January 15, 2013
Christopher: How about yourself, Wim?  Who are some of the key people from outside of the Netherlands with whom you have noticed Dutch psychical researchers corresponding, and how did their relationship develop?    Wim: Ingrid is right in pointing at the intensive correspondence between the British SPR and many Dutch researchers at the beginning of the twentieth century. From the letters of Floris Jansen in our archive, we know that back in 1906 he was in correspondence with many researchers outside Holland. Not only in the UK but also with French researchers like Albert de Rochas. Dutch researchers however were also in close contact with Germany. We know for example that in the 1920s, Dr. E.A. Greven was in close contact with German researchers like Prof. Hans Driesch and Prof. Johannes Verweyen (link in German). German was the language for science in early twentieth-century Holland. German journals like Psychische Studien were important sources of information for Dutch researchers. In 1926, Tenhaeff, still a student of experimental psychology at Utrecht University , was contacting Harry Price in London to learn more about his experiments with Rudi Schneider. The contact between Price and Tenhaeff was sustained over the years and was the basis for the Dutch translation of Price’s book Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. Thanks to the correspondence between Tenhaeff and Price that is kept in the Harry Price Library in Senate House, London, we know more details about the interactions between these two famous researchers. Christopher: You are both going to be presenting at the conference Psychical Research in the History of Medicine and the Sciences at University College London on January 26th and 27th.  On what will you be presenting?  And what else at this conference are you looking forward to hearing about? Wim: Inspired by the laboratories of Floris Jansen in Amsterdam and Harry Price in London, Tenhaeff argued from 1929 onwards at the annual meetings of the Dutch SPR that if the Dutch SPR would be a truly scientific community, they must have an up-to-date laboratory to investigate the claims of the paranormal. This dream was fulfilled in 1935 when the Dutch SPR had the opportunity to open a small but very well equipped parapsychology laboratory at the premises of a large hospital in Amsterdam. Due to the outbreak of the Second World War, the laboratory was closed down and never opened again. However many interesting experiments were conducted at this laboratory, and my presentation at the UCL conference will give an overview of this. In my presentation, I will focus on the remarkable finding that in this parapsychology laboratory most of the pre-Second World War experiments with EEG (electroencephalography) were conducted. In 1930s Holland, the medical establishment was not overwhelmingly interested in the new EEG possibilities. It was only within psychiatry and parapsychology that the new EEG options were used for experimental research. At UCL, I hope to meet other scientists that, like me, are interested in the history of psychical research as a scientific field of experimental studies. I would like to exchange information on international laboratory research in the first part of the twentieth century in order to compare the laboratory set-ups and methodology used in different countries in those early years. Ingrid: First of all, let me say that I’m really looking forward to the UCL conference. It doesn’t happen often that a conference solely dedicated to the history of psychical research and parapsychology is being organized. And this one even lasts three days! I’m really excited to hear all the different historians that are working on this subject. What is their approach? What historiographical claims do they make? What do they believe we could learn from the history of psychical research and parapsychology? I expect many vibrant and inspirational discussions. In my own presentation I will make a comparison between two Dutch organizations of psychical research in the 1920s: on one hand, the Dutch Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and on the other, the Society for Psychical Research and Applied Magnetism (SPRAM). In the historiography of Dutch parapsychology, the Dutch SPR, founded in 1920, is always attributed a central role, if only because of its famous first president, the pioneering psychologist Gerard Heymans, and his well-known experiment with Van Dam. In my presentation, however, I will claim that SPRAM thrived more than the Dutch SPR in the 1920s. SPRAM was oriented very practically. Its members educated magnetizers, treated patients in the society’s magnetic hospital and were forerunners in the public debate on whether only doctors should be allowed to practice medicine. Two members of SPRAM, Paul Dietz and Wilhelm Tenhaeff, would go on to save the waning Dutch SPR in 1928 and both would acquire university positions as parapsychologists. By comparing the two societies, I believe a crucial aspect of the emerging discipline of parapsychology becomes evident: its relevance to the general public, and hence, the public’s support. Lack of that support almost ended the Dutch SPR. Without the practical approach of SPRAM, the intellectuals of SPR would not have survived and Dutch parapsychology would not have developed any further. Christopher: The conference sounds fascinating, and for those reading who will be in London later in January, you can check out the program and register on the conference’s website. I’ve found your overview of the history of Dutch psychical research most enlightening, Wim and Ingrid. Some years ago, I spoke at a conference in Ireland, Science and Technology in the European Periphery (STEP). It was founded to give more attention to the development of science and tech in European countries that were outside of the usual historical narrative that places Germany, France, and Britain at the