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In natural science — physics, chemistry, physiology,
etc. — observation is made or can always be made di-
rectly: the savants themselves, by means of their own
senses, constate the phenomena they study. In psychi-
cal sciences the observation is often indirect and medi-
ate, owing to the fact that scientists know of the nature
of the phenomena only through the testimony of un-
scientific observers — persons not trained in science —
who witnessed them by chance and described them,
orally or in writing.

This manner of observation by testimony is not con-
fined exclusively to psychical sciences; it is found in all
the moral and social sciences, in all sciences which have
man for their object. It is the indispensable instru-
ment of history, where these sciences find their principal
support. As a result, psychical sciences partake at the
same time of the nature of physical sciences and of that
of moral sciences; and this, perhaps, as Prof. Bergson
aptly showed in his masterly address of May 28, 1913, 2
is one of the reasons why many savants — who con-
ceive all sciences as in the light of natural sciences only

2 Annales des sciences psychiques (November and December, 1913).
Address delivered by Prof. Bergson at the time of his election to the
presidency of the Society for Psychical Research, of London.


— refuse " to consider as real, certain facts that can be
known only through a method of observation founded
upon testimony, too similar to the historical method or
to that of a magistrate gathering testimony."

Yet in natural science there are a great number of
facts that can be known by this method only: for in-
stance, the rare and accidental facts in astronomy and
pathology, such as the falling of meteorites, diseases
peculiar to certain climates or observed in a small num-
ber of individuals, etc.

It is true that in such sciences we take into account
only observations reported by witnesses who can be con-
sidered as scientists; but we should singularly restrict
the means of obtaining information for the psychical
sciences were we to reject, even for the sake of inven-
tory, all observation presented by non-professionals.
Where, moreover, does the category of people accept-
able for testimony begin and where does it end?
Should we, for instance, reject wholly and without ex-
amination all the accounts in which the early magneti-
zers — de Puysegur, Deleuze, Lafontaine, du Potet,
etc. — report the facts observed by them, under the
pretext that none of them was a professional scientist
and that the interpretation that they proposed does not
seem to be in accordance with the ideas held in the
sciences of to-day? Should we grant the quality of
scientist to naturalists, to physicians, to physicists, to
chemists, to physiologists — such as Antoine Laurent
de Jussieu, Dr. Husson, Reichenbach, W. Gregory,
Charles Richet, W. Crookes, Oliver Lodge, etc. — and
consent to give credit to their testimony when they tell
us of facts which they affirm that they themselves con-


stated and controlled? If we were to answer in the
negative, how could we justify such intransigence?

The psychical sciences are perfectly in their right
in seeking in indirect observation the first elements of
their study; providing, of course, that the information
thus gathered be submitted to the most severe criticism
(as has been done, for instance, by the Society for
Psychical Research with telepathic facts). Then they
should be completed and controlled as far as possible by
direct observation, especially by provoked observation
(frequently and wrongly confused with experimenta-

By provoked observation is meant an observation in
which the observer himself intervenes actively in the
production of the phenomenon, but only in order to
establish it in the best possible conditions of certainty
and accuracy, without any previous hypothesis as to the
mechanism of its production. An observation of this
kind is commonly called an experiment ; and it is in this
sense that it is said that " to put a subject to sleep,"
" to make the table move," etc., is to " conduct an ex-

But this, we believe, is a wrong use of the word.

Real experimentation exists only in the verification of
an hypothesis. The experiment, thus understood, must
be prepared in such a way that it may be a question
asked of Nature, forcing her to answer in the affirma-
tive or the negative.

The so-called experiments independent of all hy-
potheses and previous analyses have, without doubt, a
superiority over ordinary observation that permits
them to repeat and multiply the facts; but, from the


point of view of their position and their role in the
ensemble of the experimental method, it is impossible
to see in them anything but a particular form of obser-
vation. 3

An example will better explain the difference and
the rapports of these three forms of observation in
psychical sciences:

First: One of my friends wrote me that he had
witnessed a fact which had impressed him. He saw
a man, who called himself a mesmerist, suddenly attract
another man, several inches away, by presenting his
hands at the height of the latter's shoulder-blades.
As I have the greatest confidence in the judgment and
character of my friend, I consider this fact real, inter-
esting, and worthy of being related. When I study the
magnetoidal phenomena I shall not hesitate to give it a
place among the elements of the problems to be solved.
This is what may be called indirect or mediate obser-

Second: But I would not stop there. Desiring to
be able to confirm for myself the testimony of my
friend, I went to the town where he lives, and there
made arrangements to observe with my own eyes the
phenomenon which he described. This enabled me to
understand more exactly all the circumstances and even
to note some which had escaped the first observer.
This is a direct observation of the first degree, in

3 These are those groping experiments, those "trying to see" ex-
periments, which Bacon called " hazards of the experiment (sortes
experiment'i)" and which he justified by saying it is necessary some-
times " to lift every stone in Nature." They are especially useful in
the still too-little-advanced sciences where, as Claude Bernard says,
the savant must " try to fish in troubled waters."


which I act personally but simply in the role of specta-

Third: I then placed myself in the conditions in
which I had seen the mesmerist operate, in order to
produce the phenomenon myself; or I engaged different
people to place themselves in these conditions, and I
verified each time the results obtained. This consti-
tutes a direct observation of the second degree, which
I have previously called a " provoked " observation.

