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In the winter of 1823, I had the honour of reading an Essay on Spectral Impressions to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Whatever interest it excited was rather due to the subject, than to the degree of success with which a theory of apparitions could possibly be discussed in the limits of a short paper. This consideration, therefore, among others, has given rise to the present volume.
The plan of this work may now be briefly stated :
In the first place, a view is given of the various opinions, ancient as well as modern, which have been entertained on the subject of apparitions. The hypothesis, however, which I have myself preferred, is, that apparitions are nothing more than ideas, or the recollected images of the mind, which have been rendered more vivid than actual impressions.
An explanation is next rendered of the particular morbid affections with which the production of phantasms is often connected.
It is also pointed out, that in many ghost-stories of a supposed supernatural character, the ideas, which by disease are rendered so unduly intense as to induce spectral illusions, may be traced to such fantastical objects of prior belief as are incorporated in the various systems of superstition, which for ages have possessed the minds of the vulgar.
But if apparitions are really to be considered as ideas equalling or exceeding in vividness actual impressions, there ought to exist some important and definite laws of the mind which have given rise to this undue degree of vividness. These laws, accordingly, form the subject of a long investigation.
Another object of this dissertation was to have established, that, in every undue excitement of our feelings, (as, for instance, when ideas become more vivid than actual impressions) the operations of the intellectual faculty of the mind sustain corresponding modifications, by which the efforts of the judgment are rendered proportionally incorrect. But the reason which I assign
for being obliged to suspend such an intention, is, “ that an object of this nature cannot be attempted but in connexion with almost all the phenomena of the human mind. To pursue the inquiry, therefore, any farther, would be to make a dissertation on apparitions the absurd vehicle of a regular system of metaphysics.”
This work is not addressed to any particular class of readers. As we live in an age exceeded by no previous one for the desire of information, and as there is a general interest excited on the subject of apparitions, which are properly regarded as unexplained phenomena, I have not thought fit to fashion this discourse to the exclusive taste either of metaphysicians or physiologists ; but, on the contrary, have so endeavoured to treat it, that, without any previous study of the sciences which it involves, it may be fully understood. Yet the reader ought by no means to flatter himself, that he will be enabled to comprehend the laws which give rise to phantasms without any mental exertion on his own part. The phenomena, which for ages have puzzled the most learned men in the world, are not to be thus easily dealt with.
I shall, lastly, remark, that the illustrations
in the course of this work are not more numerous than the treatise requires ; my object being not only to render the principles that I have inculcated as intelligible as possible, but to direct the attention of the reader less to the vulgar absurdities which are blended with ghost-stories, than to the important philosophical inferences that are frequently to be deduced from them. The subject of apparitions has, indeed, for centuries, occupied the attention of the learned; but seldom without reference to superstitious speculations. It is time, however, that these illusions should be viewed in a perfectly different light; for, if the conclusions to which I have arrived be correct, they are calculated, more than almost every other class of mental phenomena, to throw considerable light upon certain important laws connected with the physiology of the human mind.