Pre-Print Introduction to SHPSC Special Issue Now Available: Psychical Research in the History and Philosophy of Science

The final pre-print article from the SHPSC special issue on psychical research, which I had the privilege of guest-editing, is now available online. Although it is not strictly meant as a normative contribution to the philosophy of science, I hope it will still be useful for philosophers interested in the demarcation problem. It basically boils down to an appeal nobody really should have to make, but which unfortunately is still rather necessary: be critical of secondary sources, particularly concerning histories of controversial subjects!


Andreas Sommer, University of Cambridge

introscreenshotAs a prelude to articles published in this special issue, I sketch changing historiographical conventions regarding the ‘occult’ in recent history of science and medicine scholarship. Next, a review of standard claims regarding psychical research and parapsychology in philosophical discussions of the demarcation problem reveals that these have tended to disregard basic primary sources and instead rely heavily on problematic popular accounts, simplistic notions of scientific practice, and outdated teleological historiographies of progress. I conclude by suggesting that rigorous and sensitively contextualized case studies of past elite heterodox scientists may be potentially useful to enrich historical and philosophical scholarship by highlighting epistemologies that have fallen through the crude meshes of triumphalist and postmodernist historiographical generalizations alike.

Historiography; Psychical research; Parapsychology; Demarcation problem; Popular science

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

One Year of ‘Forbidden Histories’

It was precisely a year ago that I entered the world of history of science blogging by launching ‘Forbidden Histories’. (Incidentally, my first title choice – ‘Hidden Histories’– was already taken, and somewhat reluctantly I decided to go with the more melodramatic-sounding name.) One year later, I’m still not sufficiently blogosphere-savvy to understand what exactly statistics of page views and Facebook ‘likes’ tell me about the blog’s success. Regardless, a short résumé might be useful to provide visitors with a handy overview of what has been done so far, but also help me think about how I would like ‘Forbidden Histories’ to develop in the long run.

'Forbidden Histories' on Facebook

‘Forbidden Histories’ on Facebook

My first blog post sketched the hidden history of the ‘poltergeist’ and its naturalization, taking issue with the anachronistic definition of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary. Other texts were concerned with the tacit and circular supernaturalism in the rhetoric of popular science, discussed links between the physicist and psychical researcher Sir Oliver Lodge and his German colleagues Heinrich Hertz and Max Planck (including my translation of a letter from Planck to Lodge), and reconstructed an unbroken timeline of Cambridge elite intellectuals fascinated with ‘occult’ phenomena from the Scientific Revolution to the present day.

Whereas these posts have reflected my general concern to understand how the purported ‘disenchantment’ of the world through science has become such a powerful Western myth, other articles betray my preoccupation with certain blind spots in the historiography of psychology. Examples are the reproduction of William James’s 1899 entry “Telepathy” in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia, which (along with other writings by James that are too long to be reproduced as blog posts) documents and help us contextualise what the ‘founder of American psychology’ actually thought about controversial ‘psychic’ phenomena, in contrast to the long tradition in history of psychology scholarship to downplay or completely pass over his heterodox activities.

A belated farewell to Eugene Taylor in form of my review of his groundbreaking reconstruction of James’s 1896 Lowell Lectures covers similar ground, while the summary of a talk I gave at Barts Pathology Museum on mesmerism and the making of modern psychology, and observations regarding the journal Psychische Studien, are concerned with the German context. Together, these work-in-progress pieces provide a glimpse of the issues raised in a book I’m currently working on, and in some of the lectures on ‘Psychology in History’, a new course I’ll start teaching at Cambridge University in November.

Original texts other than James’s telepathy article included last year’s Halloween special – Carl G. Jung’s account of spine-chilling nights in a haunted house –, and an assorted collection of Francis Bacon quotes concerning magic, which thoroughly undermine Bacon’s popular image as the ‘father’ of modern scientific rationalism. The first guest post – Kees-Jan Schilt’s observations on the reception of Isaac Newton’s unorthodox works – likewise fundamentally challenge deeply ingrained habits of popular science writers to produce evidence-free history by distorting the past through the lenses of the present.

