Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Spiritualism as a Scientific Question

Popular Science Monthly Volume 15 September 1879  (1879) 
Spiritualism as a Scientific Question by Wilhelm Wundt










RESPECTED SIR: In the latest number of your “Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik” I have read a paper from your valued pen, in which you embody a detailed discussion of the spiritualistic phenomena observed here in Leipsic in the presence of the American medium, Mr. Henry Slade. You remark that, according to your conviction, the reality of the facts attested by eminent men of science can no longer be doubted, and that the so-called spiritualism has thus become a scientific question of the highest importance. I should have no occasion to enter upon a discussion of this view of yours, except for the fact that in connection with references to certain of my colleagues in the course of your article, my own name is mentioned in a way which makes it desirable for me to remove every doubt, which you and your readers may have, as to my attitude toward the “scientific question” which you have raised.

You remark that there were present at the séances held with Mr. Slade in Leipsic, besides those scientific men who became convinced of the actuality of the spiritualistic phenomena, certain other members of the university, who did not appear to share this conviction. These, among whom you name myself, are of course perfectly free to believe or disbelieve as they please, but it is their duty, as representatives of science, "to state publicly what they saw, and why they doubt the objective reality of what they saw—why they feel compelled to assume jugglery, deceit, or illusion." You add that there remains to these deniers and doubters only the alternative, "either to acknowledge by their silence that there is nothing upon which they are able to base their doubts—therefore, that they simply will not believe what is perfectly attested—or to show how it was possible to deceive these men (and many others of unquestionable credibility) in so remarkable a manner."

I feel that I must not neglect so energetic a challenge, and you will permit me not only to make my explanations publicly, according to your wish, but also to address them to yourself. Your article, as I gladly acknowledge, has this advantage over the publications of

similar character, which have heretofore come to my knowledge, that it not only describes certain especially striking instances of the phenomena in question, but also considers the scientific and particularly the philosophical consequences, which must be drawn from the same, as soon as we should determine to acknowledge their reality. I remark that here and in the following pages I use the word reality in the sense which it has in your discussion, excluding from it only the production of the phenomena in a fraudulent manner. For merely subjective phantasms of the observers, these phenomena, as you justly remark, can not be held; their objectivity and reality in the ordinary sense of the word will in fact be questioned by no man, who may even have read only your short description. I must also agree with your assertion that these facts in and for themselves, their reality presupposed, are of a subordinate importance, compared with the consequences which follow them for our general view of the world. Whether, through conditions unknown to us, tables are occasionally lifted, accordions played, and bed-screens torn, or ghostly hands and feet appear—all this alone is quite indifferent, so long as things of the sort appear in a harmless form, as we may expect from previous observations, a form which clearly gives no fear of deeper disturbance of general natural laws. The more important, on the contrary, would be the philosophical consequences to which the reality of the spiritualistic phenomena would force us. I regard it, therefore, as a real service of your essay, that it not only points out these consequences in general, but that it also seeks to develop, by hints at least, the more particular conceptions which have been suggested to you, concerning the conditions of the phenomena in question, as well as their connection with the general order of the world, and their ethical and religious significance. You have thereby thrown light upon the subject from a side which appears to me more than all others worthy of attention.


Before entering more particularly upon this most original and important part of your essay I am compelled to answer your question concerning my own participation in spiritualistic observations and in regard to the convictions I have gained from them. Permit me, at the same time, by way of preface, a few remarks concerning my attitude toward such phenomena as I have not myself observed, but know only from the statements of others.

You, respected sir, sustain precisely the same relation to all of the so-called "manifestations" which I sustain to a great part of them: your knowledge is based upon the reports of credible witnesses. Therefore you found yourself until recently in the position of a distant, unconcerned spectator. You have chosen to give up this character. You have not only come forward with the greatest energy in favor of the reality of the manifestations, but you also urge others, who would prefer the part of unconcerned spectators, which you now disdain, to publicly confess their belief or unbelief. What impels you to this, as I must call it, remarkable proceeding? The phenomena in question—so you answer—have been observed by scientific men of acknowledged eminence, whose credibility can not be questioned; these men have pronounced them real, therefore their reality is not to be doubted. Your acceptance is, in a word, based upon authority. Before I come to the point, permit me two general questions, which I must indeed answer myself, but which I still hope to answer in a way to which you can make no material objection. The first question is, What are the characterizing marks of a scientific authority? The second, What are the limits of the influence upon our own knowledge which we may grant to authority?

