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Metaphysical phenomena; methods and observations online

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Doctor of Medicine
Deputy-Attorney-General at the Court of Appeal, Bordeaux, France


Member of the Academy of Medicine

Professor of Physiology In the Faculty of Medicine, Pans


Also with a New Chapter containing

'a complex case,' by professor RICHET


'some recently observed phenomena*









The Translator has to thank sincerely a literary
friend, a well-known English clergyman, who has
been kind enough to revise the translation, and
suggest many improvements.


Asked by my friends in France to introduce the author,
Dr. Maxwell, to English readers, I willingly consented,
for I have reason to know that he is an earnest and
indefatigable student of the phenomena for the investiga-
tion of which the Society for Psychical Research was
constituted ; and not only an earnest student, but a sane
and competent observer, with rather special qualifications
for the task. A gentleman of independent means,
trained and practising as a lawyer at Bordeaux, Deputy
Attorney-General, in fact, at the Court of Appeal, he
supplemented his legal training by going through a full
six years' medical curriculum, and graduated M.D. in
order to pursue psycho-physiological studies with more
freedom, and to be able to form a sounder and more
instructed judgment on the strange phenomena which
came under his notice. Moreover, he was fortunate in
enlisting the services of one who appears to be singularly
gifted in the supernormal direction, an educated and
interested friend, who is anxious to preserve his anony-
mity, but is otherwise willing to give every assistance
in his power towards the production and elucidation of
the unusual things which occur in his presence and
apparently through his agency.

.> * o


In all this they have been powerfully assisted by
Professor Charles Richet, the distinguished physiologist
of Paris, whose name and fame are almost as well known
in this country as in his own, and who gave the special
evening lecture to the British Association on the occa-
sion of its semi-international meeting at Dover in 1899.

In France it so happens that these problems have been
attacked chiefly by biologists and medical men, whereas
in this country they have attracted the attention chiefly,
though not exclusively, of physicists and chemists among
men of science. This gives a desirable diversity to the
point of view, and adds to the value of the work of the
French investigators. Another advantage they possess
is that they have no arriere-pensee towards religion or
the spiritual world. Frankly, I expect, they would con-
fess themselves materialists, and would disclaim all sym-
pathy with the view of a number of enthusiasts in this
country, who have sought to make these ill-understood
facts the basis for a kind of religious cult in which faith
is regarded as more important than knowledge, and who
contemn the attitude of scientific men, even of those
few who really seek to observe and understand the

From Dr. Maxwell's observations, so far, there arises
no theory which he feels to be in the least satisfactory :
the facts are recorded as observed, and though theoretical
comments are sometimes attempted in the text, they are
admittedly tentative and inadequate : we know nothing
at present which will suffice to weld the whole together


into a comprehensive and comprehensible scheme. But
for the theoretical discussion of such phenomena the
work of Mr. Myers on Human Personality is of course
far more thorough and ambitious than the semi-popular
treatment in the present book. And in the matter of
history also, the English reader, familiar with the writ-
ings of Mr. Andrew Lang and Mr. Podmore, will not
attribute much importance to the few historical remarks
of the present writer. He claims consideration as an
observer of exceptional ability and scrupulous fairness,
and his work is regarded with the greatest interest by
workers in this field throughout the world.

There is one thing which Dr. Maxwell does not do.
He does not record his facts according to the standard
set up by the Society for Psychical Research in this
country : that is to say, he does not give a minute
account of all the details, nor does he relate the precau-
tions taken, nor seek to convince hostile critics that he
has overlooked no possibility, and made no mistakes.
Discouraged by previous attempts and failures in this
direction, he has regarded the task as impossible, and
has not attempted it. He has satisfied himself with
three things : —

1st. To train himself long and carefully as an
observer ;

2nd. To learn from, and be guided by, the pheno-
mena as they occur, without seeking unduly
to coerce them ;


3rd. To give a general account of the " impression
made upon him by the facts as they ap-

For the rest, he professes himself indifferent whether
his assertions meet with credence or not. He has done
his best to test the phenomena for himself, regarding
them critically, and not at all in a spirit of credulity ;
and he has endangered his reputation by undertaking
what he regards as a plain duty, that of setting down
under his own name, for the world to accept or reject as
it pleases, a statement of the experiences to which he has
devoted so much time and attention, and of the actuality
of which, though he in no way professes to understand
them, he is profoundly convinced.

