F. W. H. Myers
|Style over substance|
Myers coined the term "telepathy", and he is best known for his book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, written in 1893 and published posthumously in 1903. The book attempted to analyze abnormal psychological phenomena, and allegedly "supernormal" phenomena, and tie all of this together in an attempt to prove the human soul. He was influenced by, and influenced William James, and William McDougall thought positively of his work. However, the scientific community as a whole did not accept it. The book Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology of the 21st Century, which attempted to corroborate Myers' views and update them for the 21st century, received some support from fringe academics, but was shot down in mainstream reviews.
Various allegations of sexual deviance were launched against Myers by Trevor Hall and others which have been found by subsequent scholarship to be mistaken. Myers and his colleague Edmund Gurney did however display credulity with their tendency to be overly accepting of uncorroborated claimed paranormal occurrences which were later found to be false:
- Trevor Hamilton, Myers' biographer, noted the credulity and will to believe of Gurney and Myers in their acceptance of an uncorroborated tale of an apparition from the judge Edmund Hornby. He wrote:
Those who mocked the Spookical Society were delighted by the Edmund Hornby fiasco, the first of several embarrassing episodes that damaged — but did not destroy — the Society's reputation for investigative competence. Sir Edmund Hornby was a very grand figure indeed. As Fraser Nicol states, 'the case was printed very largely as an act of faith in Sir Edmund's testimony (though ostensibly confirmed by his wife)' (Nicol 1972: 352). And what a case! Sir Edmund had the grand title of Chief Judge of the Supreme consular court of China and was based in Shanghai. His customary practice was, the night before he gave written judgments in court, to brief favored journalists on his verdict, so they could catch the morning press. On one occasion he was awoken, he stated just after one in the morning, by a journalist asking for his judgement. Sir Edmund, though enraged, gave him the report verbally. The journalist said this would be the last time they met. Lady Hornby, aroused by the noise, was told by the judge what had happened. She later confirmed this. The following day it was found that the reporter had been working on this very story at the time of his death, which was about the time Hornby had seen him in his bedroom. This story was one of the more vivid tales in the May and July editions of the Nineteenth Century which eventually reached Shanghai. Upon their arrival a local newspaper editor wrote to the periodical pointing out that Hornby was not married at the time and that the reporter's death had actually occurred between eight and nine in the morning (Hall 1980a: 65-68). Gurney had to withdraw the case and make a grovelling apology for not seeking corroborating evidence, which he should have done by searching "the files of Chinese newspapers at the British Museum" (Gurney 1885a: 2-4). Hornby, however, refused to retract his testimony. One explanation, of course, is that it was a particularly vivid dream. Another, more piquant one, is that Hornby was in bed with his future wife before they were legally married and that the incident occurred broadly as he reported it (Lambert 1969: 43-55). But bluntly, whatever the case, Gurney should not have accepted his word — just because he was a senior judge — without searching for corroborative evidence, as he had done in other cases.
- In the late 19th century Douglas Blackburn and George Albert Smith were endorsed as genuine psychics by Myers and Gurney. Smith even became a member of Meyers' Society for Psychical Research (SPR) himself, and the private secretary to the Honorary Secretary Gurney from 1883 to 1888. However, while Smith denied it, Blackburn later confessed to fraud. Blackburn called Gurney and Myers a "couple of credulous spiritualists" and wrote "we resolved that we should be doing the world a service by fooling them to the top of their bent, and then showing how easy a matter it was to 'take in' scientific observers."
Other incidents called Myers' competence into question:
- In 1889 George Darwin attended two séance sittings with Leonora Piper anonymously. The control of Piper mentioned names, but according to Darwin "not a single name or person was given correctly, although perhaps nine of ten were named." At the end of the first séance Darwin and Frederic Myers were talking on the stairs outside of the séance room whilst Piper was left alone inside. Myers mentioned Darwin's name in a clear voice whilst the séance room door was open. In the second séance Piper mentioned the name Darwin. Myers' excuse was that he believed her to have a genuine trance state which precluded her from picking up the information.
- The validity of Phantasms of the Living, a project mainly spearheaded by Gurney and Myers, was seriously called into question by critics. The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce entered into a dispute with Gurney and Myers when he attacked the fundamental validity of the text, arguing that it was merely a collection of anecdotes and stories of unanalyzed phenomena, and that no scientific conclusion could be reached from it. Alexander Taylor Innes entered into a dispute with Gurney where he attacked the book, arguing that the stories lacked evidential substantiation in nearly every case. According to Innes the alleged sightings of apparitions were unreliable as they rested upon the memory of the witnesses and no contemporary documents had been produced, even in cases where such documents were alleged to exist.
The skeptic Eric Dingwall criticized Myers and other members of the SPR for allowing spiritualist and religious a priori views to cloud their objectivity, writing, "When the British SPR was founded, the public was led to believe that at least a scientific survey was to be made, and I have no doubt that even some of those closely associated with the early days thought so too. But Myers, among others, had no such intention and cherished no such illusion. He knew that the primary aim of the Society was not objective experimentation but the establishment of telepathy. To understand why this was so it is necessary to realize the position in which so many educated and intelligent people found themselves during the 1870s and later in Victorian England. With the emergence of new scientific concepts touching the origin of man and his place in the universe, the very foundations of their religious beliefs began to give way. I myself am a Victorian, and I saw it happen in my own family. Swept hither and thither in the eddying currents of increasing unbelief, they looked about for straws to clutch at, straws that would do violence neither to their intelligence nor to their integrity."
- Phantasms of the Living (1886)
- Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903)
- Trevor Hamilton. Immortal Longings: FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009.
- Barry Wiley. The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary. McFarland, 2012. (very detailed skeptical criticism of early psychical research, discusses trickery used to fool investigators)
- Eric Dingwall. The Need for Responsibility in Parapsychology: My Sixty Years in Psychical Research in A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books, 1985. pp. 161-174.
- Frederick William Henry Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. 1903. via esalen.org.
- W. McDougall. Review: Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, Mind, Vol. 12, No. 48 (Oct., 1903), pp. 513–526.
- Janet Oppenheim. (1985). The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press. pp. 254-262. ISBN 978-0521265058
- Jenny Hazelgrove. (2000). Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars. Manchester University Press. pp. 194-195. ISBN 978-0719055591
- Hamilton, Trevor. Immortal Longings: FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009. p. 127
- Wiley, Barry. The Thought Reader Craze: Victorian Science at the Enchanted Boundary. McFarland, 2012. p. 213.
- Edward Clodd. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London. pp. 203-204
- Eric Dingwall. (1985). The Need for Responsibility in Parapsychology: My Sixty Years in Psychical Research in A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. pp. 161-174.