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Darwin faces Kant: a study in nineteenth-century physiology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

S. P. Fullinwider
Department of History, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85281, USA.


Recent explorations into Sigmund Freud's intellectual development by Frank Sulloway and Lucille Ritvo have directed attention to the significance of evolutionary theory for psychoanalysis. In this paper I shall pursue the exploration by showing how Darwin was received by members of the so-called Helmholtz circle (Hermann von Helmholtz, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Ernst Brücke) and certain of Freud's teachers in the University of Vienna medical school. I will make the point that the Leibniz–Kant background of these several scientists was important for this reception. I will argue that the Leibniz–Kant tradition came forward to Freud by two roads, Helmholtz's unconscious inference as foundation for a physiology of the senses, and Arthur Schopenhauer's not unrelated uses of the principle of sufficient reason to explain the possibility of lawlikeness in a universe of lawless energies. Finally, I will suggest ways in which Freud received and used the tradition.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1991

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1 Sulloway, Frank, Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend, London, 1979, pp. 238–76, 361–92Google Scholar; Ritvo, Lucille, ‘Carl Claus as Freud's Professor of the New Darwinian Biology’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, (1972), 53, pp. 277–83Google ScholarPubMed, and ‘The impact of Darwin on Freud’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, (1974), 43, pp. 177–92Google Scholar; Darwin's Influence on Freud, New Haven, 1990.Google Scholar

2 See, e.g., Jones, Ernest, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, Vol. I, The Young Freud, 1856–1900, London, 1953, pp. 45ffGoogle Scholar; Bernfeld, Sigfried, ‘Freud's earliest theories and the School of Helmholtz’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, (1944), 13, pp. 341–62Google Scholar; Cranefield, Paul, ‘Freud and the “School of Helmholtz”’, Gesnerus, (1966), 23, pp. 35–9Google Scholar; Amacher, Peter, Freud's Neurological Education and its Influence on Psychoanalytic Theory, Vol. IV, Psychological Issues, New York, 19641965.Google Scholar

3 Müller, Johannes, Elements of Physiology, Vol. I, 2nd edn (tr. Baly, William), London, 1840, p. 819.Google Scholar

5 Ibid., II, p. 1348.

6 Ibid., II, p. 1334.

7 Ibid., II, p. 1333.

8 Ibid., II, p. 1334.

9 See, e.g., Culotta, Charles, ‘German biophysics, objective knowledge, and romanticism’, Hist. Studies in the Physical Sciences, (1975), 4, pp. 338CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rothschuh, Karl, History of Physiology (tr. Risse, Guenter), Huntington, New York, 1972, pp. 152, 205Google Scholar; Goodfield, June, The Growth of Scientific Physiology: Physiological Method and the Mechanistic Vitalistic Controversy, New York, 1975.Google Scholar

10 Müller, , op. cit. (5), p. 1334.Google Scholar

11 du Bois-Reymond, Emil, ‘Leibnirische Gedanken in der neueren Naturwissenschaft’ (1870), Vonrage ueber Philosophie und Gessellschaft (ed. Wollgast, Sigfried) Hamburg, 1974, pp. 38ffGoogle Scholar; ‘Uber die Grenzen des Naturerkennens’, ibid., pp. 54–6.

12 du Bois-Reymond, Emil, Untersuchungen ueber thierische Elektricitat, Vol. I, Berlin, 1848, xxxvxlv.Google Scholar