It can be said that these three forms or degrees of
observation attract and complete one another naturally,
although, in certain cases, we may unfortunately be
compelled to stop either at the first or at the second
degree of the scale, without being able to pass from the
first to the second, and from the second to the third.


Let us see now in what spirit and with what precau-
tions the observation of psychical phenomena must be
conducted in order to make possible a correct and
efficacious application of the subsequent processes of the
experimental method.

In all sciences based upon facts, observation is pro-
posed, first and above all, to constate the facts in the
best conditions of certainty and authenticity and to
permit a description as exact and complete as possible.
When it is a question of facts so obscure, so capricious,
as psychical facts (understood in their broadest sense)
the first aim of observation is very difficult to attain.

On one hand, the observer is constantly grappling
with a first cause of error: illusion. This not only
must be guarded against in the observation actually


before the experimenter, but it must be hunted out in
the preceding observations, too often reported by testi-
mony foreign to all scientific discipline but which it is
impossible not to take into account.

On the other hand, a second cause of error, no less
formidable, and from which physical and natural
sciences are generally exempt, is simulation — decep-
tion, conscious or unconscious, which subjects frequently
use toward their observers.

To what extent do these two causes of error inter-
vene in the different branches of psychical sciences, and
by what means can their effects be prevented?

That question is too complex for us to treat of it
here. It is sufficient to know that these causes do exist ;
and in order to give a reliable account, every observer
must also play the part of critic.

But in an experimental science, observation is not in
itself its real end. Beyond the constatation and the
description of the fact, it aims at another object: to
gain a tentative interpretation of the fact, an anticipated
idea, an hypothesis that will permit of the substitution,
in place of the simple observation, of that other process,
called experimentation.

" All experimental initiative," says Claude Bernard,
" is in the idea, for it is that which provokes the experi-
ment. Reason or reasoning serves only to deduce the
consequences of that idea and to submit them to experi-
ment. An anticipated idea or an hypothesis is there-
fore the point of departure necessary for all experi-
mental reasoning. Without that it will not be possible
to make any instructive investigation; one will accu-
muluate only sterile observations. An experiment


without a preconceived idea is but an experiment made
at random."

Unfortunately — and it is Claude Bernard himself
who makes the statement — there do not exist precise
and certain rules that enable us to sort out from the
observation of facts the directing idea that alone war-
rants real experimentation. " The nature of the idea,"
said this great French savant, who practised, better
than all others, the experimental method, " is wholly
individual: it is a particular statement, a quid pro-
prium, which constitutes the originality, the invention,
or the genius of each."

This, perhaps, is a repetition of the words that are
attributed to Buffon: "Genius resides in great pa-
tience " ; and Newton's response to those who asked him
how he had discovered universal gravitation: "By
always thinking."

He who, in observing phenomena, is being constantly
dominated by the idea and desire to extract from them
certain circumstances and relations which will enable
him to divine their hidden mechanism — has he not a
greater chance to behold, some day, the long-sought-
for hypothesis, than the one who confines himself solely
to producing the phenomena and then describing them
as real facts?

We cannot, therefore, too emphatically recommend
to all students of psychical phenomena that interroga-
tive attitude of mind which is not satisfied merely in
the knowledge that a fact is real, but which intends to
know how it is possible, and which imagines, supposes,
that it is the effect of such cause or is the outcome of
such law.


We well appreciate, however, the nature and role
of the hypothesis thus understood.

There is not here an hypothesis that is in any way
theoretical, general, having for its aim the integration
and the coordination of an ensemble of truths already
acquired — such as, for example, in physics the hy-
pothesis of ether as a vehicle for heat, light, and elec-
tricity; in chemistry the atomic hypothesis; in astronomy
the hypothesis of Laplace; in natural science the hy-
potheses of Lamarck and Darwin, etc. It is an experi-
mental hypothesis, special and precise, bearing upon
the probable cause or the probable effect of such de-
termined phenomenon as the savant may be observing,
and suggested by that same observation. It has for
its aim not the explanation of the results, but the direc-
tion of future researches, destined consequently to be
submitted immediately to the control of experimenta-
tion, to be either verified or contradicted by it.

