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


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

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

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

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

Alexandr N. Aksakov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Andreas Sommer

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

  1. “while the journal is still sometimes referred to as a spiritualist magazine…it was, on the contrary, fairly pluralistic in outlook.”

    The EdgeScience journal springs t’mind as a latterday equivalent where the idea seems t’be not t’hunt down an’ pulverize threat’ning ideas/their exponents but expand the data base o’ options an’ possibilities.

    Ditto Rumi’s “The truth lies not in this or that” one inf’rence o’ which’s I suggest the truth may actu’ly lie in this AND that somethin’ also possibly implied by the Taoist yinyang symbol where t’select one half o’ the design over the other’s t’destroy it.

    “showing that unorthodox scientific activities were not nearly as exceptional (or reactionary) as popular standard accounts would have it…Psychische Studien calls into question traditional claims of a ‘disenchantment of science’, which has been supposed to characterise modernity more than any other feature.”

    This’s why this blog’s been an absolute revelation t’me Andreas because each time I read or reread one o’ these pieces I’m assailed by legions of deeply familiar often highly famous names many o’ whom textbooks encyclopedias an’ especially Wikipedia’ve given me little or no reason t’suspect of supposedly mindless paranormal pursuits.

    But even in the case o’ those I’d been alerted to in the Seventies by the likes o’ Colin Wilson or Jacob Bronowski [who if memory serves said o’ Newton “I want you t’see what a truly desperate individual he was” makin’ him sound like a child abusin’ serial killer] I’d been left with the abiding impression each of ’em’d toiled or dabbled in seedy masturbatory isolation nearly or completely ignorant o’ each other whereas as you’ve revealed there were actu’ly huge numbers o’ these guys often workin’ in highly organised almost masonic style groups as part of an ongoin’ effort t’ensure such ideas an’ their implications weren’t buried if not completely lost in the rush t’get *conventional* psychology accepted as *conventional* science.

  2. In France, Dr Timothée Puel published the “Revue de psychologie expérimentale” (Journal of experimental psychology), also beginning in 1874. It was fully inspired by Psychische Studien. In fact, Puel has correspondances with Aksakov and the rights to copy some articles of the German journal. Result? Completely overlooked by historians!

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