In a recent column I wrote: “In spite of all the blows dealt to our egos by science—beginning with the demonstration that the Sun and not the Earth is the center of the Solar System—many of us remain convinced that this universe was created for us, and that our destiny is unfolding according to a pre-ordained divine plan.”
The notion that heliocentrism was a blow to humanity’s narcissism is commonly attributed to Freud. But after reading my column, my buddy Gabriel Finkelstein, a historian of science at the University of Colorado, Denver, informed me that Freud got the idea from the 19th-century German physiologist-polymath Emil du Bois-Reymond, about whom Gabriel wrote a terrific biography. (See this 2013 interview with Gabriel about his book.) As Gabriel details below, Freud was well aware of du Bois-Reymond’s work, as were other pioneers of mind-science. But first, consider this quote from Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (delivered as lectures 1915-1917 and first translated into English in 1920):
“Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psychoanalysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.”
I love how Freud narcissistically suggests that his blow to our narcissism is mightier than those delivered by Copernicus and Darwin. Now compare Freud’s comments to the eulogy, “Darwin and Copernicus,” that du Bois-Reymond gave in Berlin after Darwin’s death of Darwin in 1882 (reprinted in Nature in 1883):
“Darwin seems to me to be the Copernicus of the organic world. In the sixteenth century Copernicus put an end to the anthropocentric theory by doing away with the Ptolemaic spheres and bringing our earth down to the rank of an insignificant planet. At the same time he proved the non-existence of the so-called empyrean, the supposed abode of the heavenly hosts, beyond the seventh sphere, although Giordano Bruno was the first who actually drew the inference. Man, however, still stood apart from the rest of animated beings— not at the top of the scale, his proper place, but quite away, as a being absolutely incommensurable with them. One hundred years later Descartes still held that man alone had a soul, and that beasts were mere automata… [After On the Origin of Species] all things were seen to be due to the quiet development of a few simple germs; graduated days of creation gave place to one day on which matter in motion was created; and organic suitability was replaced by a mechanical process, for as such we may look on natural selection, and now for the first time man took his proper place at the head of his brethren… Though many links are still missing, we may fairly consider the knowledge of the existence of primeval man as the beginning of the long-looked-for connection between him and the anthropoids on the one hand, and between them both and their common progenitors on the other.”
Finkelstein adds the following comments on du Bois-Reymond’s influence on Freud and others:
“Freud planned to study with du Bois-Reymond but never made it to Berlin. Instead, he studied in Vienna with the professor of physiology at that university, Ernst von Brücke, who was du Bois-Reymond's best friend. Brücke was another mechanist physiologist (like du Bois-Reymond) from Berlin who had trained with Johannes Mülller; as students in 1842 he and du Bois-Reymond swore their famous pact to reject vitalist explanations in biology. Freud read du Bois-Reymond's popular essays on science and culture, including ‘Darwin and Copernicus,’ du Bois-Reymond's short obituary address, which was the source of Freud's trope.
“William James actually did make it to Berlin in 1867 to study neurophysiology with du Bois-Reymond, but he couldn't hack it and quit his studies. He also chafed under du Bois-Reymond's mechanism, and most of his early essays refer to du Bois-Reymond in some way. Wundt didn't study with du Bois-Reymond, but he did with his other close Berlin friend, Hermann von Helmholtz, who started his career in Berlin as another mechanist physiologist. Finally, Pavlov didn't study with du Bois-Reymond, but was inspired by du Bois-Reymond's student, Ivan Sechenov, sometimes called the father of Russian physiology. Sechenov discovered neural inhibition in 1863 in du Bois-Reymond's lab. So du Bois-Reymond had a direct or indirect influence on the four founders of the discipline of psychology. All from a guy who said that we would never understand the mind" (see Addendum).
Finkelstein says that—to be fair to Freud--du Bois-Reymond “got most of his good ideas from people before him. I guess the moral is a) good ideas are timeless b) it's very hard to come up with anything new.”
Addendum: I didn’t get my idea for my book The End of Science from du Bois-Reymond, but I should have, because he wrote extensively—and presciently—about the limits of science. For more on his career, see Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany, by Gabriel Finkelstein. MIT Press. Also check out his 1874 essay “Limits of Our Knowledge of Nature,” The Popular Science Monthly. It spells out what philosopher Owen Flanagan has dubbed the mysterian perspective, which holds that consciousness is not solvable. 141 years later, mysterianism is as viable as ever.