Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science

Fodor's magnum opus fully earns the claim to be an "encyclopaedia" (or in American English, encyclopedia) of psychic phenomena.

Those who think psychical research is a lot of tosh can stop reading now. I don't miss the company of those who willingly choose to be ignorant.

Still here? Good. In its detail, depth of scholarship, objectivity (as far as anything can be in this endlessly controversial field), and historical knowledge, nothing compares with Nandor Fodor's Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science (as the University Books edition [1966], the one on my shelf, calls it; apparently a later reprint added An to the title). As Leslie Shepard says in his foreword, "This wonderful book is the only comprehensive survey of the most amazing and baffling phenomena known to mankind."

Yet, its tone is nothing like that of New Age babble about pop mysticism, magic spells, wicca, palmistry, and other fancies intended for an undiscerning audience. Of course a wide-ranging survey is bound to include some of the same subjects; the difference is, Fodor's encyclopedia is a genuine work of psychic science. The fact that "science" in our time is so often reductionist and materialist in no way minimizes the efforts of more open-minded researchers.

Nandor Fodor was by any standard a remarkable person. As you can gather from his name, he was Hungarian by birth. (Interestingly, his career path, so to speak, resembled that of Arthur Koestler, another Hungarian who emigrated and later developed a strong interest in psychical research.) Fodor went to England, later to the United States, making a living as a newspaper writer. I'm guessing that all the while -- certainly, to judge from the information he assembled, for many years -- he mined the scientific literature of psychical research.

His other focus of interest was psychoanalysis. He was acquainted with the work of Freud and Jung, and I believe at least was personally acquainted with both. His attraction to Jungian psychology is understandable, to that of Freud not so much. It's been donkey's years since I read anything by Freud or his followers, or even much about Freud. In my view his psychoanalytic technique was mostly wrong, dogmatic, and for practical psychotherapy useless. Still, he was intellectually brilliant despite being wrong-headed, and obviously unafraid to go against conventional ideas. I've read that he took psychical research seriously.

One aspect of the book will put some people off: it was published in 1934 and as far as I know has not been updated. It is by no means, however, of purely historical interest. You could almost cite its date as the beginning of the decline in psychical research, which became unfashionable and then nearly taboo in academic and scientific circles. Nevertheless, the work done in the preceding century contains much that is still valid and some of which would have been forgotten were it not for Fodor.

Along with lengthy essays on every important topic in the field, he included short entries that show how widespread was public and professional interest in those days, the astonishing range of experimentation and phenomena produced, and the reputation of those involved. Here are just a couple of examples in the encyclopedia:
HENSLOW, Prof. GEORGE (1834-1926), a clergyman of the Church of England, a noted scholar and medallist of Christ College, Cambridge, Vice-President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1919, a celebrated authority on botany on which he wrote 16 learned works, a convinced spiritualist. In his researches he was closely associated with Archdeacon Colley and took much interest in psychic photography. He was the author of Proofs of the Truth of Spiritualism, The Religion of the Spirit World, and part author of the anonymously published Spirit Psychometry.

EVANS, FRED P., slate writing medium of San Francisco. Mediumship described in J. J. Owen's Psychography. His most remarkable feat was achieved on June 21, 1885, in San Francisco by producing thirty different spirit messages in so many hands [handwritings] on a single slate at a public seance. Many of the signatures were identified. On May 18, 1887, he produced five differently-coloured writings in the presence of Alfred Russel Wallace, also coloured portraits on paper between two slates.


If this gives you psychological indigestion, part of the reason may be that no one is performing such experiments anymore, so we have no chance to see for ourselves or validate them. But the psychics and witnesses can hardly be charged with simple-minded gullibility. Alfred Russel Wallace, you will recall, was ready to propose the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, but graciously allowed Darwin to publish first.

One more entry about a fact that has faded into obscurity or even been suppressed to "protect" Conan Doyle's reputation:
PSYCHIC MUSEUM, founded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1925 at 2, Victoria Street, London, containing an interesting collection of apports [objects that appear mysteriously "out of thin air" in the presence of mediums], automatic scripts automatic and direct sketches and paintings, paraffin moulds [a once-popular technique for capturing the impression of materialized spirits' hands and sometimes faces], photographs and other psychic objects. At present [in 1933], it is housed at the Friendship Circle, 82, Lancaster Gate, W.
Whatever happened to the collection? Does anyone now alive know, or even know that it existed? It's a safe wager that it no longer occupies prime central London real estate.

Such relatively minor descriptions give a fascinating glimpse into a world less than a century ago when psychical research was respectable. But Fodor's discussion of major topics, which can each run to 10 pages of tiny type, are of special importance.

This posting is long enough for readers who, like me, don't have a lot of spare time. Let's take a break here and continue in the next posting.


Stogie said...

Interesting! Looking forward to continuing installments.

Jung was a fascinating man. I have bought several of his books. He was interested in synchronicity and life after death, and had a near death experience himself. Yet the skeptics seem to respect him. I wonder why?

Rick Darby said...


Yes, somehow Jung found the mysterious formula for expounding paranormal concepts while staying respectable.

But he began as an acolyte of Freud, and Freudian psychoanalysis was cool at the time. He had the correct academic and professional credentials. He was Swiss, which many associate with being serious, if not stuffy.

I believe he was a little crafty as well. He handled his most controversial ideas only with tongs, calling them archetypes. No, no, he didn't say we could find God in the human consciousness, just the "God archetype"! UFOs? No, UFO archetypes!

While the concept of archetypes probably has some validity, it seems to me to have limited explanatory power for too much that goes on in the psyche. And Jung used it as a heat shield.