Hornell Hart was born on August 2, 1888, in St. Paul, Minnesota, of Quaker parents. His father, Hastings Hornell Hart, was secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Correction and Charities at the time. Later he served as superintendent of the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society and was secretary of the state committee which devised one of the first juvenile court laws in the United States.
Hart graduated from Oberlin College in 1910; he received his M.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1914 and his Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa in 1921. He shared his father’s concern for child welfare, serving as research associate and as associate professor at the University of Iowa’s Child Welfare Research Station from 1919 to 1923, and then, in 1924, as executive secretary of the Iowa Child Welfare Commission. His academic career began in 1924, when he joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College, where he was professor of social economy from 1930 to 1933. From 1933 to 1938 he was professor of ethics at Hartford Theological Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1915, Hart married Ella Brockhousen. The couple had three daughters, all of whom became professional women, and a son, Robert. Robert was born and died before the first of his sisters was born, and his early death may have helped to stimulate Hart’s interest in psychical research, particularly in the question of survival. He retained his interest in psychical research along with his personal religious convictions throughout his life, and all of his writings refl ect these concerns. He first dealt with psychical research in his textbook The Science of Social Relations (1927).
Hart’s first major contribution to psychical research came in 1933 with the publication of a paper, coauthored with his wife, in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Entitled “Visions and Apparitions Collectively and Reciprocally Perceived,” this paper included quantitative comparisons of various types of apparitions, especially collective apparitions and reciprocal apparitions. In the latter type of case, one person (the agent) has an OBE during which he or she seems to travel to a distant place and see someone else, while this person (the percipient) simultaneously sees the agent as an apparition (see Wilmot Apparition). The Harts concluded that “the collectively observed apparitions of the dead seem to be closely similar in character to the conscious apparitions of the living.”
In 1938 Hart was appointed professor of sociology at Duke University, where J.B. Rhine had his Parapsychology Laboratory. Hart, as one of the first sociologists to employ statistics in his research, was well equipped to understand Rhine’s experimental approach. He joined the editorial staff of the Journal of Parapsychology and stayed in close touch with the Parapsychology Laboratory throughout his career at Duke, although in the later years relations between them became strained as a result of the laboratory’s conservative position on the survival question and on the problem of everyday psychic experiences (so-called spontaneous cases).
Hart continued to write on OBEs and apparitions and published several important papers in the Proceedings of the SPR and the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). In 1953, he proposed a “psychic fifth dimension” and showed how such an idea could make sense of the data of psychical research. His 1956 paper, “Six Theories about Apparitions,” written in cooperation with colleagues, has become a classic.
At the same time, Hart was making important contributions to sociology and political science. He was actively involved in the movement for world government following World War II. He won the Edward J. Bernays Award for Best Action-Related Study of the Social Effects of Atomic Energy in 1948, and his pamphlet “McCarthy Versus the State Department” (1952) was widely distributed and is credited with going far to establish the inaccuracy of many of McCarthy’s charges.
Upon his retirement from Duke in 1957, Hart became the John Hay Whitney Foundation Professor of Sociology at Centre College of Kentucky in Danville, Kentucky. From 1960 until his death in 1967 he was chairman of the sociology department at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. In these last years of his life he turned his attention more and more to psychical research.
To this period belongs his only book devoted entirely to psychical research, The Enigma of Survival: The Case For and Against an After Life (1959). Here Hart contrasted the two points of view on the evidence of apparitions and Mediumship, and sought to reconcile them through his own “persona theory.” According to this idea, what is seen as an APPARITION and what attempts to communicate through a Medium is not the deceased person himself, but rather a projected “persona” that interacts with the perceptual faculties of the percipient and the unconscious of the medium to produce the reported effects.
In the same book, Hart introduced the label “super- ESP” to refer to a hypothetical ESP capacity that extends beyond the bounds that have been established in laboratory experimentation or field work with spontaneous cases. Super-PSI has often been employed by critics to account for evidence suggesting survival after death.
Hart died on February 27, 1967, of a heart attack, on a visit to Washington, D.C. Shortly before his death he had completed the manuscript of a book, Survival After Death, that he described to a colleague as his most important contribution to psychical research, superseding The Enigma of Survival. This manuscript, however, has not been published.
Hart’s more important writings in psychical research have already been mentioned. His last major contribution to the field was a monograph. Toward a New Philosophical Basis for Parapsychological Phenomena (1965). His books in other areas include The Science of Social Relations (1927), The Technique of Social Progress (1931), Personality and the Family (1941), Living Religion (1937), Autoconditioning (1956) and Your Share of God (1958).
- Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.
- Pratt, J. G. “In Memory of Hornell Hart: A Personal Appreciation.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)1 (1968): 80–83.