Cornhill Magazine,  5 (1862), 537–49.


[J Fitzjames Stephen]




Superstition, Spiritualism, Class, Charlatanry, Supernaturalism, Boundary Formation, Theory

People mentioned:

Charles H Foster

    Complains about newspaper 'puffs of some ingenious Yankee who is ready to gratify the curiosity of all the lords, ladies, and eminent statesmen in London about the condition of the spirits of their deceased friends and relations, at the charge of a guinea a head' (537), and claims that if 'Mr. Home is not a mere charlatan' and that 'at the command of a well-dressed and well-mannered American, chairs and tables will skip like rams', then the 'swell-mob' (538) must logically also accept the authenticity of the 'fortune-tellers, astrologers, and reputed witches' who ply their dubious trade amongst 'the poor' (537). Advising that we 'disbelieve the assertion [...] that Mr. Home flew around the ceiling of the room' (539), Stephen uses his knowledge of jurisprudence to 'draw out into shape the arguments by which the half-instinctive judgement on the subject, usually given so emphatically, may be defended' (540). Immediately excluding stories of supernatural occurrences from 'the scientific knowledge which is the exclusive possession of a special class set apart for the purpose' (541), he asserts that such stories do not 'belong to the department of science, for no one has ever claimed to reduce them to order and system. They are mere unconnected matters of fact' (543). Considering the 'general condemnation of supernatural stories, of which the advocates of superstition are apt to complain of as an injustice', Stephen argues that 'an alleged fact may properly be considered incredible, and put on one side without examination of the particular evidence adduced in support of it, if the tacit theories on which the allegation is based are themselves opposed to those which other parts of our experience have tacitly established' (545). After all, in a court of law 'No jury would hesitate for a moment to hang a man upon a doubt whether ghosts might not have interfered with the evidence', and any number of witnesses would not be able to convince them otherwise (546).

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