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Homeless Spirits: Modern Spiritualism,Psychical Research ....


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Chapter 2
Homeless Spirits: Modern Spiritualism,Psychical Research and the AnthropologyofReligion in the Late Nineteenth andEarly Twentieth Centuries
 João Vasconcelos
Spiritism is the new science which has come to reveal to mankind, by means of irrefutable proofs, the existence and nature ofthe spiritual world and its relationshipwith the physical world. It appears not as something supernatural, but on thecontrary, as one ofthe living and active forces ofNature, source ofan immensenumber ofphenomena which still today are not fully understood, and because ofthisthey are relegated to the world offantasy and miracles. (Allan Kardec, 1864,
TheGospel According to Spiritism
How often has ‘Science’ killed offall spook-philosophy, and laid ghosts and raps and‘telepathy’ away underground as so much popular delusion? Yet never before werethese things offered us so voluminously, and never in such authentic-seeming shapeor with such good credentials. The tide seems steadily to be rising, in spite ofall theexpedients ofscientific orthodoxy. It is hard not to suspect that here may besomething different from a mere chapter in human gullibility. It may be a genuinerealm ofnatural phenomena. (William James, 1909, ‘The Confidences ofa“Psychical Researcher”’)
Ambiguous objects are a good tool through which to examine the foundationsofdiscreet categories. Spiritism, the spiritualist movement based on thedoctrine established by the French educator Allan Kardec in the 1850s, is onesuch object. It announced itselfas a ‘scientific religion’ or ‘religious science’,
the ‘science ofthe spirits’. Yet neither established sciences nor establishedreligions recognised it as a legitimate relative. Another ofthese eccentricobjects is psychical research, a tradition coeval with Kardecism, which reachedits peak around 1900 and came to be what is now called parapsychology. In thisessay I aim to identify some reasons for the sense ofstrangeness these objectsprovoke.To this effect, I shall discuss the circumstances under which so-calledmodern spiritualism, psychical research and Kardec’s spiritist doctrine haveemerged within the context ofthe
 pax moderna
between science and religion,accepting some ofits terms while contesting others. Our modern state ofaffairsis founded on the presumption that different domains ofreality correspond tospecific modes ofevidence, and on the attribution ofdifferent kinds ofsocialpower and dignity to those distinct modes. The natural world can be the objectof 
scientific experiments
, while spirits and divinity may be the object of 
. I will argue that spiritualism, and most especially Kardecism andpsychical research, put so much faith in the scientific mode ofproducingevidence that they wished to extend it to the world ofspirits, hoping that itwould reveal itself, as William James imagined, as ‘a genuine realm ofnaturalphenomena’. But the idea ofa science ofspirits seems to violate aconstitutional principle ofour modernity: how can we pretend to knowscientifically that which must be excluded from consideration in order toproduce scientific knowledge?In the first part ofthe chapter, I will present a short summary ofthe earlyhistory ofmodern spiritualism and psychical research. I will emphasise the factthat many followers ofboth movements longed for reconciliation betweenscience and religion and they saw in the naturalisation ofthe spiritual themeans to achieve it. ‘Spiritual’ phenomena might well not be supernaturalphenomena; they could belong instead to a still unknown nature. In the secondpart, I will speak about how the modern abyss between science and religioncame about. I will argue that the social marginalisation ofspiritualism andpsychical research – that is to say, their homelessness – partially stems fromboth ofthem wanting to apply science’s mode ofevidence to matters that haveremained, by very definition, on the other side ofthe wall, on the side of religion. This discussion will be continued and particularised in the third part of the chapter, where I will examine the way in which one ofthe founding worksofthe anthropology ofreligion, Edward Burnett Tylor’s
Primitive Culture
, wascriticised by two ofthe founding fathers ofmodern sociology and psychology,Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud, as well as by anthropologists andpsychical researchers Alfred Russel Wallace and Andrew Lang. In the fourthpart, I will examine Allan Kardec’s spiritist doctrine and focus on two questions:the question ofscientificity and the question ofproof.There is considerable terminological variation within the studies onspiritualism. For this reason, and also since I will be dealing here with textswritten originally in different language traditions, I must start by making theadopted terminology clear so as to avoid misunderstandings. I use theexpressions ‘spiritualism’ and ‘modern spiritualism’ alternatively to refer to aset ofpractices ofcommunication with spirits and associated theories that have
On the Margins ofReligion
developed since the mid-nineteenth century. I have decided to use these termsfollowing the current English usage, although I am aware that some confusionmay arise. ‘Spiritualism’, for instance, is often used in contrast to ‘sensualism’and ‘materialism’, but the philosophical discussions in which these antinomiesmake sense are not exactly the point in modern spiritualism.
The word ‘spiritism’ was coined by Allan Kardec (1804–1869) to designatethe doctrine whose basic principle is, in his words, ‘the relation ofthe materialworld with spirits, or the beings ofthe invisible world’. ‘For new ideas’ Kardecwrote, ‘new words are needed’. To speak of‘spiritualism’ to refer to theexperience ofcommunicating with spiritual entities would easily give rise toconfusion and misunderstanding. ‘Everyone is a spiritualist who believes thatthere is in him something more than matter, but it does not follow that hebelieves in the existence ofspirits, or in their communication with the visibleworld’.
is only one ofthe spiritualist traditions that emergedin the second halfofthe nineteenth century. I will refer to it as ‘Spiritism’ or,alternatively, as ‘Kardecism’. Followers ofmodern spiritualism and subjectsrelated to that movement will be named ‘spiritualist’, while followers ofKardec’sSpiritism and anything concerning that doctrine will be referred to as ‘spiritist’ or‘Kardecist’. Now with the matter ofterminology settled, let us pass on to thehistory.
Modern Spiritualism, Psychical Research and theNaturalisation ofthe Supernatural
The origin ofmodern spiritualism is usually traced back to a number ofeventsthat occurred in 1848 in the United States. That year, a family offarmers whohad just moved into Hydesville, a small village near Rochester in the interior of New York State, was disturbed by the sounds ofrapping and ofobjects beingdragged about. Kate and Margaretta, the Fox’s teenage daughters, came to theconclusion that the noises were communicating some kind ofintelligence. Byasking questions out loud and establishing codes for the raps as answers (onefor ‘no’, two for ‘yes’), the Fox sisters learnt to communicate with the entity thatwas allegedly producing the sounds. It turned out to be the spirit ofa man whohad been murdered in that house five years before and whose body had beenburied in the cellar by the murderer. In young America, just as in old Europe,noisy manifestations attributed to spirits or ghosts were far from being anovelty. The episode with the Fox sisters might not have developed muchfurther had they not invented a code, a basic language to communicate withthe spirits. As Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, ‘however humble the operator ateither end, the spiritual telegraph was at last working’.
Experiments with communicating with the other world spread like wild firethroughout North America and every continent. The diffusion ofspiritualismwent together with the establishment ofpsychical research, later to be knownas parapsychology. Spiritualists and psychical researchers came closethattheywere both interested in the same phenomena, but diverged in the reasonsfor doing so. At first, spiritualism was a fashion that swept through middle
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