Or, How Joseph Glanvill Heralded
the Birth of Modern Parapsychology
Joseph Glanvill heralded the birth of parapsychology as a modern science. Through his influence as both an Anglican and a scientific figure, he successfully managed to equally excite the attention of adherents in both of those fields (Greenslet, Joseph Glanvill, 173-175). While he was indubitably more prolific a philosopher and cleric than he was a scientist, it is the sheer specificity of his sole scientific contribution that makes the preservation of its memory and its study worthwhile (Greenslet, 60-61). Witchcraft and its analysis—as well as a defence of its study, and not a defence of its practice—constitute the narrow scope of Glanvillian science. While Glanvill did contribute to the emerging of science in his native England of his day an alternative approach to a hysteria which had for centuries been plaguing it, he should be noted as having also quite literally, introduced scepticism to science (Greenslet, 176). In his Scepsis Scientifica, Glanvill not only touched on the decidedly Anglican issue of ‘dogmatizing’, but too, the nature of man in deciding Belief, and man’s assignment of it to Fact. It is this delving into the psychology of epistemology which defines the style rampant in the Glanvill corpus of works. From his philosophy of scepticism emerged a fervour applied with most benefit to investigation, its result later to be termed the scientific method (Greenslet, 186-187, 193).
Through his scepticism, that which he best described as “[t]he knowledge I teach is ignorance”, Glanvill discovered that “the theory of our own nature should be enough to learn it to us” and so inspired the method with which he would pursue his supernatural investigations (Greenslet, 193). It was a method not so dissimilar from that which has since been accepted as the scientific method. When treating subjects as so highly experience-based as those deemed supernatural and spiritual, Glanvill had to seek out the superstition, quash it through making witnesses realize it was their prior knowledge—their superstition—which dictated or dispelled their beliefs, and then he had to return the witness to the value of the experience in order to know it.
“And aged Knowledge, is still an Infant[,]” Glanvill said, laying down his pivotal observation which would define all of his investigations thereafter: “[w]e superstitiously sit down in the Acquisitions of our Fathers; and are discouraged from attempting further then they have gone before us”, and so, he taught, we are more than capable of expanding that knowledge and discovering it for ourselves, but in that knowledge—which is “of our Fathers” and outdated, taken on blind faith alone—we stagnate (Glanvill, Scepsis Scientifica, 105). Veiled in such a statement was, too, a rather simple Glanvillian truth: experiential scepticism. In a sense, Glanvill sought to explore the supernatural world not through faith, but through questioning everything and redefining superstition, replacing it was explanation rather than mere account. Nowadays, this sort of scepticism is intertwined in any acquaintance with mystery or miracle, but in the day of Glanvill, such was not the case. Forces were not so much explained as they were accepted as being either divinely or naturally manipulated; regardless of the particular movement, so to speak, the initiating force was most always believed to be esoteric in nature, the best examples being Newton’s explanation of the observation of gravity, or, Bishop Peter Binsfield’s similar treatise in 1589 Germany (Clark, The Scientific Status of Demonology, 351-352). Both of these examples were explanatory of observations, and both could only resort to using an occult force to form their foundations. Now, Glanvill did not abandon the occult force, but sought to use the visible, the tangible, and the human to measure and prove its existence. With a hearty dose of his own self-prescribed scepticism, Glanvill traveled the English countryside seeking the experiences which would doubly be his experiments (Cope, Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist, 95).
During the time of the knocking, when many were present, a Gentleman of the Company said, Satan, if the Drummer set thee to work give three knocks and no more, which it did very distinctly and stopt [sic]. Then the Gentleman knockt [sic], to see if it would answer him as it was wont, but it did not. For further trial, he bid it for confirmation, if it were the Drummer, to give five knocks and no more that night, which it did, and left the House quiet all the night after. This was done in the presence of Sir Thomas Chamberlain of Oxfordshire, and divers others (Glanvill, Saducismus Triamphatus, 326).
