It’s Happening: ‘Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology’

I’m chuffed to report that I just received the contract for my book, preliminary titled Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology. The study, to be published in late 2016 or early 2017 by Stanford University Press, will respond to a growing trend of historical interest in psychical research, i.e. the radical empirical investigation of reported ‘occult’ phenomena associated with animal magnetism and spiritualism.


Based on a wealth of previously unexplored primary sources in English, German and French (including material from over two dozens archives spread over three continents), the book will identify deep divisions in historical scholarship regarding links between psychical research and professionalized psychology, which emerged simultaneously in the late nineteenth century.

Demonstrating that it was often difficult to draw a clear-cut distinction between elite psychical research and experimental psychology in terms of representatives, research questions and empirical findings, the book will fundamentally challenge the standard way of sketching the historical relationship between these disciplines in terms of an alleged victory of ‘science’ over ‘superstition’.

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 a cross-national perspective, it will sketch the brief but historically significant rise of psychical research as a branch of experimental psychology and analyze the context of its demise.

A central argument is that the repudiation of psychical research by Wundt and other early representatives and popularizers of psychology had surprisingly little to do with the often-assumed intrinsic lack of scientific rigour of psychical research. It will show that as a rule opponents did not engage in constructive methodological discussions, but instrumentalized widespread nineteenth-centuries fears of social, religious and moral corollaries of ‘superstition’, ‘enthusiasm’ and similar shorthands for excessive belief and epistemic deviance.

This study will reconstruct major metaphysical and political debates at a time when the sciences became modern academic professions. Even though these debates have long vanished from public awareness, they continue to shape the limits of permissible scientific inquiry, as well as standard ways of writing the history of the relationship between science and the occult. I therefore hope the book will not only be of interest to historians of the sciences, but a broad audience interested in past and present controversies related to the subject matter of psychical research.

If you’d like to stay in the loop and receive updates about the book and related projects, subscribe to Forbidden Histories using the box on the right!

© Andreas Sommer

Reincarnation Research and Myths of Scientific Practice

Between you and me, I’m so not into the idea that karma will eventually get me and drag my poor soul back into a new body after I die. At the risk of appearing a gloomy Gus, to me one life seems just about enough.

Pythagoras of Samos (c.570-c.495)

Pythagoras of Samos (c.570-c.495)

The very idea of reincarnation, of course, has a long tradition not only in Eastern religions but also in Western philosophy. From the days of Socrates and Pythagoras, the idea of repeated lives has survived in writings of Renaissance thinkers like Giordano Bruno and finally became absorbed in New Age ideologies from the nineteenth century, where they have lingered up to the present day. Today, professional philosophers seriously consider the question of reincarnation only occasionally. In a discussion of the problem of personal identity, Derek Parfit suggested the type of empirical evidence that might convince him:

Derek Parfit (Photo by Steve Pyke/Getty Images)

Derek Parfit (Photo by Steve Pyke/Getty Images)

One such piece of evidence might be this. A Japanese woman might claim to remember living a life as a Celtic hunter and warrior in the Bronze Age. On the basis of her apparent memories she might make many predictions which could be checked by archaeologists. Thus she might claim to remember having a bronze bracelet, shaped like two fighting dragons. And she might claim that she remembers burying this bracelet beside some particular megalith, just before the battle in which she was killed. Archaeologists might now find just such a bracelet buried in this spot, and at least 2,000 years old. This Japanese woman might make many other such predictions, all of which are verified” (Parfit, 1984, p. 277).

Ian Stevenson (1918-2007)

In the 1960s, the respected Canadian-born psychiatrist Ian Stevenson single-handedly created a new field of unorthodox science by trying to find indications of truth in reincarnation anecdotes. Stevenson set himself apart from most previous authors writing on phenomena suggestive of reincarnation through his scientific credentials and his rigorous methodology. A seasoned and widely respected professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Stevenson rejected hypnotic regression as a method to uncover supposed memories of past lives, and instead investigated hundreds of spontaneous claims of reincarnation memories through interviews and cross-examinations of claimants and witnesses.

Typically, a case investigated by Stevenson would look like this: A child alarms their parents by claiming to be a different person, someone who had died. To the parents’ added horror, the child would also often demand to be reunited with their ‘real’ family. Despite disencouragement (and sometimes threats and caning) from their parents, the child continues to exhibit highly unusual and specific memories and behaviours, which are eventually used to identify an actual person who had lived and died in an often considerable distance, and whom the child and their family in all likelihood has had no conventional knowledge of. Perhaps most incredibly, the strongest cases also involve birthmarks which strikingly correspond to (usually) fatal wounds in the ‘remembered’ person, who had nearly always died of an unnatural cause such as accident, murder and suicide.

