Oliver Lodge, Psychical Research and German Physicists: Heinrich Hertz and Max Planck

Since its foundation in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the first large organisation to scientifically investigate controversial phenomena associated with mesmerism and spiritualism, has boasted a considerable number of notable physical scientists among its members. They included, for example, the discoverer of thallium and president of the Royal Society, William Crookes, the pioneer in wireless telegraphy, president of the Physical Society and first principal of Birmingham University, Oliver Lodge, as well as Nobel Laureates such as J. J. Thomson, Marie Curie, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt), and, more recently, Brian Josephson.

Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894)

Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894)

International in character, the early SPR also counted a noted German physicist among its members: Heinrich Hertz, after whom the international unit of frequency in physics (hertz, Hz) was named. The first to broadcast and receive radio waves, Hertz became acquainted with Oliver Lodge through their mutual interests in wireless transmission technologies. In his obituary of Hertz Lodge wrote in the Journal of the SPR in 1894:

“During a visit to England in 1890 to receive a medal from the Royal Society, he betrayed an interest in psychical matters, and related to the writer some experiences which had convinced him that there was matter for investigation in these ‘occult’ regions.”

Lodge proposed Hertz as Corresponding Member of the SPR in April 1891. Hertz accepted, but died less than three years later.


Max Planck (1858-1947)

Another acquaintance of Lodge’s, Max Planck (the Nobel Laureate commonly referred to as the founder of quantum physics), never joined the SPR but expressed sympathies for Lodge’s unorthodox investigations in telepathy and mediumship. I found a letter from Planck to Lodge in the SPR archives at Cambridge University Library (SPR.MS35/1752), which I translate with the kind permission of the Society. Confirming receipt of Phantom Walls, Lodge’s latest opus on spiritualism, Planck wrote on 19 December 1929:

You gave me great joy by kindly sending me your book “Phantom Walls”, and I hardly need to assert that I will gratefully keep this valuable gift in honour. Not only will it be a cherished souvenir of that eventful and interesting day which I got to spend in London two weeks ago, but by reading it I also promise myself many a new valuable stimulation in addition to the plenty which I have previously received from your writings. – The thing that for me has always made the standpoint represented by you plausible and likeable is your unshakeable faith in the existence of a real outer world independent of us, in which we humans play only a relatively humble and minor role, and your rejection of the positivist viewpoint, which seeks to do away with all questions associated with this real outer world by declaring them meaningless. Rather, we must be content that much will remain mysterious to us, no matter how much we advance in knowledge. But we always have the consolation that we steadily approach the truth, even if we can never fully attain it.

Regular readers of this blog may already be aware of the project Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science, 1875-1940 , organised by historians of science James Mussell and Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds). On 24 April there will be a workshop, held at the Royal Society in London, specially dedicated to Lodge’s interest in psychical research. Registration is now open.

© SPR.MS35/1752 and translation by Andreas Sommer:
Society for Psychical Research, London

‘Psychology in History’: A New Course at Cambridge University

A few weeks ago I was asked if I would like to teach a four-lectures course on history of psychology in the Natural Sciences Tripos and other programmes. Naturally I accepted, but proposed a focus that fundamentally differs from more conventional ways the history of psychology has been taught. Rather than merely addressing landmarks on the timeline of psychology as it is now taught and practised as a profession, the course will also cover some of the discipline’s more unorthodox aspects which you won’t read about in any history of psychology textbook.

The lectures will be part of Paper 10 (‘Human and Behavioural Sciences’) in Michaelmas term, offered by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, along with a four-week ‘Primary Source’ course by Anna Alexandrova, and eight sessions on ‘History and Philosophy of Cognitive Science’ (to be taught by the holder of a recently advertised lectureship). This is the tentative blurb of my brief course:


Science is widely regarded as the ultimate practical culmination of psychological functions such as cognition, intelligence, memory and creativity, and yet the very status of psychology as a science remains contested. This course explores the emergence of Western psychological concepts and research methods from early modern natural philosophy to the birth of psychological professions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With a focus on historical key debates concerning the nature, functions and capacities of the human mind, it will highlight some of the major metaphysical and political issues that have determined the scope and boundaries not only of modern psychological disciplines, but of science itself.

Since much of what will be discussed is drawing on my own historical questions and research, there will be a certain overlap with issues addressed on this blog. Lectures will cover the following topics:

1. Science and the soul: from Bacon to Skinner (Michaelmas week 5)

2. Varieties of experimental psychology in the nineteenth century. Physiological psychology, hypnotism, and psychical research (week 6)

3. The unconscious mind: Wundt, Janet, Myers, Freud and Jung (week 7)

4. A science of the soul? Psychology, parapsychology and the demarcation problem in historical perspective (week 8)

Should you have any questions about my course you can email me at as2399 AT cam.ac.uk.

