Henry Sidgwick and the World Unseen

by John Holbo on May 31, 2018

I’m still pursuing intermittent uncanny researches as a result of which – when I’m not reading about the Scottish Enlightenment! – I’m dabbling in late-19th Century Spiritualism. This is rather new to me. As I confessed in comments to that last post, I had this vague idea that there were probably two Henry Sidgwicks (one, the well-known utilitarian ethicist; the other, the guy who did psychic research.) Turns out he was just a busy guy (unless one of them was, like, a crisis apparition, so there really were two.) So I’m reading books like this one [amazon]: Spectres of the Self, by Shane McCorristine. Here’s a bit that really struck me. His fellow SPR psychic researcher, F. W. H. Myers, wrote this as part of his Sidgwick obituary, in 1900:

In a star-light walk [in 1869] which I shall not forget … I asked him, almost with trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena, – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope; and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side. Even thus a wanderer in the desert, abandoning in despair the fair mirages which he has followed in vain, might turn and help an older explorer in the poor search for scanty roots and muddy water-holes.

So he spent the next 30 years looking for that!

I’m quoting this the next time I have to teach those bits in Nietzsche about the English utilitarians! It’s like a side-quest between stage 3 and 4 of the main mission in Twilight of the Idols. You find a ‘true world’ that is attainable – but still not discernably consoling, redeeming or obligating?

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

In general, I’m having a lot of fun reading about Scottish Enlightenment and late-19th Century Spiritualism. Any book recommendations about the latter in particular? There are a lot of books on the subject and not all of them are good, I’m finding.

Myers, in addition to co-authoring the SPR magnum opus, Phantasms of the Living, was a poet.



bianca steele 05.31.18 at 1:57 pm

Not what you’re asking for, but have you read Jacques Barzun, one of his many books/revisions on “Classical, Romantic, Modern,” where he disparages spiritualism as an unsatisfying, even science-y reaction to the excesses of the Enlightenment, by people raised within the Enlightenment who didn’t know better? Old-fashioned, but possibly still influential, and probably still not too difficult to find.


Brad DeLong 05.31.18 at 2:46 pm

Someday I must tell you the story of my Great Grandfather Roland Greene Usher, Wash. U. history professor, and Patience Worth:



John Holbo 05.31.18 at 2:51 pm

Cool, thanks for that one, Brad!


Matt Wilbert 05.31.18 at 2:51 pm

You might enjoy The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau. Descriptive not theoretical.


john crowley 05.31.18 at 2:56 pm

Robert Cox, “Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of Spiritualism” — a fine and very well-written history,focusing largely on New England, with fine information about somnambulism and spiritualism. Might be hard to find.

Lee Eric Schmidt, “Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment” — The nexus of the telephone, Swedenborg, and spiritualism. Why spiritualists hering voices from the other side gained power from the impact of the telephone — among other things.

Drew Gilpin Faust, “This Republic of Suffering” — how spiritualism expanded after the Civil War when relatives tried to contact dead soldiers whose bodies haf never been recovered.

John Crowley, “KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr” pp 332-364 — a ficiton incorporating material from all three of the above, plus an immortal Crow and a fictional medium.


Brad DeLong 05.31.18 at 3:06 pm

My Great-Grandfather Roland Usher, the Wash. U. Tudor Dynasty English history professor, said of Pearl Curran writing as Patience Worth: “She writes all her verses in flawless Elizabethan English. The idiom is perfect!” and became a believer…


AcademicLurker 05.31.18 at 3:19 pm

Allow me to suggest The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern and The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England by Alex Owen if you’re into late 19th century uncanniness.


Jim Harrison 05.31.18 at 3:29 pm

“for superstition is free thinking of the second rank.” –Nietzsche, Gay Science, book 1, aphorism #23


Adam Roberts 05.31.18 at 3:36 pm

My friend Pam Thurschwell’s Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) is full of fascinating stuff on the Society for Psychical Research and how its influence spread throughout literary and general culture in all sorts of unexpected ways.


alfredlordbleep 05.31.18 at 6:07 pm

[1897 (from a sequel to The Importance of Being Earnest)]

murmurs from beyond

ALGY There is another reason we came, brother Ernest. These days Cecily’s imaginative flights are making me wonder how long I can keep up.