13 The vis viva controversy, pitting followers of Leibniz against the Newtonians and Cartesians, has been addressed by a number of historians in the recent past. Hankins, Thomas, ‘Eighteenth century attempts to resolve the vis viva controversy’, Isis, (1965), 56, pp. 281–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar, holds that Leibniz wanted a conservation principle to keep the world from ‘winding down’; Scott, Wilson, The Conflict between Atomism and Conservation Theory, 1644–1860, London, 1970, p. 25Google Scholar, sees the controversy as part of the larger ‘hard body’ atom debate; Hiebert, Erwin, Historical Roots of the Principle of the Conversation of Energy, Madison, 1962Google Scholar, traces the notion of energy back to Leibniz's vis viva; but Elkana, Yehuda, The Discovery of the Conversation of Energy, London, 1974, p. 27Google Scholar, disagrees, seeing vis viva as fore-runner of Naturphilosophie's concept of force, this in spite of Helmholtz's express use of the vis viva F = MV 2; Westfall, Richard, Force in Newton's Physics: The Science of Dynamics in the Seventeenth Century, London, 1971, p. 322Google Scholar, sees Leibniz's vis viva as the breakthrough into dynamics but argues that Leibniz was never able to free himself from the impact of theory of force. It was Buchdahl, Gerd, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science: The Classical Origins, Descartes to Kant, Oxford, 1969, pp. 417ffGoogle Scholar, who expanded the inquiry into an exploration of the relationship between Leibniz's physics and metaphysics.

14 Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Discourse on Metaphysics (tr. Lucas, Peter and Grint, Leslie), Manchester, [1686] 1953, pp. 2833Google Scholar; quoted in Costabel, Pierre, Leibniz and Dynamics: The Texts of 1692 (tr. Maddisen, R. E. W.), London, 1973, p. 49.Google Scholar I have leaned heavily on Buchdahl, Gerd, op. cit. (13)Google Scholar, discussion of Leibniz's use of F = MV 2 and the principle of sufficient reason.

15 Leibniz, , op. cit. (14), pp. 2833.Google Scholar

16 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘The Conservation of Force’ (1847), Selected Writings of Hermann von Helmholtz (ed. Kahl, Russell), Middletown, Conn., 1971, p. 6.Google Scholar

17 Helmholtz, , op. cit. (16), p. 4.Google Scholar For a more complete account of Helmholtz, see my ‘Hermann von Helmholtz: The problem of Kantian influence’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, (1990), 21, pp. 4155Google Scholar; and Turner, R. Steven's excellent ‘Helmholtz, sensory physiology, and the disciplinary development of German psychology’, in The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth-Century Thought (ed. Woodward, William and Ash, Mitchell), New York, 1982, pp. 147–66.Google Scholar

18 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘Die neuren Fortschritte in der Theorie des Sehens’ (1868), Vortrage und Reden, Vol. I, Braunschweig, 1896, p. 319.Google Scholar ‘Die Nervenerrungen in unserem Hirn und die Vorstellungen in unserem Bewusstsein können Bilder der Vorgange in der Aussenwelt sein, insofern erstere durch ihre Zietfolge die Zeitfolge der letztern nachahmen, insofern sie Gleichheit der Zeichen, under daher auch gesetzliche Ordnung durch gesetzliche Ordnung darstellen’.

19 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘The facts in perception’ (1878), in Hermann von Helmholtz: Epistemological Writings (ed. Hertz, P. and Schlick, M., tr. Lowe, M.), Dordrecht, 1977, pp. 143, 139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘Recent progress in the theory of vision’, Helmholtz on Perception (ed. , R. and Warren, R.), New York, 1968, p. 135.Google Scholar

21 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘Ueber der Erhaltung der Kraft’ (1862/1863), op. cit. (18), 198, 226Google Scholar; ‘Ueber die Wechselwirkung der Naturkrafte und die derauf bezeuglichen neuesten Ermittelungen der Physik’ (1854), ibid., pp. 57, 75.

22 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘Goethe's Anticipation of Subsequent Scientific Ideas’ (1892), op. cit. (16), p. 484ff.Google Scholar

23 Helmholrz, , op. cit. (16), p. 49.Google Scholar

24 Helmholtz, , op. cit. (22), p. 495.Google Scholar

25 Quoted in Jones, , op. cit. (2), p. 45.Google Scholar

26 du Bois-Reymond, , op. cit. (11), p. 55.Google Scholar

27 du Bois-Reymond, , op. cit. (12), p. xliii.Google Scholar

28 du Bois-Reymond, , op. cit. (11), pp. 5476.Google Scholar

29 Ibid., pp. 61–2.

30 Ibid., pp. 65–73.

31 von Helmholtz, Hermann, ‘The aim and progress of physical science’ (1869), op. cit. (16), p. 237.Google Scholar

32 du Bois-Reymond, Emil, ‘Darwin und Copernicus: Ein Nachruf’ (1883), op. cit. (11), p. 206.Google Scholar

33 du Bois-Reymond, Emil, ‘Die sieben Weltratsel’ (1880)Google Scholar, in ibid., p. 169.