Guest contributions quickly became an essential feature of ‘Forbidden Histories’. Alexis Smets’s post on religious and spiritual alchemy, Benjamin Mitchell’s on the spiritualist journalist William T. Stead, my interview with Gabriel Finkelstein on his seminal study of German physiologist and Enlightenment crusader Emil du Bois-Reymond, James Kennaway’s discussion of music in mesmerism, Alicia Puglionesi’s reflections on empiricism and the tedium of American psychical research, and Boris Kožnjak’s rediscovery of the eminent Zagreb physician and parapsychological researcher Karlo Marchesi show that ‘Forbidden Histories’ is first and foremost a collaborative effort.

There are further indications that concerns discussed on this blog are being shared by a growing number of historians. While our posts are typically written for an educated lay audience, I recently had the pleasure of guest-editing the special issue ‘Psychical research in the history of science and medicine’ for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Readers of this blog may have seen alerts of pre-print versions of articles by Ian Kidd, Andrea Graus, Richard Noakes, Shannon Delorme, Katy Price, Fabio De Sio and Chantal Marazia, and Maria Teresa Brancaccio, which are available on the journal website before materializing on paper in November.

With an emphasis on collaboration and networking, let me conclude this brief résumé by stating the obvious: While an important function of ‘Forbidden Histories’ has been for its contributors to test and rehearse ideas, we depend on you, our readers, to assess if we make sense to non-historians. We therefore welcome any feedback and criticisms you may have, but also suggestions of topics, suitably short historical key texts for potential reproduction, and interview partners. Naturally, if you happen to be a historian of science, medicine or technology interested in writing a guest post, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

© Andreas Sommer

Seventh Article from Upcoming SHPSC Special Issue on Psychical Research: Enrico Morselli and the Medium Eusapia Palladino

The penultimate pre-print article from the soon to be published Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences special issue on psychical research is now online. Maria Teresa Brancaccio explores and contextualises a hitherto underresearched episode in the history of modern Italian psychology, i.e. the preoccupation of one of its leading early representatives with purported psychic phenomena.


Maria Teresa Brancaccio, Maastricht University


Enrico Morselli (1852-1929)

Enrico Morselli (1852-1929)

This paper traces Enrico Morselli’s intellectual trajectory from the 1870s to the early 1900s. His interest in phenomena of physical mediumship is considered against the backdrop of the theoretical developments in Italian psychiatry and psychology. A leading positivist psychiatrist and a prolific academic, Morselli was actively involved in the making of Italian experimental psychology. Initially sceptical of psychical research and opposed to its association with the ‘new psychology’, Morselli subsequently conducted a study of the physical phenomena produced by the medium Eusapia Palladino. He concluded that her phenomena were genuine and represented them as the effects of an unknown bio-psychic force present in all human beings. By contextualizing Morselli’s study of physical mediumship within contemporary theoretical and disciplinary discourse, this study elaborates shifts in the interpretations of ‘supernormal’ phenomena put forward by leading Italian psychiatrists and physiologists. It demonstrates that Morselli’s interest in psychical research stems from his efforts to comprehend the determinants of complex psychological phenomena at a time when the dynamic theory of matter in physics, and the emergence of neo-vitalist theories influenced the theoretical debates in psychiatry, psychology and physiology.


Italian psychiatry; Italian psychical research; Esopsychism; Enrico Morselli; Eusapia Palladino

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Clever Hans and the Origins of German Experimental Parapsychology: Sixth Pre-Print Article from SHPSC Special Issue

In the sixth pre-print article from the upcoming Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences special issue on psychical research, Chantal Marazia and Fabio De Sio reconstruct the story of the famous “thinking horses” of Elberfeld and their main investigator, Karl Krall.