ERNEST I am not surprised after two years of marriage and she not yet twenty.

ALGY I take that amiss. I am peerless company. Nevertheless, she lately was talking to herself claiming that her nephew, mind you, is at the other end, across the ocean, continent, and centuries. Have you noticed anything like in Gwendolyn?

ERNEST As always she’s guided by the more expensive monthly magazines. She behaves as directed at her time of life.

ALGY Cecily refers to her occultism as the Call of the Wild.

ERNEST It may be possible to signal over long distances wire-lessly. The occult is hocus pocus.

ALGY As someone once said, the public believes the impossible. A few do the improbable.

ERNEST [nettled] She didn’t receive a careful upbringing now to join the public.

ALGY Miss Prism to thank for carelessly bringing you to the threshold of the best of all possible worlds.

ERNEST [brightly] Bunbury bringing you into Hertfordshire twenty-nine years later was the means of uniting you and Cecily.

ALGY [beaming}] It’s not the end of romance. It’s the beginning. This world is not enough for Cecily. She is biting into forbidden fruit and means me to. How does one meet murmurs from beyond? [Sees Merriman crossing to them] Ah, Merriman, is lunch on the table?

MERRIMAN Yes, sir.

ERNEST [to Algy] You are as always.


alfredlordbleep 05.31.18 at 6:10 pm

1897 etc was from me


LeLoup 05.31.18 at 7:49 pm

Google “eugen weber philippe muray” and click on the first Google Books link

Also: “James Webb” ( “The Flight from Reason”)


Le Loup 05.31.18 at 7:53 pm

Google “eugen weber philippe muray” and click on the first Google Books link.

Also: “James Webb” (“The Flight from Reason”)


Ikonoclast 05.31.18 at 8:41 pm

Speculative and theological metaphysics are dead as Nietzsche announced. I’m placing my current bets on a Monistic Relational System approach to metaphysics. The cosmos is one system. Consciousness is emergent, under rare and specific conditions. Consciousness systems as brains, minds, like any systems obey the discovered laws of this cosmos, like the laws of thermodynamics. Try keeping your mind working without food.

Consciousness is not special. That is simply the solipsistic self-evaluation of consciousness. Consciousness requires no more explanation than any other existent or process. Existence is brute fact. We can know nothing about existence except to discover dependable laws of relation within the monistic system of the cosmos. At least, that is the way I see matters these days.


peterv 05.31.18 at 10:09 pm

Not quite late 19th Century, but these may interest you:

The accounts of Liverpool & Birmingham physicist Oliver Lodge of his believed spiritualist communications with his late son Raymond, who had died in WWI, “Raymond or Life and Death” (1916).

Annie Moberley’s account of a supposed incident of time travel at Versailles in 1901, the Ghosts of Petit Trianon. Moberley was the first Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and her fellow time-travelling companion, Eleanor Jourdain, was subsequently the second Principal.



Poirot 05.31.18 at 10:27 pm

A few suggestions for readings on spiritualism, John. There’s some great work that’s been done on spiritualism and occultism in the last few years.

1) John Warne Monroe, Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism, and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell, 2007).
2) Lynn Sharp, Secular Spirituality: Reincarnation and Spiritism in Nineteenth-Century France (Lexington Books, 2006).
3) Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago, 2006)
4) Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago, 2004)


John Thorne 05.31.18 at 10:56 pm

The headline makes me feel like there needs to be a Hedwig and the Angry Inch joke here, but I can’t quite formulate it. Ah well.


John Holbo 06.01.18 at 3:59 am

“John Crowley, “KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr” pp 332-364 — a ficiton incorporating material from all three of the above, plus an immortal Crow and a fictional medium.”

I’m working on it!


AcademicLurker 06.01.18 at 8:11 am

7: Format fail. Those are 2 books, not 1 book with a ridiculously long title.


maidhc 06.01.18 at 8:57 am

That photo of Pearl Curran is very evocative. That long-ago photographer and his nice lighting.

I’d like to meet her, but I guess I’m about 100 years too late. I wouldn’t mind meeting Douglas Fairbanks either, but that can’t be done. I did see Buddy Rogers introducing a Mary Pickford movie once. I guess that’s about as close as I’ll come.

