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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