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  • The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939
  • Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, M.A.
Heather Wolffram . The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. Clio Medica 88. The Wellcome Series in the History of Medicine. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009. vi, 342 pp., illus. €70/US$ 91.

The Stepchildren of Science is a solid consideration of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German debates on science, authority, experimental evidence, and the desire to elucidate mental and physical laws. The title is a phrase psychologist Wilhelm Wundt used as a derogatory epithet to describe what was called "psychical research" in the late nineteenth century and "parapsychology" by the 1920s. Historian Heather Wolffram employs sociologist Thomas Gieryn's concept of double-boundary-work (see his Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999) to show how parapsychologists distanced themselves from lay spiritualists and occultists on the one hand while justifying themselves to the state, the churches, the courts, and academic scientists on the other. Although critics saw these "border sciences" as fringe subjects, their proponents viewed them as frontier disciplines for advancing knowledge.

Research into the paranormal had its roots in the early-nineteenth-century craze for mesmerism. This developed in the second half of the century into spiritualism, a belief in the transcendental soul, and modern occultism, which credited unknown powers for activities like automatic writing. Whereas spiritualist séances experienced a surge in popularity in the modernization of the fin de siècle and again after the horrors of the First World War, modern occultism suffered from its association with theosophy and the disgraced Madame Blavatsky, so German psychical researchers of the 1880s and 1890s re-imagined it as animism. Animists [End Page 129] like Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and T. K. Oesterreich believed in the reality of paranormal occurrences and sought to explain them by physics, chemistry, or biology. Conversely, critical occultists, led by Max Dessoir and Albert Moll, disbelieved in the paranormal but found the un/conscious fraud interesting for the insights they could derive about the psychology of belief and suggestibility.

What makes Wolffram's study unique among recent work on the occult is that she does not treat parapsychology as a symptom of something else—whether a "flight from reason," a "crisis of faith," a precursor to National Socialism, or as a critique of modernity. Rather, she uses new archival sources, including the papers of Schrenck-Notzing and Albert Hellwig, to examine the formation of a holistic scientific discipline concerned with non-mechanistic and non-materialistic phenomena like hypnosis, dreams, artistic creativity, the psyche, and the unconscious. It had good company with quantum physics, psychoanalysis, the Lebensreformbewegung [life reform movement], and contemporary embryology, which had developed a vitalist streak.

Many of the difficulties in establishing parapsychology stemmed from the unique nature of occult physical and psychical phenomena. Wundt and others in the scientific mainstream demanded laboratories be closed spaces where scientists controlled the objects or events of interest according to repeatable rules that did not contravene natural laws. In hybrid parlor-laboratories like Schrenck-Notzing's, however, the often female, often working-class mediums shared power with the usually male, middle-class, and university-trained parapsychologists. While the researchers erected cameras, conducted body cavity searches, and tethered their subjects with electronic medium monitors, the somnambulists and psychics demanded low light, draped medium cabinets, music, and cajoling to recreate the phenomena only they could produce. The commonly transgendered trance personalities demonstrated sexually charged behaviors that flouted social mores as well as telepathy, table-turning, or materializations that contradicted known scientific laws. They required trust and belief from their audiences and could or would not perform under the skepticism found in hard-science laboratories. "The very conditions required to satisfy standards of scientific proof, it seemed, were inimical to the phenomena they attempted to verify, (148)" writes Wolffram.

Meanwhile, practitioners of new and related fields such as Wundt's physiological psychology or Hellwig's forensic psychiatry performed boundary-work of their own. For instance, they criticized Schrenck-Notzing for his "fetishism of authority." The most famous German parapsychologist's most convincing...


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