Measuring souls: Psychometry, female instruments, and subjective science, 1840–1910

A recent article in History of Science may interest AHP readers: “Measuring souls: Psychometry, female instruments, and subjective science, 1840–1910,” by Cameron B Strang. Abstract:

This essay focuses on the history of psychometry, the science of soul measuring. For its founder, Dr Joseph Rodes Buchanan, the soul was simultaneously an object for anthropological research and a measuring instrument capable of revealing human character, interpreting natural history, and demonstrating the reality of an immortal soul. Psychometry taught that human souls, especially those of women, were capable of acting as instruments because they could feel the mysterious energies that people and objects radiated. Although orthodox male scientists rejected the visions of sensitive women as the antithesis of reliable data, psychometric researchers believed that the feelings of women were both the instruments and information that made their science possible. Psychometry promised to revolutionize science by insisting that sympathy and subjectivity, not detachment and objectivity, ought to undergird research. Yet as male experimenters worked to prove psychometry’s effectiveness, they almost invariably cast themselves as detached observers accurately recording the data provided by their female instruments. Thus, despite pushing for scientific reform, the methods and discourse of male psychometric experimenters eroded their field’s core arguments about connectedness and subjectivity and, instead, reinforced the notion that detachment and objectivity were essential to legitimate science. Challenges to objectivity could prove just how thoroughly it dominated scientific discourse and practice. Still, some psychometers, particularly women who practiced at home, were untroubled by the fact that their research was predicated on subjective feelings, and psychometry remained a viable pursuit among spiritualists even as it faded from the realm of science. Psychometry emerged and, ultimately, fractured amid tensions between widespread enthusiasm for sciences that emphasized spiritual connectedness and the mounting pressure to legitimize scientific knowledge through the language and practices of objectivity.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.