Swedenborg and the History of Psychology:
College Students Speak Out
Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, 1983
In 1981, while browsing in our university library in search of Bible commentaries, I came across a set of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). I was greatly impressed by the authoritativeness and rationality with which the writer treated the major spiritual issues with which I had been concerned. Is there life after death? What is it like? How can I be sure of it? Is there Heaven and Hell? How do I prepare for Heaven? What is the role of the Bible and is it related to the field of psychology which I was teaching at this state university? Is spirituality compatible with science? Is there life on other planets? In the writings of Swedenborg I was suddenly confronted with empirical answers to these questions. The author speaks as an eyewitness reporter, a meticulous scientific observer of his inner experiences which formed actual events in a real spiritual world.
To me this was a unique claim. For decades I had been relentlessly searching for methods and theories of inner growth. For my Ph.D. degree in experimental and social psychology I was trained to think with objective behavioral concepts tied into a logical, self-contained, and limited system. I was never satisfied with any of the theories and speculations which abounded within and outside traditional systems of thought in the vast literature of historical and contemporary psychology. They were all interpretive and speculative constructions -- about the mind, about the spiritual world -- and I could never bring myself to accept anything merely because it was being asserted as a possibility. I was stuck with a sense of diffidence, perhaps even discouragement, if not cynicism, when the bombshell of the Swedenborg reports exploded into my attention. Here was something totally different, entirely new. A reputable scientist bringing back data from the afterlife, not just from a single experience, or a few, but thousands, from decades of daily observations lasting for hours at a time.
I longed to share my great discovery with my colleagues and students. I started mentioning Swedenborg in my lectures whenever the topic was related to our discussions. As my research and understanding of the extensive Swedenborg reports grew, I gradually evolved a standard set of arguments and facts which form the outline of an integrated theory of human behavior. This psychological theory takes a positive, rather than a negative, bias towards the hypothesis that the spiritual world exists.
Since I teach an undergraduate course on the History of Psychology I frequently have the opportunity in my lectures to present information from the Swedenborg reports. Almost all textbooks in this area focus on the mind/body issue viewed through a chronological exposition of writers, beginning with Ancient Greece and leading up to the twentieth century. Since the mind/body issue comes up in every chapter I am able to bring in some aspect of the Swedenborg reports throughout the semester. I believe that this extended approach can have a greater effect on the student than a single lecture devoted entirely to Swedenborg.
The last time I taught this course in the spring of 1991, at the end of the fifteen-week semester, I asked students to hand in a brief anonymous answer to the following question:
Should Swedenborg be included in the history of scientific psychology?
None of the existing textbooks in this area mention Swedenborg, and I wanted to know what would be their conclusions on this issue. Of the 23 students in the class, 13 said Yes and 10 said No. It is interesting to see the justifications they gave. Their verbatim answers follow:
1. Swedenborg tried to bring spirituality into science. He contributes to the psychology of the mind. Revelation as a phenomenon has not been disproven. Others who were wrong, were included (like Freud), so why not Swedenborg? He gives a new paradigm.
2. Swedenborg's revelations should be examined, not automatically rejected. A decision should be made whether to include it in psychology or not. We must be careful with claims about revelations since this can come from God or Satan!
3. Science deals with proving something as a fact. Since Swedenborg is the only one who experienced this revelation, it should be automatically excluded from science. Swedenborg's writings belong to religion. Therefore they must contain things that are dogmatic. Science should be free of this and only accept ideas that have a concrete basis.
4. The fact that his ideas are based on his own experiences and no one else's, makes it difficult for science to accept them. Where do we draw the line? Will we have to accept anyone's experiences? Swedenborg should be mentioned as a theory maybe, but not necessarily as fact.
5. To accept Swedenborg would be to accept the belief of God and the Spiritual World thus forcing everyone to one person's view of God. This is dogma. Science does not allow things in without proof (repeatable, observable evidence). Science rejects dogma. As far as being mentioned in the history of psychology, I think Swedenborg should be mentioned since other theorists are reviewed who were proven wrong, had no evidence, yet gave valuable avenues of thought (e.g., Freud).
6. The spiritual view of man should receive serious consideration in psychology textbooks. Since there is a God, to exclude revelation is foolish, and gives a seriously distorted view of the total human psyche. The Christian viewpoint should be included in psychology. There is no evidence that Swedenborg was mentally ill or insane, so he should be considered. Swedenborg presents a paradigm that should not be excluded.
7. Would you believe it today if someone claimed to have seen the other world? The definition of science excludes "faith" concepts. Still, as long as Swedenborg's claims are remotely possible, and have not been disproven, we shouldn't dismiss his theories, but instead, look upon them as one more paradigm. Personally, I don't think his theories would survive very long.