34 du Bois-Reymond, , op. cit. (11), pp. 40–2.Google Scholar

35 See Sulloway, , op. cit. (1)Google Scholar; Ritvo, Lucille, ‘Darwin as the source of Freud's neo-Lamarckianism’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, (1965), 13, pp. 499517CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed and ‘The impact of Darwin on Freud’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, (1973), 43, pp. 177–92Google Scholar, for assessments of the importance and nature of Darwin's influence on Freud, especially as it came to him through his friend Wilhelm Fliess and his professor of biology, Carl Claus.

36 Sherman, Paul, Colour Vision in the Nineteenth Century: The Young–Helmholtz–Maxwell Theory, Bristol, 1981, p. 90Google Scholar, holds that Helmholtz's rejection of the equivalence of mixing light with mixing colours was a revolution in the area of colour theory on a par with the rejection of the fixed earth theory in astronomy. Sherman, who points out that Helmholtz found five fundamental colours, does not discuss Helmholtz's physiological theory regarding colour reception.

37 Brücke, Ernst, Vorlesungen ueber Physiologie, Vol. II, Vienna, 1885, pp. 167–71.Google Scholar

38 Ibid., p. 156.

39 Ibid., pp. 155–6, 224. ‘Das Gehirn übernimmt es, das, was an dem unmittelbaren Sinneseindruck mangelhaft ist, zu ergänzen.’

40 Ibid., p. 226. ‘Wir gehen eben unbewusste Schlüsse aus allen Sinneseindrucken, aus welchen sie gezogen werden können, and die ganz Welt unserer Vorstellungen setz sich aus solchen Schlüssen zusammen.’

41 Amacher, , op. cit. (2).Google Scholar

42 Exner, Sigmund, Entwurf zu einer physiologischen Erklarung der psychischen Erscheinungen, Vienna, 1894, p. 322.Google Scholar

43 Brücke, , op. cit. (37), pp. 225–6.Google Scholar

44 Exner, , op. cit. (42), pp. 334–5, 367.Google Scholar

45 Ibid., p. 368. ‘Ich sehe kein Hinherniss für die Annahme, das auch beim Menschen die Association swischen der Empfindung der Veränderung und deren Ursache auf wissentlich denzelben Verhältnissen beruht: es wird so erklärlich, dass die geschilderten Verwandtschaften der Rinderbahnen, da sie bis in das Thierreich zurrückgreifen, sich auch im Kampfe ums Dassien stets als nützlich erwiesen haben…’

46 Ibid., p. 370.

47 Ibid., p. 347; he cited Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Theodor Ziegler.

48 For Leibniz's use of the principle of sufficient reason see Broad, C. D., Leibniz: An Introduction (ed. Lewy, C.), London, 1975, pp. 1012.Google Scholar Broad quoted Leibniz on his principle as ‘Nothing happens without it being possible to have a reason why it happened as it did and not in another way.’ For Leibniz's use of the principle as the agent of selection, pp. 31–5, though this is not the point Broad was trying to make. For Schopenhauer's use of the principle see his On the Fourfold Roots of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (tr. Payne, E. F. J.), LaSalle, Ill.: [1813, 2nd rev. edn 1847], 1974.Google Scholar Though Schopenhauer gave Leibniz little credit for the development of the principle, his definition was the same: ‘Nothing is without a ground or reason why it is’ (p. 6). According to Schopenhauer (pp. 30–45) the first great advance in understanding the principle was taken by Kant in his Über eine Entdeckung, nach der alle neue Kritik der reinen Vernuft durch eine ältere entberlich gemacht werden soll (1790)Google Scholar, when he differentiated between the principle as used in formal logic as the necessity of having sufficient ground for a conclusion and its use as necessary cause.

