Review of Kelly (2013)

Science, the Self, and Survival after Death:
Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson

edited by Emily Williams Kelly
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Pp. 415. $65.00 (hard cover).
ISBN-10: 1442221143  ISBN-13: 978-1442221147

Science, Self, SurvivalIan Stevenson is well known for his field studies of what he called cases of the reincarnation type, but these form only a part of his life-long struggle to understand how the mind and body relate to one another. This welcome introduction to Stevenson’s oeuvre constitutes an intellectual autobiography and is the first work to trace the development of his concerns over his professional life.

Emily Williams Kelly decided against writing a traditional biography of Stevenson in favor of letting him speak in his own words. She is well-positioned for the task she set herself because she was Stevenson’s research assistant and later his colleague at the University of Virginia from 1978 until his death in 2007. Her close acquaintance with the man and his writings shows in her selection of articles and her comments on them. She has chosen 34 pieces, some journal papers or commentaries, others book chapters. A few are reprinted in full, but most are excerpted to a lesser or greater degree. They are arranged in five sections with introductory remarks by Kelly, who also contributes introductory and closing chapters. The book concludes with a classified bibliography of Stevenson’s publications.

ian_stevenson-b Stevenson was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1918. His father was a Scottish political journalist, his mother an English devotee of Theosophy. In her General Introduction, Kelly describes Stevenson’s early life, his study of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and his switch to medicine at McGill University in Montreal. She sketches his medical career in the United States and his growing involvement in psychical research, the term he came to prefer for his branch of parapsychology. Stevenson himself traces these steps in more detail in the first selection of his writings, a 1989 address entitled “Some of My Journeys in Medicine.” At the start of his medical career he did experiments on the oxidation of rat kidneys, an experience that turned him against reductionism. He moved into psychosomatic medicine, but when that field failed to develop into a regular specialty, took up psychiatry. Psychiatry was then (in the 1950s) dominated by psychoanalysis, which was not to his liking. He rejected the Freudian dogma that the human personality becomes fixed in early childhood and faulted Freud’s failure to test his ideas about sexuality. He began to read extensively in psychical research, finding in that field a more congenial approach to the human experience.

Stevenson’s mother’s commitment to Theosophy sometimes has been presumed to have been the source of his interest in reincarnation, but this introductory section makes clear that although Theosophy had the general effect of acquainting him with a dualistic conception of mind and body and alerting him to the possibility that mental states impacted disease, it had no direct influence on his thinking. Stevenson considered Theosophy to be a religion and it had no more appeal to him than did psychoanalysis. Psychical research, on the other hand, provided a scientific basis for studying relations between the mind and the body that he had not found elsewhere. He was drawn to extra-sensory communications and phenomena suggestive of survival and reincarnation because, if these processes could be established, they would demonstrate that human beings were more than their physical bodies. Stevenson came to concentrate on reincarnation because he saw that it posed an especially keen challenge to materialistic assumptions. It also had clear implications for medicine. Reincarnation might help to explain, among other things, the origins of individual differences and why a given person developed a given disease, one of the “leitmotif” questions of his career.

Following the introductory section, the two selections of section 1, “New Ideas in Science,” delineate another leitmotif, the resistance of much of institutionalized science to new ideas, an obstacle Stevenson confronted throughout his career. Section 2, “The Nature of Human Personality,” comprises ten selections that further explore his dualistic conception of mind/body relations and his holistic approach to medical care.  Section 3, “Psychical Research—Principles and Methods” consists of three selections that introduce the reader to spontaneous cases and explain why Stevenson preferred them to laboratory investigations.

Section 4, “Research on the Question of Survival after Death: Reviews and Representative Case Reports” is by far the largest section of the book. It includes 16 selections arranged in nine subsections, “Apparitions,” “Deathbed Visions,” “Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences,” “Mediumship,” “Cases of the Reincarnation Type,” “Cases of the Reincarnation Type with Birthmarks and Birth Defects,” “Maternal Impressions,” “Possession,” and “Xenoglossy.” Kelly’s selections and comments seem to me appropriate and well-founded. Collectively they give a good sense of the range of Stevenson’s engagement with the survival problem.

Section 5, “Implications,” is considerably weaker than the sections that have preceded it, as if Kelly has become concerned about the length of the book and wishes to bring it quickly to a close. One of Stevenson’s most important statements about the implications of his reincarnation research, “The Explanatory Value of the Idea of Reincarnation,” which received over 1,000 requests for reprints when it appeared in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1977, is excerpted to the extent of three paragraphs. In the following selection, Stevenson’s insightful reflection on schizophrenia treatment and outcome in Asia (1979) is abbreviated to a single paragraph. Another selection receives a longer excerpt, and the last selection, “Assumptions of Religion and Psychiatry,” is reproduced in full.

In her concluding chapter, “Toward a Tertium Quid,” Kelly identifies the goal toward which Stevenson was striving as the common ground between science and religion. I see the point she is after, but I am not sure that that is the best way to read Stevenson. He strikes me as a committed empiricist concerned above all with challenging the reductionistic, materialistic view of the relationship of mind to body. Stevenson wrote little about religion, and although he expressed appreciation more than once for William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, I cannot see that he connected mystical experience directly to his own work.

Despite its weak conclusion this book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses and I can recommend it without reservation to anyone looking for an introduction to Ian Stevenson’s life and work.

A longer version of this review appeared in the Fall, 2013, issue of the Journal of Parapsychology. See Review of Survival, the Self, and Survival of Death edited by E. W. Kelly.

Other reviews

For other reviews of this book online, see:

Alvarado, Carlos (2013, February 13). (Science, the Self, and Survival After Death: A Tribute to Ian Stevenson (1918-2007).

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