centre. This is a bit of a Latourian concept, I have to say, the idea of a centre and a periphery. So, many historians of science from “peripheral” countries in northern, eastern, and southern Europe, as well as Ireland, were in attendance, arguing that scientists in their countries truly did make significant contributions to the scientific profession. What surpised me most of all were the number of Dutch historians at this conference. “The Netherlands as peripheral to the history of science?” I thought. I didn’t realize how underrepresented historians in Holland felt that science in their country had been in the broader study of the history of science. Myself, I presented on a case that extended to two “peripheral” countries – Hungary and Spain. But for me, there was an additional peripheral element, and that was that this was a case of trance mediumship in which a Hungarian girl was allegedly possessed by the spirit of a Spanish woman, and thus displayed xenoglossy, speaking Spanish fluently even though she had never been exposed to the language before. Furthermore, she permanently transformed into this personality. (You can read about this case in the fantastic paper by Mary Rose Barrington, Peter Mulacz, and Titus Rivas in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and an overview that Guy Lyon Playfair wrote on the case for Fortean Times.) In essence, what I found through the STEP conference was while these historians of science were busy trying to recover national science endeavours that otherwise had been left out of mainstream history books that had favoured a grand narrative of research and invention carried out in the “centres” of Europe, I brought forth yet another layer of what periphery meant – how psychical research and a productive relationship between science and religion had also largely been left out or minimized in historical accounts of European science. (This goes back to what you were saying, Wim, about how elements of history have been erased because of politics.) What strikes me about what you’ve said here is that you are maybe in the same boat. You are recovering the voices and lives of psychical researchers and parapsychologists and attempting to integrate as part of the history of science. By bringing this historical Dutch practice to the attention of the Society for Psychical Research, the Parapsychological Association, and now Psychical Research in the History of Medicine and the Sciences at University College London, you are integrating the history of Dutch psychical research into what has been the “master narrative” of this history – which by and large as been British/American-centred among English-language scholars. In the reasonably young English-language historiography of psychical research and Spiritualism, over the past decade or so, historians have brought other regions into this narrative – for example Heather Wolffram and Corinna Treitel on Germany; Sofie Lachapelle, John Warne Monroe, and Lynn L. Sharp on France; and increasingly I’m seeing more studies on places such as Spain, Brazil, and Canada. I am particularly impressed by how in your work, you are revealing the importance of Dutch psychical research’s relationship to the development of professional psychology, and how Dutch researchers themselves were eager to contribute to an international discussion about this field, and to draw on and further the progress of the study (for example, creating experimental laboratories inspired by those of Harry Price and Floris Jansen, and seeking practical applications of these studies as SPRAM did). I wonder if you have any thoughts on a few points that I raise here: Does this concept of “periphery” and “centre” have any relevance in your research projects, or do knowledge and research activities operate in a different way? Wim: No, not for me. However I do not consider parapsychological nor – what we now call regular - psychological research in the Netherlands as being peripheral. In fact the Netherlands have always been very active in this kind of research. It was only in the early 1960s that US-based psychology and parapsychology became major in these fields. This was due to the fact that English became the leading scientific language and that the big USA had seemingly huge amounts of money and scientists available for research and lecturing.  Also for regular psychology at Dutch universities the world completely changed around the early 1960s.  In this respect I do not see any difference between the developments in Holland for mainline psychology and parapsychology. Ingrid: Without a doubt, in the broad narrative of the history of science it is rather difficult to regard the Netherlands as a peripheral country. For example, being a superpower in the seventeenth century, the many contributions of Dutch ‘scientists’ and philosophers are widely acknowledged. Within the history of psychical research and parapsychology, specifically, this is certainly a different story. Although international parapsychologists are well aware of the active parapsychological community in the Netherlands in the twentieth century, historians have not truly picked up on this yet. I believe this hiatus is also related to the fact that most historians thus far have largely focused upon the fin de siècle when investigating the history of psychical research and parapsychology. The common idea seems to be that psychical research was a ‘normal’ part of the sciences at the end of the nineteenth century, but that this has faded out rapidly afterwards. But it is only after the Second World War that Dutch parapsychology becomes internationally really unique and more important. And this second half of the twentieth century just has not been investigated as extensively by historians of psychical research and parapsychology. This appears to be changing right now (and maybe your own work is an example thereof, Christopher!) and I hope that Wim and I can contribute to this