Recent Scholarship on Spiritualism and Science

Authored by: Christine Ferguson

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


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In 1974, when nineteenth-century spiritualism was just beginning to be reconstituted as a legitimate object for serious historical inquiry, Malcolm Jay Kottler lamented that ‘it has been forgotten, ignored, or perhaps never known … that in the second half of the nineteenth century a considerable number of renowned scientists were favourably disposed toward … psychical phenomena’. 1 1

Malcolm Jay Kottler, ‘Alfred Russel Wallace, the Origin of Man, and Spiritualism’, Isis, 65.2 (June 1974): 145–92 (p. 145).

Since then, and largely as a result of pioneering history of science studies such as Kottler’s, this seemingly lost affinity has been recovered. Now the links between Victorian science and spiritualism are so well established as to be virtually truistic in the scholarship on the movement, second in ubiquity only to the assertions of spiritualism’s potential for feminist emancipation and gender subversion. 2 2

Examples of recent scholarship on the continuities between nineteenth-century spiritualism and science include Eleana Gomel, ‘“Spirits in the Material World”: Spiritualism and Identity in the Fin de Siècle’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35.1 (2007): 189–213; Peter Lamont, ‘Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence’, The Historical Journal, 47.4 (December 2004): 897–920; Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy: 1870–1901 (Oxford, 2002); John Warne Monroe, Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France (Ithaca, NY, 2008); Richard Noakes, ‘Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain’, in Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell (eds), The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 23–43; Jon Palfreman, ‘Between Scepticism and Credulity: A Study of Victorian Scientific Attitudes to Modern Spiritualism’, in Roy Wallis (ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge (Keele, 1979), pp. 201–36, pp. 210–23; Judith Walkowitz, ‘Science and the Séance: Transgressions of Gender in Late Victorian London’, Representations, 22 (1988): 3–28.

This new awareness has effectively challenged the supremacy of the crisis of faith hypothesis hitherto used to account for the popularity of séances and mysticism in a technologically sophisticated and ostensibly rational era. No longer is spiritualism viewed as a purely reactionary formation, a desperate, backwards clinging to the consolatory faith in spiritual immortality that contemporary science was rapidly eroding; now believers are instead usually painted as iconoclastic radicals whose convictions stemmed not from opposition but deference to the logic of a newly authoritative empirical epistemology, one which insisted that knowledge be derived from direct observation rather than faith. It is this empiricist edge which, according to Elana Gomel and others, distinguishes Victorian spiritualism from earlier forms of mystical belief. 3 3

See also Monroe, Laboratories of Faith; Noakes, ‘Spiritualism, Science, and the Supernatural’; and William H. Brock, William Crookes (1832–1919) and the Commercialization of Science (Burlington VT, (2008).

Writing in 2007, she states, ‘Spiritualism was only an exaggeration of a general nineteenth-century trend: the quest for the science of the supernatural … the modern concept of the supernatural is a by-product of scientific empiricism.’ 4 4

Gomel, ‘“Spirits in the Material World”’, pp. 194–5.

Some, including myself, might question the alleged novelty of science and spiritualism’s consilience in the nineteenth century – after all, as Thomas Laqueur writes, ‘Every age, and not just the modern age, has felt the need to make its religious beliefs comport somehow with the best scientific and philosophical learning of its day’. 5 5

Thomas Laqueur, ‘Why the Margins Matter: Occultism and the Making of Modernity’, Modern Intellectual History, 3.1 (2006): 111–35, p. 119.

There can be no doubt, however, that the rhetorical structures and Darwinist paradigms through which this synthesis came to be imagined in the Victorian period were decidedly new, reflecting, among other things, spiritualism’s defiantly democratic exotericism and science’s nascent professional status and cultural authority.

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