What are the characterizing marks of a scientific authority? You, of course, immediately admit that scientific authority is not a property which could be set down in the description of a person. You also agree with me that a person, who passes for authority in some particular science, can not transfer this quality at his pleasure to other provinces. The apocalyptic studies of Isaac Newton were not saved from quick forgetfulness by the authority of the discoverer of gravitation, and the high esteem which Ernst von Baer enjoys as a naturalist scarcely serves as a bill of protection for his Homeric investigations. It is quite true that scientific employment in itself, regardless of the object with which it is concerned, begets that purely theoretical interest in the truth which makes absolute truthfulness of statement in scientific questions a conscientious duty. I should believe, indeed, that only scientific occupation can produce absolute trustworthiness in theoretical questions, because it alone makes a correct estimate of such questions possible. That in this regard the authorities whom you name have, as well on account of their high scientific position as on account of their universally acknowledged personal character, a credibility above every doubt, is a matter of course. But the highest degree of credibility is not sufficient to make any man a scientific authority; there is requisite to this a special professional and in most cases indeed a technical training, which must have approved itself by superior accomplishments in the province concerned. He who has not acquired this professional and technical culture by long years of severe labor is neither capable of achieving anything himself nor of judging the works of others.

You will probably reply to me here that the authorities to whom you appeal are distinguished naturalists, and it is with natural phenomena that the present case has to do. Unhappily, however, I must gainsay you in this; I can not admit that we here have to do with natural phenomena, to whose critical examination naturalists as such, whatever department of natural science they may have been engaged in, are in any way competent. I go still further, indeed, and maintain that these phenomena are so different from the common province of the naturalist's observations, that they present to him especial difficulties, which plainly exist for others in a less degree.

All the methods of natural science rest upon the presupposition of an unchangeable order of occurrence, which presupposition involves the other, that everywhere, where the same conditions are given, the results must also agree. The naturalist, therefore, proceeds in his observations with unshakable confidence in the positiveness of his objects. Nature can not deceive him; there rules in nature neither freak nor accident. You will admit that we can not speak of a regularity of this sort in the domain of spiritualistic phenomena; on the contrary, the most conspicuous characteristic of these lies precisely in the fact that in their presence the laws of nature seem to be abrogated. But, even considered purely in themselves, they show no trace of an orderly connection or coherence. Even he who may have the hope that such an order will perhaps some day be discovered, can not deny that hitherto all hopes of this sort have been shipwrecked, that spiritualistic observation and natural science stand directly opposed to each other. As little can you deny, on the other hand, that that absolute confidence in the positiveness of the object (truthfulness of the medium) would not be in place in a province where the cardinal question, with which we first of all have to do, is precisely whether the phenomena possess reality or whether they rest upon deception.

Nevertheless I find in the observations which you report tolerably clear indications that the eminent naturalists, who deemed the medium Slade worthy of their investigation, transferred a portion of that confidence, which they justly bring to the ordinary objects of their observation, to this extraordinary object also. You report, for instance, the influences exerted by Mr. Slade upon the movements of a magnetic needle. It appears from your account that the medium was prepared for this experiment, similar experiments having been instituted in Berlin, at the instance of a scientific man there. The phenomena themselves are precisely the same as can be produced by a man provided with a strong magnet. You will not deny that such experiments possess convincing power only for him who is convinced of the correctness of the presupposition of the absolute trustworthiness of the investigated object, i. e., the medium. Now, that the eminent physicists who observed this remarkable phenomenon were chiefly chained by the reversal of the Amperian and Weberian molecular currents, which occurred under such unusual influences, is perfectly intelligible; a practical jurist would probably have been not so astonished, but, less accustomed to believe in the trustworthiness of the objects of his investigation, he would scarcely have neglected to examine the coat-sleeves of the medium, with reference to his magnetic powers.

I can not, therefore, respected sir, acknowledge the authorities in natural science so highly valued by you and by me, as authorities in this province. In order to be able to speak with authority concerning any phenomena, one must possess a thorough critical knowledge of the same. Authorities in the present case, therefore, are only such persons as either possess mediumistic powers or, without claiming to be bearers of such properties, are able to produce phenomena of the same nature. As an authority I would therefore acknowledge Mr. Slade, if he possessed scientific credibility, and also by all means Herr Bellaihini, prestidigitateur in Berlin, who, as is well known, has declared in favor of Mr. Slade, if I could premise in his case that he had a conception of the scientific scope of this question. The only person of whom this is true, and who, at the same time, has successfully imitated many of the Slade experiments, is Dr. Christiani, assistant in the Physiological Institute in Berlin. Dr. Christiani, however, declares his experiments to be mere pieces of jugglery. Now, Herr Christiani is certainly not able to imitate all of Mr. Slade's experiments; but he only professes to be an amateur in a field which Mr. Slade cultivates professionally.

