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.

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© Andreas Sommer

9 thoughts on “It’s Happening: ‘Psychical Research and the Formation of Modern Psychology’

  1. This is a widely awaited work in the rapidly developing field of ‘modern occult studies’ which will inform all students and scholars working in this area of the social and cultural forces impacting the new human science discipline of “experimental psychology.” Around experimental psychology coalesced all the explosive issues of fin-de-siècle science, religion, and occultism that were at stake in public and professional forums. Professor Sommer has provided us with what will be for some time the definitive account of the intricate links between psychical research, academic psychology, and surrounding public platforms which discussed the new expertise in defining and dispersing knowledge.

  2. Congratulations Andreas. I have left a comment at the SMN Facebook Group about this. Suffice to say that I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of “The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher: The World View of William James.” by Jane Roberts, as a resource for your writing of the book. With great expectations, Chris.

  3. Dr. Sommer – are you still planning on writing a paper about G. Stanley Hall, or should we wait for this information in your forthcoming book?

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