Temple Medicine, Oracles and the Making of Modernity: The Ancient Greek Occult in Anthropology and Psychology

Among the key figures in the hidden history of the human sciences are the Munich philosopher Carl du Prel (1839-1899) and the Cambridge classicist and psychologist Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901). Eclipsed by psychoanalysis, Jungian analytical psychology and other depth psychologies throughout the twentieth century, the contemporary significance and reception of these writers was considerable.

A modern depiction of ancient temple medicine © Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

A modern depiction of ancient temple medicine
© Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

Frustrated with the narrow focus of German experimental psychology on the physiology of perception in the everyday waking self, Carl du Prel formulated a radical research programme for the study of altered states of consciousness and was arguably the most popular German-language theorist of the unconscious mind immediately preceding Freud. Revered by artists such as Rilke and Kandinsky, he was read by psychologists like William James, Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud, who utilised du Prel’s studies of dreams and referred to him as “that brilliant mystic” (Freud, 1914, p. 48n).

In England, Frederic Myers took up du Prel’s research programme and advanced it into a branch of British psychological experimentation, which he represented at the first four International Congresses of Psychology. Myers’s friends and collaborators Théodore Flournoy (the instigator of professionalized psychology in Switzerland) and William James adopted Myers’s programme for an experimental psychology of the unconscious, and James considered its instigation as “the most important step forward that has occurred in psychology” (James, 1902, p. 233).

One aspect I’d love to investigate more fully at some point is the treatment of ancient Greek oracles, temple medicine and the ‘daemon of Socrates’ in the theories of du Prel and Myers. Particularly du Prel’s writings are replete with references to certain aspects of ancient Greco-Roman medicine and oracle culture, which he juxtaposed with self-diagnostic dreams, various phenomena of mesmerism, medical hypnotism, trance mediumship and other areas more or less outlawed by nineteenth-century professional psychologists, culminating in his study Die Mystik der alten Griechen (The Mysticism of the Ancient Greeks, 1888) and later articles.

duPrel_1888In his writings on Greek medicine, for example, du Prel reconstructed the practice of temple sleep (or ‘incubatio’, most often associated with the healing god Asclepius), which denoted the widespread ancient practice of patients spending nights in temples to receive healing and medical advice from divine beings in their dreams. Du Prel, who followed Schopenhauer’s speculations on links between biological instinct and ostensible instances of clairvoyance in mesmerism, believed that successful cures were the result of the patient’s innate knowledge of their organism and instinctive clairvoyant identifications of remedies. Hence, for du Prel entities appearing in curative dreams were fragments of the patient’s unconscious self, performing dramatized monologues between hidden layers of the mind and its conscious self.

Extending his transcendental psychology of the unconscious to the ‘daemon of Socrates’ (a distinct voice the Greek philosopher claimed to hear him counsel and warn in times of crisis), du Prel argued that the phenomenology of temple sleep and oracle culture mirrored certain instances of benign cases of ‘double consciousness’ in mesmerism, hypnotism and spiritualism, and he appealed to psychologists and anthropologists to engage in comparative studies of Greco-Roman medicine and modern hypnotism.

Painting of the Delphic Oracle, c. 440-430 BCE. From the Collection of Joan Cadden.

While Myers was less concerned with temple medicine, he also wrote on oracles and the ‘daemon of Socrates’. In 1880 he set the stage for his subliminal psychology in a comprehensive study of oracles. Criticizing excessive retroactive transformations of Greek oracle traditions into corrupt pagan priesthoods in the wake of anti-clericalism by Enlightenment writers like Bernard de Fontenelle, Myers indirectly took issue with contemporary anthropological theories of animism and fetishism as explanations for modern beliefs in the ‘occult’ as well, which were strongly informed by Enlightenment notions such as those propounded by de Fontenelle.


First page of Frederic Myers’s essay on the Daemon of Socrates (1889).

Later, Myers’s essay on the ‘daemon of Socrates’ formed part of an important series of essays on his theory of the ‘subliminal self’, in which he interpreted and compared the psychology of the Socratic daemon and the voices of Jeanne D’Arc as recorded in historical documents. Like du Prel, Myers believed that the psychology of Greco-Roman oracle traditions, the Socratic daemon, the voices of Jeanne D’Arc and other historical examples of apparently benign cases of secondary selves sometimes ostensibly displaying clairvoyance and telepathy were – as far as this was possible to reconstruct – phenomenologically continuous with psychodynamics of dreams, hypnotism, automatic writing and trance mediumship.

