Meulders, Michel. Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience

By Dougherty, Jude P. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Meulders, Michel. Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience


Dougherty, Jude P., The Review of Metaphysics


MEULDERS, Michel. Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience. Translated and edited by Laurence Garvey. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. xvii + 235pp. Cloth, $27.95--Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) is remembered as one of the leading figures of German physiology in the nineteenth century, especially for his work on the perception of color, for his contribution to neurophysiology, and for his invention of the ophthalmoscope.

An empiricist to the core, he was convinced that physiology played an indispensable role in an understanding of major psychological functions, such as vision and the perception of color and space. He was opposed to the idealists and naturphilosophen who interpreted those functions from a viewpoint based on presuppositions that were inaccessible to experimentation. He argued vigorously against any attempt to explain nature by recourse to metaphysics. In discussions of the phenomenon of color, he found it necessary to oppose some of the scientific research of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who had written an influential book entitled Theory of Colours. Goethe resisted any purely mechanistic interpretation of psychological phenomena.

The book, it should be noted, is hot merely about Helmholtz. Michel Meulders, former Dean of the Medical School and Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience of the Catholic University of Louvain, provides an interesting sketch of the scientific atmosphere and cultural milieu of the early nineteenth century. An entire chapter is devoted to a discussion of the natural philosophy of the day, an outlook he shows to be the indispensable background for an understanding of science and medicine in Germany in the early part of that century.

In subsequent chapters, Meulders summarizes and analyzes Helmholtz's principal scientific achievements. Two works of major importance are singled out for analysis--namely, The Handbook of Physiological Optics, Vision and Perception, and Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. A significant part of Helmholtz: From Enlightenment to Neuroscience is devoted to a discussion of the scientific work of Goethe, given Helmholtz's opposition to much of Goethe's work on color and Goethe's rejection of Enlightenment philosophy in general.

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