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New Biography Reanimates 19th-Century German Polymath Who Foresaw Science’s Limits

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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My colleagues and I at Stevens Institute of Technology are creating a new program in science communication, and we’ve decided that majors should get a healthy dose of science history. You can’t write intelligently about science today unless you know at least a little about science yesterday. Right?

Du Bois-Reymond predicted that humans would "never fathom the ultimate nature of mind and matter,"according to historian Gabriel Finkelstein.

I confess that I’ve never taken a class in history of science, and yet I write about science and even teach history of science. I should be sued for malpractice! In my defense, I’ve picked up a little science history during my career in journalism and have even befriended a few science historians, who have generously shared their wisdom with me.

One such buddy is my Stevens colleague James McClellan, who authored the textbook that I use in my history of science class. Last spring I interviewed McClellan about his latest book, on science in pre-revolutionary France.

Another historian pal is Gabriel Finkelstein, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver. I met Gabriel in 2007 when he invited me to participate in a session he organized on the limits of science at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society in Washington, D.C. He’s a smart, funny guy, an energetic and insightful scholar and a terrific writer. He’s also interested, as I am, in how scientists’ views of the limits of science have changed over time.

So I want to draw attention to Finkelstein’s new book Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany, a biography of a brilliant German polymath who was extraordinarily prescient about science’s potential and limits. I would have interviewed Gabriel about his book, but his publisher, MIT Press, beat me to it–and kindly gave me permission to republish its Q&A here:

Q. In your book you claim “Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the 19th century.” Why do you think this?

Because of the number, variety, and significance of his contributions. There are other 19th century intellectuals of du Bois-Reymond’s stature, but most readers have already heard about them. And there are other forgotten 19th century intellectuals, but they didn’t contribute as much as du Bois-Reymond.

Q. What are some of du Bois-Reymond’s major contributions to science?

Over the course of his life, Emil du Bois-Reymond grew famous for inventing the discipline of electrophysiology. Contemporary neuroscience unites three traditions: one in anatomy that goes back to the Greeks (localization), one in chemistry that arose in the twentieth century (neurotransmitters), and one in physics that arose in the nineteenth century (electrical signals). Du Bois-Reymond is the father of the last. He’s not quite Victor Frankenstein, but he’s close.

Du Bois-Reymond’s discovery of the nerve signal earned him a seat in the Prussian Academy of Science and a professorship at the University of Berlin, back then the top university in the world. Contemporaries called him “the foremost naturalist in Europe,” rivaling Charles Darwin and Claude Bernard in fame and exceeding them in influence. Darwin’s theory went into eclipse at the turn of the century, Bernard’s vitalism died out altogether, but du Bois-Reymond’s mechanist approach laid the foundation of modern biology.

Q. Du Bois-Reymond seems like he was an “intellectual rock star.” He not only made serious contributions to science, but was also a cultural icon. What were some of his bigger contributions to German culture?

Du Bois-Reymond was far more than a scientific pioneer. Like many of his colleagues, he capitalized on his academic authority to address the issues of his day. One speech, delivered on the eve of the Prussian War, asked whether the French had finally forfeited their right to exist; another, responding to the debate between science and religion, surveyed the limits of reason; another, reviewing the career of Darwin, triggered two days of parliamentary debate; and another, surveying the course of civilization, claimed science as the essential history of humanity. These pronouncements provoked international controversy.

Du Bois-Reymond’s originality as a thinker is astounding. Among his countrymen he was the first scholar to teach Darwin’s theory; the first scholar to analyze the rise of nationalism; the first scholar to formulate the tenets of the history of science; the first scholar to outline a history of cinema; one of the first scholars to popularize the French Enlightenment; and one of the first scholars to condemn anti-Semitism. He also challenged the worship of Goethe, the value of aesthetic theory, the dominance of capital, the narrative of progress, the inheritance of acquired characters, the primacy of man, the doctrine of free will, the record of the Church, and the jargon of philosophy.

