Parapsychology in Germany – review of Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science (2009)

In 2009 a fat and promising book landed on my desk, fresh from the publisher. I had looked forward to it for a while, as the topic was highly relevant for my dissertation, and this was the first full-length academic study ever to look at it. It was furthermore written by an author whose articles on the same topic I had been following for a while, with great interest. The book was Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. I was going to write a book review for Aries, which I did. It only appeared this spring, however. Since it is already three years ago that the book was published, I think it is about time to share the review with a broader community. So please find the pre-publication version of the review below.

The history of psychical research and parapsychology has received increasing and varied attention in scholarly literature over the last few decades. The English and American contexts have long been relatively well charted, through the major studies of scholars such as Alan Gauld, Frank M. Turner, Janet Oppenheim, Robert Laurence Moore, and Seymour Mauskopf and Michael McVaugh, while the continental contexts have received much less attention. Bertrand Méheust’s study of mesmerism, spiritualism and the later developments in psychical research has remained a standard reference for the French context, while scholarship on German parapsychology has been close to non-existent – especially in English language publications.  In recent years, a number of articles have been published in journals such as the History of the Behavioral Sciences, History of the Human Sciences, and The European Legacy, which ameliorate this situation. The Australian historian Heather Wolffram is one of these scholars, and her recent book, The Stepchildren of Science, is a major achievement in this wave of renewed attention to the history of psychical research. Not only does it fill an empirical gap by focusing on the development of German parapsychology from the 1870s to the 1930s, but it also represents a new way of analysing and writing about these problematic sciences, informed by recent theoretical work in the history and sociology of science.

One of the main achievements of Wolffram’s book is its charting of the complex network of relations in which German parapsychology was connected during these decades. The thematic focus of the book’s six chapters provide an exploration of different contexts and sites in which parapsychologists were active, and the phenomena they studied discussed. In addition to clashes with the new academic psychology established by Wilhelm Wundt and his school, psychical research was connected with lay medicine, through its focus on hypnotism, with the performing arts, through its connection with mesmerism and hypnosis on the stage, with biology, through the vitalistic philosophy of Hans Driesch, and with the law, through the numerous court cases involving allegations of criminal uses of hypnosis, telepathy, and other ostensibly “occult” faculties. During the latter, parapsychologists were often used as expert witnesses, leading to heated debates and polemics with critics in other academic disciplines such as psychology and law.

Chapter one describes the emergence of psychical research in Germany, from the physicist J.K.F. Zöllner’s sittings with Henry Slade in the 1870s, to the establishment of the two first German organisations for psychical research in the 1880s: the Psychologische Gesellschaft in Munich, and the Gesellschaft für Experimental-Psychologie in Berlin. In telling this story Wolffram pays particular attention to conflicts over epistemological issues both around and within psychical research in this period. Wolffram suggests that this may be seen as an unfolding of “boundary-work” on several levels. In order to define and defend a boundary around psychical research, the early proponents in Germany, including Carl du Prel, Max Dessoir, and Alfred von Schrenck-Notzing, particularly positioned themselves in opposition to the psychology of Wilhelm Wundt. These people saw Wundt’s new psychology as mechanistic, materialistic, and generally unsatisfying. Instead, the aspiring parapsychologists wanted a psychology which met deeper metaphysical needs. In respect to this explicit competition with academic psychology, it is significant that both of the two societies mentioned took names that played on the word “psychology”, and even “experimental psychology” – much to the dismay of Wundt and his colleagues.