49 For the question of conflation, see in general Heimann, P. M., ‘Helmholtz and Kant: The Metaphysical Foundations of Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, (1974), 5, pp. 221–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and for the question whether Kant himself conflated the order that we suppose to exist in nature with that imposed by our cognitive constitution see the debate between Gerd Buchdahl (‘The Conception of Lawlikeness in Kant's Philosophy of Science’, Synthese, (1971), 23, pp. 24–6Google Scholar, and ‘The Kantian “Dynamic of Reason,” with Special Reference to the Place of Causality in Kant's System’, Kant Studies Today (ed. Beck, Lewis), LaSalle, Ill., 1969, p. 355)Google Scholar and Strawson, P. F., The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, London, 1966.Google Scholar

50 Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, Vol. I (tr. Haldane, R. B. and Kemp, J.), London, 1883, p. 195.Google Scholar

51 Ibid., kpp. 190–2.

52 Mayr, Ernst, The Growth of Biological Thought, Cambridge, Mass., 1982, pp. 681ff.Google Scholar

53 Schopenhauer, , op. cit. (50), p. 191.Google Scholar

54 Ibid., pp. 191–2.

55 Ibid., p. 356.

56 See, Lesky, Erma, The Vienna Medical School of the 19th Century (tr. Williams, L. and Levij, I. S.), Baltimore, 1956, p. 115Google Scholar; Leibbrand, W., ‘K.v.R. und Schopenhauer’, Schopenhauer-Jahrb. (1953, 1954), 35, pp. 75ff.Google Scholar

57 Rokitansky, Carl, ‘Der selbstandige Werth des Wissens’, Vienna, 1867, p. 22.Google Scholar

58 Rokitansky, Carl, ‘Die Solidaritat alles Thierlebens’, Vienna, 1869, pp. 4, 6, 8.Google Scholar

59 Meynert, Theodor, ‘Carl Rokitansky’ (1878), Sammlung von popular-wissenschaften Vortragen, Vienna, 1892, p. 71.Google Scholar

60 Meynert, Theodor, ‘Das Zusammenwirken der Gehirntheile’ (1890)Google Scholar, ibid., p. 204; Psychiatry: A Clinical Treatise on Diseases of the Fore-Brain (tr. Sachs, B.), New York, 1885, p. 189.Google Scholar

61 Meynert, Theodor, ‘Die Bedeutung des Gehirnes fur das Vorstellungsleben’ (1868), op. cit. (59), p. 12Google Scholar; ‘Sur Mechanik des Gehirnbaues’, (1972)Google Scholar, ibid., pp. 27–8; ‘Des Zusammenwirken der Gehirntheile’, (1890)Google Scholar, ibid., p. 216.

62 Meynert, Theodor, ‘Gehirn und Gesittung’ (1888)Google Scholar, ibid., p. 141.

63 Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species: a facsimile of the First Edition, New York, 1967, pp. 60ff.Google Scholar

64 Meynert, Theodor, ‘Ueber die Gefuhle’ (1880), op. cit. (59), pp. 45–6.Google Scholar ‘Die Nervenfasern, welche in diesem Sinne von der Hirnrinde erregt werden, lassen sich nicht gut mit dem Bilde der Strahlungen vereinigen, sondern sind Fangarmen vergleichbar, welch die Hirnzellen gleichsam zur Aggression gegen die Aussenwelt absenden.’

65 Meynert, , op. cit. (62), p. 171.Google Scholar ‘associirt sich mit der Idee des Mutualismus, der Wechselseitigkeit, der Bruderlichkeit. So wie wir den Körper zur ernähren streben, so liegt auch im secundären Ich ein fortwährende Wachstumtendenz, Alles, was sich unter Gefühlen der Aggression, die wir auch Glücksgefuhle nennen können, ihm angliedert, hält es fest, vertheidigt seinen Besitz…’

66 ibid., p. 178.

67 Exner, Sigmund, ‘Die Moral as Waffe in Kampf ums Dasien,’ Vienna, 1892, p. 248.Google Scholar ‘“Der lustvoll gefärbte Affect ist mit Ausgriffsbewegungen, der unlustvolle mit Abwehrbewegungen associirt”, sagt Meynert.’