Guest Post by Benjamin D. Mitchell, York University: William Thomas Stead and the Brahmins of Science

Ben_MitchellBenjamin David Mitchell is currently completing his PhD in Science and Technology Studies at York University, Canada. His doctoral study is concerned with Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch as developed from his engagement with nineteenth century science and scientific popularization, particularly from Nietzsche’s understanding of physiological aesthetics, self-regulation, vivisection, and the physiology of the will. Benjamin is also interested in the relationship between science, literature and the occult in the nineteenth century. He is the editor of Beyond Borderlands: A Critical Journal of the Weird, Paranormal, and Occult.

Scholars such as Bernard Lightman, Steven Epstein, and Sheila Jasanoff have shown the ways in which knowledge is coproduced through the interactions between experts and amateurs in the history of science. Yet this also highlights the similarities between how authority is contested in the history of science and the occult. The tensions which exists in occult thought between the exoteric knowledge of the many and the esoteric, secret knowledge of the few became even more pronounced with the advent of the age of mass communication. Improvements to the printing press in the nineteenth century and the boom of popular journals meant that audiences that had hitherto remained disparate or inaccessible were now being given a new sense of solidarity and common cause, provided that their interests were successfully maintained by some canny editor. All of these movements came to a dramatic front in the pages of Borderland, edited from 1893 to 1897 by the radical journalist William Thomas Stead (1849-1912).

William T. Stead

William T. Stead

A complicated iconoclast, Stead is often considered to be one of the fathers of modern investigative journalism. He was the first editor of the Review of Reviews to employ female journalists and his series of articles on “The Maiden Tribute of Modern  Babylon” played a major part in the raising of the age of consent in the UK from thirteen to sixteen. He was also a passionate peace activist who was nevertheless friends with the now notorious imperialist Cecil Rhodes. In the 1890s he became interested in spiritualism and allied occult phenomena, and the journal Borderland grew out of these interests. In attempting to “democratize the study of the spook”, he was continuing his larger political project of international unity. As has been noted by Roger Luckhurst in his essay on Stead’s exploration of telepathy: “Through telepathy, Stead could hope to bind the world psychically, technologically, and affectively to the imperial centre, stabilizing it within the flux of modernity”. This description of telepathy could just as easily be made of Borderland in relation to the entire realm of occult thought. Before publishing the first issue, the veteran journalist called on an array of religious, scientific, literary, and public figures to offer their views on the scientific study of occult phenomena. He also echoed his reminder in the Review of Reviews that the general public should “guard against the mistaken assumption that it is only ladies and gentlemen of leisure and culture who can render valuable service” to the periodical.

One of the underlying principles of the journal was that there was nothing inherently unscientific about the study of the occult, “borderlands” of nature. Stead frequently referred to Thomas Henry Huxley’s defence of the role of agnosticism in science and Isaac Newton’s sense of wonder to argue for the importance of leaving no stone unturned in the search for knowledge, especially in unconventional places. However, in part because of this use of his name, Huxley and his student Edwin Ray Lankester harshly criticized Stead’s work, seeing it as part throwback to outdated modes of religious thinking, and part unprofessional train wreck of scientific practice. Yet this emphasis on professionalization, and the ever expanding authority of experts struck Stead as being the worst kind of obscurantism, on par with the religious exclusionisms practiced by the Indian Brahmin caste. This is particularly evident in his dealings with the London based Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

Tensions between Stead’s populist project and the SPR were evident even before the first issue of Borderland reached print. In his early enthusiasm in the Review of Reviews, he offered “to help the Psychical Research Society in their most useful and suggestive inquiries, and […] make an appeal to the half-million readers whose eyes will fall upon this page in all parts of the habitable world”. However, by 1894, instead of emulating the work of the society, he was attempting “to do in a popular and catholic form that which is done in a more or less doctrinaire and exclusive way by the Brahmins of Psychical Research”. By 1895, he went further to observe that “there is about the Psychical Research Society a fatal air of sniffiness [sic], as if they were too superior persons to live on the same planet with ordinary folk”.

While some members of the SPR tentatively supported Stead’s efforts, few were entirely comfortable with them. Max Dessoir, a member of the SPR whom Stead referred to as a “Brahmin of the Brahmins”, protested the folly of the Borderland project. “In the first place,” Dessoir commented, “scientific knowledge in most cases gains absolutely nothing by the co-operation of persons of varying education”. The presumptions of Borderland’s readers, the limitation of their knowledge base, and the radical difference in their powers of observation would render them unable to obtain reliable results “from such heterogeneous material”. Worse still, the study of the occult presented a very real danger to the sanity of those researching it, and was best left to professionals. Dessoir warned Stead that: “You will cultivate a dangerous amateurism, and the spectre you raise you will never be able to lay”.


Despite this, Stead was able to create an interdisciplinary space of mutual respect among some psychic researchers, theosophists, and spiritualists. Reflecting on the work of the journal shortly before its indefinite “hiatus” in 1897, he claimed that his great “experiment in periodical literature” had helped to: “dull the edge of sectarian antipathies, and to convince everyone that the spirit of charity and tolerance is as much needed in the Psychic as in the Ecclesiastical field”. His populist and universal image of public knowledge cut through existing occult and scientific demarcations separating the masses from elite practitioners. While the strategy that he adapted from The Review of Reviews won him few friends among this elite, he did succeed in creating a Borderland community. The Borderland’s circle helped to establish a shared set of practices through Stead’s vision of how the scientific study of the occult should be performed, and the existence of Borderland could be held up as an example of an established community, diffusing accusations of insanity, ignorance, and duplicity.

