1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gurney, Edmund

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GURNEY, EDMUND (1847-1888), English psychologist, was born at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, on the 23rd of March 1847. He was educated at Blackheath and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a high place in the classical tripos and obtained a fellowship. His work for the schools was done, says his friend F. W. H. Myers, “in the intervals of his practice on the piano.” Dissatisfied with his own executive skill as a musician, he wrote The Power of Sound (1880), an essay on the philosophy of music. He then studied medicine with no intention of practising, devoting himself to physics, chemistry and physiology. In 1880 he passed the second M.B. Cambridge examination in the science of the healing profession. These studies, and his great logical powers and patience in the investigation of evidence, he devoted to that outlying field of psychology which is called “Psychical Research.” He asked whether, as universal tradition declares, there is an unexplored region of human faculty transcending the normal limitations of sensible knowledge. That there is such a region it was part of the system of Hegel to declare, and the subject had been metaphysically treated by Hartmann, Schopenhauer, Du Prel, Hamilton and others, as the philosophy of the Unconscious or Subconscious. But Gurney's purpose was to approach the subject by observation and experiment, especially in the hypnotic field, whereas vague and ill-attested anecdotes had hitherto been the staple of the evidence of metaphysicians. The tendency of his mind was to investigate whatever facts may give a colour of truth to the ancient belief in the persistence of the conscious human personality after the death of the body. Like Joseph Glanvill's, the natural bent of Gurney's mind was sceptical. Both thought the current and traditional reports of supernormal occurrences suggestive and worth investigating by the ordinary methods of scientific observation, and inquisition into evidence at first hand. But the method of Gurney was, of course, much more strict than that of the author of Sadducismus Triumphatus, and it included hypnotic and other experiments unknown to Glanvill. Gurney began at what he later saw was the wrong end by studying, with Myers, the “séances” of professed spiritualistic “mediums” (1874-1878). Little but detection of imposture came of this, but an impression was left that the subject ought not to be abandoned. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded. (See Psychical Research.) Paid mediums were discarded, at least for the time, and experiments were made in “thought-transference” and hypnotism. Personal evidence as to uninduced hallucinations was also collected. The first results are embodied in the volumes of Phantasms of the Living, a vast collection (Podmore, Myers and Gurney), and in Gurney's remarkable essay, Hallucinations. The chief consequence was to furnish evidence for the process called “telepathy,” involving the provisional hypothesis that one human mind can affect another through no recognized channel of sense. The fact was supposed to be established by the experiments chronicled in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and it was argued that similar experiences occurred spontaneously, as, for example, in the many recorded instances of “deathbed wraiths” among civilized and savage races. (Tylor, Primitive Culture, i. chapter xi., especially pp. 449-450, 1873. Lang, Making of Religion, pp. 120-124, 1898.) The dying man is supposed to convey the hallucination of his presence as one living person experimentally conveys his thought to another, by “thought-transference.” Gurney's hypnotic experiments, marked by great exactness, patience and ingenuity, were undertaken in 1885-1888. Their tendency was, in Myers's words, “to prove — so far as any one operator's experience in this protean subject can be held to prove anything — that there is sometimes, in the induction of hypnotic phenomena, some agency at work which is neither ordinary nervous stimulation (monotonous or sudden) nor suggestion conveyed by any ordinary channel to the subject's mind.” These results, if accepted, of course corroborate the idea of telepathy. (See Gurney, “Hypnotism and Telepathy,” Proceedings S.P.R. vol. iv.) Experiments by MM. Gibert, Janet, Richet, Héricourt and others are cited as tending in the same direction. Other experiments dealt with “the relation of the memory in the hypnotic state to the memory in another hypnotic state, and of both to the normal or waking memory.” The result of Gurney's labours, cut short by his early death, was to raise and strengthen the presumption that there exists an unexplored region of human faculty which ought not to be neglected by science as if the belief in it were a mere survival of savage superstition. Rather, it appears to have furnished the experiences which, misinterpreted, are expressed in traditional beliefs. That Gurney was credulous and easily imposed upon those who knew him, and knew his penetrating humour, cannot admit; nor is the theory likely to be maintained by those whom bias does not prevent from studying with care his writings. In controversy “he delighted in replying with easy courtesy to attacks envenomed with that odium plus quant theologicum which the very allusion to a ghost or the human soul seems in some philosophers to inspire.” In discussion of themes unpopular and obscure Gurney displayed the highest tact, patience, good temper, humour and acuteness. There never was a more disinterested student. In addition to his work on music and his psychological writings, he was the author of Tertium Quid (1887), a collection of essays, on the whole a protest against one-sided ideas and methods of discussion. He died at Brighton on 23rd June 1888, from the effects of an overdose of narcotic medicine. (A. L.)