The most recent issue of Science in Context includes two pieces on Emil du Bois-Reymond that may interest AHP readers. Full details below.
“Reconsidering the ignorabimus: du Bois-Reymond and the hard problem of consciousness,” Paolo Pecere. Argument:
In 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” (1872) 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.
“Physiology and philhellenism in the late nineteenth century: The self-fashioning of Emil du Bois-Reymond,” Lea Beiermann and Elisabeth Wesseling. Argument:
Nineteenth-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.