development. In my own work the concept of ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’ certainly plays a role in another respect. The focus of my research is upon the interplay between psychology in general (the ‘centre’) and parapsychology (the ‘periphery’) in particular. Often the relation between psychology and parapsychology is portrayed as an amicable one in the fin de siècle that later on changed drastically into a hostile one. I believe the Dutch history of parapsychology shows that this relationship is way more complex and illustrates the inherent kaleidoscopic nature of the discipline of psychology. In the current ‘neurological’ times this colourful history of psychology tends to be forgotten. Christopher: What kinds of comments have you received from audiences at the conferences you have attended outside of Holland? Wim:  Always positive. People are really surprised to hear that parapsychology had such an overwhelming and rich tradition in Holland.  Also almost nobody – including historians of psychology – realize that all of the founding fathers of psychology were also seriously interested in psychical research and parapsychology.  Many of them actually considered the possibility of the existences of possible paranormal powers within humans to be of an utmost important fact for psychology. However, due to the Spiritualistic movement, the almost holy belief system behind this and the often aggressive and closed character of the Spiritualistic movement, most serious scientists did leave the field.  This happened to Floris Jansen, De Fremery, Heymans, Tenhaeff and all others. Actually, the ongoing debate and closed attitude of the Spiritualistic movement toward serious experiments almost caused the termination of the Dutch SPR in 1929.  Also it is remarkable that Holland, being a small country, appointed Dr. Paul Dietz to be a lecturer in parapsychology at Leiden University in 1932. In 1933, Tenhaeff was appointed to a same position at Utrecht University.  From 1953 until 1980 at Utrecht University, there was the Parapsychology Institute headed by Tenhaeff.  Even more special was the fact that from 1971 to 1989 within the faculty of psychology at Utrecht University, the Parapsychology Laboratory existed.  Both the institute of Tenhaeff and the Laboratory of Johnson became world famous within the field.  Apart from these formal scientific institutions, within Holland many more or less serious layman societies were active in the field.  All of this shows that Holland has a very large and rich tradition in Psychical Research and parapsychology and that even more, still unrecovered, facts have to been dig up from under the dust of the past.  One of the big projects running within the HJBF is the Archival Project, in which we try to save, as much as possible, books, journals, documents and personal archives related to parapsychology and make sure they will be indexed and publicly available for researchers. In the past years several students have used these archive materials for bachelor and master theses. Ingrid: The international conferences I have visited show quite nicely the differences between parapsychologists and historians in the acknowledgement of Dutch parapsychology. Whereas parapsychologists usually know many Dutch parapsychologists, international historians are often quite unaware of the role the Netherlands have played in international parapsychology. A conference on the history of psychical research and parapsychology has recently resulted in a special issue of the journal History of the Human Sciences discussing the discipline in various countries such as England, the Netherlands, Japan and Hungary. Christopher: And what is the state of Dutch psychical research today? Is there something in your historical research that is benefitting the work of today? Wim: It breaks my heart to say that today the scientific research in parapsychology in Holland is coming to a standstill.  The field is frozen. This means that the generation of the 1970s and ‘80s parapsychologists are not followed up by young blood and new energetic ideas. It is as if the field has frozen to remain forever in 1990. Of course closing down the Utrecht University Parapsychology Laboratory in 1989 caused this. It is no longer possible to be trained at university level. Also, no steady funds are available for doing fundamental research. The situation today inspires young and talented researchers to choose another field other than that which has little to nothing to offer in jobs and prestige. Ingrid: As Wim has already mentioned the discipline of parapsychology is virtually non-existent in the Netherlands in this moment. I hope, with my research, to benefit psychological researchers in general. I would like with my research to add to the awareness of psychological researchers about the history of their discipline. In a period where psychological research and psychological knowledge are severely questioned (such as because of the fraud of the social psychologist Diederik Stapel) it is important to reflect upon the current research practices. I believe that knowledge of the history of Dutch parapsychology could be helpful in this regard. Many of the problems parapsychologists have encountered in gaining academic acceptance are reminiscent of issues in psychological research in general today. Christopher: Thank you so much for your insights about psychical research in the Netherlands, Ingrid and Wim!
by Christopher Laursen
Two historians are tracing the origins and development of psychical research in the Netherlands, which otherwise has been seldom discussed in English language studies.
interview | historical research
Ingrid Kloosterman and Wim Kramer on Dutch Psychical Research [page 2]
[continued from Page 1]
Dutch psychical researcher Wilhelm Tenhaeff   Image courtesy of Stichting Het Johan Borgman Fonds (HJBF), Archival Project
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