Equally convinced of their occurrence is Professor
Richet, who has had an opportunity of observing many
of them, and he too regards them from the same untheo-
retical and empirical point of view ; but he has explained
his own attitude in a Preface to the French edition, as
Dr. Maxwell has explained his in ' Preliminary Remarks,*
— both of which are here translated — so there is no need
to say more ; beyond this : —

The particular series of occurrences detailed in these
pages I myself have not witnessed. I may take an
opportunity of seeing them before long ; but though
that will increase my experience, it will not increase my
conviction that things like some of these can and do
occur, and that any other patient explorer who had the


same advantages and similar opportunity for observation,
would undergo the same sort of experience, that is to
say, would receive the same sensory impressions, however
he might choose to interpret them.

That is what the scientific world has gradually to
grow accustomed to. These things happen under
certain conditions, in the same sense that more familiar
things happen under ordinary conditions. What the
conditions are that determine the happening is for future
theory to say.

Dr. Maxwell is convinced that such things can happen
without anything that can with any propriety whatever
be called fraud ; sometimes under conditions so favour-
able for observation as to preclude the possibility of
deception of any kind. Some of them, as we know
well, do also frequently happen under fraudulent and
semi-fraudulent conditions ; L but those who take the
easy line of assuming that hyper-ingenious fraud and
extravagant self-deception are sufficient to account for
the whole of the facts, will ultimately, I think, find
themselves to have been deceived by their own a priori
convictions. \ Nevertheless we may agree that at present
the Territory under exploration is not yet a scientific
State. We are in the pre- Newtonian, possibly the
pre-Copernican, age of this nascent science ; and it is
our duty to accumulate facts and carefully record them,
for a future Kepler to brood over.

What may be likened to the ' Ptolemaic ' view of the
phenomena seems on the whole to be favoured by the


French observers, viz. that they all centre round living
man, and represent an unexpected extension of human
faculty, an extension, as it were, of the motor and
sensory power of the body beyond its apparent boundary.
That is undoubtedly the first adit to be explored, and it
may turn out to lead us in the right direction ; but it
is premature even to guess what will be the ultimate
outcome of this extra branch of psychological and
physiological study. That sensory perception can extend
to things out of contact with the body is familiar enough,
though it has not been recognised for the senses of touch
or taste. That motor activity should also extend into
a region beyond the customary range of muscular action
is, as yet, unrecognised by science. Nevertheless that is
the appearance.

The phenomena which have most attracted the
attention and maintained the interest of the French
observers, have been just those which convey the above
impression : that is to say, mechanical movements with-
out contact, production of intelligent noises, and either
visible, tangible, or luminous appearances which do not
seem to be hallucinatory. These constantly-asserted,
and in a sense well-known, and to some few people
almost familiar, experiences, have with us been usually
spoken of as * physical or psycho-physical phenomena.'
In France they have been called * psychical phenomena,*
but that name is evidently not satisfactory, since that
should apply to purely mental experiences. To call
them ' occult phenomena ' is not distinctive, for every-


thing is occult until it is explained ; and the business of
■science is to contemplate the mixed mass of hetero-
geneous appearances, such as at one time formed all
that was known of Chemistry, for instance, or Electricity,
and evolve from them an ordered scheme of science.