That the foregoing extract from Glanvill’s seminal work on the investigation of witches and paranormal activity mentions spiritual manifestations having been “done in the presence of” a “Gentleman . . . of Oxfordshire” is not a mere manipulation of testamentary scientific evidence, nor is it namedropping (Glanvill, 326). By showing that authority in some form, though at the time it was an authority of class distinction, was present at the famous case of the Mompesson Haunting—or, as Glanvill styled it, “the Daemon of Tedworth”—he had begun to formulate his “[p]roof of Apparitions, Spirits, and Witches”, doing so from a scholarly angle: “from a choice Collection of modern Relations [testimonies of supernatural phenomena]” (Glanvill, 321). This collection of statements marks a shift in the approach of an Englishman to the witch hysteria of the time, when the only testimony recorded were the absurd accusations against one’s neighbour of the other being in league with the devil, resolvable only on pain of death following a shoddy trial (Clark, 353-354).
The precision and detail of the measurement described by Glanvill’s observation was a first for the time in which he was living and investigating—writing of the occult forces scientifically. The inclusion of such tedious and theretofore redundant details as the Drummer making “three knocks and no more, which it did very distinctly and stopt [sic]”, as well as “the Gentleman [who] knockt [sic], to see if [the Drummer] would answer him as it was wont” signifies some method, some rule which is being adhered to by the participants in this veritable house-call of Glanvill’s to Tedworth in the English countryside (Glanvill, 326). Certainly, that it was observed by Glanvill that this gentleman also present knew that the Drummer “would answer him as it was wont” shows not a merely perceived familiarity, but a certain and scientific one. Now, the reader must note that there is a scepticism weaved into Glanvill’s account of “the Daemon of Tedworth”, but as little as was then possible is there bias or personal flavouring. Glanvill is removed from the situation, but is its narrator, is observer and in recording its unfolding, its analyst. It is these details which make Tedworth’s Drummer the foremost “choice . . . of modern Relations” to include in his treatise on the topic (Glanvill, 326).
Glanvill’s Triumphatus is his major scientific work, and still controversial. Divided into two sections, each structured from a separate type of evidence—the first consisting of testamentary evidence and observational notes, the second consisting of measurements based on diagrams, contemporary natural philosophical thought, and calculations—the Triumphatus was understandably a bestseller at the time of its release due to this duality. (Greenslet, 111-112). The masses could relate to the written accounts, stories at the core of their nature, which the scientific and educated readers could further have verified using methodology in the second half. This inclusion of a vehicle of accessibility of Glanvill’s theories and discoveries is paramount to the scientific culture emerging in his time: Boyle had manufactured visibly provocative and appealing air pumps with which to prove to his eager though common public that his ideas worked, and Galvani, with his severed frog legs being reanimated through electric charge, could entertain and captivate through dichotomized novelty (Clark, 365). Not only were Glanvill’s ideas new, but so was the experience of reliving a supernatural experience through worded retellings—within which were embedded calculation and observation, as pointed out previously with the examples of phenomenal quantity
Because “Glanvill’s positive thinking pursues two directions” and those two directions can be seen in his scientific works to be “scientific cosmology, and rational psychology”, he can be seen to have been a father of that great union (Greenslet, 111). That union of the explanation of the spiritual or occult forces in nature around us with the rationalizing nature of the human consciousness is a resolution bridging a gap theretofore inhabited by blind faith. “Confidence of Science is one great reason,” Glanvill said, and “we miss it: For on this account presuming we have it every where, we seek it not where it is; and therefore fall short of the object of our Enquiry”, and it is the existence of witches and spirits which was that Enquiry (Glanvill, Scepsis Scientifica, 141). Science for Glanvill was to be found where it was found, and not restricted. It was even found in the supernatural, and had not Glanvill made that the object of his enquiry nor perceived that object as being possessed of the science which could determine its existence, then there would be no parapsychology today and no evolution from the superstitions of our past to the understanding and methodical investigative process of the present.