While du Prel’s and Myers’s integrative approach was adopted by representatives of professionalized psychology such as James and Flournoy, other pioneers of the psychological profession had little sympathy for such radical ideas. Psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt, Joseph Jastrow and G. Stanley Hall vehemently opposed them in public campaigns to shield the fledgling psychological profession from unwanted associations with ‘superstition’ and ideas deviating from enlightened norms of belief – an imperative that still shapes the way many psychologists write the history of their discipline.

A major weapon in the battle for the territories of nascent scientific psychology was the reliance on fetishism, animism and related anthropological concepts as formulated by Edward B. Tylor and Adolf Bastian. Rather than offering calm methodological criticisms of the work of Myers, James and other elite psychical researchers, psychologists like Wundt, Jastrow and Hall used these anthropological notions, along with pathological interpretations of altered states of consciousness, to explain and sweepingly declare widespread scientific interest in the phenomena of mesmerism and spiritualism as a dangerous survival of psychological traits from past stages of human development.

But these anthropological standard theories were themselves founded on comparative deductions, which programmatically assumed an intrinsically morbid and regressive kinship of ancient oracles with shamanic practices in contemporary indigenous peoples and spirit mediumship alike. And although they captured and maintained widespread nineteenth-century fears about the supposed dangers of movements such as animal magnetism and spiritualism (and serious interest in these areas by often eminent intellectuals), they were not uncontested among anthropologists.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

Andrew Lang (1844-1912).

For example, though he was dismissive of some of the more controversial phenomena investigated by du Prel, Myers, James and Flournoy, the Scottish folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang relied on Myers’s experimental studies in automatic writing, hypnotism and other techniques apparently inducing secondary selves in mentally healthy subjects, to likewise explain historical testimony regarding the ‘voices of Jean D’Arc’ on the one hand, and not least to critique the Tylorian school of thought, a project that culminated in Lang’s study The Making of Religion and other works.

Hence, unorthodox writers like du Prel, Myers and Lang were important though nowadays muted voices counterbalancing authors like Tylor, Bastian and Wundt, whose modernist appropriations of the past were steered by standards of rationalistic nineteenth century intellectual mainstream culture, which in turn was marked by an almost obsessive fear of the occult.

Select Bibliography

Bastian, A. (1886). Die Seele indischer und hellenischer Philosophie in den Gespenstern moderner Geisterseherei. Berlin: Weidmann.

de Fontenelle, B. l. B. (1753). The History of Oracles, in Two Dissertations. Glasgow: R. Urie. Original French publication in 1687.

Dodds, E. R. (1951). The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press.

du Prel, C. (1887). Der Dämon des Sokrates. Sphinx, 4, 217-227, 329-335, 391-400.

du Prel, C. (1888). Die Mystik der alten Griechen. Leipzig: Günther.

du Prel, C. (1890). Moderner Tempelschlaf. Sphinx, 9, 1-6, 105-111.

Edelstein, E. J., & Edelstein, L. (1998). Asclepius. Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (Second ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, S. (1914). Die Traumdeutung (fourth enlarged ed.). Leipzig: Deuticke.

James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Lang, A. (1895). The voices of Jeanne D’Arc. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 11, 198-212.

Lang, A. (1909). The Making of Religion (third ed.). London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Myers, F. W. H. (1880). Greek oracles. In E. Abbott (Ed.), Hellenica. A Collection of Essays on Greek Poetry, Philosophy, History and Religion (pp. 425-492). London: Rivingtons.

Myers, F. W. H. (1889). Automatic writing. – IV. – The dæmon of Socrates. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 5, 522-547.

Nutton, V. (2004). Ancient Medicine. London: Routledge.

Sommer, A. (2013a). Crossing the Boundaries of Mind and Body. Psychical Research and the Origins of Modern Psychology. PhD thesis, UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, University College London.

Sommer, A. (2013b). Normalizing the supernormal: The formation of the “Gesellschaft für Psychologische Forschung” (“Society for Psychological Research”), c. 1886-1890. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 49, 18-44 [open access PDF].

Tylor, E. B. (1869). On the survival of savage thought in modern civilization. Notices of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 5, 522-538.

