Müller’s Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies

Now available online, and forthcoming in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, are two pieces on Müller’s doctrine of specific nerve energies that may be of interest to AHP readers.

“Realism without tears I: Müller’s Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies,” by Alistair M. C. Isaac. Abstract:

The Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies has been and continues to be enormously influential in the physiology, psychology, and philosophy of perception. In simple terms, the Doctrine states that we directly perceive in the first instance the activity of our nerves, rather than properties in the external world. The canonical early statement of the Doctrine by the physiologist Johannes Peter Müller had profound influence on both the philosophy and psychology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially as reformulated and transmitted by Müller’s student Helmholtz. A common assumption of historical and ongoing debate about the Doctrine has been its supposedly idealist or skeptical implications. What is not commonly recognized is that Müller himself advanced a realist interpretation along lines that would be recognized today as a form of epistemic structural realism. This paper analyzes Müller’s structuralist epistemology in detail and reconstructs his articulation and defense of the Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies in its canonical form. Part II argues for the continued importance of the Doctrine and its structuralist interpretation for contemporary psychology, philosophy of perception, and history of philosophy of science.

“Realism without tears II: The structuralist legacy of sensory physiology,” by Alistair M. C. Isaac. Abstract:

This paper examines the implications of the Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies for contemporary philosophy and psychology. Part I analyzed Johannes Peter Müller’s canonical formulation of the Doctrine, arguing that it follows from empirical results combined with methodological principles. Here, I argue that these methodological principles remain valid in psychology today, consequently, any naturalistic philosophy of perception must accept the Doctrine’s skeptical conclusion, that the qualities of our perceptual experience are not determined by, and thus do not reveal the nature of, their causes in the world. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we must be global skeptics; rather, I argue that contemporary epistemology of perception should embrace Müller’s own response to the Doctrine: epistemic structural realism. As articulated by Müller’s student, Helmholtz, structural realism follows from the Doctrine once we recognize that active exploration constitutes part of the mechanism that determines perceptual experience, a view congenial to contemporary theories of embodied perception in cognitive science. Structural realists in philosophy of science should likewise heed the lessons of the Doctrine, as it played a critical part in the early history of their view, and may still serve a constructive role as exemplar today.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.