Q. What is the significance of “The Seven Enigmas”?

This address, which du Bois-Reymond delivered in 1880, reviewed the major shortcomings of science. Du Bois-Reymond was not the first to suggest that we would never fathom the ultimate nature of mind and matter (Tyndall, Huxley, Virchow, Voltaire, Diderot, La Mettrie, Leibniz, Locke, Pascal, and even Dante had said as much), but his was the clearest voice of skepticism towards the burgeoning faith in experiment. People did not warm to his warning. He was attacked by the press, the academy, and the Church, and new schools of philosophy, like pragmatism, neo-idealism, and logical positivism, arose in response to his argument. As I discovered, William James came to Berlin in 1867 in order to study with du Bois-Reymond. Not long thereafter James dropped out of school and suffered a famous crisis of confidence. It’s hard to tell which had horrified him more: his failure at neurophysiology or his anguish at du Bois-Reymond’s Pyrrhonism. Either way, the experience haunted James all his life. Just du Bois-Reymond’s logic still does us—it is rare to find a mathematician, or a scientist, or a philosopher who can resign himself to the limitations of reason.

Q. Despite du Bois-Reymond being forgotten, what is his legacy?

In terms of science, du Bois-Reymond revolutionized the study of the nervous system. He also popularized the unifying principles of energy conservation and natural selection, making the contemporary world safe for Lucretius, so to speak.

In terms of philosophy, he provoked responses from Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ernst Mach, David Hilbert, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Ernst Cassirer. Du Bois-Reymond’s insights continue to inform philosophy today.

In terms of history, he legitimated the study of culture, incited the development of historicism, popularized the philosophes of the 18th century, and drew attention to the phenomenon of nationalism.

In terms of the arts, he promoted the career of Juliet Margaret Cameron, championed realist literature, and lamented the Americanization of culture.

In terms of sports, he helped to pioneer gymnastics, mountaineering, and the physiology of exercise.

And finally, in terms of foresight, he predicted that Europe would sink into genocide and that fossil fuels would degrade the environment.

Du Bois-Reymond was a thinker of the first order. He was cosmopolitan in his outlook, liberal in his politics, and progressive in his relations. He stands as an exemplar of the brilliance of German culture in the 19th century, and by implication, of the enormity of the loss that followed in the 20th.

Let me close with a personal reflection. The great temptation of historians is to condescend to their subjects—after all, we know how the story will turn out. I suppose you could call this a kind of dramatic irony. Like actors in a sitcom, the actors of history never really comprehend their motives; instead, it is historians who make sense of their confusion.

Studying du Bois-Reymond showed me that the opposite is also true. Du Bois-Reymond understood his times far better than I did, and only at the end of writing his biography did I realize that he had been guiding me all along. This was an inspiring moment. Du Bois-Reymond’s legacy is the age-old lesson that the meaning of things will not be revealed in some future apocalypse, but rather that it must be grasped here and now.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:41 pm 11/7/2013

    “One speech, delivered on the eve of the Prussian War, asked whether the French had finally forfeited their right to exist…”

    Yes, as a Prussian I would imagine he might hold that opinion.

    “…the first scholar to analyze the rise of nationalism…”

    This is not at all surprising for a Prussian intellectual living at that time.

    “…the first scholar to outline a history of cinema…”

    He died in 1896. How much history of cinema existed at the time?

    “He also challenged the worship…the value of aesthetic theory, the dominance of capital, the narrative of progress…the record of the Church”

    As a contemporary of Marx and Engels (both Prussians) it might be important to mention their analysis of “the value of aesthetic theory, the dominance of capital, the narrative of progress and the record of the Church.” Du Bois-Reymond must have had opinions on their work.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 2:47 pm 11/8/2013

    This is really a great topic. Will Emil du Bois-Reymond feature prominently in the history of science course you put together? I think you should include his “Seven Enigmas” or riddles. From what I understand from Wikipedia they were:

    1.the ultimate nature of matter and force,
    2.the origin of motion,
    3.the origin of life,
    4.the “apparently teleological arrangements of nature,” not an “absolutely transcendent riddle,”
    5.the origin of simple sensations, “a quite transcendent” question,
    6.the origin of intelligent thought and language, which might be known if the origin of sensations could be known, and
    7.the question of freewill.