I come to my second question: What influence may we concede to outside authority upon our own knowledge? In the immensely preponderant majority of the things which we hold for certain, we all follow the authority of other men; we know only a proportionally small number of facts from our own investigation. Yet all that we owe to foreign authority passes for the more certain the more it agrees with our observation. If a new fact is communicated to us, the investigation of which we are not ourselves in a position to control, then, at least according to the principles hitherto authoritative in science, two criteria must be satisfied, if we are to hold the same to be true: First, it must be confirmed by a credible person, who is master of the field concerned; and, secondly, it must not contradict other established facts. Now, you will probably urge here that this second criterion is an exceedingly fluctuating one. Indeed, various spiritualistic authors have not failed to adduce a multitude of instances from the history of science, in which a fact was at first rejected as false or even impossible, and was yet at last proved to be true. But I beg to call your attention to the fact that, in all these instances, the tertium comparationis with the case before us consists simply and solely in the fact that something was asserted by some scholars and denied by others. This case still occurs of course repeatedly, and the controversy is always decided in favor of those whose observations stand in contradiction with no other established fact. Usually, indeed, the best passport which a discoverer gives to his new observation consists precisely in his indication of its agreement with other facts. I have looked in vain through the whole history of science for a case in which a scientific authority came forward with the assertion of having discovered a new fact, at the same time adding to this assertion the assurance that all natural laws were overthrown by the fact, and that in the fact itself no kind of law or order was to be perceived. This case lies before us here. The laws of gravitation, of electricity, of light, and of heat are altogether, as we are assured, of a purely hypothetical validity; they have authority as long as the inexplicable spiritualistic something does not cross them. In this something itself, however, there is to be perceived no sort of law except, at the most, that it is hooked to the heels of certain individuals, the so-called mediums. An authority which asserts this demands more than a scientific authority has ever demanded; it demands that natural Science shall abandon the presupposition of a universal causality, the presupposition upon which all the methods of her investigation rest, and without which an establishment of facts or even of laws of occurrence could never be spoken of.

You will agree with me that this would not be the place to enter upon any long discussion of the origin of the law of causation. You will also probably admit that the most favorable assumption which we could make for spiritualism would be that of its purely empirical origin. Empirical laws can at any time be refuted by other empirical laws. How now, with this premise, is the trustworthiness of a universal causality related to the trustworthiness of the spiritualistic phenomena? On the one side stands the authority of the whole history of science, the totality of all known natural laws, which have not only been discovered under the presupposition of a universal causality, but have also without exception confirmed the same; on the other side stands the authority of a few certainly most eminent naturalists, who, in all which they have discovered in the absence of mediumistic influences, have contributed their part to the confirmation of that most general result of natural investigation, but who now in this one point, under a constellation of circumstances which make exact observation difficult in the highest degree, announce the discovery that causality has a flaw and that we must consequently abandon our former view of nature.

I have spoken of the unfavorable constellations under which the spiritualistic phenomena were observed, and, since you might question the warrant of this expression, I must give it a somewhat better basis. I call the constellations unfavorable for observations or experiments, when the observer can not freely manage his senses and his instruments. You would yourself probably call it an unjust demand if a physicist were asked to observe the oscillations of a magnet through a key-hole or an astronomer to take a cellar for his observatory. Yet the observers of spiritualistic phenomena must content themselves with equally unfavorable conditions. The first condition of the success of the experiments is that all persons present shall lay their hands together upon a table and that no observer shall be outside the circle. Thereby a great part of the field of operation is withdrawn from the observer's view. Mr. Slade, indeed, as the advices state, sometimes seats himself so that his legs are to be seen; but when this shall happen lies at the pleasure of Mr. Slade, not of the observer. So, in general it is the medium who determines when a phenomenon shall appear and whether it shall appear. The observers propose experiments, the medium performs them. When a new proposal comes, the spirits answer, "We will try it," and sometimes the attempt succeeds and sometimes not. Occasionally, however, the phenomena desired by the observers are crossed by others entirely unexpected. By this alone the attention is thrown hither and thither in a way most disturbing for exact observations. This, too, occurs equally by reason of purely subjective visions, which the medium appears to have; now there are lights on the ceiling, to which he directs the attention of those present and of which they see nothing; now he falls into sudden convulsions, which must necessarily distract the attention. After all this, I find the expression, also used by yourself, that experiments are made with or upon Mr. Slade not correct. Rather, Mr. Slade made the experiments; and, if they were made upon any person, then they were made upon those who were present at his manifestations.

