Natural, social, and spiritual order in Enlightenment mesmerism: the Society of Universal Harmony (1783-1787)

Begin - Einde 
2019 - 2023 (lopend)
Vakgroep Geschiedenis



The Enlightenment stands as an age of scientific reason, where magic and religion were marginalized as alternative resources of public self-conduct. Among the many historical phenomena that problematize such an account, few are more revealing than the extraordinary success of mesmerism after the 1770s. This medical theory, invented by the Viennese physician F.A. Mesmer, simultaneously drew on the legacy of Newtonian physics and vitalist medicine, while forging strong alliances with freemasonry, nonconfessional Christianity, and pre-revolutionary politics.

This project takes a thoroughly non-teleological, symmetrical approach to the issue, which differs from previous research in two ways. First, it wishes to reconstruct mesmerists’ socio-epistemic maps of the complex relation between man, nature, truth, sociability, and institutions, which structure the individual pursuit of knowledge. Second, it focuses on the socio-epistemic vocabularies and concepts deployed by actors themselves. By applying this approach to mesmerism, we intend to uncover a more nuanced understanding of Enlightenment actors’ epistemic aspirations, which does not draw on anachronistic descriptive terms like ‘medical’, ‘political’, or ‘(un)orthodox’. As our specific case study, we focus on the Society of Universal Harmony (1783-1787), an intense socio-epistemic laboratory where so-called ‘medical’, ‘socio-political’, and ‘soteriological’ versions of mesmerism circulated and mutually demarcated one another.