68 Exner, , op. cit. (42), pp. 333, 205.Google Scholar

69 Exner, , op. cit. (67), p. 252.Google Scholar

71 Ibid., p. 253. ‘die Pflicht. Die Frage Kant's “woher stammst Du?” wird der Mensch stets beantworten müssen durch jene Fechner'schen Geister, die in ihm hineindenke, “von einem anderen Mittelpunkte aus als seinem eigenen”, d.h. niemals auf Grund von Erfahrungen der Person, immer auf Grund von Erfahrungen der Gesammtheit.’

72 Ibid., pp. 265ff; also, Exner, , op. cit. (42), pp. 357ff.Google Scholar

73 Ibid., p. 335.

74 McGrath, William, Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis, Ithica, New York, 1986, pp. 126–7.Google Scholar

75 See my ‘Sigmund Freud, John Hughlings Jackson, and speech’, Journal of the History of Ideas, (1983), 44, pp. 151–8.Google Scholar

76 Jackson, John Hughlings, ‘On affections of speech for diseases of the brain’ (1878–1880), Selected Writings of John Hughlings Jackson, Vol. II, New York: 1958, pp. 155204.Google Scholar

77 See Meynert, Theodor's ‘Uber der Wahn’ (1885), op. cit. (60), 93–4Google Scholar, where he tells us that in madness accident controls associations, and his Klinische Vorlesungen ueber Psychiatrie, Vienna, 1890, p. 11.Google Scholar ‘Wenn die Association intensive absinkt, wie in Wannsinnzustande mit Verworrenheit, die gleichsam ein Nachlass der Associationsbande ist, so schildern Kranke ein Gefuhl des Auseinanderfliessen ihres Korpers’.

78 See, for example, Freud, Sigmund, Interpretation of Dreams (1990), Vol. 5, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (ed. Strachey, James), London, 1953, p. 514.Google Scholar

79 Freud, Sigmund, ‘Project for a scientific psychology’ (1895), The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilheilm Fliess, Drafts and Notes, 1887–1902 (ed Bonaparte, Marie et al. , tr. Mosbacher, Eric and Strachey, James), London, 1954, pp. 400–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

80 Sulloway, , op. cit. (1), pp. 198200, 398, 401ff.Google Scholar

81 Burnham, John ChynowethThe medical origins and cultural use of Freud's instinctual drive theory’, Psychoanalytical Quarterly, (1924), 43, pp. 193217.Google Scholar

82 See Amacher, , op. cit. (2), pp. 5572Google Scholar, according to whom Meynert and Exner were the sources for this notion.

83 Sulloway, , op. cit. (1), pp. 197200.Google Scholar

84 Freud, Sigmund, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Vol. 7, S.E., p. 135.Google Scholar

85 Ibid., p. 149.

86 Ibid., p. 182.

87 Ibid., pp. 153–7.

88 Ibid., p. 198.

89 Freud, , op. cit. (78), p. 339.Google Scholar

90 Freud, Sigmund, ‘Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia paranoidas)’; (1911), Vol. 12, S.E., pp. 382.Google Scholar

91 However, note Freud's earlier mentions of ‘projection’ to Fliess, ‘Draft H’, 24 January 1895, and ‘Draft K’, 1 January 1896, op. cit. (78), pp. 111–12, 114–15, 152–3.

92 Rokitansky, , op. cit. (57), p. 9.Google Scholar

93 Freud, , op. cit. (90), p. 63.Google Scholar

94 Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo (1913), Vol. 13, S.E., p. 64.Google Scholar

95 Ibid., p. 65.

96 Ibid., p. 64; Freud also mentioned this usage in the 1911 Schreber case, op. cit. (90), p. 66.

97 Freud, , op. cit. (94), p. 64.Google Scholar

98 Ibid., p. 65.

99 Freud, , op. cit. (78), p. 499.Google Scholar

100 Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Vol 18, S.E., pp. 29, 28.Google Scholar

101 Ibid., p. 28.

102 Ibid., p. 29.

103 Ibid., p. 36.

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