If now, respected sir, after a consideration of all the circumstances which are to be gathered from the reports of the séances with Mr. Slade, I place myself in that position of an unconcerned distant spectator, which until recently you were so fortunate as to occupy, it would not be to me a matter of question that I should not have written the article which you inserted in the last number of your valuable journal. But, as you had the goodness to remark, I do not find myself in quite that position, and must therefore finally advise you concerning what I saw myself. The state of the case is as follows.

There were present at the séance, as you have stated, besides myself, two of my colleagues, Herren Ludwig and Thiersch. We sat with Mr. Slade around a square card-table, one person on each side, our hands laid over each other upon the table. Several writings were produced, in the manner often described, upon a slate, which Mr. Slade held wholly or partially under the table; once a longer writing was obtained between two folded tablets joined by hinges. This double tablet was gradually drawn forward under the edge of the table by Slade during the experiment, so that for a short time it was entirely visible; Mr. Slade's hand, however, upon which the tablet rested, was not visible in this. (This, according to my recollection, is the experiment not quite correctly described in one of your notes.) Most of the writings were in English, one in German, but in an incorrect German, such as would be expected from an American or Englishman, who murders the language. Once the experiment with the pocket-knife was performed, quite in the manner you described. Throughout almost the entire séance, the door of the room was in violent commotion, such as gusts of wind might create; this explanation, however, was excluded, since on that afternoon the air was perfectly still. Several times during the séance Mr. Slade fell into convulsions and asked me, who sat beside him, whether I felt anything, which, however, was not the case. The other persons present occasionally felt thrusts against their legs, and the tablet, which they held in their hands under the table, was violently pushed away; with myself this did not take place. At the end of the sitting we arose, Mr. Slade laid his hands upon ours and first lifted the table several inches from the floor, then letting it suddenly fall again; it was clearly perceptible that the table was raised by a central force from beneath. With our wish to perform some of the experiments in the presence of an observer standing outside the circle Mr. Slade could not comply. He said that under that condition the spirits did not obey him; he was, moreover, a perfectly passive observer, and must accommodate himself to the conditions which he had accidentally discovered to be favorable for his experiments. Incidentally he gave us intelligence concerning our own mediumistic endowments; me he declared to be a medium "of a strong power." How he came to this knowledge he did not communicate. To myself, as I will not neglect to mention, never in my life has anything appeared or happened which might warrant such a diagnosis.

If you ask me now whether I am in a condition to express a conjecture as to how these experiments were performed, I answer, No. At the same time, however, I must state that phenomena of this sort lie entirely outside the domain of the special training which I have acquired during my scientific career. It is known to every naturalist that one is able to judge an experiment correctly only when one has one's self experimented in a similar direction, and thus has an insight into the conditions of the origin of the phenomena. If I were really a medium "of a strong power," as Mr. Slade asserts, I should perhaps be in a better condition to answer your question; but, since this is not the case, you will certainly find it justifiable, if I do not go into hypotheses as to how the phenomena produced by Mr. Slade were brought about. What was surprising to me in the matter, however, and what will also surprise you, is that Mr. Slade also refused to give any information of this kind. He is a medium, he is an experimenter, and he must therefore know under what conditions the phenomena have their origin. He asserts that he knows nothing of them, but that his relation is a perfectly passive one. The latter, however, is plainly untrue, since the phenomena generally appear only in the séances held by him, and also, as a rule, in the order in which he wishes to produce them.

But, although we can not determine how Mr. Slade performs his experiments, I agree with you that we still may not in this case pass the field by as one foreign to us. For, as you very justly remark, natural science and philosophy are so actively interested in the question concerning the reality or non-reality of the spiritualistic phenomena that we must take some sort of attitude toward it. I confess that, after all I have observed, this question would be for me an extremely painful one if, with you and the eminent men whose authority you follow, I had to regard as excluded every possible explanation of the phenomena in a natural way—in a way which leaves the universal law of causation untouched.

As to the experiments which I saw myself, I believe that they will not fail to produce upon every unprejudiced reader, who has ever seen skillful prestidigitateurs, the impression of well-managed feats of jugglery. You certainly, respected sir, as I think I may conclude from your article, appear scarcely to have accumulated experiences in this direction. This is perfectly intelligible in the case of one whose time has been occupied in earnest studies. But, before you pronounced judgment upon this question with so great precision, it would perhaps have been not altogether out of order, if I may venture to say so, to see and study the performances of a skillful magician. If, indeed, the independent experimental cultivation of this field is closed to us by the direction of our studies, we should still not neglect, before pronouncing a judgment, to become acquainted with phenomena which the most zealous disciples of spiritualism admit to have a close external relation to the spiritualistic manifestations. I can not find that any one of the experiments which I saw with Mr. Slade was above the powers of a good juggler. If the latter has, by means of a place chosen by himself, more extensive apparatus and assistants, more favorable conditions, so, on the other hand, it is not to be denied that Mr. Slade, by reason of the restriction to a smaller number of experiments, the fixing of the participants to a single table, and especially the fact that he does not need to keep to any programme, and that an experiment can occasionally miscarry without damaging his reputation, has advantages on his side. If the "professor of magic" now and then makes use of glitter and parade, in order to distract attention, Mr. Slade attains the same end, in perhaps a still more effectual manner, by means of the subjective fits to which he is exposed.

