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“The cries of the dead are terrible indeed; you should try not to hear them” ― Philip K. Dick

The ghost of an idea.

The ghost of an idea.

Long before the Father of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) arrived on the scene to remind us of the retrospectively obvious, yet poorly understood fact that we are all neurotic, sex-obsessed slaves of our id, inevitably traumatized by our childhood, and that “dreams are the most profound when they seem the most crazy”, English doctor, antiquarian, and psychical hobbyist Samuel Hibbert-Ware (1782-1848) was toying with the idea that metaphysical speculation regarding the origin of ghostly apparitions was a philosophical dead end, and that various species of specters and phantasms were a side effect of what he called “the association of ideas”, an acutely vivid, and conscious expression of what has remained dormant in our unconscious.  That is to say, the specters of our consciousness were merely an associated chain of thoughts and feelings (even from infancy) which are revitalized due to some form of mental excitement.  In short, Hibbert-Ware proposed that ghosts were peculiarly concrete, conscious expressions of unconscious associations, emerging from deep within our mental catalog linking emotions, predispositions, cognitions, and traumas, and as we were unconscious of the source of these re-emergent impressions that had suddenly leapt into consciousness, they seemed to spring forth from nowhere, like a ghost, one might say.

It has been before shewn, that when a number of sensations occur in succession, the repetition of any one of them would recall in their original order, yet in a less vivid state, the feelings by which they were followed. To this law was affixed the usual term of the association of ideas. But a question now arises, If ideas, of which we are at any one moment of time totally unconscious, be still liable to recur agreeably to the law of association? The hypothetical answer which I should be disposed to give is this:—that past feelings, even should they be those of our earliest moments of infancy, never cease to be under the operation of this principle, and that they are constantly liable to be renovated, though they should not be the object of consciousness, at the latest period of our life. According to this view, any past impression of the mind never becomes, as it were, extinct. Yet, amidst the incalculable quantity of ideas which are rapidly succeeding to each other, the amount of those that are vivified to such a degree as to be the object of consciousness, must fall far short of the actual number of such, as, from their extreme faintness, are no longer recognized (Hibbert, 1824, p331-332).

As it turns out, Hibbert-Ware’s speculations on the nature of encounters with the spirit world were rooted in his own experiences with the supernatural.  To put it bluntly, the learned doctor problematically found himself seeing ghosts, and like any good modern day blogger, he resolved to tackle his personal issues in the public sphere, penning his reasonably, well-received work Philosophy of Apparitions.

The origin of this work on Apparitions may be traced to the following circumstance. The Doctor had himself been subject for some short time to very troublesome spectral illusions, probably occasioned by his hard work and close study when bringing out his book on the Shetland Isles. He afterwards embodied his reflections on these illusions in a series of papers which he read before the Royal Society (Hibbert-Ware, 1882, p315).

Hibbert has long been touted as a model of scientific skepticism and the Victorian polarization of spiritists and scientists, and many of his psychological speculations were indeed prescient forays into what would one day be a more robust understanding of human consciousness, which makes it all the more amusing that his popular and authoritative works on what ghosts were not (the disembodied dead), were in fact inspired by, well, bumping into a ghost or two. It is curious how often our intellectual motivation is not to explain, rather to “explain away”, but if as Italo Cavino said, “the more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts”, perhaps we should allow for the possibility that we are haunting ourselves.

Hibbert, Samuel, 1782-1848. Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions: Or, An Attempt to Trace Such Illusions to Their Physical Causes. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd; [etc., etc.], 1824.
Hibbert-Ware, Mrs. The Life And Correspondence of the Late Samuel Hibbert Ware. Manchester: J.E. Cornish, 1882.
“Past Feelings Renovated, Or, Ideas Occasioned by the Perusal of Dr. Hibbert’s Philosophy of Apparitions / Written With the View of Counteracting Any Sentiments Approcaching Materialism, Which That Work, However Unintentional On the Part of the Author, May Have a Tendency to Produce”. London: G.B. Whittaker, 1828.