From this point of view, it could be said that there
are two kinds of hypotheses :

( i ) The inert, idle, in the sense that, whatever sat-
isfaction they may give by their simplicity, their co-
herence, their reality, etc., they do not suggest action,
they do not open the field for experimentation by which
any research can be made in the attempt to discover
other facts beyond those of which they pretend to fur-
nish the explanation.

(2) Those hypotheses which, on the contrary, are
active, laborious, in the sense that they have to be
realized immediately in effective experiments. Their
purpose is less to explain the facts already known than


to discover new facts, and after those facts, still others,
ad infinitum.

One of the principal means of advancing psychical
sciences will be to substitute more and more the experi-
mental and active hypotheses for the theoretical and
inert hypotheses with which these sciences are still en-
cumbered. Among these latter, moreover, several
seem to us to be susceptible of reflecting, in a certain
measure, the form of the first — such, for example, as
the hypothesis of animal magnetism, as we have en-
deavored to show in Our Hidden Forces. On the other
hand, we do not see how any such transformation
would be possible in the case of hypotheses such as
that of the astral plane proposed by theosophists to
explain clairvoyance. Hypotheses of that kind seem
to us to be irremediably inert.

There now remains the determination of the particu-
lar conditions of experimentation and of induction in
the psychical sciences.



All future progress in psychical research depends
upon the measure in which it will be possible to apply to
that research the four processes of the experimental
method, especially that one from which the method
derives its name and which alone characterizes it:

But, as has been indicated in a preceding chapter,
current language assembles under the one name, ex-
perimentation (or experiment) , two operations which,
while they resemble each other in their exterior appear-
ances, are notably different if the place and the role
of each in the ensemble of the experimental method be

They have this in common : that they necessitate the
active intervention of the savant in the production of the
phenomena which he wishes to observe; and they both
combat observation proper, where the savant is more
or less the passive spectator of the phenomena which
present themselves to him in the ordinary course of
nature, without his making any effort to arouse or to
modify them.

But there is between the two operations this capital
difference: that one aims merely to establish the fact to



which it is applied and to permit as exact and complete
a description of it as possible, while the purpose of the
other is to verify a preconceived idea, an hypothesis
relative to the mechanism of the production of the

The first has, then, absolutely the same object and
the same role as observation; it is a provoked observa-
tion. The second, on the contrary, differs from obser-
vation in giving, not the fact itself, but the idea that
enables one to comprehend it, while connecting it with
the universal determinism of cause and effect, and in
having as its role the transformation of that anticipated
idea into a law, henceforth acquired to science.

Really, the first of these two operations is inter-
mediary between observation and experiment; it forms
the passage from one to the other. It may, therefore,
be called observation or it may be called experiment,
according to the angle from which it is viewed.

It is only the latter which gives to the experimental
method its proper character and real importance, for
it is this only which permits induction to be made with
certainty, as Claude Bernard so deftly demonstrated in
his Introduction a l' etude experimentale de la medecine.
Separated from it, all the other processes of the method
constitute no more than an empiricism to which science
might resign itself temporarily, for want of a better

Here are the first questions which arise regarding the
subject of experimentation in the psychical sciences:
Is it possible to provoke artificially, experimentally ,


the diverse phenomena studied in these sciences?
Does this possibility not exist for some of the phenom-
ena and not for all? Can it be supposed that eventu-
ally it will exist for all?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary for
us to consider first the nature of psychical facts (or
parapsychic) in general; then that of the different
branches into which they are divided — hypnoidal
facts, magnetoidal facts, and spiritoidal facts.

The parapsychic facts are all human facts, they are
produced in human beings, and for this reason they
oppose difficulties that are often insurmountable. Ex-
periments cannot be made with human beings in the
same way that they can with things or even with ani-

In the first place, experimentation may encounter
obstacles of a moral nature. Is it permissible to subject
an individual, even with his consent, to experiments
which — as those of hypnotism, magnetism, or spirit-
ism — are susceptible of temporarily upsetting the
equilibrium of his physical forces and his intellectual
and moral faculties?

This is a cas de conscience regarding which scientists
are far from being in accord.

Let us, however, suppose this first obstacle to be
removed. We encounter a second in the often unfa-
vorable attitude of the individual upon whom we wish to
experiment. For instance, a certain subject, who at
first is willing to be successfully experimented upon, re-
sists the influence or refuses to submit himself to further
experimentation, owing to some inexplicable caprice.


At other times his complaisant attitude is but a sham,
its aim being to deceive through the production of a sim-
ulated phenomenon.

