class="csc-frame csc-frame-default"What comes first, knowledge or its media?

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

JONAS STÄHELIN

From the Supernatural to the Supersensuous (and Back): Occult and Scientific Epistemologies of the Invisible in the 19th Century


The research project investigates the scientification of occultism in the 19th century. This process should be understood within a larger historical framework of what I call the scientification of the invisible. Throughout the 19th century, the scientific investigation of the invisible gained strong momentum: Aided by all sorts of technical apparatuses, areas such as chemistry and physics began to construct an invisible world populated by atoms and electrons – a truly wonderous world of ethereal undulations, electrical discharges and magnetic forces. Fields of scientific enquiry such as energy physics or non-Euclidean geometry formed discursive networks acting as multiplicators of the invisible. The world, as the exact sciences increasingly came to describe it, was literally occult.

Occultism was not satisfied with simply believing in the existence of a world populated by invisible forces. Just like any other scientific endeavor of the time, the knowledge it produced was to be derived from empirical facts. In my dissertation, I want to argue that scientification of the invisible provided a fertile ground for the development of occultism’s knowledge claim: Oliver Lodge’s investigations of the ether, for example, led him to formulate an ether theology that argued for a continuity between consciousness and a transcendental realm. Further prominent examples are to be found in William Crookes’ investigations of a “mysterious new force”, William F. Barett’s interest in telepathy, Carl Reichenbach’s theory of the “Od” or Karl Friedrich Zöllner’s spiritual experiments with the fourth dimension – all of which were trained scientists.

My research project wants to argue that, in the 19th century, the sciences should not be considered monolithic systems that followed a linear historical trajectory. The boundaries between what constituted the scientifically acceptable invisible and the occult invisible were more porous and less stable than has previously been assumed. As a result, we should come to understand the overall process of the scientification of knowledge taking place in the 19th century as a complex condition of possibility which could turn into unforeseen directions.