To emphasise the fact that these occurrences are at
present beyond the scheme of orthodox psychology or
psycho-physiology, in somewhat the same way as the
germ of what we now call Metaphysics was once placed
after, or considered as extra to, the course of orthodox
Natural Philosophy or Physics, Professor Richet has
suggested that they be styled *meta-psychical phenomena,'
and that the nascent branch of science, which he and
other pioneers are endeavouring to found, be called for
the present ' Metapsychics/ Dr. Maxwell concurs in this
-comparatively novel term, and as there seems no serious
objection to it, the English version of Dr. MaxwelFs
record will appear under this title.

The book will be found for the most part eminently
readable — rather an unusual circumstance for a record of
this kind — and the scrupulous fairness with which the
author has related everything he can think of which tells
against the genuineness of the phenomena, is highly to be
commended. Whatever may be thought of the evidence
it is manifestly his earnest wish never to make it appear
to others better than it appears to himself.

If critics attack the book, as they undoubtedly will,
Avith the objection that though it may contain a mass
of well-attested assertions by a competent and careful


observer, yet his observations are set down without the
necessary details on which an outside critic can judge
how far the things really happened, and how far the
observer was deceived — let it be remembered that this is
admitted. Dr. Maxwell's defence is, that to give such
details as will satisfy a hostile critic who was not actually
present is impossible — in that I am disposed to agree
with him — he has therefore not attempted the task ;
and I admit, though I cannot commend, his discretion.

It may be said that the attempt to give every detail
necessarily produces a dreary and overburdened narrative.
So it does. Nevertheless I must urge — as both in accord^
ance with my own judgment of what is fitting, and in
loyalty to the high standard of evidence, and the more
stringent rules of testimony, inaugurated by the wise
founders of the Society for Psychical Research — that
observers should always make an effort to record pre-
cisely every detail of the circumstances of some at least
of these elusive and rare phenomena ; so as to assist in
enabling a fair judgment to be formed by people whcv
are not too inexperienced in the conditions attending this
class of observation, and at any rate to add to the clear-
ness of their apprehension of the events recorded. The
opportunities for research are not yet ended, however,,
and I may be allowed to express a hope that in the
future something of this kind will yet be done, when
the occasion is favourable, after a study of such a record
as that of the Sidgwick-Hodgson-Davy experiments in
the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research^ vol. iv^


Our gratitude to Dr. Maxwell would thus be still further

And now, finally, I must not be understood as making
myself responsible for the contents of the book, nor for
the interjected remarks, nor for the translation. The
author and translator must bear their own responsibility.
My share in the work is limited to expressing my con-
fidence in the good faith of Dr. Maxwell — in his
impartiality and competence, — and while congratulating
him on the favourable opportunities for investigation
which have fallen to his lot, to thank him, on behalf
of English investigators, for the single-minded perti-
nacity and strenuous devotion with which he has pursued
this difficult and still nebulous quest.

Oliver Lodge.


There are books in which the author says so clearly
and in such precise terms what he has to say that
any commentary weakens their import ; and a preface
becomes superfluous, sometimes even prejudicial.

Dr. Maxwell's work belongs to this category. The
author, who has long given himself up to psychology,
has had the opportunity of seeing many interesting
things. He has observed everything with minute care ;
and having well thought out the method of observation,
the consequences, and the nature itself of the phenomena,
he lays bare his facts and deducts therefrom a few simple
ideas, fearlessly, honestly, sine ira nee studio^ before a
public which he hopes to find impartial.

To this same public I address the short introduction,
with which my friend Dr. Maxwell kindly asked me
to head this excellent work.

My advice to the reader may be summed up in a few
words. He must take up this book without prejudice.
He must fear neither that which is new, nor that which
is unexpected. In other words, while preserving the
most scrupulous respect for the science of to-day, he
must be thoroughly convinced that this science, whatever


measure of truth it may contain, is nevertheless terribly

Those imprudent people who busy themselves with
' occult ' sciences are accused of overthrowing Science,
of destroying that bulwark which thousands of toilers,
at the cost of an immense universal effort, have been
occupied in constructing during the last three or four

This reproach seems to me rather unjust. No one
is able to destroy a scientific y^?r/.

