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S. Shamdasani and the ‘serial exemplarity of mediumship’ in Jung’s work: a critique (

  1. Shamdasani and the ‘serial exemplarity of mediumship’ in Jung’s work: a critique (received 8 February 2016)

An article on ‘“S.W.” and C.G. Jung: mediumship, psychiatry and serial exemplarity’ was pub-lished in History of Psychiatry 26(3): 288–302. The author, Sonu Shamdasani, who is Professor at UCL and general editor of the Philemon Foundation’s project to make C.G. Jung’s unpublished works available to scholars, argued that Jung had made a lifelong ‘serial exemplarity’ of the ‘case’ of his mediumistic cousin ‘S.W.’ in publications and seminars that spanned the period from his presentations as a student and member of the Zofingia Society (1896 onwards) to his latest works.

Unfortunately, Shamdasani does not provide evidence for this claim. His argument is based upon a rather strange methodology of historical research. His claims are lacking the necessary criti-cal evaluation of his selected textual sources and are marked by a de-contextualization of the cited texts. Additionally, an often careless and tendentious (mis)translation of German sources into English leads to errors and questionable interpretations. Thus, there is the risk that interested schol-ars may be seriously misled in their understanding of Jung’s psychological and psychiatric concepts. The unavailability of some of Shamdasani’s specific sources, especially for English speakers, makes it difficult or even impossible for scholars to make the necessary critical examination and re-evaluation of his historical claims.

A ‘serial exemplarity’ of Jung’s mediumistic case ‘S.W.’, which he presented in his doctoral dissertation On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena (1902), is a very vague hypothesis. Any claim of ‘exemplarity’ only makes sense if the specific point for which a specific index case may be said to be exemplary can be clearly stated and demonstrated through documenting additional contextually accurate references to the index case. All such evidence is missing.

As evidence for Jung’s special inclination for ‘spiritualist mediumship’ / the case ‘S.W.’, Shamdasani dedicates the bulk of his article to a full-length citation and translation of the discus-sion following a presentation by Jung entitled ‘Some thoughts on psychology’ to his fellow stu-dents in their fraternity club, Zofingia, in May 1897. But neither ‘S.W.’ nor ‘mediumship’ is mentioned in the records of this event.

Since Shamdasani gives no contextual information about the historical background, purpose and rules of the Zofingia fraternity, or about the individual discussants, moderator or the person who took the notes, the relevance – or irrelevance – of this lengthy citation to Shamdasani’s claims cannot be evaluated by the reader; without knowing the background of the Zofingia as well the persons who composed the text, this text cannot be interpreted correctly. Indeed, a com-parison between the summary of Jung’s presentation (State Archive Basel PA1132a E-1099)

– which Shamdasani does not cite in his article – and the original version, which was published in 1983 and was based on Jung’s own notes (CW Suppl. Vol. A, 1983), demonstrates significant differences.

Shamdasani (p. 291) concludes that the Zofingia discussion ‘demonstrates the active engage-ment with spiritualistic questions at the intersection of science and theology between Jung and his peers at the university of Basle’. But since the Zofingia was by definition a ‘debating club’ of highly ambitious students, this conclusion cannot be specific for Jung’s presentation, nor for ‘spir-itualist questions’. All presentations were followed by controversial discussions; and ‘spiritualist’ questions were not the subject of Jung’s presentation and, rather, he referred to somnambulism, which belonged to a broad category of psychological automatisms related to hypnosis, hysteria and other dissociative phenomena.

A closer look at the structure of the discussion clearly shows that the moderator of the discus-sion (the President, R. Staehelin) explicitly asked for ‘free controversial discussion’ about Jung’s ‘Some thoughts on psychology’. The note-taker (the Secretary, and Jung’s life-long friend, Albert Oeri) had to remind Jung to be less polemical in his arguments and ask his fellow students to be open to the objective evaluation of all kinds of phenomena. The discussion centred on Jung’s defi-nition of the field of psychology, which included phenomena such as ‘somnambulism’. This was critically questioned by his colleagues.

Jung’s short and succinct statement defining his general approach to the natural sciences (includ-ing psychology), with which he countered the objections of his colleagues, constitutes the main point of the discussion. Shamdasani’s translation of Jung’s statement reads (p. 290): ‘[Jung defines] “the whole sensory region” as the sphere of natural sciences, thus also including the places where the supersensory has sensuous effects’. The German original reads quite differently: ‘Der Wirkungskreis der Naturwissenschafter [ist] “das ganze sinnliche Erfahrungsgebiet”, also auch die Stellen derselben, wo Uebersinnliches sinnliche Wirkungen hat.’ A more accurate translation is: ‘The sphere of effectivity of the natural scientists [not: the sphere of natural sciences] [is] the “whole field of sensory experiences”, [not: “the whole sensory region”]; thus also the points where “Uebersinnliches” (the transcendent[al]) has sensory effects.’ The German term ‘das Uebersinnliche’ is a well-known foundational term in metaphysics, and it was the basic philosophical point of Jung’s presentation. With the simplified translation published by Shamdasani the deeper signifi-cance of Jung’s statement is lost.