Advances in voice technology in the late 19th century kind of spooked some people. Voices coming from far away (telephone), voices coming from the past (phonograph). Think of “His Master’s Voice”. Because people associated the voice with the person.

With all the scientific advances of the time, people who believed in ghosts thought it was only a matter of time before science proved the existence of ghosts. Plus the Civil War and WWI leaving people with lots of potential spirits to get messages from.


X. Trapnel 06.01.18 at 2:42 pm

[Apologies if this is a double-post…] Possibly not quite what you’re looking for, but Jenny Davidson’s “The Explosionist” is a wonderful YA book set in an alternate-history 1939 Edinburgh where late 19th-century spiritualism is still going strong. From Kirkus:

“Adult novelist and scholarly author Davidson crafts a YA alternate-history/murder-mystery romp—and mostly pulls it off. In a world in which Napoleon won Waterloo, it’s 1939 and the Federated States of Europe and the New Hanseatic League have concluded one war but may be poised for another. Sixteen-year-old Sophie finds herself in the midst of political intrigue after a medium delivers a cryptic message and then turns up dead. The medium’s death is just the start: IRYLNS, founded by Sophie’s great-aunt and guardian, transforms girls into perfect secretaries via a sinister process; Sophie’s chemistry teacher may be masterminding suicide bombers; and spirits seem set on communication.”

And it’s only $4, apparently.


oldster 06.01.18 at 6:57 pm

I’m tempted to say: but their ignorance excuses them; we know so much more, now, about why none of this is true.

And then I wonder: what exactly is it that I know (even in the most generous sense of “I” or “know”) that forecloses these alternatives, and makes it clear that they are fictions rather than facts?

Neuroscience? Physics?

Or perhaps nothing more than induction over the many cases–we have seen another 150 years of fraudulence than they had, we have seen another 150 years of claims debunked.

That’s not a bad sort of knowledge to have acquired, either. But the question remains: is there anything we know that they did not know, aside from the accumulation of disproofs of particular cases, that justifies our having lower priors about these phenomena?


Francis Spufford 06.02.18 at 11:47 am

The very young Keynes’ cruel joke about Sidgwick seems relevant here: “He never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true, and prove that it wasn’t, and hope that it was.” Nothing dates as fast, or seems as unnecessary to the next generation, and therefore as unsympathetic, as the halfway houses people painstakingly construct on the way out of religion.

The best bit of spiritualist SF I’ve come across in the last few years is Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions, in which a rather unpleasant Victorian occult society uses astral projection to send an expedition to a planetary-romance Mars.


John Crowley 06.02.18 at 12:08 pm

I think that the advances in neurobiology and the beginnings of an understanding that consciousness must depend on a platform of some physical kind — the brain, in the case of humans and other animals; some sort of Kurzweilian constructed digital system for machine consciousness — weakens any argument for spirit conciousness without a body. This doesn’t obviate telepathy, or spirit transmission between brain-based conciousnesses, but it does seem to make investigation of it both difficult and not worth the trouble.


John Crowley 06.02.18 at 12:55 pm

Off-topic (though i enjoyed this pointed comment) — I loved “Red Plenty” and have just started on “Golden Hill”.


alfredlordbleep 06.02.18 at 9:47 pm

The last kiss is given to the void

CECILY Professor Holbo? Are you there?
Even a “fictional” person “departed” for
some time as you
understand her is
way out there.
All the more reason you are a believer.
Not to mention your twentieth-century science. Do you like Einstein’s “spooky
action at a distance”?
My beating heart tells me so.

P.S. Wild, Wilde, Wilder—the ouija board tells the tale—Bruce Wilder is a conjuring of your invention.


John Holbo 06.02.18 at 10:53 pm

Thanks for the recommendations. X. Trapnel, Jenny is a friend so I really ought to give her novel a spin. And I still have Francis’ “Golden Hill” on my too-read stack. Damn. It’s there with Ka”. I ought to get to work.


vegetable 06.03.18 at 12:35 am

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017)


Fake Dave 06.03.18 at 10:16 am

I can’t help wondering if it wasn’t rationality or scientific understanding but rather feminism that helped kill this kind of spiritualism. The stereotypical parlor medium is a pretty young woman in a gauzy shawl who was presumed to be incapable of faking it because she was either too innocent, too naive, or too uneducated to be the source of the “profound” words of the spirit. She was so deeply underestimated by the sophisticated gentlemen who came to watch her that even many of those who expected her to be a fraud found themselves being taken in.