In my absence certainly much more astonishing performances took place than those which I saw myself. For my judgment of these performances, though other observers were convinced of their trustworthiness, is decisive. One who enters upon observations with this presupposition, will naturally regard as superfluous the precautions which another deems indispensable; he can leave unmentioned some incidental circumstances of the experiment, the knowledge of which would essentially change the estimate of it. This does not involve the slightest reproach against the observer; he acts in his good faith in the trustworthiness of his objects, in a faith which does honor to his feelings, to the same extent that it robs his observations of convincing power. Therefore, respected sir, there remains for me no other choice in regard to these observations: I prefer the authority of Science to the authority of a few of her representatives, however honorable, who have, in this instance, made observations in a province which lies far from the sphere of their own special studies.


Here I might conclude, passing silently over the hopes which you attach to the reality of the spiritualistic phenomena. But your inferences, philosophical, ethical, and religious, in relation to the subject, appear to me, as I have already observed, so important that they can not be without influence upon our attitude toward the entire question. Permit me, therefore, to betake myself for the moment to your own standpoint. I will assume, as you do, that the reality of the phenomena is no longer to be doubted. What follows from this for our general view of the world, for our judgment of the past and of the future? What effect does it have upon our moral and religious sentiment?

For the purpose of answering these questions, you discuss, in the first place, the hypotheses which we can form concerning the nature of the spiritualistic phenomena. There are three such hypotheses. We can possibly see in the phenomena—1. Expressions of natural forces; 2. Operations of intelligent beings, who belong to a space of four dimensions, and who, therefore, possess the power alternately to enter, in their movements, our space of three dimensions, and to vanish from the same into the to us inaccessible fourth dimension; 3. Manifestations of so-called spirits or ghosts. I prefer the latter term, because, according to philosophical usage, we understand by a spirit (Geist) an immaterial being, while "the spirits" occasionally undergo materialization, a property which is designated, unambiguously only, by the German word "Gespenst"(ghost, apparition). Like all who have engaged themselves with the subject, you reject the first hypothesis, since the phenomena point to arbitrary actions of intelligent beings; only the last two hypotheses, therefore, remain for us to consider.

Here, respected sir, you believe yourself compelled to decide against the hypothesis of intelligent beings of four dimensions and for the hypothesis of ghosts. I will not follow you in your argument, based upon the Kantian theory of knowledge; I would, however, beg to call your attention to the fact that there is no essential difference between the two hypotheses. By a ghost we understand an intelligent being that can suddenly appear in the world of our senses and as suddenly disappear from it again, leaving no traces behind, but we understand precisely the same by an intelligent being of four dimensions. Modern mathematics, as you very well know, has advanced in its speculations astonishingly far, and it has thereby gained the power to define with exactness numerous conceptions, for the designation of which we had previously to employ common terms of speech. As the modern geometrician speaks of a "plane and in itself congruent manifold of three dimensions," without understanding by it anything else than the space well known to all of us, so he designates with the term "intelligent beings of four dimensions" simply what we ordinary men are accustomed to call ghosts. I believe now with you that the hypothesis which alone is left for us is at the same time the sole hypothesis which would be able to explain the phenomena—their reality being presupposed—and we can therefore confidently make it the basis of our further conclusions. For my own part, I should prefer the term "intelligent beings of four dimensions," because it is more scientific; but for the sake of brevity I will employ the current name of ghosts.

You now put the question—a question worth taking to heart—"Who are these ghosts?" Your deductions lead you to the conclusion that we have to see in them the souls of men who have died, which possess the power to assume again, partially or fully, their former bodily form. Although in Mr. Slade's sittings only detached members—hands and feet—became visible, partly immediately and partly in impressions, it still appears from American advices that materializations of entire bodies are not wanting. I can only assent to this conclusion. I am also essentially determined here by the impression, to which you refer—of a man's foot deformed by a tight shoe—upon a blackened tablet. The assumption that the beings of some other world unknown to us would naturally resemble us not only in their bodily constitution, but also in their dress, has to me only a very slight probability. I confess, indeed, that the thought that hard-hearted shoemakers might even in the next world continue their attempts to improve the anatomical structure of our feet gives me great uneasiness, while I could more easily reconcile myself to the idea that some abiding effects of sufferings here might accompany us into the future. Under this assumption, I count it not altogether impossible that a specialist might be able to conclude from the peculiar character of the deformity as to the period in which the possessor of the foot lived, and perhaps even as to the nation to which he belonged. I regret that this investigation does not appear to have been thought of.