Stead’s successes were quite remarkable, yet the foundations of his project were constantly under pressure from both scientific and occult professionals with a conflicting view of the relationship between expert and amateur participation in the creation of knowledge. Indiscriminately referring to them as Brahmins, he saw himself as standing at the intersection of “reason” and “mysticism”, refusing to draw a distinction between what he saw as the same kinds of professional arrogance. While Borderland turned out to be as unstable and mercurial as its editor, it serves as an excellent example of the difficulties inherent in any simplistic notion of the dichotomy between exoteric and esoteric knowledge and should serve to sow uncertainty between the borders of the occult and empirical presuppositions of modern science.

In doing so, it leads us back again to the Borderland.

(For those with institutional subscriptions, Borderland can be accessed online at the Victorian Popular Culture database under the heading “Spiritualism, Sensation & Magic”.)

© Benjamin David Mitchell

B.D. Mitchell’s Academia.edu profile: https://yorku.academia.edu/BDMitchell

Francis Bacon Reloaded

Statue of Francis Bacon

Statue of Francis Bacon

Three days ago we celebrated the birthday of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who is commonly considered as a pioneer of modern inductive science. Here are a few quotes from his writings which may have a strange ring to modern ears – particularly to those accustomed to the popular myth of Bacon as a precursor of secularism and opponent of ‘magical thinking’.

“It is an ancient tradition, that blear-eyes infect sound eyes; and that a menstruous woman, looking upon a glass, doth rust it: nay, they have an opinion which seemeth fabulous; that menstruous women going over a field or garden, do corn and herbs good by killing the worms.”

“It is an usual observation, that if the body of one murdered be brought before the murderer, the wounds will bleed afresh. Some do affirm, that the dead body, upon the presence of the murderer, haft opened the eyes; and that there have been such like motions, as well where the parties murdered have been strangled or drowned, as where they have been killed by wounds. It may be, that this participateth of a miracle, by God’s just judgment, who usually bringeth murders to light: but if it be natural, it must be referred to imagination.”

“Where a man conjures, or invocates wicked spirits, it is felony. Where a man doth use or practise any manner of witchcraft, whereby any person shall be killed, wasted, or lamed in his body, it is felony. Where a man practiseth any witchcraft, to discover treasure hid, or to discover stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to impair or hurt any man’s cattle or goods, the second time, having been once before convicted of like offence, it is felony. Where a man useth the craft of multiplication of gold or silver, it is felony.”

“The tying of the point upon the day of marriage, to make men impotent towards their wives, which, as we have formerly touched, is so frequent in Zant and Gascony, if it be natural, must be referred to the imagination of him that tieth the point. I conceive it to have the less affinity with witchcraft, because not peculiar persons only, such as witches are, but any body may do it.”

 “The soul having shaken off her flesh, doth then set up for herself, and contemning things that are under, shews what finger hath enforced her; for the souls of idiots are of the same piece with those of statesmen, but now and then nature is at a fault, and this good guest of ours takes soil in an imperfect body, and so is slackened from shewing her wonders; like an excellent musician, which cannot utter himself upon a defective instrument.”

 “There is a superstition in avoiding superstition; when men think to do best, if they go farthest from the superstition formerly received: therefore care should be had, that, as it fareth in ill purgings, the good be not taken away with the bad, which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.”

 © Andreas Sommer

Guest Post by Alexis Smets: Religious and Spiritual Alchemy

AlexisAlexis Smets took his Masters degrees in Philosophy and in Philosophy of Science at the University of Brussels. He subsequently began his doctoral studies in the History of Philosophy and Science at the Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands). His doctoral research is about the imagery in early modern books of chemistry.

Modern views on alchemy

Mention alchemy and you are likely to trigger a wide range of reactions, from outspoken rejection to enthusiasm. Not all old sciences have this ability, and so it might be worth looking at the case of alchemy a bit more closely.

For most historians of science, it is reasonable to say that like the rest of medieval science, alchemy has been superseded by more recent attempts at knowing nature. This assumption is reflected in the Oxford English Dictionary, where Alchemy is defined as “the medieval forerunner of chemistry”, and where ‘forerunner’ suggests a shift from alchemy to chemistry. While the OED defines Chemistry as the “the branch of science concerned with the properties and interactions of the substances of which matter is composed”, it states about alchemy that it was “concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir.” Arguably, the shift that is suggested by the term ‘forerunner’ refers to the substitution of a research programme focused on knowing the substances of which matter is composed for a programme focused on the preparation of the ‘philosophers’ stone’ (the core ingredient for transmutation into gold). In histories of chemistry aimed at the general reader, this has for a long time been the prevailing narrative.

