This biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond, the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century, received an Honorable Mention for History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the 2013 PROSE Awards, was shortlisted for the 2014 John Pickstone Prize (Britain's most prestigious award for the best scholarly book in the history of science), and was named by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as one of the Best Books of 2014. -/- In his own time (1818–1896) (...) du Bois-Reymond grew famous for his groundbreaking research in neuroscience and his provocative addresses on politics and culture. His discovery of the electrical transmission of nerve signals, his innovations in laboratory instrumentation, and his reductionist methodology all helped lay the foundations of modern neuroscience. -/- In addition to describing the pioneering experiments that earned du Bois-Reymond a seat in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and a professorship at the University of Berlin, this book also recounts du Bois-Reymond’s family origins, private life, public service, and lasting influence. In talks that touched on science, philosophy, history, and literature, du Bois-Reymond introduced Darwin to German students (triggering two days of debate in the Prussian parliament), asked on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War whether France had forfeited its right to exist, and proclaimed the mystery of consciousness, heralding the age of doubt. The first modern biography in any language, "Emil du Bois-Reymond" recovers an important chapter in the history of science, the history of ideas, and the history of Germany. (shrink)
According to Hermann von Helmholtz, sensations are signs that external causes impress on our sense organs; those signs are then used by the mind to acquire knowledge of the reality. Helmholtz's work points out the difficulty of defining a notion of causality suitable for explaining the relation between sensations on the one hand and the physical world on the other. In fact, he states that: 1) Physical stimuli, understood as the causal origins of sensations, are unknowable in themselves; 2) There (...) is no empirical evidence for the kind of causality from which sensations originate; 3) A transcendental causality is nothing but the urge of the intellect to know everything. It is necessary to keep in mind that Helmholtz is a committed empiricist : therefore, he believes that all knowledge originates from sensations. He tries avoiding commitments with any kind of pre-established harmony between the two sides of the causal relation. That is to say, sensible perceptions give us information about the peculiarities of the external world, but the relation between sensations and the reality should be explained and should not be taken for granted. In this paper, I study Helmholtz's struggles with providing a suitable explanation of that relation; in doing so, I also make use of Emile Du Bois-Reymond's work concerning the limits of human understanding, and in particular the transcendent difficulty of grasping the origins of sensations. (shrink)
This article examines the science of electrophysiology developed by Emil du Bois-Reymond in Berlin in the 1840s. In it I recount his major findings, the most significant being his proof of the electrical nature of nerve signals. Du Bois-Reymond also went on to detect this same ‘negative variation’, or action current, in live human subjects. In 1850 he travelled to Paris to defend this startling claim. The essay concludes with a discussion of why his demonstration failed (...) to convince his hosts at the French Academy of Sciences. (shrink)
In 1872, Emil du Bois-Reymond delivered an astonishing lecture entitled “The Limits of Science” at a Congress of German Scientists and Physicians in Leipzig. No stranger to polemic and bellicose oratory, and possessing among his generation of physiologists unmatched rhetorical abilities, du Bois-Reymond had already attracted much public recognition and acclaim for his denigration of French culture at a time when belligerence and competition between Prussia and France had peaked. Yet, the topic of his 1872 lecture (...) had a signal significance which not only would inform du Bois-Reymond’s subsequent public lectures on literature, art, civilization and science, and the place of Darwin in the modern world, but would also elaborate a mechanistic and fatalistic view of consciousness, one that denied scientific understanding of the phenomenon as even obtainable. Controversy exploded—and from all quarters. Renowned scientists accused him of pessimism and of failing to apprehend the progress of in .. (shrink)
The German pioneer of electrophysiology, Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), is generally assumed to have remained silent on the subject of the brain. However, the archive of his papers in Berlin contains manuscript notes to a lecture on “The Seat of the Soul” that he delivered to popular audiences in 1884 and 1885. These notes demonstrate that cerebral localization and brain function in general had been concerns of his for quite some time, and that he did not shy away (...) from these subjects. (shrink)
This essay recounts a controversy between a pioneer electrophysiologist, Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), and his student, Ludimar Hermann (1838–1914). Du Bois-Reymond proposed a molecular explanation for the slight electrical currents that he detected in frog muscles and nerves. Hermann argued that du Bois-Reymond's ‘resting currents’ were an artifact of injury to living tissue. He contested du Bois-Reymond's molecular model, explaining his teacher's observations as electricity produced by chemical decomposition. History has painted Hermann (...) as the wronged party in this dispute. I seek to set the record straight. (shrink)
The late 19th-century Ignorabimus controversy over the limits of scientific knowledge has often been characterized as proclaiming the end of intellectual progress, and by implication, as plunging Germany into a crisis of pessimism from which Liberalism never recovered. My research supports the opposite interpretation. The initiator of the Ignorabimus controversy, Emil du Bois-Reymond, was a physiologist who worked his whole life against the forces of obscurantism, whether they came from the Catholic and Conservative Right or the scientistic and (...) millenarian Left. Du Bois-Reymond’s doubt that scientists would ever elucidate consciousness must therefore be seen as an endorsement, and not a rejection, of his faith in reason. (shrink)
Ernst Haeckel and Emil du Bois-Reymond were the most prominent champions of Darwin in Germany. This essay compares their contributions to popularizing the theory of evolution, drawing special attention to the neglected figure of du Bois-Reymond as a spokesman for a world devoid of natural purpose. It suggests that the historiography of the German reception of Darwin’s theory needs to be reassessed in the light of du Bois-Reymond’s Lucretian outlook.
