Physiological and Psychological Practices in the 19th Century - their Relationships to Literature, Art, and Technology

Organized together with Henning Schmidgen

This workshop took place at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (Germany), July 3-4, 1999. It was devoted to the perspectives and problems of a cultural history of the modern life sciences. Historians of science, technology and art, scholars from Germanic studies, literary studies and media theory as well as linguists and computer experts (from France, Germany and Switzerland) were invited to discuss the historical study of physiological and psychological practices in the nineteenth century in their relations to literature, art, and technology.

The workshop centred around the problem of how to mediate between historical studies focusing on the material culture of scientific practices and the research on the historical semantics of scientific concepts, themes and motives. It was meant to engage a dialogue among scholars from a variety of disciplines within the humanities with a perspective of exploring constructive collaborations among them.

The workshop was divided into two sessions. The first offered a critical appraisal of the work done in social history, the history of ideas and the history of science concerning the emergence of modern physiology, psychology, and linguistics. The second session was devoted to the traces of these experimental sciences in philosophy, art, and literature.

The following presentations stimulated the discussion: Henning Schmidgen (MPI), The Cultural History of Experimentation in Physiology and Psychology: Challenges and problems; Sven Dierig (MPI), Physiology in Context: Laboratory, urbanity, technology; Martin Stingelin (Germanisches Seminar, Universität Basel) Friedrich Nietzsche's Psychophysiology of Philosophy; Paul Ziche (Institut für Geschichte der Medizin, Naturwissenschaft und Technik, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena), Aesthetics of Thought: On the possibility and implications of a thought psychology; Christoph Hoffmann (MPI), Literature, Media, Physiology and Psychology: What do they have to do with each other? Jakob Tanner (Historisches Seminar, Universität Zürich) presented an extended comment on the first session. As a conclusion, Sarah Jansen (MPI) commented on the entire workshop.

In accordance with the explorative nature of the workshop, discussions centred around basic questions. There was a debate on the relations between the history of science and the history of the body, and between the history of ideas and discourse analysis ("Does the Foucauldian notion of practice necessarily exclude mental operations?"). The status and value of non-textual sources such as instruments and images in the historiography of science and culture was discussed ("Do instruments have a 'language' of their own?"). The quality of the relations between text and experiment was put into question as well as the concrete "seizing sites" (Zugriffsorte) where a pragmatologically informed historiography of science obtains its material.

The participants agreed that a cultural and scientific history of experimentation which takes into account the various aspects of experimental activity (i. e. material, social, technological, discursive, cognitive, etc.) is a promising and challenging undertaking.

The workshop is documented in the Max Planck Institute's Preprint Series, No. 120. Download PDF-File