    As I understand it he thought 1), 2), and 5) to be ignoramus et ignorabimus or “we do not know and will not know.” It is fascinating that he thought that the origin of life is knowable.

    Since he died before the great rise of experimental discovery into the nature of matter I wonder if he might have modified this list a bit had he lived a few decades longer. Personally, I think that the more we know the more questions we will have. Just my opinion.

    I think your course ought to include the great argument about whether atoms existed that arose at the end of the 19th century and how that impacted poor Ludwig Boltzmann and his cherished work on the kinetic theory of gases.

    “surveying the course of civilization, [du Bois-Reymond] claimed science as the essential history of humanity.” Yes, you cannot really appreciate history if you neglect the history of science.

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  3. 3. gs_chandy 9:34 pm 11/8/2013

    Fascinating!! Thank you, Mr Horgan – I certainly look forward to reading Gabriel Finkelstein’s book on Emil du Bois-Reymond (about whom I had just vaguely heard). This is notwithstanding du Bois-Reymond’s apparent chauvinism – witness his ridiculous idea (as a Prussian) that the French may have forfeited their right to exist(!!!). Ironically enough, it appears that Prussia that has ceased to exist (as a nation) though I don’t know about chauvinistic Prussians – this development may hold some useful ideas for many of us.

    Without knowing a great deal about the historical evolution and development of ‘national attitudes’, I’d guess that – in du Bois-Reymond’s times – a major national curse must have ‘Prussian Exceptionalism’; which was probably overtaken by ‘British Exceptionalism’ during my schooldays; which in turn has subsequently been overtaken by ‘US Exceptionalism’ nowadays – which seems about ready to be overtaken by ‘Chinese Exceptionalism’. [In the days when India [my 'home-nation'] was exporting ideas to the world, I guess there must have been something that we could term as ‘Indian Exceptionalism’? Later, there was also the ‘Rise, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ – and such historical facts may well be of interest to students of ‘culture’, in which I have very little if any expertise].

    In his ‘Seven Enigmas’ (which I shall certainly explore further), du Bois-Reymond does appear to have had very important ideas that are of great moment even today, in particular that there are questions that science may not *ever* help us ‘fully explain’ (simply because every ‘answer’ leads to more questions).

    I must thank M. Tucker for his two comments for helping me arrive at the decision to read Finkelstein’s book itself rather than just investigate du Bois-Reymond a bit further via Wikipedia, etc.

    I guess I shall have to study a bit more about how and why William James should have fallen into despair because of du Bois-Reymond’s Pyrrhonic scepticism, which seems to me to be a quite sensible view about life and about the limits of human knowledge.

    [I should emphasise that in none of the above am I by any means advocating a 'mystical' or 'religious' view of life as the way to go].


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  4. 4. rshoff2 12:54 pm 11/15/2013

    “Du Bois-Reymond’s legacy is the age-old lesson that the meaning of things will not be revealed in some future apocalypse, but rather that it must be grasped here and now.”

    I like this guy, du Bois-Reymond. There’s nothing to ‘reveal’, is there? We can open our eyes and look around. Or not. Whichever we choose, changes nothing. The universe is behaving the way it does and needs no acceptance from us.

    The universe probably has no requirement to behave constantly or consistently. Perhaps that’s a manmade illusion. What is true today in physics may be made obsolete by tomorrow.

    Yesterday, I took a picture of the Eiffel Tower. Today I wonder, was it the Eiffel Tower? Tomorrow I will ponder who took the picture. Then later yet, I’ll wonder what’s a picture? hmmm.

    define; persistent, immutable, eternal


    We’re stuck in the freeze framing of a great big explosion….

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