Another account deserves to be mentioned. It is the account that is more widespread in folklore, esoteric sciences and psychology. There, two words that are crucial in the characterisation of alchemy are ‘spirituality’ and ‘religiosity’, as opposed to a more ‘materialistic’ chemistry. What I have in mind here is Paulo Coelho’s celebrated Bildungsroman The Alchemist (1988), where an alchemist helps the main character Santiago to attain a genuine understanding of his destiny. Also, the noted psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) saw in alchemical texts and images the expression of the archetypes of man’s soul, which corroborates the idea that alchemy is related more to human issues than to the science of nature. And it is fair to say that the idea of a (partly) spiritual and/or religious alchemy has also been expressed in professional history of chemistry.

What we have here, then, is: first, the idea that there was a shift from alchemy to chemistry; second, while historians and scientists gladly look at this shift, reading popular literature and listening to ideas circulating in folklore lets you understand that, albeit ‘prescientific’, the mentality of alchemists was perhaps not a bad one, and that there are reasons to contemplate it with nostalgia. This means that there is something like a general agreement on the existence of a shift, but that the values attributed to it are inverted. In order to question these inverted values, I will challenge the narrative with a special focus on the characterisation of alchemy as religious and, to a lesser extent, as spiritual.

Relationships between alchemy and religion

Many alchemical treatises insisted that it was necessary to be touched by the divine grace in order to achieve the ‘stone’. The expressions ‘stone of the philosophers’ and ‘stone of the wise’ more or less describe the same idea: in order to be a good alchemist, you were required to become an accomplished philosopher or sage. Additionally, some kind of relationship with prophecy was not uncommon, because a number of alchemists maintained that they had received their knowledge of a recipe in dream visions, like some prophets of the Old Testament received revelations in dreams. The stone itself may qualify as religious because some alchemists claimed that it was partly natural and partly supernatural, or divine. While these aspects are usually limited to a handful of sentences in alchemical treatises, some documents are saturated with religious ideas, as are Figures 1 and 2.


Figure 1. ‘Aurora consurgens’ (MS Zürich Zentralibibliothek, Rhenoviensis 172)

Figure 1 is from an alchemical book written in the early 1420s, entitled Aurora consurgens (The Rising Aurora). The image conveys the idea that there is an analogy between the Holy Trinity and the relationships between the three components of the stone (here identified in anthropological terms as ‘body’, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’). The same idea had already been brought in about a century earlier in a treatise De secretis naturae (On the Secrets of Nature), attributed to a then famous Franciscan friar and medical doctor, Arnald of Villanova (ca. 1240–1311). It supported the following analogy: “I say that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are the same thing although they are three. And so it is with our stone: three are one, different [things] are the same [thing].” The first part of this statement is the definition of the Holy Trinity that became a Christian dogma in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople.

The left part of the Aurora consurgens image goes one step further than On the Secrets of Nature in supporting the idea visually with a diagram, which many of its contemporary examiners couldn’t fail to identify as the scutum fidei, or ‘shield of faith’. Its name derives from Christian apologists using it in defence of the Trinitarian dogma in the face of heretics. Its logic was the following: albeit mutually different as ‘persons’, Father, Son and Holy Ghost (placed on the apices of the triangle) are nevertheless one and the same substance in that they are all God (in the middle of the triangle, where median lines are converging). To help the idea gain ground, some apologists added an analogy of the Trinity with hail, rain and snow, which are mutually different, and yet are all water.

Obviously, religion is involved in alchemy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer very deep insights into the distinctive nature of alchemy because during Middle Ages (and Renaissance) religion pervaded pretty much all areas of human activity. Thus the question is not if alchemy was religious, but how. In other words, it is necessary to distinguish between different religious attitudes; to know how contemporary readers understood them; and notably whether or not these attitudes provoked suspicion.

Posing questions this way allows us to see, for instance, that religious language has become predominant in alchemy mostly from the fourteenth century onwards, while previously the reader would primarily find references to wisdom. To understand why religion was injected into alchemical texts during the fourteenth century, it is worth recalling that the period was marked by prophecy; in adopting a religious language, alchemists were therefore in tune with their time.

What’s more, accurate readings of the texts and analyses of their reception shows that religious metaphors and analogies were rarely believed to be more than rhetorical tropes endowed with heuristic, mnemonic or, often, secret functions. The fact that they weren’t taken literally means that hardly anyone believed that the stone, for example, was composed of a soul, a spirit and a body, which were really equal to ours, humans. As a matter of fact, I’m unaware of medieval interpretations of alchemical treatises sustaining that they were meant to serve spiritual edification. I think it is safe to say that they were exclusively read in ‘materialistic’ terms, and this was still the case in the late seventeenth century, when Isaac Newton studied those texts.

Figure 2. Oswald Croll, 'Basilica chymica'

Figure 2. ‘Basilica chymica’ (Frankfurt, 1609). From the copy held at Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Let us now look at Figure 2. It dates from 1609 and is the frontispiece of a treatise of medical alchemy (or ‘chymistry’ to use a more widespread term at that time) entitled Basilica chymica, for Royal Chemistry, a title that says a lot about the ambition of the book. (Note that I will not comment upon the possible semantic difference implied by the use of the two terms ‘alchemy’ and ‘chymistry’ – suffice it to say that during the course of the seventeenth century, they were largely interchangeable.)

At first sight, the image looks like a full-fledged sibling of the Aurora consurgens image. Its scope, however, is quite different. For one thing, it differs because it is not at all about material transmutation. What we have here is a clear example of a philosophical and theological alchemy. The reason is that from the Renaissance onwards, Europe has been plagued with religious wars but also, on the intellectual side, suffused with a reappraisal of philosophy and theology that had been facilitated by a fresh import of Greek texts, first in Italy, then in the rest of Europe. What Oswald Croll (ca. 1563-1609), the author of the Royal Chemistry, and some of his colleagues were doing was attempting a new synthesis of scientific practice, speculative philosophy and theology. They sometimes associated it with spiritual techniques aimed at self-edification, but this was far from being the main goal of their pursuits.

The reference to Croll’s image brings me to an assumption implicit in the idea that alchemy was prescientific, religious or spiritual, and that its efforts were more or less exclusively directed towards the realisation of the stone: the assumption that there was something like ‘alchemy’ which didn’t change over time until it came out of fashion and died. If it is admitted that the Aurora consurgens and Croll’s work can be classified as alchemy, and if it is admitted more generally that alchemy can be historicised and hence cut into distinctive trends and periods, it becomes temerarious to make such broad statements about the discipline.

‘Spiritual’ and ‘religious’ are imprecise categories

I hope that by now it appears more clearly why speaking of religious or spiritual alchemy is illegitimate. First, alchemy has changed through its long existence, and thus what might be distinctive of one period is not necessarily applicable to another. Second, religion and spirituality are imprecise classificatory categories. However, as these characterisations have been prevalent during the course of the twentieth century for talking about alchemy, it is worth saying a word about their origins.

A first reason is that after being perused by seventeenth-century ‘chymists’, starting in the 1720s, medieval and renaissance alchemy was seen as superseded. What happened then is that ‘esoteric societies’ (think of Freemasonry), which developed during the same period, found inspirations in alchemical texts and images. Ironically, like medieval alchemists had altered the original meaning of religious texts, by reinterpreting them in terms of human transformation, such societies altered the meaning of alchemical texts. This is how spiritual alchemy proper was born, and hence it is not a medieval science but a production of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A second reason that facilitated the inclusion of alchemy within religion or spirituality must be ascribed to historians of science, mostly those active in the first half of the twentieth century. They contended that the development of medieval science had been inhibited by religion, both externally through censorship, and internally, due to a religious (sometimes ‘magic’) mentality keen to believe in all sorts of fantasies. By contrast, modern science was supposed to be born in the seventeenth century, when the link with religion had finally become looser and the allegedly correlative development of experimental method had started. In such a contrasting big narrative, experiment and religion became emblematic of the new and old ways, respectively, of making science. The alchemists, who had for diverse reasons welcomed religion in their discipline, were automatically classified as non-modern and prescientific.

Nowadays, such a polarising big narrative, revolving around conflicting mentalities and shifts, is no longer well received among historians, who tend to see historical continuities where their predecessors had seen epochal ruptures. Nevertheless, earlier historians’ views are still extant in popular histories of science and in secondary education, for instance, and are therefore still influential. This explains why the Oxford English Dictionary speaks of alchemy as a forerunner of chemistry instead of saying more neutrally that ‘alchemy’ is the medieval term for ‘chemistry’. This may also contribute to explain why the belief that there was an alchemy that was prescientific and religious or spiritual is still so popular today. (By saying that, let me make clear that I’m not denying that seventeenth-century science made spectacular advances, and that experimental methods played a role in this progress.)

To conclude: first, such tag names and the characterisation of science in terms of big shifts is historically inaccurate. Second, and more importantly, the contrasted view of history has serious implications. As regards our vision of the past, it entertains the myth of a ‘golden age’ (in the perspective of folklore) that, by definition, is no longer extant. Interestingly, a similar belief was very successful among alchemists, who believed that the ancients possessed the prisca sapientia (sacred/antique wisdom). It is thus no little irony that modern aficionados of such myths, precisely by believing in them, are perhaps less remote from the past than they may believe. As regards our vision of the present, it relies on the assumption that one key feature of modern science is that the boundaries between the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘religious’ and enquiries about nature are no longer permeable, which may tempt us into abstaining from questioning our own ways to do science (and to possibly inject diverse human/cultural data in it).

In turn, a close study of alchemy (and things of the past more generally) is much more than gaining knowledge thereof. Whatever the contents of historical studies and their resulting stories – either structured by clashes, revolutions and the characterisation of incommensurable worldviews, or told in terms of historical continuities –, in any case they contribute to reshaping the image that we have of the present time.

Select Bibliography

Calvet, Antoine. ‘Le De secretis naturae du pseudo-Arnaud de Villeneuve.’ Chrysopoeia 6 (199799): 155206.

Calvet, Antoine. Les Œuvres alchimiques attribuées à Arnaud de Villeneuve: Grand Œuvre, médecine et prophétie au Moyen-Âge. Paris: S.É.H.A.-ARCHÈ, 2011.

Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or, The Hunting of the Greene Lyon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Hannaway, Owen. The Chemists and the Word: The Didactic Origins of Chemistry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Kahn, Didier. Alchimie et Paracelsisme en France à la fin de la Renaissance (1567–1625). Geneva: Droz, 2007.

Moran, Bruce T. Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy: Separating Chemical Cultures with Polemical Fire. Sagamore Beach, MA: Watson Publishing International, 2007.

Newman, William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Newman, William R., and Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake.’ Early Science and Medicine 3 (1998): 3265.

Obrist, Barbara. Les Débuts de l’imagerie alchimique (XIVe–XVe siècles). Paris: Le Sycomore, 1982.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

© Alexis Smets

Spirits, Science and the Mind: The Journal ‘Psychische Studien’ (1874-1925)


1874 is a significant year in the history of psychology. Wilhelm Wundt published the first edition of Outlines of Physiological Psychology, and Franz Brentano issued his epistemological study, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Another event in the same year is usually passed over by chronologists of the mind sciences: The foundation of Psychische Studien (Psychical Studies), a journal “especially dedicated to the investigation of the little known phenomena of mental life”.

A brief historical contextualisation of the journal’s objectives and contents will suffice to drive home one point ‘Forbidden Histories’ has been created to emphasise: That to neglect historical developments taking place outside the narrow limits of scientific professionalism is to forfeit golden opportunities to revisit ingrained habits in the writing of history.

Financed by the Russian Councillor of the State, Alexandr Nikolayevich Aksakov (a cousin by marriage of the famous chemist Alexandr Butlerov), and edited by the ex-theologian Gregor Konstantin Wittig, the creation of Psychische Studien in Leipzig was a response to Wundt’s project of establishing German experimental psychology on a physiological foundation. Aksakov accordingly inaugurated the journal in January 1874 by writing:

“In our time, where physiological research is pursued with particular zeal, in contrast psychological research is not quite keeping pace. Not infrequently, the latter is only pursued to prove that all psychical phenomena can be reduced to material ones. According to this view, psychology would no longer have the right to exist as a science independent of physiology.”


Alexandr N. Aksakov

Though Wundt cannot actually be called a physiological reductionist, similar concerns were voiced by Brentano and many others beyond the German-language context. But the route of psychological research suggested by Aksakov and Wittig to counterbalance psychology’s eclipse by physiology was not popular with Brentano and other critics of physiological psychology. For the types of psychological phenomena Aksakov and his collaborators were interested in, and which they felt were dismissed and pathologised by official science and medicine on dogmatic rather than empirical grounds, thoroughly went against the enlightened grain of standard epistemologies of late-nineteenth century intellectual mainstream culture:

  • Psychological phenomena occurring in the waking state, such as illusions, hallucinations, ‘second sight’, premonition and intuition.
  • Psychological phenomena occurring in altered states of consciousness: normal sleep (including dreams and visions) and abnormal sleep (including natural and induced somnambulism, hypnotism, ecstasy and other phenomena of animal magnetism or mesmerism).
  • Physical phenomena occurring in waking and altered states alike, particularly the hotly debated phenomena of spiritualism (movements of objects, levitations, materialisations, etc.).

Jung_1902_MutzeAs I will argue at length in my forthcoming book, mirrored by developments particularly in England, Aksakov’s prospectus signifies the beginning formation of a psychological research programme whose methodological tenets came to be adopted by the ‘founders’ of professionalised psychology in the US and Switzerland, i.e. William James and Théodore Flournoy. This was more than a decade before Carl Gustav Jung’s MD thesis, On the Psychology and Pathology of so-called Occult Phenomena (1902), which partly implemented this alternative programme of psychological investigation. Jung’s MD thesis was printed, incidentally, by Oswald Mutze, the publisher who also produced Psychische Studien. (Another book of significance for historians of psychology published by Mutze is Daniel P. Schreber’s journal recording his mental disturbances, which was famously appropriated by Sigmund Freud, and later translated as Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.)

SchreberBut Psychische Studien is of interest not only for historians of German psychology, for it provides a window into understudied epistemological positions of late-nineteenth scientists and philosophers that have fallen through the wide meshes of traditional historiographical generalisations. For example, an analysis of the journal’s early contents challenges persisting modern historical interpretations of certain unorthodox scientific activities in terms of a simplistic science-versus-religion narrative. After all, Aksakov’s transference of activity to Germany occurred after his study of mediums got him into trouble with the Russian Orthodox Church. And though reliable information about Wittig is now hard to come by, it’s a fair guess that his excommunication by the Catholic Church was not entirely incidental to his advocacy of a radical empirical approach to spiritualism.

Moreover, while the journal is still sometimes referred to as a spiritualist magazine, at least under the editorship of Wittig it was, on the contrary, fairly pluralistic in outlook. For example, Aksakov was convinced that a residue of mediumistic phenomena required the assumption of spirits of the dead trying to communicate with the living, while Wittig advocated the competing view that even the most extraordinary phenomena of spiritualism could be explained through transcendental capacities originating in the unconscious minds of the living.

Particularly during its first decade, the journal functioned as a conduit for reports of investigations in spiritualism (and resulting controversies) from abroad, by eminent intellectuals and scientists such as William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Augustus de Morgan in England, and the zoologist Nicolai P. Vagner and Aksakov’s cousin Butlerov in Russia. But it also documents the advocacy of unorthodox science by eminent German-language authors, such as Schopenhauer-editor Julius Frauenstädt, the Swiss zoologist and anthropologist Maximilian Perty, the physicists Wilhelm Weber, Wilhelm Scheibner and Wundt’s revered mentor, Gustav Theodor Fechner, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s son, the philosopher Immanuel Hermann Fichte.

The younger Fichte’s account of his observations in spiritualism was posthumously published in Psychische Studien in 1879, the year when Wundt founded the first German laboratory of physiological psychology in Leipzig. 1879, of course, also saw Wundt’s fervent attack on the astrophysicist Karl Johann Friedrich Zöllner for publishing the results of his experiments in spiritualism. The journal closely documents the resulting public controversy featuring Wundt as plaintiff accusing Zöllner, Weber, Scheibner and Fechner of threatening to overthrow the very foundations of German science and religion. Providing a wealth of details and cross-references not covered in standard narratives of the Wundt-Zöllner episode, the journal is an important source overlooked by some historians, who still tend to portray it in simplistic terms of the victory of ‘science’ over ‘superstition’.

Not least, by showing that unorthodox scientific activities were not nearly as exceptional (or reactionary) as popular standard accounts would have it, along with subsequent similar periodicals in Germany and beyond, the example of Psychische Studien calls into question traditional claims of a ‘disenchantment of science’, which has been supposed to characterise modernity more than any other feature. And when the journal was renamed to Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie in 1926, it further documented the continuity of preoccupations with the ‘occult’ in renowned scientists, medics and philosophers: Its editorial board and authors included psychiatrists and psychologists such as Eugen Bleuler, Enrico Morselli and Gardner Murphy, physicists like Hans Thirring, and even a member of the Vienna Circle, i.e. the mathematician Hans Hahn.


Along with a number of related journals and magazines of psychical research and related areas published in German, Psychische Studien and its successor Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie can be read and downloaded free of charge on the website of University Library Freiburg.

© Andreas Sommer

Emil du Bois-Reymond: Science, Progress and Superstition. An Interview with Gabriel Finkelstein

finkelsteinGabriel Finkelstein is Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver, where he teaches courses on Modern Germany, Modern Europe, History of Science, and History of Exploration. He has a degree in physics from Amherst College and a doctorate in history from Princeton University. He recently published a biography of the German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896).

AS: In the late 1840s, du Bois-Reymond famously ‘conspired’ with Hermann Helmholtz, Ernst Brücke and Carl Ludwig to battle the vitalism of their teacher, Johannes Müller, by strictly adhering to a reductionist methodology. What was at stake for these young men?

GF: The way these four friends wrote about it, vitalism was a superstition that mired Germany in the past. As liberal members of the educated elite, they saw science as the engine of progress, and they resented any approach to it that they considered backward.

Two points are worth mentioning in this context: First, a good deal of their ideology came from their class’s anticlericalism, and in particular, the anti-Catholic version of anticlericalism. If you consider the four friends revolutionaries, they act a lot like their counterparts in France—for both groups, the Church was a greater threat than the State. Müller was Catholic, after all. As Nick Jardine has perceptively noted in his article “The Mantle of Müller and the Ghost of Goethe”, du Bois-Reymond paints his teacher as the Erasmus of biology, implying that he is the Luther.

Second, many of the scientific problems Müller’s students worked on were Romantic in inspiration. Sensory physiology can be considered applied epistemology, which was a central concern of the Romantics. Helmholtz, Brücke, and du Bois-Reymond broke with Müller in their philosophy of science, but they continued to study the same problems that originally inspired him. (Ludwig is another story, since he didn’t train in Berlin.)

AS: Helmholtz, Brücke, Ludwig and du Bois-Reymond became the doyens of German physiology, and they trained a whole new generation of life scientists, not only in Germany. With other leading physiologists such as Claude Bernard still advocating vitalist theories, how did they ensure that their reductionism would prevail in modern physiological curricula?


Emil du Bois-Reymond

GF: The simplest answer is through their teaching. Helmholtz didn’t train many students in Königsberg, Bonn, and Heidelberg, but the other three physiologists all exerted considerable influence on medical education, particularly after 1861, when du Bois-Reymond convinced the Prussian Minister of Education to replace the Tentamen philosophicum, a qualifying examination oriented toward natural history, with the Tentamen physicum, an examination oriented more toward experimental sciences.

In itself this doesn’t mean that the physicalist outlook had to prevail, but considering that Helmholtz, Brücke, Ludwig, and du Bois-Reymond examined thousands of candidates for the M.D., it goes a long way toward explaining a shift toward reductionism among physicians. As for the discipline of physiology proper, du Bois-Reymond, Liebig, and Brücke dominated the German-speaking lands from their institutes in Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna, just as Bernard came to dominate physiology in France from his position in Paris.

AS: In 1878, du Bois-Reymond wrote:

“In the place of miracle, natural science put law. Like fading from the light of dawn, spirits and ghosts faded away from her. She broke the reign of old sacred lie. She extinguished the witches’ and heretics’ burning stakes. She put the blade into the hand of historical criticism.”

This was shortly after eminent Leipzig physical scientists such as Johann Friedrich Zöllner, Wilhelm Weber and Gustav Theodor Fechner joined the ranks of foreign colleagues like William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Alexandr Butlerov by conducting experiments in spiritualism. Was the timing accidental?

GF: I don’t think so. Du Bois-Reymond had already railed against table-rapping in the 1850s, but this passage hints at four developments in 1878: Bismarck’s break with the Liberals in favour of the Catholic Centre, Adolf Stöcker’s effort to lure workers in Berlin to his anti-Semitic party, an international resurgence of spiritualism, and Charcot’s experiments in hypnotism. I dealt with the first three topics in my book, so I won’t say more about them here.

Regarding the last topic, in 1890 the Standard quoted du Bois-Reymond’s views of hypnotism:

“My position toward both is very simple. Any physical influence of one person over another is out of the question. The effect is due solely to the impression made on the person hypnotised, or subjected to ‘suggestion.’ The special power and gift of hypnotising can consist only in the choice of suitable weak-willed and weak-minded subjects, and in impressing them with a belief in the hypnotiser’s superiority—no matter whether this be done in good faith, or with a consciousness that the role of a higher and more powerful being is merely assumed.

“The condition of the hypnotised, or of the persons inspired by ‘suggestion’ with certain ideas and motives, and impelled to certain actions, is a subject for the mad doctor. The compulsion which is alleged to take place in the process, if there really be any, is a form of insanity. It will often be difficult to draw the line between these aberrations and other disturbances of the thinking faculty, the consciousness, and the conscience.”

This response was typical of du Bois-Reymond: witty, caustic, and direct.

AS: Du Bois-Reymond’s quote on spirits and ghosts might pass as the mantra of nineteenth-century naturalism and the modern popular standard historiography of science and the ‘miraculous’. Recent scholarship has fundamentally challenged triumphalist accounts of progress, which lump together as ‘superstition’ diverse traditions and ideas deviating from enlightened-rationalist standard epistemologies. Why do you think teleological histories of science are still so popular?

GF: Let me offer a mild challenge of my own. In my experience, the historical revisions to which you refer are often just as teleological as the triumphalist accounts they want to replace. Perhaps a more general criticism might be that the real weakness of historical revisions is that they stress advocacy over understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem recognizing present concerns, and I don’t oppose taking sides in a debate. What bothers me is the cycle of one-upmanship in historical revisions—the attitude of “we now know.” There’s no winning this game. Each generation condescends to its predecessors and is condemned to be condescended to in turn.

The attitudes of the four friends toward biological reduction did indeed constitute a conspiracy. But I see a danger in interpreting history in these terms. What if, as Daan Wegener has argued, the organic physicists weren’t primarily motivated by self-interest, but rather meant exactly what they said? And even more unsettling, what if they understood more about the limitations of biological reduction (i.e., that it was a methodology, not an ontology, and that it necessarily ignored certain topics) than we think they did? Then it isn’t we who unmask their motives so much as they who unmask ours.

Du Bois-Reymond began as a triumphalist. He thought that rationality would dispel ignorance, and that science, as the clearest expression of rationality, would enlighten humanity. Over the course of his life he came to acknowledge the shortcomings of this belief. He doubted the record of progress in politics and morality, and even more important, he doubted that science could ever understand life—not life in the sense of activity to be studied, but rather life in the sense of experience to be felt.

Finkelstein_bookDu Bois-Reymond was indeed responsible for one of the standard historiographies of science—in fact, History of Science Society founder George Sarton cribbed his definition of science as progress from du Bois-Reymond’s 1877 address on “Civilization and Science.” But du Bois-Reymond was also responsible for questioning the standard historiography of science. In that same address he said that the instrumentality of science would subsume all other values, including the ones that made the world decent and beautiful. This was hardly a triumphalist vision.

Teleological histories remain popular because they are often taken for the only narratives that have any point. Du Bois-Reymond didn’t believe that things had to have a point for them to matter. To me his attitude seems wise.

© Gabriel Finkelstein & Andreas Sommer

Gabriel Finkelstein’s Academia.edu profile.

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