We will assume, therefore, that the ghosts belonged to our deceased fellow men, who advise us in this way of their survival and their condition after death. What significance have the phenomena, then? You, respected sir, believe that you must view this significance as lying above all else in the fact that nothing could more powerfully strengthen our faith in a supreme moral government of the world, nothing more surely counteract the materialism and indifferentism of the time, than the certainty of immortality. To-day, when faith has become tottering, when, at the same time, there are no youthful races (like the Celts, the Teutons, the Slavs) able, as at the time of the decay of ancient civilization, "to take up the broken thread of civilization and, upon the ideal loom which Christianity offered, to spin further”—to-day it may please Divine Providence to interfere with the course of nature in this way, in order to call back into the thoughts of men their moral nature and end. You acknowledge, indeed, that the written communications of the spirits have a very insignificant content, and that their other performances also seem to be substantially to no purpose; but you console yourself with the thought that the principle of development will also find its application in the other life, so that the souls of the dead only gradually attain the highest perfection of knowledge and will.

Here, unfortunately, I must oppose your conclusions in the most decided manner. I hold these conclusions to be as false as they are dangerous, and of this I will endeavor to convince you and your readers.

In the first place, I beg to call your attention to an unwarranted assumption which is intermingled with your conclusions. You conjecture that Providence, in consideration of the lamentable circumstances and conditions of the present, has felt itself bound to interfere in this peculiar manner. Your conjecture is based upon the assumption that similar phenomena have never been observed in former times. This assumption, however, is false. On the contrary, there has never been a time, so far as I know, when phenomena resembling the spiritualistic phenomena more or less, and in some respects most strikingly, were lacking. To say nothing of the everywhere common appearances of ghosts, I refer you to the facts which occur among numerous peoples and to which the anthropologists give the name of “Shamanism.”[2] The so-called Shamans are manifestly persons with mediumistic properties. They even perform, by means of spirits, who obey their summons, many things which are often astounding, and not seldom resemble, down to the most particular features, the spiritualistic phenomena. I would further call your attention to the fact that, from the fourteenth century on until into the seventeenth, the spiritualistic manifestations, then designated by the terms witchcraft and magic, clearly reached an extent, compared with which their present circulation can be called a declining one. The witches appear, indeed, to have united to a certain extent the properties of the mediums and of the spirits. This, however, in view of the great strength in which the wonderful force was at that time apparently distributed, is quite intelligible. On the other hand, there are often very striking relations; for example, the canceling of the law of gravitation, observed also in recent times, was such an ordinary occurrence that, as is well known, the famous witches' ordeal was based upon it. We even possess numerous certificates of judges, whose credibility can certainly not be unconditionally denied, according to which a witch sometimes weighed only half an ounce, sometimes even nothing at all. You answer that all this belongs to the realm of superstition, and that the pretended facts were never investigated by trustworthy observers. But upon what is this assumption of superstition founded? Simply upon the fact that we have hitherto held the things in question to be impossible. Now you maintain not only the possibility but also the actuality of phenomena equally astonishing, and, moreover, very similar. By all rules of scientific investigation, we are logically bound to assume that those earlier phenomena also may, indeed, in many instances have rested upon deception, but that they were scarcely altogether without foundation. There was of course a lack of exact observers in those days. But do you believe that the Galileian laws of falling bodies were not in force before Galileo demonstrated them by his experiments? There opens up to us from your standpoint an essentially new view of history. Phenomena hitherto regarded as lamentable expressions of a corrupting superstition are transformed into evidences of an especially gracious dissemination of supersensible mysteries.

But I proceed to your real conclusions themselves. The spiritualistic phenomena, silly as they may be in detail, pass with you, by reason of the certainty which they give of another world, as a new source of moral and religious conviction. Our opinion hitherto has been that Providence veiled the future from men with a wise purpose; that its will was to leave the religious nature to form for itself a moral ideal, which should remain untouched by the imperfections of the world of sense. This condition of things is by your view essentially changed. Our future destiny is no longer a subject of moral demands and religious convictions, but, to a certain extent at least, belongs to our knowledge and perception. You do indeed lay stress upon the fact that precisely that phase of the other world which we perceive may be the less perfect phase. That might pass, if at least the beginning of a process of perfection were apparent to us. But I see only the shocking contrary of this. What conception must we form of the condition of our deceased fellow men, if your view is correct? I find myself forced to the following conclusions, against which, so far as I can see, you can urge no material objections:

1. Physically the souls of our dead fall into the bondage of certain living men, the so-called mediums. These mediums are, at present at any rate, not very widely spread, and appear to belong almost exclusively to the American nationality. At the command of the mediums, the souls execute mechanical performances, which bear throughout the character of purposelessness: they knock, lift tables and chairs, play harmoniums, etc.