Tylor, E. B. (1891). Primitive Culture (2 vols.) (third revised ed.). London: Murray.

© Andreas Sommer

Do you believe in magic?


Excellent comments from the alter ego of the fell HISTSCI_HULK about a recent Vox.com post regarding some early modern scientific icons and ‘magic':

Originally posted on The Renaissance Mathematicus:

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general…

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The Mathematician and the World Beyond: The Visions of Girolamo Cardano. Guest Post by Andrew Manns

Andrew-Manns-Forbidden-HistoriesAndrew Manns is a doctoral student at the Warburg Institute. His research focuses on the psychological and political theories of Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella. As the founding editor of thethinkersgarden.com and a contributor to Abraxas Journal, Andrew has written on a number of topics in the history of religion, science, and magic.

Girolamo Cardano. Line engraving by C. Ammon the younger, 1652

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) has been called a genius and a madman. A doctor, astrologer, and mathematician who had a knack for both fascinating and irritating his peers, Cardano chronicled his adventures and thoughts in his De Vita Propria Liber [Book on His Own Life] , which was published posthumously in 1643. Even his dreams hinted at his future celebrity. In one of his dreams he pictured himself amidst a multitude of people who were all marching along a mountainside to ‘Death’. Eager to evade the reaping, Cardano somehow found a path to a paradisal plain where he was greeted by a handsome youth and welcomed to a solitary villa. Convinced of his ‘higher than thou’ calling, Cardano declared:

 “From this vision I read a manifest prophecy, pointing to the immortality of my name, to my arduous and neverending labours, to my imprisonment, to the overwhelming fear and sadness of my life.” (Cardano, 2002, p. 140)

Just as he’d forseen, Cardano’s career veered on the tragic and picaresque, with plenty of bickering and swashbuckling to go around. Some of his more infamous misadventures include dueling over gambling debts (Cardano, 2002, pp. 92-93), piecing together a horoscope for Jesus Christ (Shucker, 1982, pp. 53-90), and healing more than a hundred men, “given up as hopeless at Milan, Bologna and Rome” (Cardano, 2002, p. 158). For him, everything was alive and everyone had something to tell, regardless of whether they were living, dead, or somewhere in-between. Interestingly, many of these ‘visitations’ manifested either as auditory or visual apparitions in the late hours of the night or wee hours of the morning when Cardano was suddenly aroused by feelings of foreboding, sadness, or curiosity.

Cardano’s abilities to interpret his experiences of the ‘anomalous’ were crucial to his understanding of himself and often served to help him address and solve a number of personal issues. Additionally he seemed to be unsure of whether they were caused by a type of mental mechanism or by something from another world. Much like other creatives in history, such as Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, and Carl Jung, Cardano’s visions were coincidental with his mental exhaustion and anxiety.

William Blake, The Sun At Its Eastern Gate, 1820

William Blake, The Sun At Its Eastern Gate, 1820

Much of the querulous polymath’s extraordinary sensations of altered consciousness also resemble the phenomena reported during experiences of hypnagogia and hypnopompia. While Hypnagogia is the name given to the onset of sleep, Hypnopompia refers to the period leading out of sleep. Scientific literature categorizes both states by the person’s high susceptibility to vivid hallucinations. Witness accounts describe the experiences as waking dreams where phantoms, strange smells, and frightening noises occur at random (Blom, 2009, pp. 253-254). Extraordinary for the person experiencing them, H & H, are also often the usual culprits for reports of paranormal activity (cf. Sherwood, 2002).

Cardano’s descriptions of his experiences are very similar to those found in documented cases of H&H. In one account, he described being troubled by heart palpitations and a vibrating bed as he was laying down (Cardano, 2002 p. 168). In another example, Cardano wrote that throughout his life he would wake up abruptly and see that his room was basked in a ghostly luminosity (Cardano, 2002, p. 170). In still another example, Cardano woke up in the early morning to disembodied knocking noises in the house (Cardano, 2002, p. 180). Perhaps the most amazing vision happened when he glimpsed an apparition of a farmer in his doorway. The entity stared back at the astonished doctor, whispered a mysterious phrase, then disappeared:

“I kept looking at him intensely, for many reasons; and he, thereupon, when he was almost at the threshold of the door uttered these words: Te sin casa; and having spoken, he vanished” (Cardano, 2002, p. 182).

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel, 1661.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel, 1661.

