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

By Matlock, James G. | The Journal of Parapsychology, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Matlock, James G., The Journal of Parapsychology


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: 978-14422-2114-7.

Ian Stevenson is best known both within and outside parapsychology 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. That he left psychiatry for parapsychology is widely appreciated, but probably fewer people know that he specialized in psychosomatic medicine before psychiatry, and doubtless fewer still realize that he started out studying history. 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 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 comprehensive (although not definitive, if I may make the distinction) classified bibliography of Stevenson's publications.

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 extrasensory 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. …

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