27 February 2010


Heather Wolffram. The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany c. 1870-1939. Editions Rodopi, 2009. (Clio Medica 88) -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

While there have been a number of substantive histories of psychical research in the United Kingdom and the United States, this is the first detailed study of its history in Germany and as such is a major contribution to the history of the subject.
Wolffram tracks the history from the early interest in hypnotism by groups of scientists seeking an alternative to the dominant materialist psychology in Germany at that time. These studies seem to have existed in a sort of liminal zone between scientific enterprise and public performance, featuring such female performers as Lina Matzinger who claimed to be able to read books through various portions of her body, and the 'sleep dancer' Magdeleine G whose ecstatic performances prefigured those of Isadora Duncan.

Attempts to set up psychical research societies met with some problems, mainly the differences between those who wanted to use anomalous experiences to bolster transcendentalist world views, and those who wanted them to be objects of scientific study.

The dominating figure in this field and indeed the whole of German psychical research and parapsychology, until his death in 1929, was the wealthy and egotistical Albert von Schrenck-Notzing. Though S-N's experiments with the likes of Eva C. (Marthe Beraud), or Willy and Rudi Schneider had some of the feel of scientific experiments, and were conducted in a room made up to look like a scientific laboratory, these also had elements of performance and were often under the control of the medium. S-N's arguments were often typical of psychical researchers' arguments, arguing from authority and social standing. Though Wolffram reproduces a couple of the strange photographs of Eva and her ectoplasm, she does not include the most famous of these, the one which clearly shows the words 'Le Mirroir' on the back of the cut out attached to her hair.

Notzing. like Charles Richet in France was more attracted to an explanation of these phenomena in terms of what might be called parabiology rather than in terms of either spirits or fraud. Whether it is in spite, or because of their scientific pretensions, both were completely credulous over performances which strike the modern viewer of the photographs produced, as rather poor frauds.

This parabiological interpretation was helped along by the existence of a range of para or metabiological theories, such as those of Bergson and Driesch, which involved vitalistic concepts such as 'entelechy', aided by the still relative ignorance of genetics.

S-N and the psychical researchers did not have the field uncontested, among their critics were former colleagues such as Max Dessoir (the man who invented the term parapsychology) and Albert Moll. This group called themselves 'Critical Occultists' and can be seen as ancestors of the modern skeptics movement. They and the psychical researchers fought in the public prints, as expert witnesses in either side of law cases, and in psychoanalysing each other.

As with CSICOP today, the skeptics movement, in alliance often with the churches, orchestrated campaigns against charlatanism and superstition, which they feared would bring about the downfall of rational civilisation. Needless to say there was in Germany at this time an unimaginably greater threat to rational civilisation than the village herbalist, the newspaper horoscope or the antics of mediums.

What is interesting is how much the themes encountered here still apply, the contested facts, the attempts to draw demarcation lines between science and pseudoscience, the appeal of transcendentalist world views and the mutual recriminations between believers and sceptics.

The author paints a fascinating picture of psychical research and related topics in Imperial and Weimar Germany, and the story she tells has many resonances even today. Without a fuller knowledge of the background and sources, which probably no-one in the UK has, it is difficult to see how this account could be bettered.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous24.3.10

    There's an author interview about this book here: