Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Testimonies of precognition and encounters with psychiatry in letters to J. B. Priestley

Testimonies of precognition and encounters with psychiatry in letters to J. B. Priestley

Under a Creative Commons license
  Open Access


Letters from the public to J. B. Priestley on the theme of time.
Patient-oriented history of the relationship between psychiatry and precognition in 1960s Britain.
Virtue epistemology in relation to spontaneous cases of precognition.


Using letters sent to British playwright J. B. Priestley in 1963, this paper explores the intersection between patient-focused history of psychiatry and the history of parapsychology in everyday life. Priestley's study of precognition lay outside the main currents of parapsychology, and his status as a storyteller encouraged confidences about anomalous temporal experience and mental illness. Drawing on virtue epistemology, I explore the regulation of subjectivity operated by Priestley in establishing the credibility of his correspondents in relation to their gender and mental health, and investigate the possibility of testimonial justice for these witnesses. Priestley's ambivalent approach to madness in relation to visions of the future is related to the longer history of prophecy and madness. Letters from the television audience reveal a variety of attitudes towards the compatibility of precognition with modern theories of the mind, show the flexibility of precognition in relation to mental distress, and record a range of responses from medical and therapeutic practitioners. Testimonial justice for those whose experience of precognition intersects with psychiatric care entails a full acknowledgement of the tensions and complicities between these two domains as they are experienced by the witness, and an explicit statement of the hearer's orientation to those domains.


  • Precognition;
  • Psychiatry;
  • J. B. Priestley;
  • Time;
  • Letters;
  • Public
When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

1. Context

Histories of psychiatry from the perspective of patients are well established, such that when Roy Porter regretted that “the history of healing is par excellence the history of doctors” (1985: p. 175) he conceded that “the mad … are among the few groups of sufferers to have attracted much interest, and that largely because of the polemics of today's anti-psychiatry movement” (p. 183). In three decades since Porter's call for a redress of scholarly ignorance about “how ordinary people in the past have actually regarded health and sickness, and managed their encounters with medical men” (p. 176), further patient-focused histories of psychiatry have been produced, inspired not only by anti-psychiatry and patient advocacy movements but also by the emergence of “history of the emotions” and “medical humanities” as interdisciplinary fields that are broadening the resource base and the methodologies available for social histories of illness and wellbeing.1 Within these studies paranormal experience has not been prominent, though the occult is sometimes discussed.2 The views of psychiatric patients and mental health service users with experience of the paranormal are almost completely absent from histories of Western modernity, where the discounting of testimony from witnesses with psychiatric histories is compounded by the discounting of paranormal phenomena by mainstream science.
Studies of the close relations between mind science and the paranormal tend to be organised around researchers, theorists and investigating organisations.3 The establishment of scientific credentials for psychical research involved its practitioners in the amplification of existing class barriers (Hazelgrove, 2000: p. 197). A history of parapsychology “from below”, recording paranormal phenomena in the context of everyday life, awaits development. This paper focuses on a neglected resource consisting of letters written to the British playwright and broadcaster J. B. Priestley (1894–1984) in response to a television appeal for experiences of non-linear time.
For reasons discussed below, television viewers felt a special bond of trust with Priestley, and were prepared to make extensive personal revelations. There was no formal consent procedure, and even those correspondents who are no longer data subjects (assuming a life span of 100 years) are likely to have living relatives who may recognise their story. In what follows, those who explicitly requested anonymity have been included in quantitative analysis only. In all other cases, identifying details are restricted to the minimum required for using the selected part of their story. As a compromise between open research and immediate identification, I have given the archive folder number but not the full manuscript identifier for each letter quoted here.4