Shamdasani claims to find ‘exemplarities’ for ‘S.W.’ and ‘mediumship’ in many of Jung’s major publications. But apart from the Seminar on Analytical Psychology (1925/CW suppl.), where Jung comments on the fact, that ‘S.W.’ invented some of her mediumistic statements in order to please him, there is no other significant reference. All other ‘exemplarities’ turn out to be Jung’s mere tangential associations, facile interpretations, even projections, without convincing significance for Jung’s actual arguments and thoughts in the texts in which they appear.

This is also the case in the alleged ‘exemplarity’ of ‘S.W.’ and ‘mediumship’ in Jung’s Lectures on Modern Psychology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zürich, 1933–41. In the first four lectures of his first course as a regular lecturer (Privatdozent, later Professor) at this renowned academic institution, Jung presented a unique history of philosophy and psychology as an introduction to his course in ‘Modern Psychology’. In the next lecture, Jung began with the presentation of ‘his late colleague’ Justinus Kerner (in his view the precursor of clinical psychol-ogy) and his work about his patient, the ‘Seeress of Prevorst’. Jung characterizes the story as a ‘dubious story’, a story to which he cannot fully consent. (Lect. 5, Nov. 17, 1933)

Shamdasani (p. 298), however, detects a dramatic change in Jung, who, ‘after starting in a con-ventional history of ideas approach, … changed track midway through, commenting’:

History, as you know, has always chronicled individual lives and psychologies, particularly of outstanding persons and ‘great men’; and among these ‘men of action’ have predominantly attracted the interest of psychological historians. But there exist also other personalities besides such ‘men of action’ – ‘psychic’ people, people marked by their inner experience. They stand out much less, and yet we possess authentic historical sources about them … (quoted from a forthcoming publication of these lectures [ed. E Falzeder, trans. M Kyburz, J Peck and E Falzeder, PUP, Philemon series]).

Since I had the opportunity to work on the compilation of the original German text of these lec-tures and to help with the draft translation of M. Kyburz as a research fellow at the Institute and Museum for Medical History at the University of Zurich between 2004 and 2010 (funded by the Philemon Foundation), I can say decisively that ‘psychic’ people do not appear in the original German text here.

The original German text was reported in three independent records: two verbatim shorthand records (one by a young pupil and the other by an independent ETH-educated engineer) and a typescript by Jung’s secretary at that time. None mentions ‘“psychic” people’. Instead, the original text has ‘andere Persönlichkeiten’ or ‘other personalities’. Here is the original German:

Sie wissen, dass die Geschichte immer Biographien und Psychologien berichtet hat, – das Leben „grosser Menschen“; von diesen sind es hauptsächlich die „Tatmenschen“, die das Interesse der psychologischen Geschichtsschreiber erweckt haben. Es gibt aber auch andere Persönlichkeiten, die keine „Tatmenschen“ sind, sondern durch ihr inneres Erleben hervorragen. (Graf-Nold A (2004–10) C.G. Jung: Moderne Psychologies; Vorlesungen and der ETH Zurich [unpublished manuscript], Bd. 1, Vorlesung 4, Nov. 24, 1933, p. 31)

In English, this reads:

You know, history has always recorded biographies and psychologies, – the life of ‘great men’; among these predominantly the ‘men of action’ [Tatmenschen] have attracted the interest of psychological historians. But there also exist other personalities who are not ‘men of action’, but stand out by their inner experiences.

Jung continues by specifying some authentic sources for these personalities: the lives of the saints (Acta sanctorum), court records of trials of the witches and, yes: ‘later the miraculous accounts of the stigmatized and somnambulistic persons’, and he refers to a rather extensive literature about these personalities at the end of the eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century.

In any case, there is no reason to insert the term ‘psychic’ people. Jung’s definition, ‘personali-ties who stand out by their inner experiences’, is much broader and clearer. It has the connotation of ‘strange’ and may include the persons which the English language calls ‘psychic’. The arbitrary insertion of the term ‘psychic’ erroneously blurs the difference between ‘psychisch’ in German and ‘psychic’ in English. The former is related to the psyche (Seele) as in, for example, ‘psychische Gesundheit, psychische Krankheit (mental health, mental disease)’; there is no connotation/mean-ing of ‘mediumistic’ or spiritistic.

Now, nearly 50 years after C.G. Jung’s death, the ‘mediumization’ and mystification of his per-sonality and work unfortunately seems to persist, despite Jung’s empirical stance and his episte-miological critical approach to psychology as whole discipline. We still lack critical editions of Jung’s work which meet the standard of scholarship to allow an accurate evaluation of the develop-ment of his ideas and the study of their significance for the history of psychiatry, psychology and general intellectual history.

Angela Graf-Nold, PhD

Zürich, Switzerland (Email: