Poll: Help me Decide on a Working Title for my Book

Have your say in my choice of a working title for a book I’m currently working on. Based on my Wellcome-Trust funded PhD work and utilising a wide range of hitherto unexploited primary sources, it has the following objectives:

The book will respond to a current trend of historical interest in nineteenth-century animal magnetism, spiritualism and the empirical investigation of reported ‘occult’ phenomena, psychical research. While previous studies have mostly been pursued by general and cultural historians, and scholars in religious and gender studies, there has been a curious paucity of interest by historians of the sciences and medicine. This is in striking contrast to the wealth of available history of science and medicine literature on early modern natural philosophy and its entanglements with astrology, alchemy, Renaissance magic, biblical prophecy, eschatology, witchcraft and other domains of activity and belief we moderns were typically raised to view as inherently ‘irrational’, ‘unscientific’ and even constituting the very ‘opposite’ of science.

Redressing this lacuna, this study documents and takes as its starting point divisions and contradicting claims in historical scholarship regarding links between psychical research and professionalised psychology, which emerged simultaneously in the late nineteenth century. Grounded in a juxtaposition of conflicting attitudes to psychical research in the men commonly credited as the ‘founders’ of the modern psychological profession, Wilhelm Wundt in Germany and William James in the US, the study captures a wide range of positions regarding psychical research among early leading representatives of psychology in Europe and America. Employing an international perspective, the book will sketch the brief but historically significant rise of psychical research as a branch of experimental psychology and analyse the context of its demise.

By exploring the international network of psychical researchers whom James was an active member of, the book will argue for the centrality of studies in telepathy, hypnotism and subliminal cognition by founding members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in the ideas of James as well as in those of the instigator of professionalised psychology in Switzerland, Théodore Flournoy. Further extending the analysis to the reception of English psychical research as a strand of experimental psychology in Germany and France, and discussions of studies in telepathy and mediumship at the International Congresses of Experimental Psychology between 1889 and 1909, the study demonstrates that it was often difficult to draw a clear-cut distinction between psychical research and experimental psychology in terms of representatives, research questions and empirical findings.

A central argument is that the repudiation of psychical research by Wundt and other representatives and popularisers of professionalised psychology instrumentalised common worries of social, religious and moral corollaries of ‘superstition’, ‘enthusiasm’ and similar shorthands for excessive belief and epistemic deviance. Rather than specifically addressing historians of psychology, this study therefore hopes to throw into sharp relief dominant metaphysical and political sensibilities that have provided some of the very axioms of modern standard historiographies of science and medicine.

Identifying grave historiographical artefacts that have powerfully shaped modern scientific identities, the book further hopes to stimulate wider historical interest in hitherto understudied epistemological positions held by late-nineteenth century representatives of the human sciences, which fundamentally challenged traditional notions of scientific naturalism.

At present, I haven’t decided upon a working title yet. You can help me by submitting your preference for one of the four candidates below, or suggest an altogether different title.

Thank you for your input!

Andreas Sommer

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About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

2 responses to “Poll: Help me Decide on a Working Title for my Book

  • Alan Borky

    I happen to think what you’re doing here mate’s very important so I’d be much happier with your work’s chances of reaching a much deserved wider audience if you combined a more catchy vox populi style main title like The Daemon Haunted Light [a la Carl Sagan & Socrates of course] with a more dry explanatory subtitle like The Decision to Denigrate Psychical & Occult Research to Strengthen Psychology’s Claims to Be Science.

  • Mike Lynch

    I think the Dreyfus one is an inspired choice. Most people know about the Dreyfus case and to me gives a great lead in to what you are writing about. In my opinion it makes an eye catching title.

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