Emil du Bois-Reymond: Science, Progress and Superstition. An Interview with Gabriel Finkelstein

finkelsteinGabriel Finkelstein is Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver, where he teaches courses on Modern Germany, Modern Europe, History of Science, and History of Exploration. He has a degree in physics from Amherst College and a doctorate in history from Princeton University. He recently published a biography of the German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896).

AS: In the late 1840s, du Bois-Reymond famously ‘conspired’ with Hermann Helmholtz, Ernst Brücke and Carl Ludwig to battle the vitalism of their teacher, Johannes Müller, by strictly adhering to a reductionist methodology. What was at stake for these young men?

GF: The way these four friends wrote about it, vitalism was a superstition that mired Germany in the past. As liberal members of the educated elite, they saw science as the engine of progress, and they resented any approach to it that they considered backward.

Two points are worth mentioning in this context: First, a good deal of their ideology came from their class’s anticlericalism, and in particular, the anti-Catholic version of anticlericalism. If you consider the four friends revolutionaries, they act a lot like their counterparts in France—for both groups, the Church was a greater threat than the State. Müller was Catholic, after all. As Nick Jardine has perceptively noted in his article “The Mantle of Müller and the Ghost of Goethe”, du Bois-Reymond paints his teacher as the Erasmus of biology, implying that he is the Luther.

Second, many of the scientific problems Müller’s students worked on were Romantic in inspiration. Sensory physiology can be considered applied epistemology, which was a central concern of the Romantics. Helmholtz, Brücke, and du Bois-Reymond broke with Müller in their philosophy of science, but they continued to study the same problems that originally inspired him. (Ludwig is another story, since he didn’t train in Berlin.)

AS: Helmholtz, Brücke, Ludwig and du Bois-Reymond became the doyens of German physiology, and they trained a whole new generation of life scientists, not only in Germany. With other leading physiologists such as Claude Bernard still advocating vitalist theories, how did they ensure that their reductionism would prevail in modern physiological curricula?

Emil du Bois-Reymond

GF: The simplest answer is through their teaching. Helmholtz didn’t train many students in Königsberg, Bonn, and Heidelberg, but the other three physiologists all exerted considerable influence on medical education, particularly after 1861, when du Bois-Reymond convinced the Prussian Minister of Education to replace the Tentamen philosophicum, a qualifying examination oriented toward natural history, with the Tentamen physicum, an examination oriented more toward experimental sciences.

In itself this doesn’t mean that the physicalist outlook had to prevail, but considering that Helmholtz, Brücke, Ludwig, and du Bois-Reymond examined thousands of candidates for the M.D., it goes a long way toward explaining a shift toward reductionism among physicians. As for the discipline of physiology proper, du Bois-Reymond, Liebig, and Brücke dominated the German-speaking lands from their institutes in Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna, just as Bernard came to dominate physiology in France from his position in Paris.

AS: In 1878, du Bois-Reymond wrote:

“In the place of miracle, natural science put law. Like fading from the light of dawn, spirits and ghosts faded away from her. She broke the reign of old sacred lie. She extinguished the witches’ and heretics’ burning stakes. She put the blade into the hand of historical criticism.”

This was shortly after eminent Leipzig physical scientists such as Johann Friedrich Zöllner, Wilhelm Weber and Gustav Theodor Fechner joined the ranks of foreign colleagues like William Crookes, Alfred Russel Wallace and Alexandr Butlerov by conducting experiments in spiritualism. Was the timing accidental?

GF: I don’t think so. Du Bois-Reymond had already railed against table-rapping in the 1850s, but this passage hints at four developments in 1878: Bismarck’s break with the Liberals in favour of the Catholic Centre, Adolf Stöcker’s effort to lure workers in Berlin to his anti-Semitic party, an international resurgence of spiritualism, and Charcot’s experiments in hypnotism. I dealt with the first three topics in my book, so I won’t say more about them here.