Although he was keen on attributing his visions to ministrations from his tutelary spirit, Cardano did not shy away from speculating that they might be produced from his imagination (Cardano, 2002, p. 180). His reservations however did not stop him from constantly interpreting the phenomena as signifiers of his various social and domestic troubles (such as the murder of his son) (Cardano, 2002, pp.166-173). In this way, Cardano found meaning in the unexplainable. He was so confident in his own abilities to interpret mysteries that he even came up with a temporary solution to his angst from one of his dreams. In the dream a voice instructed him to put an emerald in his mouth whenever he felt upset. Upon awakening, Cardano was surprised to find out that the remedy worked (Cardano, 2002, pp.181-182).

Finally there is the issue of what Cardano believed to be his unique heredity and personality. His father, Fazio Cardano, often spoke to him about his personal experiences within the spirit world. At one point, Fazio considered summoning his demon to heal his ailing son (Cardano, 2002, p. 11). Entirely convinced of the reality of his invisible friends, Fazio claimed that he first got acquainted with spirits when he was just a child (Giglioni, 2010 pp. 463-466). Thus Cardano’s acceptance of and understanding of spirits may have been affected by his father’s enthusiastic folk pneumatology.

Cardano’s idea of himself was also constructed around the archetype of the melancholic. According to many Renaissance thinkers, people who had melancholic temperaments were victims to extremes in social and private behaviour. Melancholics easily fell into disastrous relationships and other unfortunate circumstances. However, they were also highly inspired by planetary and astral influences and, like poets and prophets, could be regularly ‘contacted’ by otherworldly intelligences. Cardano was born with a melancholic horoscope. Bathed in a vat of warm wine as a newborn, Cardano was destined to be “harpocratic”, or gifted with an “intense and instinctive desire to prophesy” (Cardano, 2002, p. 6).

Cardano’s temperament and his discussions with his father may have had some influence on his oracular moments. With these facts and the descriptions of H&H in mind, it is tempting to explain his experiences with a contemporary point of view. Nevertheless one cannot deny that Cardano’s visions forged his identity and his perception of his prodigious place in the cosmos.


Blom, Jan Dirk (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. New York: Springer.

Cardano, Girolamo (2002). Book of my Life (trans. Jean Stoner). New York: New York Review of Books.

Giglioni, Guido (2010). Fazio and His Demons: Girolamo Cardano on the Art of Storytelling and the Science of Witnessing. Bruniana & Campanelliana, XVI (2). Rome: Fabrizio Serra.

Sherwood, Simon J. (2002). Relationship between the hypnagogic/hypnopompic states and reports of anomalous experiences. Journal of Parapsychology, 66, 127-150,

Shucker, Wayne (1982). Renaissance Curiosa. Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies.

© Andrew Manns

Free Access to Studies in History and Philosophy of Science C Special Section, “Psychical Research in the History of Science and Medicine”

SHPSC_coverI’m delighted to announce that the special section on psychical research, which I had the pleasure of guest-editing for Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, is now available in its final version for download on the journal website. I’m particularly pleased there is free access to each article till 7th December 2014. To read and download the papers free of charge, please use the individual links provided below; otherwise articles will be behind the usual paywall (with the exception of Katy Price’s paper, which will stay openly available permanently), and you will need to access them via a university library or similar institution with a subscription to the journal.



Sommer, A. (2014). Psychical research in the history and philosophy of science. An introduction and review. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 38-45.

Abstract: As 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.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o4tTwy29eq


 Noakes, R. (2014). Haunted thoughts of the careful experimentalist: Psychical research and the troubles of experimental physics. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 46-56.

Abstract: This paper analyses the relationship between the ‘elusive’ science of psychical research and experimental physics in the period approximately, 1870–1930. Most studies of the relationship between psychical research and the established sciences have examined the ways in which psychical researchers used theories in the established sciences to give greater plausibility to their interpretations of such puzzling phenomena as telepathy, telekinesis and ectoplasm. A smaller literature has examined the use of laboratory instruments to produce scientific evidence for these phenomena. This paper argues that the cultures of experiment in the established science of physics could matter to psychical research in a different way: it suggests that experience of capricious effects, recalcitrant instruments and other problems of the physical laboratory made British physicists especially sympathetic towards the difficulties of the spiritualistic séance and other sites of psychical enquiry. In the wake of widely-reported claims that the mediums they had investigated had been exposed as frauds, these scientific practitioners were eventually persuaded by the merits of an older argument that human psychic subjects could not be treated like laboratory hardware. However, well into the twentieth century, they maintained that experimental physics had important lessons for psychical researchers.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o4tTwy29Y-


Delorme, S. (2014). Physiology or psychic powers? William Carpenter and the debate over spiritualism in Victorian Britain. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 57-66.

Abstract: 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.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o4tTwy29ZB


Kidd, I. J. (2014). Was Sir William Crookes epistemically virtuous? Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 67-74.

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to use Sir William Crookes’ researches into psychical phenomena as a sustained case study of the role of epistemic virtues within scientific enquiry. Despite growing interest in virtues in science, there are few integrated historical and philosophical studies, and even fewer studies focussing on controversial or ‘fringe’ sciences where, one might suppose, certain epistemic virtues (like open-mindedness and tolerance) may be subjected to sterner tests. Using the virtue of epistemic courage as my focus, it emerges that Crookes’ psychical researches were indeed epistemically courageous, but that this judgment must be grounded in sensitivity to the motivational complexity and context-sensitivity of the exercise of epistemic virtues. The paper then considers Crookes’ remarks on the relationship between epistemic virtuousness and the intellectual integrity and public duties of scientists, thereby placing epistemic virtues in the context of wider debates about the authority of science in late modern societies. I conclude that Crookes’ researches into psychical phenomena offer instructive lessons for historians of science and virtue epistemologists concerning the complexity and contextuality of epistemic virtues, and the profitable forms that future studies of virtues in science could take.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o4tTwy29YK


Brancaccio, M. T. (2014). Enrico Morselli’s Psychology of “Spiritism”: Psychiatry, psychology and psychical research in Italy around 1900. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 75-84.

Abstract: 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.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o_V9P60DmW


Graus, A. (2014). Hypnosis in Spain (1888-1905): From spectacle to medical treatment of mediumship. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 85-93.

Abstract: Towards the end of the nineteenth century, some Spanish physicians sought to legitimize hypnotherapy within medicine. At the same time, hypnotism was being popularized among the Spanish population through stage hypnosis shows. In order to extend the use of medical hypnotherapy, some physicians made efforts to demarcate the therapeutic use of hypnotic suggestion from its application for recreational purposes, as performed by stage hypnotists. However, in the eyes of some physicians, the first public session to legitimize hypnotherapy turned out to be a complete failure due to its similarities with a stage hypnosis performance. Apart from exploring this kind of hitherto little-known historical cases, we explore the role of spiritists in legitimizing medical hypnosis. At a time when Spanish citizens were still reluctant to accept hypnotherapy, the spiritists sponsored a charitable clinic where treatment using hypnosis was offered. We conclude that the clinic was effective in promoting the use of hypnotherapy, both among physicians as clinical practice, and as a medical treatment for patients from the less privileged classes of Spanish society.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o_V9P60DmI


De Sio, F., & Marazia, C. (2014). Clever Hans and his effects: Karl Krall and the origins of experimental parapsychology in Germany. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 94-102.

Abstract: 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.

Access link: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Pt-o4tTwy29ZN


Price, K. (2014). Testimonies of precognition and encounters with psychiatry in letters to J. B. Priestley. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 103-111.

Abstract: 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.

Access link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.07.006

Théodore Flournoy Reviewed

Originally posted on Parapsychology:

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center

Théodore Flournoy Théodore Flournoy

One of the most interesting early figures in the psychological study of mediumship and other phenomena was Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920). In my last published paper, with several colleagues, we reviewed his main psychical research-related work: Carlos S. Alvarado, Everton de Oliveira Maraldi, Fatima Regina Machado, and Wellington Zangari, “Théodore Flournoy’s Contributions to Psychical Research” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2014, 78, 149-168; available from the first author: carlos@theazire.org).

Everton de Oliveira Maraldi Everton de Oliveira Maraldi


Fatima Regina Machado Fatima Regina Machado

Wellington Zangari Wellington Zangari

Here is the abstract:

“In this paper we review the main contributions of Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854–1920) to psychical research. Flournoy always advocated the scientific study of psychic phenomena as an important area that should not be ignored. After a short discussion of Flournoy’s attitudes to psychic phenomena we focus on his main…

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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


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