The psychical researchers were furthermore divided between themselves over explanatory models and

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing observing a case of ectoplasmic materialisation in his laboratory in 1913. The medium is “Eva C.”

epistemological frames. One of the strengths of Wolffram’s study is the manner of detail in which she traces the nuances, overlaps, confrontations and conflicts among psychical researchers, occultists, spiritualists and other groups on the fringes of German scientific society. On the scientific level, the most serious split among the psychical researchers was that between “spiritist” and “animist” perspectives, explaining the phenomena of mediumism respectively as the activity of actually existing discarnate spirits, or as functions related to as of yet uncharted characteristics of the human psyche and/or organism.     One of the book’s main protagonists, the physician Alfred von Schrenck-Notzing, was a proponent of the latter theory. It was on the basis of this theory that Schrenck-Notzing established his laboratory in Munich in the period around the Great War. A closer analysis of this turn to experimentation is provided by Wolffram in chapter three. Here the analysis centres around the importance of Schrenck-Notzing’s attempt to move psychical research away from the casual setting of private residences and instead study séances in controlled environments more amenable to scientific inquiry. In this way his approach represented a stricter experimentalism, which even included the controlled training of gifted mediums over time. On the supposition that their “abilities” were “natural”, in the sense of having their seat in the human organism, such training was supposed to make their operation independent on the typical setting of the séance room, which had always suggested foul play and for good reasons blocked the acceptance of data produced in such settings.

But the fascination for, and spread of, parapsychology in Germany (as elsewhere) was connected to much else besides the actual theories and experimental protocols developed to study ostensibly paranormal phenomena. Several of these are explored in separate chapters, including its connection to hypnosis and mesmerism, which was spread both on the stage and through a discourse on healing and medicine, which had ties to the medical establishment (all explored in chapter two); its connection to fashionable ideological and philosophical frameworks such as vitalism and holism (chapter four); and not least to “occult crime” stories blown up in the media and tried in the courts (chapter five).

The relation between parapsychology, hypnosis and medicine, explored in chapter two, is particularly interesting because it would lead to new fault lines being drawn up among those experts who were interested in hypnosis, both within and outside parapsychology. While a debate raged within the medical establishment, especially in France, concerning theories of hypnosis, its applications and possible dangers, the use of hypnosis and mesmerism by lay practitioners for healing purposes also galvanised the medical establishment in Germany to take action against quackery. Wolffram shows how the campaign which ensued, directed among others at lay hypnotists and occultists selling healing services, resulted in a difficult crisis of legitimacy for the parapsychologists who operated in a borderland between the establishment and these suspect lay practices. One outcome of this process was a turn away from psychical research, and the development of a highly interesting position known as “critical occultism” (kritische Okkultismus).

Max Dessoir originated the term “Parapsychologie”, and became one of the founders of “critical occultism” in Germany – an intriguing forerunner to the modern “skeptics’ movement” that remains largely unknown outside of Germany (and to a large extent within that country as well).

Critical occultism was an approach developed by academics who had earlier taken part in parapsychology but abandoned its animistic theories for a thoroughly naturalistic approach; some of the most notable names include Max Dessoir, Albert Moll, and the jurist Albert Hellwig. The critical occultists even had their own journal, Zeitschrift für kritischen Okkultismus und Grenzfragen des Seelenlebens, which published critical articles on “occult” claims and phenomena, seeking to provide thoroughly naturalistic explanations typically focusing on fraud, unconscious actions, as well as biases and other tricks of the mind producing the illusion of the paranormal. As such, the German critical occultists represented a semi-organised and partially institutionalised group which may be viewed as a precursor to the modern “sceptics’ movement”.

In chapter five Wolffram illustrates the clashes between critical occultists and parapsychologists by their encounters in German court cases, particularly during the Weimar period. This chapter accentuates an approach developed by Wolffram throughout the book, focusing on conflict, polemics, and struggles to speak authoritatively about the “paranormal” – but it also points out the important dynamics between occultism, the media (tabloids, political newspapers, and specialist publications alike), and the law, in the construction of widespread ideas about parapsychological abilities during this period. The chapter centres on a widely publicised 1925 case of “criminal telepathy”, where the self-proclaimed clairvoyant August Drost stood charged with fraud. Wolffram shows how eager the media was (as it arguably still is) in following such trials and sensationalising the “paranormal” content instead of focusing on the relevant juridical questions – in this case whether or not the suspect himself believed that he possessed the powers that he claimed. By following the struggles of lawyer and “critical occultist” Albert Hellwig, who was an expert witness in the Drost trial, Wolffram creates an excellent window into the strategies wielded by pro- and counter-parapsychology spokespersons in the public sphere.

