Psychical Research and Parapsychology in the History of Medicine and the Sciences

Registration is now open for our conference Psychical Research and Parapsychology in the History of Medicine and the Sciences, to be held at University College London on 25-27 January 2013.

For the programme and the registration link, please click here.


Andreas Sommer

Thesis Title: Crossing the boundaries of mind and science: Carl du Prel (1839-1899), psychical research, and the origins of modern psychology

Supervisors: Sonu Shamdasani (UCL) and Hasok Chang (Cambridge)

Contact: a.sommer (AT) ucl.ac.uk

Overview: Recent works in cultural history have identified philosopher and psychical researcher Carl du Prel as a hitherto obscure key figure in the intellectual scene of fin de siècle Germany. Du Prel, an initial follower and protégé of Eduard von Hartmann, received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Tübingen in 1868 for a philosophical study of the metaphysical implications of temporal divergences in dreams. From 1872, he pursued a career as a private scholar and began publishing a large number of articles and essays on philosophy, aesthetics, astronomy, and psychical research, many of which were subsequently compiled in book form. He became an influential author on the psychology and phenomenology of hypnotism and dissociation, the psychology of dreams and the subconscious mind. Du Prel, whom Sigmund Freud called “that brilliant mystic”, was widely read by psychologists such as Freud himself, Carl Gustav Jung, Carl Stumpf, Frederic W. H. Myers, and William James.

While Carl du Prel has been rediscovered as a source of inspiration for artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Rainer Maria Rilke, his importance in the history of psychology still awaits assessment. Using the example of du Prel as a popularizer of the 'deviant science' of psychical research, my research (funded by a Wellcome Trust PhD studentship) aims to study the contributions of psychical researchers to nascent psychology on the one hand, and the subsequent rejection of psychical research from the epistemological and professional territories of scientific psychology on the other.

Thus, my thesis aims to contribute to current discussions in Science Studies on epistemic pluralism, the demarcation problem, intellectual freedom, and the importance of contributions by academic outsiders to scientific and medical knowledge.


Refereed journal articles and book chapter

Kohls, N. B., & Sommer, A. (2006). Die akademische Psychologie am Scheideweg: Positivistische Experimentalpsychologie und die Nemesis der Transzendenz. In A. Büssing, Ostermann, T. Glöckler, M., Matthiesen, P.F. (Eds.), Spiritualität, Krankheit und Heilung – Bedeutung und Ausdrucksformen der Spiritualität in der Medizin (pp. 183-217). Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag für Akademische Schriften.

Sommer, A. (2005). Im Niemandsland der Bewusstseinsforschung: Survival Research. Eine Übersicht. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik, 5, 178-237.

———. (2009). From astronomy to transcendental Darwinism: Carl du Prel (1839-1899). Journal of Scientific Exploration, 23, 59-68.

———. (2009). Tackling taboos – From psychopathia sexualis to the materialisation of dreams: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (1862–1929). Journal of Scientific Exploration, 23, 299-322.

———. (2011). Professional heresy: Edmund Gurney (1847-1888) and the study of hallucinations and hypnotism. Medical History, 55, 383-388.

———. (2012). Psychical research and the origins of American psychology: Hugo Münsterberg, William James and Eusapia Palladino. History of the Human Sciences, 25, 23-44.

———. (2012). Policing epistemic deviance: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and Albert Moll. Medical History, 56, 255-276.

———. (accepted for publication). Normalizing the supernormal: The formation of the ‘Gesellschaft für psychologische Forschung’, c. 1886-1890. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences.

Book reviews (selection)

Sommer, A. (2008). E. F. Kelly, E. W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso, and B. Greyson: Irreducible Mind. Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 29, 359-370.

———. (2010). William Brock: William Crookes (1832-1919) and the Commercialization of Science. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 74, 45-52.

———. (2011). Heather Wolffram: The Stepchildren of Science. British Journal for the History of Science, 44, 144-146.

———. (2011). Trevor Hamilton: Immortal Longings: F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death. Medical History, 55, 433-435.

———. (2011). Stefan Schweizer: Anthropologie der Romantik. History of Psychiatry, 22, 369-370.

———. (2012). M. Brady Brower: Unruly Spirits. The Science of Psychic Phenomena in Modern France. Social History of Medicine, 25, 247-248.


Ellenberger revisited: Carl du Prel in the history of dynamic psychiatry. Division of Perceptual Studies, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia, USA, 30/06/2009

Pathologising the occult: Moll, Schrenck-Notzing, and the creation of anomalistic psychology. Sex, Ethics and Psychology: The Networks and Cultural Context of Albert Moll (1862-1939), Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease, Durham University, 05/11/2009

Crossing the boundaries of mind and science: Carl du Prel (1839-1899), psychical research, and the demarcation problem. Science and Technology Studies, Eight Annual Research Day, University College London, 16/06/2010

Professional Heresy: Edmund Gurney (1847-1888) and the study of hallucinations and hypnotism. The Future of Medical History, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London, 17/072010

The rejection of psychical research by early American psychologists. 29th Annual Conference of the European Society for the History of the Human Sciences, University of Utrecht, Netherlands, 25/08/2010

Science myths in scepticism and parapsychology (invited lecture). Society for Psychical Research, London, 7/07/2011

Neue Erkenntnisse zur Rolle der parapsychologischen Forschung in der Entstehung der akademischen Psychologie, 1879-1910 (invited lecture). IGPP-Colloquium, Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg i. Br., Germany, 23/11/2011

Historiographical artefacts and the modern construction of the ‘occult’. Division of Perceptual Studies, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia, USA, 19/06/2012

Exorcising the ghost from the machine. Affect, emotion, and the enlightened naturalization of the ‘poltergeist’. Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference 2012: Emotions, Health, and Wellbeing. Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University, London, 10/10/2012

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