ArgumentIn this paper I present an interpretation of du Bois-Reymond’s thesis on the impossibility of a scientific explanation of consciousness and of its present importance. I reconsider du Bois-Reymond’s speech “On the limits of natural science” in the context of nineteenth-century German philosophy and neurophysiology, pointing out connections and analogies with contemporary arguments on the “hard problem of consciousness.” Du Bois-Reymond’s position turns out to be grounded on an epistemological argument and characterized by a (...) metaphysical skepticism, motivated by the unfruitful speculative tendency of contemporary German philosophy and natural science. In the final sections, I show how contemporary research can benefit from a reconsideration of this position and its context of emergence, which is a good vantage point to trace open problems in consciousness studies back to their historical development. (shrink)
This article examines the notion of the `scientist as a moral person' in the light of the early stages of the commodification of science and the transformation of research into a big enterprise, operating on the principle of the division of labour. These processes were set in train at the end of the 19th century. The article focuses on the concomitant changes in the public persona and the habitus of scientific entrepreneurs. I begin by showing the significance of the professional (...) networks that were built up and maintained to further a group's research ideas and the careers of its members, thus demonstrating one condition on which depended their practice of science and their ability to earn a living. This leads to a characterization of the changing styles of work, thought and life, and to a consideration of public perceptions and of the ways in which a new self-image of scholarship and science was fashioned. A critical discussion of the public role of these mandarin scientists follows in order to highlight the strains created by the commodification of science at a time of international tensions and conflicts, when shared beliefs in scholarly cosmopolitanism were subverted by appeals to science and scholarship to work in the service of one's own nation as its `courtiers'. Various considerations of peculiar analogies between national styles of research and the style of social organization are then noted. In the final section, the article queries the long-term impact of these developments on the ideal of the scientist as a `moral person'. Taking a cue from Max Weber and pursuing reflections by Zygmunt Bauman on `science moralized', I argue that the emergence of a type of `specialists without spirit' was an unintended but fatal consequence of the changes in research practices promoted by scientific entrepreneurs such as Du Bois-Reymond. I conclude that the temptation to sever the ties to a general ethos of civil virtues lay in the rationalization, specialization and potential de-humanization of the objectifying scientific outlook once advocated for its efficiency. (shrink)
This essay considers a long-standing controversy between two nineteenth century pioneers in electrophysiology: the German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), and his Italian rival Carlo Matteucci (1811-1868). Historians have generally described their disagreement in du Bois-Reymond’s terms: the product of a contrast in scientific outlook. While not discounting this interpretation, I want to suggest that the controversy was driven as much by the rivals’ similarity as it was by their difference.
This article is concerned with interactions between the natural and the human sciences. It examines a specific late 19th-century episode in their relationship and argues that the schism between the two branches of knowledge was due to cognitive factors, but consolidated through the social dynamics of institutionalized disciplines. It contends that the assignment of a social function to the human sciences to compensate for the self-destructive tendencies inherent in the technological society was expressed even by those, at the end of (...) the 19th century, who were fervent advocates of a science- and technology-driven modernization. (shrink)
ArgumentNineteenth-century Prussia was deeply entrenched in philhellenism, which affected the ideological framework of its public institutions. At Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University, philhellenism provided the rationale for a persistent elevation of the humanities over the burgeoning experimental life sciences. Despite this outspoken hierarchy, professor of physiology Emil du Bois-Reymond eventually managed to increase the prestige of his discipline considerably. We argue that du Bois-Reymond’s use of philhellenic repertoires in his expositions on physiology for the educated German public (...) contributed to the rise of physiology as a renowned scientific discipline. Du Bois-Reymond’s rhetorical strategies helped to disassociate experimental physiology from clinical medicine, legitimize experimental practices, and associate the emerging discipline with the more esteemed humanities and theoretical sciences. His appropriation of philhellenic rhetoric thus spurred the late nineteenth-century change in disciplinary hierarchies and helped to pave the way for the current hegemonic position of the life sciences. (shrink)
Triumphalist histories of science are nothing new but were, in fact, a staple of the 19th century. This article considers one of the more famous works in the genre and argues that it was motivated by doubt more than by faith.
