Gurney, Edmund (1847-1888) (DNB00)

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GURNEY, EDMUND (1847–1888), philosophical writer, was third son and fifth child of the Rev. John Hampden Gurney [q. v.] He was born on 23 March 1847 at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, where his father resided for some time before becoming rector of St. Mary's, Bryanston Square, in November of that year. At the age of ten he lost his mother, who had more musical taste than she was able to gratify. From that time he went in succession to several day-schools in London till, early in 1861, he was sent away from home to a school at Blackheath. There he remained for nearly three years, passing meanwhile, with eight brothers and sisters, on the death of their father, under the guardianship of their uncle, Russell Gurney [q. v.] At Blackheath Edmund was a handsome, attractive boy, doing fairly well in both classics and mathematics, and practising the violin more sedulously than successfully. From the beginning of 1864 he read with a private tutor at Hatfield-Broadoak. Though music at this time was his chief interest, he gained a minor scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the spring of 1866. Going into residence in October he continued his musical practice, was successful in athletic sports, to which he brought a large and finely developed frame, and attracted friendship by a peculiar warmth and closeness of sympathy. In classical study he made such way as to share with another the Porson prize in 1870. He was fourth classic in February 1871. He attained a fellowship at his college in October 1872.

Gurney's undergraduate course had been lengthened by broken residence, caused by a depression of body and mind which was apt with him to follow upon moods of high enthusiasm and consuming activity. As soon as he took his bachelor's degree in 1871, being in moderately easy circumstances, he was free to follow his natural bent. This now turned him to philosophy, though he always retained the keenest interest in letters and poetry. Strongest, however, remained his passion for music. After an Italian journey in the winter of 1871–2 he began to associate at Harrow with some youthful enthusiasts banded under the influence of a leader into a ‘music school,’ and towards the end of 1872 he fixed his headquarters there. He still hoped to surmount a mechanical difficulty of execution, due to a certain deficiency of manual power not properly cared for in youth. He also shared the ambition of his Harrow associates to turn their musical powers to social account in efforts towards brightening the joyless lives of the poor. Many hours were accordingly spent day by day over piano or violin. In 1873 he even achieved the composition of what another member of the school describes as ‘a really pretty violin sonatine;’ but the net result of years spent for the most part at Harrow till 1875 was failure to come in any way near to the satisfaction of his personal longings, or the ability to fulfil what he regarded as his social purpose. He next settled in London, and still for several years continued his musical practice under different direction before he lost hope. Ultimately, although till the very end of his life he would resume hard practice at intervals, he recognised that he could not achieve success as a performer on musical instruments.

Meanwhile Gurney's inquisitive spirit was more fruitfully at work. His first publication was an article ‘On some Disputed Points in Music’ in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ 1876; and from that time, in different periodicals, he gave proof that the strongest feeling for musical effects was consistent with a rigid scientific analysis of their conditions. His studies for some years past in psychology as well as philosophy had prepared him on one side for the work of musical theorising, and from 1877 he attained the no less requisite familiarity with the physics and physiology of sound. The notion of writing a book which should include, with a strict investigation of the musical art, an impassioned plea for its civilising function, seems to have taken shape gradually. ‘The Power of Sound’ was definitely commenced in the middle of 1879, and appeared before the end of 1880. Whether it was that the plan was beyond the grasp of common readers, or that musical experts resented the excess of scientific speculation, or that professional theorists found the exposition over-discursive, the merits of the book were not at once recognised. It stands in truth without a rival in its class, not only for varied interest and philosophic breadth of view, but also for positive scientific insight into some, at least, of the aspects of music. Gurney's own feeling was stronger for melody than for anything else in music; and as melodic charm is that which most directly appeals to the common people, who were to be refined, it was in melody most of all that he sought the secret of its unique power. Of melody, no one else has written with the same penetration. Nor is his treatment less masterly when he deals with the relation of music to the other arts, and more especially poetry, which had hardly less hold upon him than music itself.

