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The historiography of psychical research: lessons from histories of the sciences
University of Exeter
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
Society for Psychical Research
This paper surveys the different uses to which history has been put, and the different historiographical perspectives adopted, in psychical research and related enterprises since the mid-nineteenth century. It contrasts recent historiographies of the science with those employed from late eighteenth century to the 1960s, and shows how these and other developments in the practice of history have dramatically changed our understanding of the places occupied by psychical research and the ‘occult’ in ‘orthodox’ sciences and wider culture. The second half of this paper outlines some of the key ways in which we can proceed still further in the shift towards better situating psychical research in its contemporary scientific contexts and abandoning rigid and ultimately unhelpful distinctions between ‘science’ and ‘pseudo-science’. I suggest that by deepening our understanding of nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific cultures — their troubles as well as successes — we can better appreciate why psychic phenomena were considered fit topics of scientific research. In conclusion I consider the suggestion that eclecticism is a virtue and necessity in history and suggest that it’s precisely because my discipline, the history of science, is more eclectic than many that it is and will continue to be a fruitful resource for developing our histories of psychical research.
British Academy; Royal Society