The Society for Psychical Research

Authored by: Egil Asprem

The Occult World

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415695961
eBook ISBN: 9781315745916
Adobe ISBN: 9781317596769

10.4324/9781315745916.ch24

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Abstract

The British Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is the historically most influential organization dedicated to the study of ‘psychic’ and supernormal events. Founded in 1882 by a group of Cambridge-based scholars, the SPR set out to bring the torch of science to the dim region of the occult: the phenomena of spiritualism, apparitions, haunted houses, and psychic abilities were to be the focus of their careful investigations. From the very start the Society consisted of esteemed scientists, philosophers, and scholars, and was organized as an academic learned society that strove for serious recognition by the broader scientific community (cf. Gauld, 1968). The SPR was very much an elite phenomenon, fully networked not only with the upper echelons of higher education, but with the ruling classes of late-Victorian Britain. The SPR could sport the names of some of Britain’s top intellectuals, cultural personalities, and politicians on its membership lists and board of officers. The considerable amount of work and resources that these people invested in the elusive endeavor of ‘psychical research’ resulted in a large number of articles and lengthy reports published in the Society’s Journal and Proceedings, and numerous books written for broader audiences. In doing all this, the SPR established some intellectual credibility for belief in paranormal events; it popularized concepts such as ‘telepathy’ (coined by one of the SPR’s founders, Frederic Myers), and laid the foundations of experimental parapsychology that would emerge in the twentieth century. Ironically, perhaps, by opening up for empirical and experimental study of occult phenomena, the SPR also contributed to the emergence of the modern skeptics movement. Thus, the legacy of the SPR is equally felt in contemporary spiritualism and psychic mediumship, in the methodologically rigorous parapsychological laboratory, and in the contemporary skeptics movement’s debunking of psychics.

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