Fabio De Sio (Heinrich Heine Universität, Düsseldorf) & Chantal Marazia (Université de Strasbourg)


“Clever Hans” on trial (1907)

“Clever Hans” on trial (1907)

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the so-called Elberfeld horses, the counting and speaking animals, were among the most debated subjects of the newborn comparative psychology. Yet, they have left little trace in the historiography of this discipline, mostly as an appendix of the more famous Clever Hans. Their story is generally told as the prelude to the triumph of reductionistic experimental psychology. By paying a more scrupulous attention than has so far being done to the second life of Hans, and to the endeavours of his second master, Karl Krall, this article explores the story of the Elberfeld horses as an important, if so far neglected, chapter in the history of experimental parapsychology.


Karl Krall; Experimental parapsychology; Clever Hans; Elberfeld Horses; Psychic research; Anpsi

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Fifth Pre-Print Article from Psychical Research Special Issue: Katy Price on Precognition and Psychiatry

Another article from the currently produced special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C dedicated to psychical research is now online as a pre-print version on the journal website. In her analysis of letters on precognition to the British playwright Joseph Priestley, Katy Price (Queen Mary University, London) addresses the complicated relationship between the ‘paranormal’ and psychiatry.


Katy Price, Queen Mary University, London


J. B. Priestley

J. B. Priestley

Using letters sent to British playwright J. B. Priestley in 1963, this paper explores the intersection between patient-focused history of psychiatry and the history of parapsychology in everyday life. Priestley’s study of precognition lay outside the main currents of parapsychology, and his status as a storyteller encouraged confidences about anomalous temporal experience and mental illness. Drawing on virtue epistemology, I explore the regulation of subjectivity operated by Priestley in establishing the credibility of his correspondents in relation to their gender and mental health, and investigate the possibility of testimonial justice for these witnesses. Priestley’s ambivalent approach to madness in relation to visions of the future is related to the longer history of prophecy and madness. Letters from the television audience reveal a variety of attitudes towards the compatibility of precognition with modern theories of the mind, show the flexibility of precognition in relation to mental distress, and record a range of responses from medical and therapeutic practitioners. Testimonial justice for those whose experience of precognition intersects with psychiatric care entails a full acknowledgement of the tensions and complicities between these two domains as they are experienced by the witness, and an explicit statement of the hearer’s orientation to those domains.


Precognition; Psychiatry; J. B. Priestley; Time; Letters; Public

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Fourth Pre-Print Article from Psychical Research Special Issue now Online: Shannon Delorme on William Carpenter and Spiritualism in Victorian Britain

In the fourth of eight articles from the upcoming Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C special issue on psychical research, Shannon Delorme (Oxford University) takes a closer look at one of the most vocal British 19th-century opponents of spiritualism and animal magnetism, the physiologist William B. Carpenter.


Shannon Delorme, University of Oxford


William B. Carpenter

William B. Carpenter

This paper analyses the attitude of the British Physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter (1813–1885) to spiritualist claims and other alleged psychical phenomena in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It argues that existing portraits of Carpenter as a critic of psychical studies need to be refined so as to include his curiosity about certain ‘unexplained phenomena’, as well as broadened so as to take into account his overarching epistemological approach in a context of theological and social fluidity within nineteenth-century British Unitarianism. Carpenter’s hostility towards spiritualism has been well documented, but his interest in the possibility of thought-transference or his secret fascination with the medium Henry Slade have not been mentioned until now. This paper therefore highlights Carpenter’s ambivalences and focuses on his conciliatory attitude towards a number of heterodoxies while suggesting that his Unitarian faith offers the keys to understanding his unflinching rationalism, his belief in the enduring power of mind, and his effort to resolve dualisms.