Attempting to match the details in question, in dozens of rigorously documented cases Stevenson was able to locate ‘previous personalities’ by following the claims made by these children. Most though by no means all of Stevenson’s investigations took place in India and other countries where the belief in reincarnation is widespread and claimants not as difficult to come by and to openly investigate as in the enlightened West.

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

An unlikely advocate of Stevenson’s research was the great sceptic regarding otherworldly things, Carl Sagan. In his popular science classic, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan observed that this new field of study into children who “sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation”, deserved “serious study” (Sagan, 1995, p. 285).

This, however, was the last we heard of Sagan on the matter. But other investigators – such as the Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson, the Canadian anthropologist Antonia Mills, and the German-born psychologist Jürgen Keil at the University of Tasmania – began to independently research similar cases. Stevenson died in 2007 but has been succeeded at the University of Virginia by fellow psychiatrist Jim B. Tucker, who specialises in the investigation of Western cases. Another leading and scientifically hard-nosed expert of reincarnation research is the anthropologist James G. Matlock, currently a Research Fellow at the Parapsychology Foundation, whose bibliography of online resources is a useful collection for serious literature on this mind-boggling phenomenon.

ReincarnationTogether with Stevenson’s records, well-documented cases published by these and other authors display features that dramatically exceed those suggested by Parfit as acceptable evidence for reincarnation. Phenomenologically, they comprise the following variable but quite robust features:

  • talk about alleged past-life memories begins at the age of 2-5 and ceases at the age of 5-8;
  • alleged memories are narrated repeatedly and with strong emphasis;
  • social roles and professional occupations of the alleged previous personality (PP) are acted out in play;
  • mention of the cause of (usually violent) death
  • emotional conflicts due to ambiguity of family or sex membership;
  • display of unlearned skills (including basic foreign language skills) as well as propositional knowledge (of names, places, persons, etc.) not plausibly acquired in the present life
  • unusual behaviour and traits corresponding to the PP, such as phobias, aversions, obsessions, penchants;
  • occasionally, alcohol or drug addictions that were manifest in the PP;
  • sexual precocity and gender dysphoria (where the PP belonged to a different sex);
  • birthmarks, differing in etiological features such as size, shape and colour from conventional birthmarks and other relevant birth anomalies, significantly corresponding to wounds involved in the death of the PP;

A more recent finding is that children relating a violent death in the PP occasionally display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which do not seem to correlate with any biographical events, but to circumstances of the allegedly remembered mode of death (cf. Haraldsson, 2003).

Neither Stevenson himself nor any of his colleagues have claimed that their material actually provides compelling proof of reincarnation. While Parfit appeared curiously unaware of this literature (as far as I’m aware, he never betrayed the slightest knowledge of it), other respected philosophers like Curt Ducasse, Robert Almeder and Stephen Braude have taken it seriously as an empirical basis for discussions of the age-old question of reincarnation.

But what about the ‘scientific community’? Isn’t the fact that you probably never heard about this kind of research sufficient evidence that there must be something fundamentally wrong with it?

After all, according to a rather widespread assumption about standards of scientific practice, anomalies irresistibly attract scientists like light attracts the proverbial moth. For in order to be a ‘real’ scientist you are expected to constantly challenge your pet theories about how the world works, always look for refuting instances that may indicate you’re wrong, and follow the evidence wherever it leads and whether you personally like it or not. The more outlandish an anomaly reported by more than one qualified and critical observer, so the myth goes, the quicker it attracts other scientists, ultimately producing a true landslide of opinion in the ‘scientific community’, which is then faithfully reflected on the pages of mainstream science journals and in textbooks.

skeptical_inquirer_ndeIf you did hear about the work of Stevenson and colleagues, chances are that your informants weren’t trained scientists who personally scrutinized the data with an open mind, and published their critiques in peer-reviewed science journals or discussed them at academic conferences. Instead, the public discourse – including entries on all sorts of unorthodox matters on Wikipedia – is dominated by self-appointed guardians of ‘Science and Reason’ organised worldwide in so-called Skeptics associations, represented by professional enlightenment crusaders such as James Randi and Michael Shermer in the US and Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman in the UK. As previously observed by my colleague Rebekah Higgitt, some of the most active and visible representatives of the Skeptics movement profess to impartially stick to evidence, but ultimately give science a bad name by relying on aggressive polemics and derision of opponents.

Stevenson himself sometimes complained that what frustrated him much more than misrepresentations of his research particularly in the popular media was the almost complete silence by the ‘scientific community’. Rather than offering informed criticisms of Stevenson’s research, most fellow scientists have in fact simply ignored it. That’s why there’s a good chance that we will never know what is behind the strange facts collected and published by Stevenson and colleagues. Stevenson is dead, other senior researchers are retired, and there is no next generation of serious, qualified researchers in sight, let alone career opportunities for young scientists who might want to give this potentially revolutionary kind of research a shot.