An electric current decomposes water into one
volume of oxygen and two of hydrogen. This is a
fact which will be true in the eternal future, just as it
has been true in the eternal past. Ideas may perhaps
change on what it is expedient to call electric current,
oxygen, hydrogen, etc. It may be discovered that
hydrogen is composed of fifty different bodies, that
oxygen is transformed into hydrogen, that the electric
current is a ponderable force or a luminous emission.
No matter what is going to be discovered, we shall
never, in any case, prevent what we call to-day an
electric current from transforming, under certain con-
ditions of combined pressure and temperature, what
we call water into two gases, each having different
properties, gases which are emitted in volumetrical
proportions of 2 to i .

Therefore, there need be no fear, that the invasion
of a new science into the old will upset acquired data,
and contradict what has been established by savants.


Consequently psychical phenomena, however compli-
cated, unforeseen, or appalling we may now and then
imagine them to be, will not subvert any of those facts
which form part of to-day's classical sciences.

Astronomy and physiology, physics and mathematics,
chemistry and zoology, need not be afraid. They
are intangible, and nothing will injure the imposing
assemblage of incontestable facts which constitute them.

But notions, hitherto unknown, may be introduced,
which, without casting doubts upon pristine truths,
may cause new ones to enter their domain, and change,
or even upset, our established notions of things.

The facts may be unforeseen, but they will never
be contradictory.

The history of sciences teaches us, that their bulwarks
have never been overthrown by the inroad of a new

At one time no notion of tubercular infection existed.
We now know that it is transmitted by microbes.
This is a new notion, teeming with important con-
clusions, but it does not invalidate the clinical table
of pulmonary phthisis drawn up by physicians of
other days. The discovery of Hertzian waves has in
nowise shaken Ampere's laws. Newton's and FresneFs
optics have not been changed into a tissue of errors
because Roentgen rays and luminous vibrations are able
to penetrate opaque bodies. It appears that radium
can throw out unremittingly, without any appreciable
chemical molecular phenomena, great quantities of


calorific energy ; nevertheless, we may be quite sure,
that the law of conservation of energy and thermo-
dynamic principles will remain as true now as ever.

Likewise, if the facts called * occult ' become estab-
lished, as seems more and more probable, we need not
feel anxious as to the fate of classical science. New
and unknown facts, however strange they may be, will
not do away with old established facts.

To take an example from Dr. MaxwelFs work, let us
admit that the phenomenon of raps — that is to say,
sonorous vibrations in wood or other substances — is
a real phenomenon, and that, in certain cases, there
are sounds which no mechanical force known to us
can explain, would the science of physics be over-
thrown ? It would be a new force thrown out on to
wood, etc., exercising its power on matter, but the
old forces would none the less preserve their activity,
and it is even likely that the transmission of vibrations
by means of this new force would be found to be in
obedience to the same laws as those governing the
transmission of other vibrations ; — the temperature, the
pressure, the density of air or wood would continue
to exercise their usual influence. There would be
nothing new, save the existence of a force until then

Now, is there any savant worthy of the name who
can affirm, that there are no forces, hitherto unknown,
at work in the world ?

However impregnable Science may be when establish-



ing facts, it is miserably subject to error when claiming
to establish negations.

Here is a dilemma, which appears to me to be very
conclusive in that respect : — Either we know all Nature's
forces, or we do not. Now the first alternative is so
ridiculous, that it is really not worth while refuting
it. Our_senses are so limited, so imperfect, that the
world slips away from them almost entirely. We may
say it is owing to an accident, that the magnet's colossal
force was discovered, and if hazard had not placed iron
beside the loadstone, we might have always remained
ignorant of the attraction which loadstone exercises
upon iron. Ten years ago no one suspected the exist-
ence of the Roentgen rays. Before photography, no
one knew that light reduces salts of silver. It is
not twenty years since the Hertzian waves were dis-
covered. The property displayed by amber when
rubbed was, until two hundred years ago, all that was
known of that immense force called electricity.

