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American Imago 58.4 (2001) 767-791

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Subliminal Promptings:
Psychoanalytic Theory and the Society for Psychical Research

James P. Keeley


In 1912 Freud published "A Note on the Unconscious in Psycho-Analysis" in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The Society for Psychical Research, or the SPR, was founded in London in 1882, the result of the efforts of several prominent British intellectuals, scientists, and professionals sympathetic to, but by no means unanimously convinced of, the claims and practices of Spiritualism--the belief that the human personality survives the death of the body and can be contacted by the still living. The SPR originally intended to investigate those claims and practices by subjecting them to rigorous scientific investigation: this in a (as it turned out) futile attempt to salvage such religious beliefs as the spiritual, the miraculous, and the afterlife from the predations of post-Darwinian science by placing them firmly, if possible, on a scientific foundation. In response to various early developments, however, the original purpose of the SPR quickly evolved to include explorations into such occult phenomena as trance states, clairvoyance, and telepathy; into such psychological issues as hypnotism, dreams, and mental pathology; into such occult movements as Theosophy; and into such historically spiritual matters as supernatural events recorded in the Bible and in the lives of the saints and the history of the Church.

For several reasons, however--the SPR's original link to Spiritualism, the persistent subscription to the tenets of Spiritualism on the part of an importunate minority in its membership, its investigations into the possibility of the survival of bodily death, among them--many critics of the SPR, in Britain's [End Page 767] scientific establishment and in its cultural elite, identified the Society itself with its professed object of study. Indeed, a considerable part of the contemporary and current discussion about the SPR concerns itself with the related questions of the validity of its claims to scientific standing and the extent of its participation in the very occult practices it professed to investigate. Nevertheless, as a result of these explorations, by the 1890s the leading thinkers of the Society, chiefly under the direction of F. W. H. Myers, the Society's dominant theoretician, were engaged in elaborating a theory of the human self--that is, a comprehensive psychology--an explanation of multiple psychological components of the human individual and of the complex interaction between the individual and the outside world. In one of the ironies of cultural history, the psychology developed by the SPR, based upon the theory of a "subliminal self," the workings of which are not immediately accessible to the conscious self, was to be eclipsed after the Great War by the psychology developed by the person to whom in 1912 the Society extended a request for a contribution to a special medical edition of its Proceedings--Sigmund Freud. 1

Given the Society's problematic relations to occultism, and given Freud's well-known protectiveness toward the movement he engendered, that Freud responded to the SPR's request with an essay for publication in its Proceedings is remarkable. Ronald W. Clark (1980) has informed us that "Freud surmised, no doubt correctly, that the existence of any link between the founding fathers of psychoanalysis and investigation of the paranormal would hamper acceptance of psychoanalysis" (277). Freud's anxious care that psychoanalysis should steer clear of any perceived involvement with the occult is recorded in detail by Ernest Jones in his biography of Freud (1957, 386, 389, 393-94). 2 Nevertheless, this remarkable event has gone largely unremarked by Freud scholarship. Jones, for instance, simply leaves Freud's publication in the SPR's Proceedings out of his account of Freud's relations with psychical research (397). Elsewhere in his biography of Freud, before his commentary on "A Note on the Unconscious in Psycho-Analysis," Jones (1955) informs us matter-of-factly that Freud wrote the essay in response to a request from the Society for a [End Page 768] contribution to a Medical Supplement (315). While Jones notes in...


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