But why am I telling you all this? Certainly not because I want to convince you that reincarnation is a fact. Impressive as the best cases and the scientific credentials of their investigators are, personally I’m not convinced that they unambiguously prove reincarnation. But to me it seems that we are dealing with a quite robust body of anomalous data in serious need of explanation.

And given my historical research on the links between science and the ‘occult’, I cannot but note a striking consistency in the academic reception of elite unorthodox science over time. Presently, I’m working on an article reconstructing the work of William James, the ‘father’ of modern American psychology, with the spiritualist medium Leonora Piper. In one of his articles on psychical research, James problematized certain “social prejudices which scientific men themselves obey”, and briefly described his futile attempts to motivate scientific colleagues to independently test Mrs. Piper as an example:

William James (1842-1910)

William James (1842-1910)

I invite eight of my scientific colleagues severally to come to my house at their own time, and sit with a medium for whom the evidence already published in our Proceedings [of the Society for Psychical Research] had been most noteworthy. Although it means at worst the waste of the hour for each, five of them decline the adventure. I then beg the ‘Commission’ connected with the chair of a certain learned psychologist in a neighbouring university to examine the same medium, whom Mr. Hodgson [the main investigator of the medium] and I offer at our own expense to send and leave with them. They also have to be excused from any such entanglement. I advise another psychological friend to look into this medium’s case, but he replies that it is useless, for if he should get such results as I report, he would (being suggestible) simply believe himself hallucinated. When I propose as a remedy that he should remain in the background and take notes, whilst his wife has the sitting, he explains that he can never consent to his wife’s presence at such performances. This friend of mine writes ex cathedra on the subject of psychical research, declaring (I need hardly add) that there is nothing in it; the chair of the psychologist with the Commission was founded by a spiritist, partly with a view to investigate mediums; and one of the five colleagues who declined my invitation is widely quoted as an effective critic of our evidence” (James, 1901, p. 15).

Bear with me for further details on this intriguing episode, which I hope to unpack in my article in the context of the professionalization of psychology occurring at the time of James’s mediumship research.

Now to me it seems obvious that radically empirical research into mediumship and children claiming past lives can provoke profound fears and irrational knee-jerk responses, touching as they do on deep and potentially scary existential issues – the question of life after death, the privacy of the self, the very nature and limits of knowledge, etc. As a historian, that’s why I find the study of the complex links between science and the ‘occult’ so rewarding: it cuts right through a massive thicket of basic assumptions about the supposed intrinsic rationality of scientific practice. Not least, a critical comparison of actual events and debates with their representations in retroactively whitewashed popular histories of science highlights the important function of history as a powerful means to determine and maintain the very scope and limits of permissible scientific questions.

At the same time it would be wrong to claim that unorthodox sciences investigating reported phenomena traditionally associated with metaphysical problems stand isolated in their academic neglect. You really don’t have to be a historian or sociologist of science, or familiar with the writings of Thomas Kuhn or Harry Collins, to realise that scientists as a rule have never been particularly fond of anomalies or serious challenges of scientific and medical paradigms even in less fundamental and comparatively trivial matters. Especially not, perhaps, since the sciences were transformed into professional careers during the nineteenth century.

If you’re a scientist or academic yourself, or have friends who are, you’re probably already well aware that intellectual freedom only goes as far as resources, time, career opportunities, peer and institutional support, and not least cultural biases regulated to an alarming degree by self-appointed reality sheriffs and their journalistic henchmen permit it to go.


Almeder, R. (1992). Death and Personal Survival. The Evidence for Life After Death. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: I. The case of Purnima Ekanayake. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 16-25 [PDF link].

Haraldsson, E. (2000). Birthmarks and claims of previous-life memories: II. The case of Chatura Karunaratne. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 82-92 [PDF link]

Haraldsson, E. (2003). Children who speak of past-life experiences: Is there a psychological explanation? Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 76, 55-67 [PDF link].

Haraldsson, E., & Abu-Izzeddin, M. (2004). Three randomly selected Lebanese cases of children who claim memories of a previous life. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68, 65-85 [PDF link].

James, W. (1901). Frederic Myers’s service to psychology. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 17, 13-23.

Keil, J., & Stevenson, I. (1999). Do cases of the reincarnation type show similar features over many years? A study of Turkish cases a generation apart. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 13, 189-198 [PDF link].

Keil, J., & Tucker, J. B. (2005). Children who claim to remember previous lives: cases with written records made before the previous personality was identified. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19, 91-101 [PDF link].