The “Patience Worth” case is a good example as it seems people just couldn’t believe that a Midwestern housewife with limited formal education might still have a reasonable understanding of Shakespearean English, a ready wit, and superficially-convincing knowledge of colonial frontier life. For a certain kind of Victorian/Edwardian man, it was apparently easier to imagine that this woman was possessed by a ghost than that she was capable of deceiving him so completely.

I can’t remember where I read it now, but I’ve also seen it suggested that these intimate sessions with mediums were as much about repressed sexuality and the thrill of seeing “proper” women suddenly transgress their socially defined roles as they were about actually talking to ghosts. That certainly was a major theme of the Gothic Horror of the same era.


bianca steele 06.03.18 at 5:29 pm

It’s always seemed to me that discussions about spirituality have a motte-and-bailey form. Traditional religions are happy to promote the idea of “spirituality” when the alternative is science or a “disenchanted” modernity. When those dangers apparently disappear, the importance of correct doctrine and practice returns to prominence.


Meredith 06.04.18 at 4:45 am

I am grateful for the book recommendations here. This post recalls me to some research I left off about a year ago.

I am convinced that there is a direct line from the Puritans and their competing Congregationalist/Unitarian/Calvinist heirs to “New Age” stuff. To explore:

— “professionalization” and the development of academic fields roughly as we know them today, including the elevation of STEM fields, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — cf. professional societies
— “progressive education” (cf. John Dewey), as early as the early 1900’s, ruggedly outdoorsy (cf. Teddy R., national parks, baseball, urbanization and industrialization), “experiential,” and “student-centered” (to read some of the tracts from these “academies” is to read SLAC promotional materials today). So many people founding these schools were the children or grandchildren of Congregational ministers…
— Mary Baker Eddy, the Theosophists, and phenomena like the Moral Re-Armament Movement (MRA — since renamed Initiatives of Change, this became the “cult” that Glenn Close reports she was raised in). Again, the role of ministers and ministers’ children (esp. Congregational and Presbyterian) is striking. Also, the overlap with, say, the YMCA and YWCA. Also, the interest in Hinduism and “Eastern wisdom,” and in general developing notions of many paths to “universal truth.”
— Willa Cather and the Brewsters, esp. the Brewsters (for example)

So much earnest energy! Zeal of the Land Busy.

Anecdote. My talented and distinguished NYC electrical engineering grandfather (b. 1895), though raised in a religious household, was agnostic (or pretty much atheist). Their house “in the country” (Orange County), a simple farmhouse they restored, was “haunted.” My mother well remembered the light that bounced around the room as she and her sister went to sleep as little girls. My grandfather had people from Duke come to investigate, some time in the 1930’s or 1940’s, probably. Some early “paranormal science” types, I think. The Duke guys surmised something along the lines of marsh gases. Sure enough, after they dug a new well, the light stopped appearing. My grandmother was into ouija boards in this same period. She had been raised in southwestern VA in a stern Presbyterian world/other stuff (her mother explored more tent revival stuff when she wasn’t writing poetry). All this according to my mother. I never talked with my grandmother about it. God, I wish I had. She ended up getting conned by a Methodist minister, but that’s another story.


Patrick Fessenbecker 06.04.18 at 10:42 am

Bart Schultz’s book on Sidgwick — Eye of the Universe, CUP 2004 — is a slog to get though, but it makes a pretty persuasive case that the two Sidgwicks are actually one Sidgwick: the interest in spiritualism came about because he couldn’t see a way through the “Dualism of Practical Reason.”


Francis Spufford 06.05.18 at 10:34 am

John Crowley @ 25:

Also off topic, but I treasure your work. There isn’t a book of yours from which I haven’t learned something about how to write, and some of them (Little, Big; The Translator; Great Work of Time) are on my perpetual re-read list, to be visited at intervals forever.


Lurker 06.05.18 at 5:18 pm


Jeez, guys, get a room.


John Crowley 06.05.18 at 7:20 pm

Is this not a room?

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