8. I don't have to accept Swedenborg's views but they, along with other Christian views, should be accepted into psychology, else psychology is reduced to a small area of human behavior.
9. Why include him since Swedenborg's observations are not repeatable by others, and since he requires God, which is never provable and repeatable.
10. Why exclude Swedenborg since not everything in science is provable and since God and spirituality should be part of science. Swedenborg might provide a new important paradigm for psychology.
11. Swedenborg cannot be included in the science of psychology since he has no scientific basis (repeatability, measurement, proof), and is purely personal. Similarly, Plato, Aristotle, Freud are not science.
12. In my opinion, revelation is possible so one should not totally exclude it. To exclude Swedenborg from psychology would exclude anything spiritual from it. I'm not arguing whether Swedenborg was right or wrong, but he may give us some valuable information just as Freud's theories did, although some of his work has been proven wrong.
13. Swedenborg's work is based on his experiences alone and is personal. We have no means of measuring it. How would we ever find out that what he said was true? Swedenborg has no scientific basis so he cannot be included in psychology as science. Spirit, mind, etc. are not concepts included in the definition of science (maybe philosophy, religion?). How can we explain his concepts without hard core evidence?
14. Science is based on empirical facts. Therefore, revelation should not be included in psychology unless it can be measured empirically. Swedenborg's revelations are more like a religion, a belief. On the other hand, if you can't prove that revelations don't exist, it may be true. Therefore, psychology should not rule it out.
15. I do think that Swedenborg and his revelations should be included in psychology because they can help people grow mentally. Since the history of psychology already includes the mind/body issue, why not include Swedenborg? No one has settled the debate yet.
16. In terms of scientific theory and psychology's adherence to scientific methods in the study and measurement of mental processes and behavior, revelation has not and will not be proven to be possible. Because revelation is not "real" Swedenborg's reports are not real. Therefore his reports have no scientific substance and are possibly imagined.
17. Revelation has been reported and experienced by many notables, including Swedenborg. His reports provide insight into and enlightenment of real life occurrences, as well allows one to better understand the functions of and interactions between the body, mind, and spirit. These three are central to the study of human psychology. Whether real or made up, Swedenborg's reports provide increased understanding of human psychological functions and behavior.
18. Swedenborg's reports must and should be respected as well as accepted by the science of psychology. Swedenborg's viewpoint provides another paradigmatic perspective to better understand the human psyche and gain access into learning of ultimate human functioning.
19. Swedenborg is contributing an understanding of the mind/body issue. Revelation has not been disproven, hence his ideas ought not to be excluded. The parts of Swedenborg that are psychology can be used while the religious parts can be omitted.
20. We have not proven whether revelation is real or not so how can we ignore Swedenborg's reports? That would be cutting off a possible avenue of obtaining information. I believe that revelation is possible being that there is a spiritual and a material world. Swedenborg's ideas cannot be excluded from the history of psychology on the basis of being "wrong" or else everyone else's ideas from the past have to be excluded.
21. Some of Swedenborg's ideas deal with religion, I agree, but others deal with psychology and those should be included in psychology. The definition of science makes it difficult to include Swedenborg but his ideas are too important to be ignored. They should at least be presented so that others can use them to expand on. By not including them, it means they're being rejected.
22. Swedenborg should not be include in the science of psychology. Science can be measured - how can his reports be measured? Just because he wrote so many volumes of his accounts - who is to say they weren't just imagination? I think Swedenborg should rather be included in religion because the belief is based on faith (faith in Swedenborg, that he is real).
23. Swedenborg's reports cannot be proven. His accounts can't be repeatable. True, yet taking into account previous psychologists who have not been proven right, yet they are accepted. Why can't that also be for Swedenborg? He should be included as a way to view things from a different perspective. After all shouldn't psychology be open to everything and anything in order to allow for a greater understanding of the mind?
To summarize these comments, there were 13 students (out of 23) who indicated their support for the inclusion of Swedenborg in the science of psychology, and there were 10 who were against it. The reasons for saying Yes fall into two categories. First, spirituality and revelation are real psychological phenomena of the mind (see student comments numbered 1,2,6,12,15,17,18,19,20,21,23). Second, God and religion should be part of psychology (see comments 8,10). Those who voted No also gave two main reasons. First, Science and religion should be kept separate and Swedenborg belongs to religion (see comments 3,9,16). Second, Swedenborg's experiences are not provable, repeatable, or measurable (see comments 4,5,7,13,14,22). I am delighted by these results. They show that the positive bias can become a new and viable paradigm for the science of psychology. In just a few weeks of listening to my sporadic references to Swedenborg, 11 of 23 senior college students were able to articulate for themselves the idea that spirituality and revelation are real psychological phenomena of the mind and should be part of the science of psychology, for which they were being professionally prepared. I am now left wondering what it would take to achieve such a success ratio with my colleagues and fellow scientists.