Spiritualism; Psychical research; Neurophysiology; Unitarianism; William B. Carpenter; Religious naturalism

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Who was Dr. Karlo Marchesi? The Zagreb-Durham Transoceanic ESP Experiments. Guest Post by Boris Kožnjak, Zagreb

Boris Kožnjak, PhD, is a historian and philosopher of science at the Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb, Croatia. E-mail:


Boris Kožnjak

Between August 1939 and May 1940 Joseph Banks Rhine and his associates from the famous Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, conducted what would become the longest distance experiment which any systematic ESP investigation has ever utilized. During that period, in three different series a Zagreb-based physician called Karlo Marchesi was trying to identify the cards in a total of 353 decks of Zenner cards set up in Durham, about 4,000 miles away from the Laboratory. The experiment was a success and it soon became an important and well-known part of the large body of statistically significant ESP data collected by the Laboratory.(1) Seven years later, between November 1946 and January 1947, in another experiment of this kind, Dr. Marchesi again obtained statistically significant results, which reinforced the assumption that ESP was not limited by space.(2) As commented by C.G. Jung in his famous essay on synchronicity, these experiments clearly demonstrated that “the distance is psychically variable, and may in certain circumstances be reduced to vanishing point by a psychic condition”.(3)

Dr. Karlo Marchesi (from Muftić, 1964).

Dr. Karlo Marchesi (from Muftić, 1964).

But who was Dr. Karlo Marchesi and how did he become involved in these intriguing experiments? I was puzzled by this question for a long time, not only as a historian and philosopher of science, but also as a resident of Zagreb, whose streets Dr. Marchesi once walked. However, as I was soon to find out, no one among my fellow citizens, including local historians, have ever heard about these experiments, let alone Dr. Marchesi. To make matters worse, the existing literature on the history of psychical research did not offer any answers either. Hence, I welcome the opportunity to share a few basic facts I have eventually unearthed about this fascinating, but unfairly forgotten man.

As already indicated, Dr. Marchesi was a Zagreb physician, who started his distinguished medical career as an internist at the City Polyclinic. At first, due to his medical training, he was extremely skeptical about the claims of the psychic phenomena. However, as a result of his own experiences, and particularly the experiments he himself performed, his negative attitude toward the ESP hypothesis gradually changed. Nevertheless, he continued to work in this controversial field anonymously, publishing his texts in local newspapers and magazines under the pseudonym Dr. C. Zorin, under which he also published the book The Problem of Psychic phenomena (1939, Problem psihičkih pojava in Croatian).(4) It was also about that time that Dr. Marchesi first contacted Rhine, informing him about several experimental series of successful ESP tests he performed, acting as the percipient in some of them. By the end of 1938 the Parapsychology Laboratory had accumulated several dozens of successful ESP experiments involving almost a million of trials with the famous Zener cards, but none of them being performed with ‘senders’ and ‘receivers’ separated by more than several hundred meters. Marshesi’s letter was therefore more than welcomed, and Rhine’s proposal to arrange the Zagreb-Durham experiments followed shortly thereafter. The publication of their results in 1942 in the Journal of Parapsychology encouraged Dr. Marchesi to break his anonymity, and in 1944 he published, now under his real name, the extensive 600 pages book The Secrets of the Human Soul: Hypnosis-Telepathy-Clairvoyance (Tajne čovječje duše: hipnoza-telepatija-vidovitost), in which he collected and critically commented all available theoretical and experimental research on ESP phenomena, including his own transoceanic experiments.(5)


Marchesi’s home at Zagreb’s Gornji Grad (Upper Town), from which he tried to guess cards prepared in Durham (photo by the author).