Question a savage — nay a fellah or a moujik — upon
the forces of Nature ! He will not know even the tenth
part of such forces as elementary treatises on physics in
1905 will enumerate. It appears to me that the savants
of to-day, in respect to the savants of the future, stand in
the same inferiority as the moujiks to the professors of
the college of France.

Who then dare be so rash as to say that the treatises
on physics in 2005 will but repeat what is to be found
in the treatises of 1 905 ? The probability — the certainty.


one might say — is that new scientific data will shortly
spring up out of the darkness, and that most powerful
and altogether unknown forces will be revealed. Our
great-grandchildren will be amazed at the blindness
of our savants, who tacitly profess the immobility of

If science has made such progress of late, it is pre-
cisely because our predecessors were not afraid to make
bold hypotheses, to suppose new forces, demonstrating
their reality by dint of patience and perseverance. Our
strict duty is to do likewise. The savant should be a
revolutionist, and fortunately the time is over when
truth had to be sought in a master's book — magister dixit
— be he Aristotle or Plato. In politics we may be
conservative or progressive ; it is a question of tem-
perament. But when the research of truth is concerned
we must be resolutely and unreservedly revolutionary,
and must consider classical theories — even those which
appear to be the most solid — as temporary hypotheses,
which we must incessantly check and incessantly strive to
overthrow. The Chinese believed that science had been
fixed by their ancestors' sapience ; this example contains
food for meditation.

Moreover — and why not proclaim it loudly — all that
science of which we are so proud, is only knowledge of
appearances. The real nature of things baffles us. The
innermost nature of laws governing matter, whether
living or inert, is inaccessible to our intelligence. A
stone tossed up into the air falls back again to the earth.


Why ? Newton says through attraction proportional to
bulk and distance. But this law is only the statement of
a fact ; who understands that attractive vibration, which
makes the stone fall ? The fall of a stone is such a
commonplace phenomenon, that it does not astonish us :
but in reality no human intelligence has ever understood
it. It is usual, common, accepted ; but like all Nature's
phenomena without exception it is not understood. After
fecundation an egg becomes an embryon ; we describe
as well as we can the phases of this phenomenon ; but,
in spite of the most minute descriptions, have we under-
stood the evolution of that cellular protoplasm, which is
transformed into a huge, living being ? What prodigy
is at work in these segmentations? Why do these
granulations crowd together there? Why do they
decay here to form again elsewhere ?

We live in the midst of phenomena and have no
adequate knowledge of any one of them. Even the
simplest phenomenon is most mysterious. What does
the combination of hydrogen with oxygen mean ? Who
has even once been thoroughly able to understand that
word combination^ annihilation of the properties of two
bodies by the creation of a third body differing from
the two first. How are we to understand that an atom
is indivisible ; it is constituted of a particle of matter,
yet — even in thought — it cannot be divided !

Therefore it behoves the true savant to be very
modest, yet very bold at the same time : very modest,
for our science is a mere trifle — 'H dvOpcoTrivr) croc^ta


okiyov Tivos d^id icrri, koX ovZevo^ — very bold, for the
vast regions of worlds unknown lie open before him.

Audacity and prudence : such are the two qualities, in
no wise contradictory, of Dr. Maxwell's book.

Whatever be the fate in store for his ideas — Ideas
based upon facts — we may rest assured that the facts,
which he has well observed, will remain. I think I see
here the lineaments of a new science — though only a
crude sketch so far.

Who knows but that physiology and physics may find
herein some precious elements of knowledge.^ Woe to
the savants who think that the book of Nature is closed,
and that we puny men have nothing more to learn.

Online LibraryJoseph MaxwellMetaphysical phenomena; methods and observations → online text (page 1 of 33)