Never in the history of science has such a report surfaced. How can we build a scientific theory or understanding of our major human concerns if we have no access to data that might verify even the slightest of our hypotheses? For example, the hypothesis that there is life after death cannot be convincingly verified from any of the available data such as the testimony of ancient scriptures or the recent interest in near death experiences. NDEs are insufficient by themselves as scientific proof of life after death because of their extreme limitation in scope. They are mostly composed of the vision of lights and, occasionally, the appearance of ghostly personalities or voices. Psychic phenomena are also insufficient, even when reproducible - and mostly they are not, because they are reported in trance or hypnotic states rather than in the ordinary state of scientific or legal reporting. Thus questions about any claimed psychic phenomenon cannot be discussed with the medium, who afterwards cannot offer the simplest of accounts about the identity of the "spirits" they spoke to or their life condition and environment.
By contrast I found a tremendous watershed of data about the spiritual world in the Swedenborg reports. Over a period of 29 years, Swedenborg had observed thousands of people go through the process of dying and entering the spiritual world. He was able to interview many whom he knew in the world as well as many celebrities he had known through their books and from history. He witnessed their daily life activities in cities and houses, and he participated in their festivals, public debates, and games. In the language of an intelligent and observant traveller, he describes their customs, language, occupations, and form of government.
Besides the wealth of unique information in the Swedenborg reports, what makes them even more impressive to me is Swedenborg's unbroken consistency in tying all of the data together into a scientifically acceptable account. He presents a spiritual geography whose coordinates coincide with the anatomy and physiology of the body. A map of the spiritual world would consist of a giant Grand Human, a composite of male and female anatomy. The psychological and moral character of individuals in the life after death projects an outer environment that corresponds to the character and content of their mind. Healthy and generous spirits coalesce in a telepathic community that manifests itself in an agreeable and benign external environment. There are cities "in the region of the hand", or in the region of the right eye, or the bladder, and so on. The character or genius of each society in the spiritual world reflects the physiological or anatomical function of the body part of the Grand Human which marks their location. Antisocial and pathological minds congregate in degraded societies whose character corresponds to specific physiological malfunctions or anatomical distortions. They coalesce into a map that pictures a Grand Monster. This spiritual geography is a remarkable aspect of the Swedenborgian scientific system. It describes an empirical approach to the study of the mind and the afterlife since knowledge about the functions and characteristics of the body allows confirmation of hypotheses about the properties of the mind and about phenomena in the spiritual world.
The relationship between science and the Bible is also clarified by Swedenborg. To me the necessity of this connection had become central in the fourth decade of my life. I became less and less inclined to continue in the traditional mode of Christian men of science. This attitude required a separation of my mind into two non-communicating regions. One is 'my scientific hat' while the other is 'my spiritual hat.' According to this attitude, science is made of hard nosed facts about the real world we live in right now; religion is of mystery and abstract theology. I revolted against this irrational tyranny. I fervently desired to maintain consistency in my understanding of life. I felt constrained by an attitude that pointed to rocks and electric circuits as the real basis of reality, and which viewed the inner world of thoughts and feelings as less real, and perhaps even, unreal. Respectable and respected psychologists made it acceptable to refer to human consciousness as a "pseudophenomenon" or an "epiphenomenon," words that imply false reality and byproducts. I needed a theory and a method that looked upon the mind and the spirit benignly and with favor, not with antipathy and skepticism. This I found in the Swedenborg reports.
If I were to summarize my understanding of the Swedenborg reports in a standard lecture, I would include the following items.
A biographical sketch would include dates and titles of many of his books, his dual life in both worlds after age 56, his discoveries of inhabited earths in the universe from conversations with those in the spiritual world who had come from those planets, and two well known clairvoyant events -- the fire in Stockholm which Swedenborg described to those present five hundred miles away and, the information Swedenborg relayed to the widow about the lost payment receipt from her husband in the spiritual world).
Here I would present a few details about Swedenborg's eyewitness reports of life in the heavenly cities, including married life, conjugial bliss and sexuality, jeweled palaces, instant food and clothing, and the education of children there.
(3) Life After Death: Hell
This would mention the sordid psychological life of those in the hellish cities, including their horrible external appearance to those in heavenly light, their obsessiveness and unwillingness to comprehend rational things, and their frantic desire to return to the natural world and possess the inhabitants there.
I use this expression to designate Swedenborg's extension of our understanding of community to include an external horizontal community (ethnicity, culture, society) and an internal vertical community of spiritual consociations (spirit societies in the spiritual world). Psychologically speaking, our behavior and character are determined by our affective choices, or 'loves,' since our emotional attractions and cognitive interpretations can only occur with communication from these spiritual societies.