Dr. Marshesi’s life, however, was not without hardship. Soon after the The Secrets of the Human Soul was published – during the Second World War he served as the Red Cross Hospital director in Zagreb – he was incarcerated in the notorious Savska Cesta prison, and sentenced to death by the Ustasha regime because he provided medical care for some wounded partisans and American pilots, but thanks to some odd circumstances (that would require a separate book – or better a movie – to be told) he managed to escape death. After the war he also fell into disfavor with the new Yugoslav communist regime and, banned from his private practice, was sent to cure Partisan veterans suffering from the so-called ‘partisan disease’, a sort of a post-traumatic stress disorder.(6) In 1950 he was allowed to travel abroad, and at the invitation of Rhine he finally went to visit Duke University. In 1954 he was joined there by his wife Dr. Marija Rojc-Marchesi, also a well-known Zagreb physician-phtysiologist. She was not only his life companion, but also his intellectual partner; she translated into Croatian A.J. Findlay’s influential book On the Edge of Etheric or Survival after Death Scientifically Explained and published it in 1935, three years after the book was originally published in London.(7) They both finally settled in Lynn, Massachusetts.


ESP cards prepared for Dr. Marchesi in Durham (from Marchesi, 1944).

Interestingly, contrary to his extrachance scoring level while being 4,000 miles away, during his visit to Durham in a total of 1,163.5 ESP runs Dr. Marchesi was unable to score appreciably above chance average.(8) For Rhine and his associates this was no surprise; from previous experiments they had already come to appreciate that ESP scoring abilities were tied to certain psychological conditions of the percipients. In the case of Dr. Marchesi, who was now in an unfamiliar setting far away from his homeland, these conditions were thought to be obvious.(9) But although “the psychic doctor disappointed”, as even reported in the U.S. newspapers, Dr. Marchesi remained in the States, continuing his work in the field in which he was also one of the pioneers – clinical hypnosis. Already in 1942 the Zagreb School of Medicine had invited him to demonstrate the application of hypnosis in dental medicine; the demonstration was successful and hypnosis became a part of the official curriculum at the Zagreb School of Medicine (which was, by the way, 11 years earlier than the British Medical Association started even to consider hypnosis as a possible medical aid). His successful methods of hypnotic treatment of stammering(10) and bronchial asthma(11), published in the respectable British Journal of Medical Hypnotism became classics in the field.


(1) Rhine J.B. & Humphrey, B.M. (1942). A Transoceanic ESP Experiment. Journal of Parapsychology, 6, 52-78.

(2) Mc Mahan, E.A. & Rhine, J.B. (1947). A Second Zagreb-Durham ESP Experiment. Journal of Parapsychology, 11, 244-253.

(3) Jung, C.G. (1960). Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. In: The collected works of C.G. Jung, vol. 8
(Princeton University Press, Princeton 1969), p. 433. Originally published in German in 1952.

(4) Zorin, C. (1939). Problem psihičkih pojava (Naklada Binoza, Zagreb).

(5) Marchesi, K. 1944. Tajne čovječje duše: hipnoza-telepatija-vidovitost (Naklada A. Velzek, Zagreb).

(6) Muftić, M. (1964). Dr Karlo Marchesi: trideset-godišnji jubilej znanstvenog rada. Hrvatska revija, 14, 51-53.

(7) Findlay, A.J. (1935) Na pragu eteričkog svieta ili život iza smrti znanstveno protumačen (Prev. Marija Rojc-Marchesi. S uvodom Williama Barretta (Zagreb).

(8) McMahan, E.A. & Bates, E.K. Jr. (1954). Report of further Marchesi experiments. Journal of Parapsychology, 18, 82-92. 244-253. See also Rhine, J. B. & Pratt, J. G. (1974/1954). Parapsychology: Frontier Science of the Mind (Charles C Thomas, Illinois), pp. 68-69.

(9) See McMahan & Bates (1954), p. 91.

(10) Marchesi, C. (1949). The hypnotic treatment of bronchial asthma. British Journal of Medical Hypnotism, 1(2), 14-19.

(11) Marchesi, C. (1963). The hypnotic treatment of stammering. British Journal of Medical Hypnotism, 15 (2), 40-44.

 © Boris Kožnjak


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