Hidden Histories: Science and the Occult : Dr Andreas Sommer

Popular and disciplinary histories of science have been prone to promote a quasi-teleological view of progress by filtering reconstructions of the past through the lenses of today’s mainstream science. In contrast, by acknowledging specific cultural, metaphysical, economic and political conditions of scientific practice in a given time and place, current history of science scholarship wants to understand the past on its own terms – even if the results occasionally go against the grain of some of our most cherished presuppositions about what it means to be ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’.

"In this talk I shall not overstretch my competence as a historian by arguing for or against the reality of ‘occult’ phenomena – but I will make a perhaps equally provocative claim: All you were brought up to believe about the relationship of science and the occult is probably wrong.

Taking you from the early days of the Royal Society to the invention of the electroencephalogram (EEG), this talk will highlight some of the close entanglements of science and alleged occult phenomena such as telepathy, psychokinesis and communication with spirits, which have been squarely written out of traditional popular and disciplinary histories.

It will sketch Robert Boyle’s fascination with mental healing and poltergeist phenomena, the centrality of animal magnetism (or mesmerism) in major philosophies of science in early 19th century Germany, and the significance of spiritualism during the formation of modern psychology and other academic professions. It will also include a piece of local history by briefly discussing the coinage of ‘telepathy’ in Cambridge, and the promotion of radical empirical research into telepathy and mediumship by Henry and Eleanor M. Sidgwick at Trinity and Newnham colleges in close collaboration with the ‘father’ of American psychology at Harvard, William James."

— Dr Andreas Sommer


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Dr Andreas Sommer

Andreas Sommer

Dr Andreas Sommer is a Junior Research Fellow in History and Philosophy of Science at ChurchillCollege. He graduated from UCL with a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral thesis investigating the co-emergence of international psychical research and professionalised psychology in the late nineteenth century, which he is currently revising and expanding into a book manuscript.

Andreas also edits the ‘Forbidden Histories’ blog and was a history advisor for the upcoming BBC horror drama series, The Living and the Dead.

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Presented at Churchill College, 24 February 2016.