Professeur Finkelstein avait posée la question, pourquoi, bien que leurs réalisations scientifiques et leur scientifique approche soient similaires, Bernard était beaucoup plus connu dans son pays, France, et à son époque, que Bois-Reymond en Allemagne? Une question similaire a été posée au sujet du pourquoi Darwin est connu pour la théorie de l'évolution, tandis que Wallace a été remis en arrière-fond dans leur temps et dans l'histoire. Selon Finkelstein, la cause de la differences entre Bois-Reymond et (...) Bernard, peut être trouvée dans la culture et la place de la science dans l'œil public en France contre les memes choses en Allemagne. C'est-à-dire, la rhétorique de la science a été plus respectée en France qu'en Allemagne, ce que Finkelstein a soutenu avec persuasion et éloquence. (shrink)
This paper addresses the visual culture of late-19th-century experimental physiology. Taking the case of Johann Nepomuk Czermak (1828-1873) as a key example, it argues that images played a crucial role in acquiring experimental physiological skills. Czermak, Emil Du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896) and other late-19th-century physiologists sought to present the achievements and perspective of their discipline by way of "immediate visual perception (unmittelbare Anschauung)." However, the images they produced and presented for this purpose were strongly mediated. By means of specifically (...) designed instruments, such as the "cardioscope," the "contraction telegraph," and the "frog pistol," and of specifically constructed rooms, so-called "spectatoriums," physiologists trained and controlled the perception of their students before allowing them to conduct experiments on their own. Studying the material culture of physiological image production reveals that technological resources such as telegraphy, photography, and even railways contributed to making physiological facts anschaulich. At the same time, it shows that the more traditional image techniques of anatomy played an important role in physiological lecture halls, especially when it came to displaying the details of vivisection experiments to the public. Thus, the images of late 19th century physiology stood half-way between machines and organisms, between books and instruments. (shrink)
Philosophers of science debate the proper role of non-epistemic value judgements in scientific reasoning. Many modern authors oppose the value free ideal, claiming that we should not even try to get scientists to eliminate all such non-epistemic value judgements from their reasoning. W. E. B. Du Bois, on the other hand, has a defence of the value free ideal in science that is rooted in a conception of the proper place of science in a democracy. In particular, Du (...) class='Hi'>Bois argues that the value free ideal must be upheld in order to, first, retain public trust in science and, second, ensure that those best placed to make use of scientifically acquired information are able to do so. This latter argument turns out to relate Du Bois’ position on the value free ideal in science to his defence of epistemic democracy. In this essay I elaborate, motivate, and relate to the modern debate, Du Bois’ under-appreciated defence of the value free ideal. (shrink)
The late 19th century debate among German-speaking physicists about theoretical entities is often regarded as foreshadowing the scientific realism debate. This paper brings out differences between them by concentrating on the part of the earlier debate that was concerned with the conceptual consistency of the competing conceptions of matter—mainly, but not exclusively, of atomism. Philosophical antinomies of atomism were taken up by Emil Du Bois-Reymond in an influential lecture in 1872. Such challenges to the consistency of atomism had (...) repercussions within the physics community, as can be shown for the examples of Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Boltzmann. The latter developed a series of counter-arguments, culminating in an ingenious attempt to turn the tables on the critics of atomism and prove the inconsistency of non-atomistic conceptions of nature. Underlying this controversy is a disagreement over specific goals of physical research which was considered crucially relevant to the further course of physical inquiry. It thereby exemplifies an attitude towards the realism issue that can be contrasted with a different, more neutral attitude of construing the realism issue as merely philosophical and indifferent with respect to concrete research programs in physics, which one also occasionally finds expressed in the 19th century controversy and which may be seen as the prevailing attitude of the 20th century debate. (shrink)
Cauchy’s contribution to the foundations of analysis is often viewed through the lens of developments that occurred some decades later, namely the formalisation of analysis on the basis of the epsilon-delta doctrine in the context of an Archimedean continuum. What does one see if one refrains from viewing Cauchy as if he had read Weierstrass already? One sees, with Felix Klein, a parallel thread for the development of analysis, in the context of an infinitesimal-enriched continuum. One sees, with Emile Borel, (...) the seeds of the theory of rates of growth of functions as developed by Paul du Bois-Reymond. One sees, with E. G. Björling, an infinitesimal definition of the criterion of uniform convergence. Cauchy’s foundational stance is hereby reconsidered. (shrink)
[First paragraphs: This essay takes its practical orientation from my experiences as a member of a philosophy reading group on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee. Its theoretical orientation comes from W. E. B. Du Bois’ lecture-turned-essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” which argues that the realm of aesthetics is vitally important in the war against racial discrimination in the United States. And since, according to Michele Alexander’s critically-acclaimed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the (...) Age of Colorblindness, the prison system should be the primary front today in this war, my essay’s ultimate aim is t/o articulate a new criterion of the present-day “Negro” art being created by a prison population that is still overwhelmingly constituted by persons of color. In my first section, I will show how Du Bois’ insights in “Criteria of Negro Art” remain relevant today, especially in the prison context, and argue that it is thus appropriate for my new criterion to be shaped by his distinctive conception of “propaganda.” In my second section, through a close reading of two texts by Michel Foucault (the pivotal thinker of modern imprisonment), I will flesh out this new criterion, “self-torsion,” defined as the effect of prisoners’ attempts at self-care within a prison system that distorts those attempts into further exploitation of both prisoners and the outside world that imprisons them. And my final section, in an attempt to illustrate this new criterion’s efficacy as a form of propagandistic resistance to contemporary racism, will deploy self-torsion as a critique of two artworks created by imprisoned members of my reading group at Riverbend penitentiary. (shrink)