Kelly, E. W. (Ed., 2013). Science, the Self, and Survival after Death. Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Matlock, J. G. (1990). Past life memory case studies. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in Parapsychological Research, Vol. 6 (pp. 187-267). Jefferson, NC: McFarland [PDF link].

Matlock, J. (1997). Review of Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by P. Edwards. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 11, 570-573 [PDF link].

Mills, A., & Tucker, J. B. (2014), Past life experiences. In E. Cardeña, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.) Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (second edition, pp. 303-332). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Mills, A., Haraldsson, E., & Keil, J. (1994). Replication studies of cases suggestive of reincarnation by three different investigators. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 88, 207-219 [PDF link].

Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

Stevenson, I. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (Preface by Curt Ducasse). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Stevenson, I. (1997). Reincarnation and Biology. A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (2 vols.) Westport: Praeger.

Stevenson, I. (2003). European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Tucker, J. B. (2009). Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives. London: Piatkus.

© Andreas Sommer

Carl Gustav Jung and the Clairvoyant, Mrs. Fäßler

The investigation of ‘occult’ phenomena associated with spiritualism and mesmerism occupied the minds of psychologists much more than this has been reflected in standard histories of modern psychology. From Gustav Theodor Fechner and William James to Théodore Flournoy and Hans Eysenck, many prominent psychologists were not only interested in the psychodynamics of altered states of consciousness (such as hypnotism and mediumistic trance), but also in the reality of supposedly transcendental capacities of the mind, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis.

Jung's M.D. thesis

Jung’s M.D. thesis

Carl Gustav Jung’s occupation with the occult is of course well known. In fact, Jung’s M.D. thesis, On the Psychology and Pathology of so-called Occult Phenomena, is a study along the lines of the work of Frederic Myers and Théodore Flournoy, though it is purely concerned with psychodynamic rather than parapsychological aspects of mediumship. Jung never published any systematic studies to scientifically evaluate the occurrence of occult phenomena, but he was well-informed about contemporary parapsychological researches, attended many experimental séances (sometimes accompanied by his mentor, Eugen Bleuler) and performed many informal parapsychological tests himself. (Also, regular visitors of Forbidden Histories will probably remember Jung’s account of a spine-chilling night in a haunted house.)

Sulzer's 'Light and Shadow in the Practice of Spiritism' etc.

Sulzer’s ‘Light and Shadow in the Practice of Spiritism’ etc.

Leafing through the second edition of a German-language classic of spiritualism, Georg Sulzer’s Light and Shadow in the Practice of Spiritism, I found an interesting reference to an informal parapsychological test performed by Jung. Sulzer, a Zürich lawyer and one-time President of the Swiss Court of Cassation, became a convert to spiritualism in 1898 and wrote several books and pamphlets. In Light and Shadow (first published in 1913, incidentally by Oswald Mutze, a leading spiritualist publisher who also issued Jung’s M.D. thesis) Sulzer described an episode concerning Jung’s tests of the alleged clairvoyance of one Mrs. Fäßler, a somnambule who had the reputation of successfully diagnosing medical ailments in strangers. Sulzer fails to date the episode, which took place in Jung’s flat, but circumstances mentioned in the book suggest that it must have occurred some time between 1902 and 1912. Sulzer writes (my translation):

“During the trial, which we now performed, Dr. Jung pulled me into the room next door, and there he told me very quietly that I should put the letter, which he had written to me and through which he had invited me to this test sitting, upon Mrs. Fäßler’s head. So I did, and she now described a woman, naming a number of physical and mental characteristics and eventually diseases as well, which that person was supposed to suffer from.

Of course I thought she was thoroughly mistaken to begin with. However, I noticed that Dr. Jung looked very thoughtful sitting in his chair, and after Mrs. Fäßler concluded her description I was illuminated about the reason for this demeanour, which struck me as conspicuous; for he now exclaimed: ‘Wonderful, she has quite precisely described my mother, everything correct, characteristics as well as her medical conditions, and she doesn’t know my mother at all, who lives in Basel and whom she only saw once, when she visited me in Zürich, walking through the room’. Dr. Jung confessed to me that he was unable to explain this strange case, and I, too, wish not to bother suggesting any hypotheses.”

Georg Sulzer (1844-1929)

Georg Sulzer (1844-1929)

Postscript, 11 April 2015: Sonu Shamdasani, the editor of Jung’s Red Book, informs me that there exist detailed minutes of Jung’s sittings with Mrs. Fäßler in the Jung papers at ETH Zürich. I have no plans to work with them in the foreseeable future, but very much encourage other historians to do so.

© Andreas Sommer

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 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 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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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