2. Intellectually the souls fall into a condition which, so far as we can conclude from the character of their writings upon slates, can only be described as lamentable. These writings belong throughout to the domain of higher or lower stupidity, chiefly lower—i. e., they are absolutely without sense.

3. The moral condition of the souls seems to be relatively the most favorable. According to all the evidence, the character of harmlessness can not be denied them. It shows itself particularly in the fact that they hold it to be necessary to make excuses for proceedings of a somewhat brutal nature, in case of becoming guilty of such—as, for instance, the destruction of a bed-screen, with a politeness which, in a ghost, is certainly deserving of acknowledgment. This harmlessness, therefore, gives us a right to expect something good of their other moral qualities, concerning which nothing particular is known.

Pardon me if I seem to joke. You would misunderstand me if you should believe that I had adduced these consequences of your premises with any other intention than that of indicating as forcibly as possible the earnest scientific, moral, and religious anxiety which the views that you represent in your latest essay must necessarily awaken.

I will not speak of how, even in the most favorable case of your example finding no further following, the science which concerns us both most nearly, philosophy, can not be without danger of having its reputation severely damaged, when one of its distinguished representatives, who has treated almost all of its departments and has especially occupied himself earnestly with logical studies, now suddenly throws overboard all principles of scientific investigation, in order to find in the revelations of rapping spirits the means of supplementing our insight into the order of the world. The specialist in scientific investigation has the prerogative of a certain one-sidedness; we justify many a freak in his narrower field which can not abide the test of criticism. But what is to become of philosophy, if it abandons the general principles of knowledge, whose authority it is its office to establish for the special sciences? Yet even this particular interest is of subordinate importance, compared with the serious consequences which your procedure must have, if, which God forbid, it should find more followers in the scientific world. Whence is the scientific investigator to get courage and perseverance for his work, if the laws of nature, according to the prospect which you open, are approaching a point where they shall be done away with? And who will still be inclined to occupy himself with scientific problems, when he is allured by the hope of obtaining an answer to the deepest and highest questions by means of spiritualistic appearances? It is true that the disclosures already won in this way are good for nothing. But how were it possible for individuals and societies to spend their time in these idle occupations, if they did not hope for better results? A mournful intellectual desolation would be the necessary consequence, if views such as you proclaim to-day should ever become the common property of the scientific world.

This might pass, however, if that moral and religious awakening which you hope from the spiritualistic manifestations were really to be expected from them, according to the teachings of history and the laws of human nature. I almost hesitate to say to you that the moral deepening of religion has continually kept pace with the doing away of rude representations of the divine in forms of sense, and that, alongside weak-minded unbelief, the worst enemy of morality has always been superstition.

These are things long well known to you. You indeed declare the phenomena to which you refer to be realities, and therefore different from the objects of superstition. But every superstition has done that. Not upon whether one believes in certain phenomena or not, but only upon the objects in which one believes, can the corrupting effects of superstition depend. The moral barbarism produced in its time by the belief in witchcraft would have been precisely the same, if there had been real witches. We can therefore leave the question entirely alone, whether or not you have ground to believe in the spiritualistic phenomena. We can content ourselves with considering the question, whether the objects of your belief show the characteristic signs which we find in those objects of belief which, according to the testimony of history and of social psychology, we must call prejudicial to the moral development of man. This question, after the intimate relation which we have shown to exist between spiritualism and the most corrupt forms of so-called superstition, can only be answered in the affirmative. The reasons for this demoralizing influence, as you as a psychologist will easily perceive, are also perfectly apparent. The danger of estrangement from earnest work, devoted to the service of science or of a practical calling, which I have already touched, is to be included here, if indeed in a subordinate place. Of far greater importance are the unworthy conceptions of the condition of the spirit after death, which these phenomena awaken, and which find their analogy only in the so-called animism of the most degraded races. But most pernicious of all appears to me the caricature which the spiritualistic system, in the form in which you represent it, makes of the rule of a higher order of the world, by making men of, at the very least, most ordinary intellectual and spiritual endowments the bearers of supernatural powers, thereby sealing them as the chosen instruments of Providence. In all these features, and above all in the materialization of the ghosts, there is betrayed a grossly materialistic tendency, of which, as I am glad to believe, most of the German spiritualists are not conscious. They are only the pitiable victims of exotic Shamans, who have transplanted to Europe the animistic conceptions which have not entirely disappeared in their home. From a philosopher this materialistic character of spiritualism ought not to have remained concealed. Astonishingly, however, you see in it nothing less than a contrivance of Providence for counteracting the materialism of the present. This is to me the most incomprehensible part of your essay. I see in spiritualism, on the contrary, a sign of the materialism and the barbarism of our time. From early times, as you well know, materialism has had two forms; the one denies the spiritual, the other transforms it into matter. The latter form is the older. From the animism of the popular mythologies, it passes into philosophy, in order to be by the latter gradually overcome. As civilized barbarism can experience relapses into all forms of primitive conditions, so it is not spared from this also.