Meanwhile, having married (Miss Kate Sibley) in 1877, Gurney was going through the stages of a course of medical instruction, though without any definite view to practice. Medical study, while involving such a general scientific preparation as had become indispensable to him for his musical inquiries, attracted him because of his intense sympathy with all suffering; he also felt the need of a more hopeful occupation than music had proved to him. He studied first in London, chiefly at University College, from October 1877; but, finding the crowded metropolitan classes uncongenial to his mature reflective habit, he moved a year later to Cambridge, where he could learn from friends who understood him. There he followed the regular M.B. course, and had completed two of its three examination-stages before, in the autumn of 1880, he returned to London and entered at St. George's Hospital upon the more strictly professional studies and practical training necessary for the final examination at Cambridge. Early in 1881, however, he found it no longer possible to go on with clinical recording and surgical dressing, and had to remain satisfied with the general understanding of vital processes which he had learned by the way. His medical experience bore immediate fruit in two articles, ‘A Chapter on the Ethics of Pain,’ and ‘An Epilogue on Vivisection’ (1881–2, reprinted in ‘Tertium Quid’), in which a frank recognition of the conditions on which the advance of physiological science and medical practice depends, is tempered with an extremely subtle appreciation of the moral issues involved in experimentation with living animals. Darwin at the time (Life and Letters, iii. 210) declared himself in almost entire agreement with the position taken up by Gurney on the subject, though finding the subtlety carried rather far.

Gurney next entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn in May 1881, and read with a special pleader, afterwards with a conveyancer. His ardour was at first absorbing, but before long he again lost interest. He was now writing freely on topics of philosophy proper (chiefly in the pages of ‘Mind’), his experience of life having turned his thoughts more and more to the general problems of existence. Dominated through his later studies by the scientific spirit, he was led especially to consider the question of applying positive methods to determine the value of certain current beliefs as to human relations with an unseen world. For a number of years past, he had been joined with some friends in conducting (not himself very actively) a course of private inquiry into the pretensions of so-called modern spiritualism. After many failures to reach a definite conclusion, partly, as it seemed, because a few individuals could hardly make the inquiry sufficiently continuous and comprehensive, a plan was formed in 1882 of a regular ‘Society for Psychical Research.’ This was to bring together for careful testing a large variety of human experiences, real or imagined, not taken into account by any of the accepted sciences. Among the founders of the society, Gurney was, alike by temperament and variety of training, pre-eminently fitted for the kind of inquiry projected, and he had moreover, as soon as he broke off his legal course in the middle of 1883, the leisure necessary for following it out. He became from the first the most active officer of the society, and, besides taking a general charge of its various lines of inquiry, devoted himself more particularly to two of them. The one was concerned with all cases that could be collected of alleged communication between human beings otherwise than by the normal way of the senses. The collection proved to be a task of enormous magnitude, and with it was joined a protracted course of experiment on a number of persons who appeared to show the power of receiving on trial non-sensible impressions from others. A large work in two volumes, ‘Phantasms of the Living,’ was, towards the end of 1886, the outcome of the whole research, bearing after Gurney's name on the title-page the names of Mr. F. W. H. Myers and Mr. F. Podmore, who had in different ways contributed to its production. They agreed in holding the fact of ‘telepathy’ (so it was named) to be established, but Gurney took a line of his own as to the explanation in cases where the impression received took the form of fully developed apparition. Direct ‘thought-transference’ from mind to mind once assumed, he argued with great scientific force that the varying details and circumstances of the reported cases were all sufficiently accounted for by the known laws of hallucinative imagination. In this reference he made an elaborate survey of the psychology of hallucination which has an independent value. The other special inquiry of his later years was into hypnotism, which about that time had come at last to be recognised as a matter of serious scientific import. Nothing has so far been done in England to equal, or elsewhere to surpass, his work in this field, whether in the way of carefully devised experiment (which, however, he required the help of an operator to carry out), or of acutely reasoned interpretation. He continued busy with the subject to the last, through a year or more of nervous exhaustion that went on ever increasing. On the morning of 23 June 1888 he was found dead in bed at Brighton, having taken an overdose of narcotic to procure sleep. He left one daughter. Gurney wrote largely from 1882 throughout the first five volumes of the ‘Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research,’ some of the chief papers on hypnotism and hallucinations having prior publication in ‘Mind’ (vols. ix. x. xii.); also, from 1884, in a more frequently appearing ‘Journal’ of the same society. In two volumes, published at the end of 1887, under the characteristic title of ‘Tertium Quid: Chapters on various disputed Questions,’ he brought together those of his scattered writings (previous to 1884) on philosophical or more popular topics which he wished to preserve, making considerable additions to one article on the ‘Psychology of Music.’

[The Work of Edmund Gurney in Experimental Psychology, by Mr. F. W. H. Myers, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, v. 359; information from relatives and friends; personal knowledge.]

G. C. R.