In the fascinating last chapter Wolffram shows how the struggle between parapsychologists and academic psychologists also led to attempts, by both sides, to pathologise the other. This was first and foremost the case with the development of a “psychology of occult belief” in Germany, dedicated to explaining the formation and spread of beliefs in paranormal phenomena in terms of the psychological composition of individuals. Several psychological resources were utilised for forging a psychology of the occult, including crowd psychology and psychoanalysis, but the common strategy would be to see those who took an active interest in the occult and paranormal in terms of superficiality, credulity, and neuroses. Parapsychologists, on their side, retorted that “critical occultists” and other sceptics of the paranormal were troubled by mental pathologies of their own, including deep-seated and irrational complexes that prevented them from taking the evidence of the paranormal for what it was. Again, this foreshadows the common contemporary strategy of spokespersons for the paranormal to dismiss critics as “closed minded”.

While all this attests to an intense polemic among psychologists, parapsychologists, and critical occultists over the authority to speak about the paranormal, Wolffram’s book also sheds light on the more expansive attempts to link parapsychology and the paranormal to philosophical positions of a much broader implication. These lines are particularly followed in chapter four, which focuses on the later career of the embryologist Hans Driesch who, after developing and being convinced of his vitalistic theory of life, ventured into psychical research and parapsychology. Around the time of Schrenck-Notzing’s death, Driesch, along with the philosopher T. K. Oesterreich, became one of the leading figures of German parapsychology, which now developed in a more philosophical direction. In addition to charting the connections between vitalistic biology, concerns with mechanistic materialism, and the quest for a holistic re-conceptualisation of science, the chapter also shows how these scientific and philosophical approaches mixed with political and ideological agendas. While standing in opposition to certain aspects of Weimar liberalism, the holistically inclined parapsychologists also underwent a troubled relationship with the emerging Nazi ideology. On the one hand, holistic and organicist metaphors were adopted in the Nazi ideology of Volk and Nation; on the other, many biologists and parapsychologists were eager to debunk these appropriations as nonsensical or irrelevant. Besides contributing to the vitalistic, holistic, and parapsychological landscape of ideas, Hans Driesch was a sometimes vociferous opponent of the Nazi party’s programme and policies, and spoke explicitly in favour of a liberal and pacifist cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, the relation between the emerging Third Reich and the parapsychological community was ambiguous, and Wolffram even points to documents suggesting that the propaganda ministry attempted to recruit Driesch to head a parapsychology research group, under their supervision. Meanwhile, independent parapsychological research was made increasingly difficult in Germany, and had dissipated entirely by the time war broke out.

Hans Driesch, a well-known face at Heterodoxology. Not only a neo-vitalist, but also a central figure in German (and international) parapsychology in the 1920s.

All in all, the book’s six chapters, focusing on different thematic aspects and different sites, gives a fascinating, relatively thorough, and methodologically interesting insight into the German parapsychological milieus and their broader sociocultural environments. Nevertheless, in a pioneering work like this there are bound to be certain omissions and gaps. I will mention two omissions that I found striking, no doubt selected with some bias because of my own interest in these particular subjects. The first concerns the discussion of Hans Driesch’s vitalism in chapter four, which could have benefitted from a more nuanced contextualisation. Wolffram has chosen to build her discussion largely on a selection of primary sources culled from Driesch’s own writings. While this gives some very interesting insights into the way Driesch presented and positioned his own work, there is a danger that broader issues get lost when a spokesperson is given more or less sole authority to present himself in his own terms. For example, an important extra dimension could have been added to the analysis by placing Driesch’s work more clearly in the context of the developments in biology from 1900 to the 1930s. While Wolffram provides a good discussion of Driesch’s important contributions to embryology in the 1890s, when he indeed was at the cutting edge, it should also have been of major significance that embryology developed rapidly in quite different directions at the same time as he left the field and focused on proselytising his vitalism to non-experts instead. It is of some importance that Driesch continued, even in the 1930s, to defend his increasingly expansive (and increasingly dated) vitalistic position on the basis of the experiments he had conducted in the 1890s – rather arrogantly glossing over the strides that had been taken after the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900, the localisation of the chromosomes as the site of inheritance, and the subsequent development of genetics. While vitalism and organicism were indeed important impulses in the culture surrounding science in this period, a more critical contextualisation along these lines – lacking from Wolffram’s discussion – would make it clear that Driesch was after all more marginal and cranky than one might otherwise get the impression of. What is more, one could have wished for clearer distinctions being made between terms such as “vitalism”, “holism” and “organicism”. While it has become more or less standard to use the two latter interchangeably, there are very good reasons for distinguishing them strictly from vitalism. This distinction was recognised in the scientific community of the period, where organicist views had a place within mainstream biology, whereas vitalism did not.

