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A Tale of Two Congresses: The Psychological Study of Psychical, Occult, and Religious Phenomena, 1900-1909

Abstract

In so far as researchers viewed psychical, occult, and religious phenomena as both objectively verifiable and resistant to extant scientific explanations, their study posed thorny issues for experimental psychologists. Controversies over the study of psychical and occult phenomena at the Fourth Congress of International Psychology (Paris, 1900) and religious phenomena at the Sixth (Geneva, 1909) raise the question of why the latter was accepted as a legitimate object of study, whereas the former was not. Comparison of the Congresses suggests that those interested in the study of religion were willing to forego the quest for objective evidence and focus on experience, whereas those most invested in psychical research were not. The shift in focus did not overcome many of the methodological difficulties. Sub-specialization formalized distinctions between psychical, religious, and pathological phenomena; obscured similarities; and undercut the nascent comparative study of unusual experiences that had emerged at the early Congresses.

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