Here I would review the implications of the Swedenborg reports for the science of psychology as seen through a negative bias versus a positive bias in science. The negative bias scientist says, "I am a monist or materialist. If you claim there is a spiritual world, you're going to have to prove it before it can be accepted into science." The positive bias scientist says, "I am a dualist, and I support the idea that there are two worlds, one for the mind, the other for the body. Now let me investigate whether these Swedenborg reports and claims have scientific validity."
This is where I present Swedenborg's scientific principle that there cannot be a function without a substance. In the historical debate on the mind/body issue, the materialistic scientist in the negative bias mode is forced by logic to deny the reality of the mind since thoughts and feelings have no mass or extension. The negative bias psychologist cannot account for such important human phenomena as awareness, imagination, attachment to symbols, uniqueness of the self, the centrality of religious feelings, the determining role of Divine Providence in the occurrences of history and accident, and prophetic revelation. Swedenborg, as a representative of the positive bias psychologist, has provided us with empirical facts and rational explanations for all these phenomena.
Swedenborg's eyewitness reports pass stringent scientific criteria. The explanations are rational and hold together as a system. His reputation was impeccable and his spiritual observations were carried out for three decades and repeated thousands of times with quasi-experimental variations. Meanwhile, his life in this world continued in the public eye -- as a celebrity and frequent guest of the royal family, as active member of Sweden's legislative body, as a government mining consultant, as a writer and inventor of significant engineering and navigational tools, and as a European traveller received by renowned scientists and scholars. His rational system is useful in many areas of psychology, including psychotherapy, education, humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and psychobiology.
Here I take the stand that death and afterlife are topics that belong to biology and psychology, not to religion alone. The Swedenborg reports are of interest to psychology as a science. They empirically define the following concepts:
* the spiritual world and spiritual associations through choice and inheritance
* heavenly and infernal eternity
* obsessive spiritual influences
* personal growth through a life of self-examination and reformation
* revelation and sacred writings
* spiritual correspondences in thought, language, art
* the interconnection of all things in the universe to the mind (I coined the phrase
"spiritual geography" for this methodology)
* the impossibility of a vacuum (Swedenborg's conversations with Newton in the spiritual world)
* the inheritance of parental affections and their modification through reformation of one's character
* degrees of the mind and the levels of its operation (corporeal, sensuous, rational, spiritual, celestial)
* the analysis of all human behavior into affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor domains (love, thought, act)
These concepts, together with many others found in the Swedenborg reports, constitute a new paradigm in psychology, which we can call spiritual psychology. This psychology is rational, dualistic, integrated, empirical, experiential, behavioristic, functionalist, developmental, psychobiological, and revelatory 
Note that my standard lecture would omit the historically important development of the New Church and its contemporary status. I do this in order to strengthen the central theme that psychologists can look upon the Swedenborg reports as science. The fact that Swedenborg's writings also serve as the basis for a new Christian religion is independent of the fact that the Swedenborg reports are viewed here as biology and psychology in their own right. I believe that in this way I avoid running up against the usual argument that religion and science should be separated. This also means that I do not make the division, often made by others, between Swedenborg's philosophical period (up to 1743), and his theological (or revelatory) period.
As a psychologist and scientist, I view Swedenborg's admission into the spiritual world and subsequent dual life as an event that makes his position fully empirical and scientific. His accounts of the soul and of correspondences turn from mere theory and natural observations, prior to his admission into the spiritual world, to objective eyewitness reporting of the spiritual world. Swedenborg's admission into the spiritual world, and consequent dual life, advances his writings from philosophy to empirical and behavioral science. From this perspective, what are called his Theological Writings (starting with Arcana Coelestia) are the beginning of his behavioristic science. His Philosophical Writings (or Pre-Theological Works) do make use of knowledge in the natural sciences, anatomy, and psychology, but his theories about mind/body interaction and the brain as a spiritual receiving organ, remain interesting but speculative works (cf. Swedenborg's The Economy of the Animal Kingdom and Rational Psychology). However, starting with Arcana Coelestia and all subsequent works, Swedenborg's reports and accounts are no longer speculative or theoretical, but empirical and experiential. His scientific period, from the perspective of biology and psychology, starts with that work and ends with True Christian Religion (published in 1771, just before his death), whose content is based on objective facts about the spiritual world, its inhabitants, and their relation to us on earth.
Dr. Leon James, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. He teaches courses in Personality, Social Psychology, Statistics, and History of Psychology. He was admitted as full member of the American Psychological Association in 1962 and is currently on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. His books and articles are on language learning, semantics, and information literacy. See also related topics in the Swedenborg Glossary by Leon James