As has been interpreted since its publication, Glanvill’s “method he employs in the first part [of the Triumphatus] is that of proposing all possible objections to a belief in the supernatural and answering each one by itself” (Greenslet, 161). According to Glanvill, as put forth in his Triumphatus, there are twelve such possible objections to believing in the supernatural, and being a precursor not only to para- but also general psychology, this cognitive enumeration demonstrates beliefs common as biases toward the subject during his time, as the extract can display:
(I) THE NOTION of a Spirit is impossible and contradictious, and consequently so is that of Witches, the belief of which is founded on that Doctrine . . . (XI) IF there be such an intercourse between Evil Spirits and the Wicked, How comes it about that there is no correspondence between Good Angels and the Vertuous [sic] ? (Glanvill, Triumphatus, 69, 93).
Though Glanvill painstakingly presents and rebuts twelve such possible arguments against his topic of investigation, experimentation, and ultimately, proof, the first and eleventh he addressed seem to have been the most telling of his era. The existence of a spirit was clearly being debated in Glanvill’s lifetime, and it is widely known that Glanvill was a Cambridge Platonist, believing in the eternity and pre-existence of the soul, which he and his Cambridge contemporaries believed traveled ethereally between lives from one to the next (Cope, 130). Glanvill, in presenting the first argument, expresses not his own bias so much as he expresses a telling rationalization he would come to make: the claim that witches and other supernatural phenomena need souls to exist (Glanvill, 69).
While Glanvill was generally successful in moving away from resorting to occult forces to explain their natural embodiments, his propensity for the necessity of the soul is unshakable. This seems to indicate that, perhaps, Glanvill was placing himself in the shows of the supernatural, so to speak, which goes even further to show a psychological exercise many centuries ahead of its and his time. By relying on spirit, Glanvill is building a proof that only such a reversal of roles could expose. Rather more shockingly, the eleventh possible argument against Glanvill’s proofs is that age-old question of why would the evil communicate with the evil occult forces, but not the good with the good on earth? This is indicative of the scathing wound brandished by the Reformation in England and its government. The role of the Church is being questioned by those who might very well question faith itself. In examining each of the twelve possible arguments against the existence of witches and ghosts, Glanvill puts forth an explanation without frivolity and develops, quite amazingly, a psychoanalytical technique of assessing a purported haunting or witching. He also went on, in the second half of the Triumphatus, to make known certain spiritual norms, so to speak, which, though crudely predating the modern temperature change monitoring and sonic measurement techniques used by parapsychologists today, sought to show a commonality between sightings and experiences. Famously, Glanvill examines even rocks and other earthly formations at purported spiritual sites and publishes the dimensions and forms of the same (Glanvill, 593-596). In that sense, Glanvill branched into different fields of science, overlapping them to explain and prove the existence of other forces in his world.
Joseph Glanvill heralded the birth of parapsychology as a modern science via a revolutionary theory of rationalizing human thought not necessarily unique to his judgment, but one brought to light by it. In traveling the countryside of England and gathering reports and quantitative observations of supernatural occurrences, he immediately brought science into the horror story, and in turn, brought its frightening enlightenment to the people, who were able to discern its value on at least two levels. Glanvill delved into and adapted other emerging scientific methods of his day to create one which today is still somewhat a standard in defining the pseudo-sciences—sciences which to Glanvill were just as valid as the very ones they borrowed from: geology, psychology, physiology, chemistry, et cetera. In that dualistic endeavour of making his observations known, Glanvill managed to introduce to his historically more-esteemed colleagues of the Royal Society the notion of hypothesis and how ruling out every possible variable can yield the right amount of manipulation of the studied environment necessary to gain knowledge, rather than to trust the untested knowledge of our predecessors. Glanvill brought the witch from out of the forest and into the laboratory.
Glanvill, Joseph. Saducismus triumphatus: or, full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions, 1689. Gainesville: Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1966.
Glanvill, Joseph. Scepsis scientifica, 1665. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978.
Clark, Stuart. “The scientific status of demonology.” Occult and scientific mentalities in the Renaissance. Ed. Brian Vickers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 351-374.
Cope, Jackson I. Joseph Glanvill: Anglican apologist. St. Louis: Washington University Studies Press, 1958.
Greenslet, Ferris, Ph.D. Joseph Glanvill: a study in English thought and letters of the seventeenth century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1900.