These, it may be said, are the inherent drawbacks
to all studies bearing upon human facts. And they are
especially pronounced in the parapsychic facts, because
these facts are special, accidental, abnormal: that is to
say, observable only in certain individuals of the human
race, in certain comparatively rare and exceptional cir-
cumstances. It follows that the same experiment,
made in what seem to be the same conditions, succeeds
with some individuals and does not succeed with others;
it succeeds with one individual on a certain day and does
not succeed with the same individual another day.
And it is impossible for us — at the present time — to
anticipate or to explain these disconcerting variations.

Let us add that a characteristic common to all these
individuals — subjects or mediums — is their extreme
propensity to autosuggestion, or to the influence of
either conscious or unconscious suggestion of others./
This is a propensity in nature to alter, to a greater or
less extent, the results of the experiment, by introduc-
ing surreptitiously among the causes admitted by the
experimenter a cause capable of neutralizing or of coun-
teracting the effects.

The case would be still more serious were we to
admit, as some pretend, that a second characteristic
common to all subjects and mediums is an ineradicable
tendency to simulation, in all its forms: falsehood,
fraud, mystification, etc. However true it may be that
the experimenter must also be on his guard, no less


than the observer, against this possible cause of error,
it seems, nevertheless, that simulation may not be so
constant nor so general as has been pretended.

These — autosuggestion, conscious or unconscious
suggestion by others, and simulation — independently
of the complexity and the polyetism 1 of parapsychic
phenomena (and common also to biological and socio-
logical phenomena) are the principal difficulties which
the experimenter encounters in all this order of re-
search. He will conquer them, however, through the
constant exertion of prudence, vigilance, and tenacity.


If we review the different branches of the psychical
sciences, we shall find that each of them presents cer-
tain difficulties more or less peculiar to itself; and that
the difficulties in their ensemble increase in proportion
to their rank in the hierarchy of the sciences, from
hypnotism to animal magnetism, and from animal mag-
netism to spiritism.

The study of hypnoidal phenomena is certainly the
one which best adapts itself to experiments of the first
order (experiments to see) and in which, consequently,
experiments of the second order (experiments to know)
have a greater chance to be introduced with success.
We have at our call a certain number of practical means
to produce at will the different varieties of these phe-
nomena — somnambulism, catalepsy, lethargy, etc. —
and at the same time the means to discover, by suffi-

1 This word — coined, we believe, by Durand de Gros — means the
particularity that certain phenomena present of being able to be pro-
duced indifferently, by many different causes — at least those which
science cannot in any way unify.


ciently precise and constant signs, the persons in whom
susceptibility to these phenomena exists.

What is the action of the agents and processes used
by the experimenter in provoking the hypnotic state?
He himself ignores the question ; it is one of those which
his later investigations will have to solve. For the mo-
ment, it is sufficient for him to know that these agents
are effective, and to have the necessary technical ability
to use them advantageously. Here, as in many other
fields of science, our power, whatever Bacon may have
said, exceeds our knowledge.

Let us therefore confine ourselves, in the present state
of the psychical sciences, to the fact that suggestion, the
gaze, the passes, the fixation of a brilliant point, etc.,
produce hypnosis; and that, similarly, suggestion, the
breath, the passes, etc., arrest it. We must use these
different means — perhaps separate, perhaps united —
in our experiments, just as the physicist and the chemist
use light, heat, electricity, the catalytic force, etc.,
without necessarily knowing the nature of the diverse
agents or how they produce their effects.

Of the different processes which we have enumerated
— suggestion, the gaze, passes, etc. — it is the first
which, the School of Nancy pretends, forms in reality
the basis of all the others, and it is to this alone that
they owe their whole efficiency. Consequently, the
experimenters whose doctrines are inspired by this
School have a tendency to reduce all their technical
operations practically to suggestion alone.

But, as we shall show later in detail, even though
the question maybe extremely interesting and important
from the theoretical point of view, we must not over-


look the fact that it is not solved at all. It would
be necessary, for its solution, to conduct a long series of
experiments of the second order, patiently and method-
ically carried out and tabulated; and this, so far as
we know, has never been done. On the other hand,
from the practical point of view, it is not necessary that
it be solved if we are sure that the processes other than
suggestion (no matter what these others may be in
reality or in appearance) produce identical, or equiva-
lent, effects — so long as our object is to provoke hyp-
notic states.

From this point of view, it can be said that each
experimenter has his own habits and his preferences,
which respond, undoubtedly, to his particular aptitudes,
natural or acquired; and it would be wrong to try to
impose them upon other experimenters in virtue of
some such reasoning as this : " I employ in my experi-
ments only one process (for example, suggestion), and
it always succeeds. Therefore, no other process exists,
and this is the only one which can succeed."

Yet the great majority of those who employed these
different processes rarely had a scientific aim. Many
sought, rather, a therapeutic result. They endeavored

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Online LibraryEmile BoiracThe Psychology of the Future → online text (page 4 of 22)