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Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920) was a pioneer of experimental psychology, contributing extensively to work on parapsychology and Spiritism. Born in Switzerland, Flournoy obtained a baccalauréat ès lettres degree in 1872, then entered the faculty of sciences of Geneva, where he obtained further degrees in mathematics and physical sciences. He went to Freiburg to study anatomy, later resuming training in France at the faculty of medicine in Strasbourg.[1] Flournoy was a Christian, and felt that religious belief should never prevent a man from being a good scientist.[2]

He became increasingly interested in cases of mental pathology (from a biological perspective) over those of physical impairments. He went on to study philosophy in Leipzig, where he developed an interest in physiological psychology, a new-born discipline. One of his teachers Wilhelm Wundt was the most famous representative of this discipline.[3]

He was awarded a teaching post at the University of Geneva, a position from which he achieved the creation of the first chair of psychology in a Faculty of Science in 1891.[4] This was the first time that psychology was accepted as an independent, pure science, as Flournoy encouraged a break with metaphysical questions within the discipline, focusing instead on the scientific and experimental elements. It had formally been regarded generally as a branch of philosophy. In 1892 he founded one of the first official laboratories of experimental psychology in the world, and the first one in Switzerland.[5] With his cousin, Edouard Claparède, he edited in 1901 one of the oldest journals of psychology, Archives de Psychologie de la Suisse Romande.

In 1894 Flournoy began a six yearlong study of a trance medium, Hélène Smith, which resulted in his publication From India to the Planet Mars (1900). In this book, Flournoy described the psychopathological mechanism of this unusual phenomenon. Flournoy considered her outpourings as the products of cryptamnesia and as 'romances of the subliminal imagination,' - as evidence of the unconscious mind. His book Spiritism and Psychology (1911) translated by Hereward Carrington claimed more broadly that mediumship could be explained by suggestion and telepathy from the medium's subconscious mind and that there was no evidence for the spirit hypothesis. He wrote many papers on topics connected with Spiritism, establishing himself as one of the world’s leading authorities on the psychopathology of spiritist practices.

In 1909 Flournoy presided over the Sixth International Congress of Psychology. He was also a close friend to American philosopher William James, and supported his psychology and philosophical ideas. Flournoy became interested in Freudian psychology, and became a close friend of Carl Jung, in some ways aiding him in his break with Freud. He was integral to the introduction of psychoanalysis in Switzerland and in France.


[1]Serge Nicholas & Agnes Charvillat, ‘Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920) and Experimental Psychology: Historical Note’ (The American Journal of Psychology, Vol.111, No.2, 1998), 280.

[2]Bio.

[3]Serge Nicholas & Agnes Charvillat, ‘Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920) and Experimental Psychology: Historical Note’ (The American Journal of Psychology, Vol.111, No.2, 1998), 281.

[4]James H. Leuba, ‘Obituary: Theodore Flournoy (1854-1920)’ (Psychological Bulletin, Vol.18, No.4, 1921) 232-233.

[5]Serge Nicholas & Agnes Charvillat, ‘Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920) and Experimental Psychology: Historical Note’ (The American Journal of Psychology, Vol.111, No.2, 1998), 279.

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