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The New Prometheans

Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian Fin de Siècle

The New Prometheans

Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian Fin de Siècle

The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to further the scientific study of consciousness, but it arose in the surf of a larger cultural need. Victorians were on the hunt for self-understanding. Mesmerists, spiritualists, and other romantic seekers roamed sunken landscapes of entrancement, and when psychology was finally ready to confront these altered states, psychical research was adopted as an experimental vanguard. Far from a rejected science, it was a necessary heterodoxy, probing mysteries as diverse as telepathy, hypnosis, and even séance phenomena. Its investigators sought facts far afield of physical laws: evidence of a transcendent, irreducible mind.
The New Prometheans traces the evolution of psychical research through the intertwining biographies of four men: chemist Sir William Crookes, depth psychologist Frederic Myers, ether physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and anthropologist Andrew Lang. All past presidents of the society, these men brought psychical research beyond academic circles and into the public square, making it part of a shared, far-reaching examination of science and society. By layering their papers, textbooks, and lectures with more intimate texts like diaries, letters, and literary compositions, Courtenay Raia returns us to a critical juncture in the history of secularization, the last great gesture of reconciliation between science and sacred truths.

440 pages | 4 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Religion: Religion and Society


"[Raia] has taken four figures associated with the SPR – William Crookes, Myers, Lodge and Lang – and created a series of linked biographies. . . . The result is a palimpsest, for each of these men, of the public and private, one that offers valuable insights into fin de siècle Britain and the new spirituality that tormented, in different ways, all of these individuals. . . . In recreating the ambition of a number of British thinkers in the late 1800s as they step knowingly into the shadows, it is unrivalled. On finishing the book, you take away a sense not just of the brilliance of men such as Myers, but also of their courage in defying the expectations and small-mindedness of their contemporaries."

Times Higher Education

"Raia's multi-dimensional account of psychical research undertaken by Victorian-era scientists centers on four individuals... She surveys the entire range of their research projects, psychical and otherwise, and supplies interesting glimpses of their cultural contexts. Her prose is engaging and lively, her archival research impressive, and her endnotes and bibliography extensive."

Nova Religio

The New Prometheans is a useful contribution to our understanding of the SPR, and anyone with some prior knowledge who wants to know more about early psychical research, and the complexities of the dynamic intellectual context that characterised its heroic period, will be able to appreciate just how groundbreaking its pioneers were.”

Tom Ruffles | Fortean Times

"[A] remarkable book—well worth study."

Alan Gauld | Journal of the Society for Psychical Research

"This is easily the best book I have read on this important chapter of Western intellectual history. Raia’s general methodology and conclusions about an alternate route to modernity and a potential epistemology that never really took hold (but still might) are powerfully persuasive, historically correct, and much in need at the moment. We need this book. We need this view on the table, this ‘third thing’ (tertium quid) beyond the traditional belief systems of faith and the naïve positivisms of materialistic interpreted science. The New Prometheans is not just another in that long, footnoted list of books on nineteenth-century mesmerism, spiritualism, and Victorian psychical research. Instead, it’s a rich display of historical-critical readings, of biographical contextualizations, and of erudite philosophical discussions of the history of science, of technology, and of Western thought. A beautifully written and fascinating study."

Jeffrey Kripal, author of Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions

"The lucidity of Raia’s prose, mastery of the sources, and persuasive power of her arguments can only be appreciated in a careful reading and not adequately outlined in this brief review. This is a work to be read and worthy of being reread so rich are its offerings."

Reading Religion

Table of Contents


Chapter One. The Culture of Proof and the Crisis of Faith
Chapter Two. William Crookes in Wonderland: Scientific Spiritualism and the Physics of the Impossible
Chapter Three. Romancing the Crone: Frederic Myers, Spiritualism, and the “Enchanted Portal to the World”
Chapter Four. “The Incandescent Solid beneath Our Line of Sight”: Frederic Myers, the Self, and the Psychiatric Subconscious
Chapter Five. Knowledge in Motion: Oliver Lodge, the Imperceptible Ether, and the Physics of (Extra-)Sensory Perception
Chapter Six. Uncanny Cavemen: Andrew Lang, Psycho-Folklore, and the Romance of Ancient Man
Chapter Seven. Psychical Modernism: Science, Subjectivity, and the Unsalvageable Self

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