But while Driesch’s vitalism may have been more anachronistic than it appears from reading his own presentation, it would also have been possible to draw on other sources from the same period emphasising the connection between vitalistic and organicist ideas, parapsychology, and the natural sciences. One could, for example, have expected to find a discussion of the leading German quantum physicist Pascual Jordan, who in the early 1930s showed not only an interest in parapsychology, but also published widely on the revival of vitalism through quantum theory, and its repercussions for biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Hans Bender became the leading voice of German parapsychology after the war, and the institute he established in Freiburg remains operative and active to this day. Here together with an Israeli trickster of spoon-bending fame.

Finally, another somewhat surprising omission is the virtual neglect of Hans Bender. With historical hindsight, Bender is perhaps the most well known German experimental parapsychologist, establishing laboratory research in Freiburg after the Second World War with much help from the American colleague Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University. Although Bender’s influence on German parapsychology is mostly felt in the post-war period, he was active in the 1930s as well, having submitted the very first German doctoral dissertation claiming positive results in parapsychological research at the University of Bonn, and not least keeping a broad correspondence with parapsychologists abroad at a time when this kind of research was getting increasingly difficult in Germany. In fact, focusing on Bender’s work and interest in experimental parapsychology in the 1930s would challenge Wolffram’s reading of a “philosophical turn” in German parapsychology after the death of Schrenck-Notzing, leading to the neglect of experimentation. Instead, Bender attests to a continued interest in such work, partially under the influence of impulses coming from abroad, especially from the British psychologist and advocate of psychical research William McDougall, and from J.B. Rhine. Bender’s research and place in 1930s parapsychology in Germany is given only two paragraphs (on p. 176), which read as an afterthought to the chapter on Schrenck-Notzing.

Despite these (overall pretty minor) criticisms, Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science is an important addition to the history of psychical research and parapsychology. It is the first full length study of the German context, and the sometimes obscure source material it presents, discusses, and contextualises will be valuable to this field. Furthermore, while the focus is on Germany, many of the theoretical debates, polemical fault lines, and social struggles discussed in the book, as well as the role of the media, the courts, and the state, prove suggestive of approaches to be followed for other national contexts as well. In this sense, Stepchildren of Science is the first monograph on the history of parapsychology that systematically develops and utilises a methodological focus on boundary-work and conflicts, and follows this into a number of sites both within and outside science “as such”. In so doing, the book is exemplary of a new historiography of the paranormal which has been emerging in recent years. One can only hope that it will set a standard for further work in this area.

Review: Heather Wolffram, The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. Wellcome Series in the History of Medicine. Amsterdam, New York: Editions Rodopi, 2009. 342 pages.

For the published version, see Aries 12.2 (2012): online version.

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This work by Egil Asprem was published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Read the full review […]

  2. […] has been one of my research interests in recent years. It is not so long ago that I  reviewed Heather Wolffram’s recent book on German parapsychology, Stepchildren of Science,  and noted that it breaks new ground in providing access to […]


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