AHP readers may be interested in M. Norton Wise’s recent book, Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann Von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society. The book is described as follows:
On January 5, 1845, the Prussian Cultural Minister received a request by a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin. In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small but growing group—which soon included Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Ernst Brücke, Werner Siemens, and Hermann von Helmholtz—established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of natural science. How was this possible? How could a bunch of twenty-somethings succeed in seizing the future?
In Aesthetics, Industry, and Science M. Norton Wise answers these questions not simply from a technical perspective of theories and practices but with a broader cultural view of what was happening in Berlin at the time. He emphasizes in particular how rapid industrial development, military modernization, and the neoclassical aesthetics of contemporary art informed the ways in which these young men thought. Wise argues that aesthetic sensibility and material aspiration in this period were intimately linked, and he uses these two themes for a final reappraisal of Helmholtz’s early work. Anyone interested in modern German cultural history, or the history of nineteenth-century German science, will be drawn to this landmark book.
The September issue of Science in Context includes an article by Henning Schmidgen as part of a topical section on “Surfaces in the History of Modern Science: Inscribing, Separating, Enclosing.” In his piece Schmidgen explores the importance of Hermann Helmholtz’s graphic recordings of the speed of nerve transmissions. Full details follow below.
“Leviathan and the Myograph: Hermann Helmholtz’s “Second Note” on the Propagation Speed of Nervous Stimulations,” by Henning Schmidgen. The abstract reads,
In the winter of 1849–1850 in Königsberg, German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) conducted pioneering measurements concerning the propagation speed of stimulations in the living nerve. While recent historians of science have paid considerable attention to Helmholtz’s uses of the graphic method, in particular his construction of an instrument called “myographion,” this paper draws attention to the inscription surfaces that he used in effective ways for capturing and transmitting his findings. Against the background of recent archival findings, I show that Helmholtz used isinglass copies of his graphical recordings in order to communicate the basic principle of previous measurements to the academic public. As the correspondence with his Berlin-based friend and colleague Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896) and the subsequent development of the myographion make clear, these curves were not meant as measurements but functioned as demonstrations. In other words, Helmholtz’s curves did provide “images of precision” (Olesko and Holmes 1993) – but they were not precise images.
The most recent issue of Annals of Science includes an article that may be of interest to AHP reads. In “Vital Instability: Life and Free Will in Physics and Physiology, 1860–1880” Marij van Strien (left) describes efforts by nineteenth century scholars to use physics based theories to account for how the mind can influence the body. The abstract reads,
During the period 1860–1880, a number of physicists and mathematicians, including Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq, used theories formulated in terms of physics to argue that the mind, the soul or a vital principle could have an impact on the body. This paper shows that what was primarily at stake for these authors was a concern about the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, and that their theories can be regarded primarily as reactions to the law of conservation of energy, which was used among others by Helmholtz and Du Bois-Reymond as an argument against the possibility of vital and mental causes in physiology. In light of this development, Maxwell, Stewart, Cournot and Boussinesq showed that it was still possible to argue for the irreducibility of life and the mind to physics, through an appeal to instability or indeterminism in physics: if the body is an unstable or physically indeterministic system, an immaterial principle can act through triggering or directing motions in the body, without violating the laws of physics.
The June 2015 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. Included in the issue are two articles of special interest to AHP readers: Greg Eghigian (right) documents the history of psychopathy in Germany, while Julia Kursell, in the issue’s Focus Section on “The History of Humanities and the History of Science,” describes Hermann von Helmholtz’s work on musicology. Full details, including abstracts, follow below.
“A Drifting Concept for an Unruly Menace: A History of Psychopathy in Germany,” by Greg Eghigian. The abstract reads,
The term “psychopath” has enjoyed wide currency both in popular culture and among specialists in forensic psychiatry. Historians, however, have generally neglected the subject. This essay examines the history of psychopathy in the country that first coined the term, developed the concept, and debated its treatment: Germany. While the notion can be traced to nineteenth-century psychiatric ideas about abnormal, yet not completely pathological, character traits, the figure of the psychopath emerged out of distinctly twentieth-century preoccupations and institutions. The vagueness and plasticity of the diagnosis of psychopathy proved to be one of the keys to its success, as it was embraced and employed by clinicians, researchers, and the mass media, despite attempts by some to curb its use. Within the span of a few decades, the image of the psychopath became one of a perpetual troublemaker, an individual who could not be managed within any institutional setting. By midcentury, psychopaths were no longer seen as simply nosological curiosities; rather, they were spatial problems, individuals whose defiance of institutional routine and attempts at social redemption stood in for an attributed mental status. The history of psychopathy therefore reveals how public dangers and risks can be shaped and defined by institutional limitations.
“A Third Note: Helmholtz, Palestrina, and the Early History of Musicology,” by Julia Kursell. The abstract reads, Continue reading New Isis: Psychopathy in Germany & Helmholtz’s Musicology!
The most recent issue of Science in Context includes an article on Hermann von Helmholtz that may be of interest to AHP readers.
“Hermann von Helmholtz’s Empirico-Transcendentalism Reconsidered: Construction and Constitution in Helmholtz’s Psychology of the Object,” by Liesbet De Kock. The abstract reads,
This paper aims at contributing to the ongoing efforts to get a firmer grasp of the systematic significance of the entanglement of idealism and empiricism in Helmholtz’s work. Contrary to existing analyses, however, the focal point of the present exposition is Helmholtz’s attempt to articulate a psychological account of objectification. Helmholtz’s motive, as well as his solution to the problem of the object are outlined, and interpreted against the background of his scientific practice on the one hand, and that of empiricist and (transcendental) idealist analyses of experience on the other. The specifically psychological angle taken, not only prompts us to consider figures who have hitherto been treated as having only minor import for Helmholtz interpretation (most importantly J.S. Mill and J.G. Fichte), it furthermore sheds new light on some central tenets of the latter’s psychological stance that have hitherto remained underappreciated. For one thing, this analysis reveals an explicit voluntarist tendency in Helmholtz’s psychological theory. In conclusion, it is argued that the systematic significance of Helmholtz’s empirico-transcendentalism with respect to questions of the mind is best understood as an attempt to found his empirical theory of perception in a second order, normative account of epistemic subjectivity.