudoscience, full stop. The ruptures she sees between spiritualism and the sciences others have shown to be continua, with mesmerism and spiritualism feeding directly into psychology, with discussions of spiritual realms and telepathy part of the discourse of physics--even if, as she says, it was more on the fringe than at the center. Similarly, it's no so easy to class spiritualism as a faith, a religious activity--and certainly not just a surrogate faith. What we know now, thanks tot he writings of John Modern and Wouter Hanegraaff and Catherine Albanese--is that spiritualism existed at the juncture of science and religion, it was a response to secularism, ironic in its way--of knowing that the world had secularized, that the choice among religious faiths was greater than ever--but could not be reduced to faith, or Christianity's replacement, at least not usually. Reading this book, though, it's clear that Oppenheim knew all of this, too. For every broad, theoretical claim quickly qualified--she understood the history too well, and the book provides enough evidence to read against her very own claims. Spiritualism was a surrogate faith for Frederic Myers, that seems clear, and probably Oliver Lodge, especially later in his life, but for others ti meant so many other things--including those who saw it as a science, strictly speaking, a way of discovering new physical laws. Oppenheim saw this--she just seemed reluctant to go against the scientific consensus and admit that spiritualism was so deeply implicated in science as t only be reckoned a pseudoscience in retrospect. (That is to say, she had Whiggish tendencies.) She knew, as well, that British science at the time was only itself emerging as a professional activity, and that the seemingly philosophical battles between theology and science had a strong professional dimension--and that this was part of the reason why spiritualism was such a problem for the likes of Tyndale and Huxley. I think she would have been better off engaging more with the history of science, particularly work being put out by the Edinburgh school and Frank Turner, which might have pushed her harder in this direction. But the point is, she knew the material so well, and covered it so well, that even the books being written today, which chip away at her main theses and re-characterize the period--these books are built on ground she already cleared, with evidence she already uncovered. That's the mark of a great book, that it remains relevant even as it is superseded.

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    Mxri

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