Regarding the last topic, in 1890 the Standard quoted du Bois-Reymond’s views of hypnotism:

“My position toward both is very simple. Any physical influence of one person over another is out of the question. The effect is due solely to the impression made on the person hypnotised, or subjected to ‘suggestion.’ The special power and gift of hypnotising can consist only in the choice of suitable weak-willed and weak-minded subjects, and in impressing them with a belief in the hypnotiser’s superiority—no matter whether this be done in good faith, or with a consciousness that the role of a higher and more powerful being is merely assumed.

“The condition of the hypnotised, or of the persons inspired by ‘suggestion’ with certain ideas and motives, and impelled to certain actions, is a subject for the mad doctor. The compulsion which is alleged to take place in the process, if there really be any, is a form of insanity. It will often be difficult to draw the line between these aberrations and other disturbances of the thinking faculty, the consciousness, and the conscience.”

This response was typical of du Bois-Reymond: witty, caustic, and direct.

AS: Du Bois-Reymond’s quote on spirits and ghosts might pass as the mantra of nineteenth-century naturalism and the modern popular standard historiography of science and the ‘miraculous’. Recent scholarship has fundamentally challenged triumphalist accounts of progress, which lump together as ‘superstition’ diverse traditions and ideas deviating from enlightened-rationalist standard epistemologies. Why do you think teleological histories of science are still so popular?

GF: Let me offer a mild challenge of my own. In my experience, the historical revisions to which you refer are often just as teleological as the triumphalist accounts they want to replace. Perhaps a more general criticism might be that the real weakness of historical revisions is that they stress advocacy over understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem recognizing present concerns, and I don’t oppose taking sides in a debate. What bothers me is the cycle of one-upmanship in historical revisions—the attitude of “we now know.” There’s no winning this game. Each generation condescends to its predecessors and is condemned to be condescended to in turn.

The attitudes of the four friends toward biological reduction did indeed constitute a conspiracy. But I see a danger in interpreting history in these terms. What if, as Daan Wegener has argued, the organic physicists weren’t primarily motivated by self-interest, but rather meant exactly what they said? And even more unsettling, what if they understood more about the limitations of biological reduction (i.e., that it was a methodology, not an ontology, and that it necessarily ignored certain topics) than we think they did? Then it isn’t we who unmask their motives so much as they who unmask ours.

Du Bois-Reymond began as a triumphalist. He thought that rationality would dispel ignorance, and that science, as the clearest expression of rationality, would enlighten humanity. Over the course of his life he came to acknowledge the shortcomings of this belief. He doubted the record of progress in politics and morality, and even more important, he doubted that science could ever understand life—not life in the sense of activity to be studied, but rather life in the sense of experience to be felt.

Finkelstein_bookDu Bois-Reymond was indeed responsible for one of the standard historiographies of science—in fact, History of Science Society founder George Sarton cribbed his definition of science as progress from du Bois-Reymond’s 1877 address on “Civilization and Science.” But du Bois-Reymond was also responsible for questioning the standard historiography of science. In that same address he said that the instrumentality of science would subsume all other values, including the ones that made the world decent and beautiful. This was hardly a triumphalist vision.

Teleological histories remain popular because they are often taken for the only narratives that have any point. Du Bois-Reymond didn’t believe that things had to have a point for them to matter. To me his attitude seems wise.

© Gabriel Finkelstein & Andreas Sommer

Gabriel Finkelstein’s Academia.edu profile.

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3 thoughts on “Emil du Bois-Reymond: Science, Progress and Superstition. An Interview with Gabriel Finkelstein

  1. Gabriel Finkelstein “In my experience, the historical revisions to which you refer are often just as teleological as the triumphalist accounts they want to replace.”

    Gabriel Andreas awareness o’ the dangers o’ this sort o’ thing should be trained in t’students o’ all disciplines almost at a nervous systemic level much like “Know thyself” or “Don’t confuse razor blades with toilet paper”.

    Sayin’ that I still catch meself doin’ much the same thing all the time.


    The internet’s so fabulous at alertin’ people first rate minds like y’ own don’t automatic’ly assume ev’rythin’s done an’ dusted it’s no wonder the buggers’re gettin’ round t’doin’ somethin’ about it.

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