If you grew up in a western industrialised society, you probably know that you really shouldn’t believe in the occurrence of events commonly referred to as ‘miraculous’ or ‘supernatural’ if you expect to be viewed as a ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ person. If there was something to that sort of thing, surely the greats of science such as Newton, Bacon, Boyle, the Curies and Einstein would have told us?

historyWhat may surprise you is that each of the scientific icons named above, and many others of similar standing, took the ‘supernatural’ quite seriously. In fact, the consensus in historical scholarship regarding the relationship between science and the ‘miraculous’ has shifted notably during the past five decades, and even the most conservative historian of science will tell you today what previous generations ignored or denied:

  • That the revolutionary scientific works of Brahe, Kepler, Newton and other early moderns were inextricably related to their committed beliefs in biblical prophecy, astrology and other ‘occult’ ideas and practices, and that one cannot sufficiently be understood without the other.
  • That others like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and later Pierre Curie, J. J. Thomson and William James observed and rigorously tested reported ‘miraculous’ goings-on, and insisted that certain instances of distant mental influence constituted facts of nature.
  • That these examples are no mere anachronisms or eccentricities, but that – contrary to traditional assertions of a ‘disenchantment of nature’ – interest in ‘miraculous’ phenomena has continued in elite members of scientific communities, though not necessarily pursued within curricula of professionalised sciences.

Depending on your personal sensibilities and habits of thought, these statements may provoke responses and questions somewhere in the range of “Why have I never heard about this?” and “Even if it’s true, why risk a relapse into the Dark Ages by encouraging beliefs that are bound to make your readers succumb to superstition, folly, and intellectual vulgarity?”.

GhostbustersQuestions essentially along these lines are among the standard responses historians of science and medicine working on ‘unorthodox’ topics encounter whenever we try to explain our work to non-historians, and have therefore determined my choice of this blog’s title. After all, ‘Forbidden Histories’ implicates the existence of a taboo, and of certain motivations and sensibilities that have kept it alive. ‘Forbidden Histories’ is thus primarily concerned with discussing functions of popular science and disciplinary history as knowledge management and hopes to identify and reflect upon a variety of epistemologies and concerns that have prevented mainstream historical research from entering common knowledge.

Obviously, as historians of science and medicine we are not competent to decide whether or not some ‘miraculous’ phenomena do in fact occur, and how to interpret them if they do. Rather, the purpose of this blog is to test questions and ideas concerning the historicity of certain standards of rationality – particularly those we moderns are not accustomed let alone encouraged to critically reflect upon, even though they have powerfully shaped western individual and collective identities.

Aware that ‘Forbidden Histories’ thoroughly goes against the grain of many established ideologies and epistemological standard positions, contributors will strive to employ those principles that most would agree make good science as well as good history: contextualised evidence and differentiated analysis.

© 2013 Andreas Sommer

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