That, in your person, philosophy too has shared in this relapse, I count most melancholy. Above all else, however, I deplore the possible influence of your example upon our academical youth, among whose instructors you belong. What would become of science, if pursuits which your views only too easily encourage should become prevalent among our students; if earnest work and the emulation of scientific studies should become supplanted among them by an aimless chase after wonders and by rapping-spirit clubs? I have such firm confidence in the sound sense of our youth, that I am sure these fears will not be realized. Nevertheless, I held it to be my duty no longer to remain a silent spectator, but to answer your challenge. I sincerely hope, at the same time, that my answer may succeed in prompting you to another careful consideration of the subject. Then perhaps I may not entirely relinquish the hope that we may one day find ourselves with a common feeling concerning this question.

With this wish, I remain, with high esteem, yours,

W. Wundt.

  1. Translator's Note.—To most regular readers of "The Popular Science Monthly" this letter will be its own sufficient explanation, yet an introductory word may not be superfluous. Spiritualism in Germany, as in England, presents certain phenomena almost precisely opposite to what is seen in America. With us, while the belief has obtained a great popular following, affecting almost all classes of society, becoming a kind of religion as it were, it has not succeeded in making converts of really scientific men, numbering almost no eminent scholars in its ranks—being simply neglected, for the most part, by whatever properly calls itself science. In England, on the contrary, as is well known, while being no such widespread movement as in America, spiritualism has, during recent years, engaged the earnest attention of prominent scientific circles, has gained many converts of high scientific reputation, and drawn forth the most important contributions to the literature of the subject which exist. The case in Germany is very similar. The principal centers of interest in the subject have been the universities, and, above all, the University of Leipsic, and the principal participants in the investigations and the discussions have been eminent professors. The excitement recently has centered in the séances of Mr. Slade, who passed several months in Leipsic and Berlin after his ejection from England, two or three years ago. The result of these séances was the conversion or half conversion to spiritualism of several well-known Leipsic professors. Professor I. H. Fichte, now in his eighty-third year, has also recently confessed his faith, pronouncing the Slade phenomena to be "decisive for the cause of spiritualism in Germany." But most surprising of all, perhaps, has been the publication in the last number of the "Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und philosophische Kritik," of an article by Professor Ulrici, of Halle, in which he declares his persuasion of the truth of the spiritualistic theory, likewise on the strength of the observations reported by the Leipsic professors—an article the general scope of which is made plain by Professor Wundt's references. To this article Professor Wundt, who has watched the whole movement with critical interest, and who indeed participated in the Slade experiments, deemed it his duty to reply, and he has done so in the form of the letter before us. To scientific men Professor Wundt needs no introduction. He is the principal lecturer in philosophy in the University of Leipsic, and perhaps the most eminent psychologist in Germany, a man of acute thought and well-balanced judgment, distinguished even among German scholars for the breadth and accuracy of his knowledge. It is not too much to say that the reputation and character of no living German thinker could give greater weight to any words on a subject like this. His letter has been immediately recognized in Germany as containing the most reasonable words which have yet been spoken on those phases of the subject to which it confines itself, and it will have a powerful effect in calling back many confused minds to soberness and sense. Professor Wundt believes that scientific men have no longer a right simply to neglect a movement which has become so widespread, which is the occasion of so much perplexity among the people at large, and which is so unquestionably mischievous. It is to be hoped that his words will not fail of their effect in America also, where the intellectual and moral disorders which he declares to be the logical and necessary results of opinions like those discussed are already so apparent and alarming.
  2. The term has primary reference to the superstitions of certain of the Siberian races, but phenomena similar to those observed among these people are met with in many parts of the world, in the Pacific islands, for instance, and among the Indian “medicine-men.”—Translator.