Mind and Brain in Weimar Culture

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					Mind and Brain in Weimar Culture
Cornelius Borck, McGill University
Paper presented at the international conference The Cultural Alchemy of the Exact Sciences: Revisiting the Forman
Thesis at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, March 23-25, 2007.

        Given the centrality of Lebensphilosophie in the Forman thesis, should one not expect an
even more immediate impact of such an intellectual climate on the life sciences? The life sciences
in their notorious plurality may have lacked the same disciplinary coherence as physics and did not
undergo a similar revolution, but various strands within the life sciences come to mind that seem to
testify to similar trends.

Most of these run under the term “holism” in biology, medicine, psychology, and philosophy; from
Jakob von Uexküll’s Umweltlehre, Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s system’s biology, via gestalt
psychology or Victor von Weizsäcker’s philosophy of illness, to Kurt Goldstein’s theory of the
organism. Or one could think of the special resonances of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in

Weimar Germany from Karl Abraham via Johannes Heinrich Schultz to Wilhelm Reich and Georg
Groddeck. Last but not least, one should think of the ascendancy of physiognomic approaches, from
the interest in graphology, shared by as different scholars as Emil Kraepelin and Ludwig Klages, to
the implementation of racialized science. In short, there would be ample opportunities to construct a
positive complement to Forman’s negative thesis with examples from the life sciences: whereas the
developments in physics were the outcome of a hostile intellectual environment, a wholesale
embracement of the lebensphilosophische Zeitgeist, its extension or translation into science, appears
to be characteristic for the life sciences during the Weimar republic. However, I am somewhat
skeptical how much insight would be gained from such a pursuit, especially with regard to the
question of how science and culture articulate. Not the least because of Forman’s stimulating paper,
there is little need to continue the internalism vs. externalism debate, but much opportunity to build
on work that has been done about science in culture.

       In fact, the Zeitgeist, the Lebensphilosophie, can be – and has been – linked to so many and
so different intellectual projects and scientific programs that the link itself helps rather little but

looses much of its explanatory power as an argument. Precisely the omnipresence of
Lebensphilosophie in Weimar Germany questions its usefulness as an explanatory category for the
history of the life sciences. Rather than searching for promising applications of the Forman thesis to
the life sciences, the very ease of this applicability should call for more specific ways in
contextualizing scientific knowledge. At least three problems should be raised here.

       The first is the insufficiency of Lebensphilosophie to account for the ambivalences that
characterized the intellectual culture in Weimar Germany where, for example, the nostalgic longing
for an allegedly lost richness of the Abendland’s culture went hand in hand with a passion for
America, scientific management, Taylorization, or Neue Sachlichkeit. The English title of
Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes may have been The Decline of the West, but in the
burgeoning culture of the “golden twenties,” the declining Abendland appears to have only
accelerated the rise in public esteem for the West in form of the Tiller Girls and other commodities
from the cultural industry. I am certainly not arguing against the importance of Spengler or

Lebensphilosophie for understanding Weimar Germany, but as ferociously as some fought against
“mere civilization,” others embraced a future of rationalization, mass fabrication, and technological

The second is the need for a more nuanced understanding of the lebensphilosophische Zeitgeist
itself. Since 1971, the suggested opposition between progressive rationalism and irrational
romanticism has become much more complicated, with the recent interest for the intellectual
sophistication of the romantic period, for example, and for what has been called the “occultism of
the avant-garde” at the turn of the century. Rather than being a problem of historical diagnosis or
national styles, the Zeitgeist argument entails too simple a dualism of rational vs. irrational. The
extended debates in Germany about differences between reason and rationality, or, for that matter,
culture and civilization, indicate how complicated discussions were even within the allegedly
irrational quarters of the Zeitgeist.
        The term ‘irrationality’ captures only insufficiently what was at stake in the debates about
Lebensphilosophie and which boiled less about demarcating the limits of rationality per se but more

about its limits vis-à-vis notions of (higher) reasonability. Many different actors and programs
displayed some affiliation with Zeitgeist arguments and shared an investment in an opposition to
narrow concepts of rationality. The Frankfurt school’s famous distinction between merely
instrumental rationality and reason proper, for example, must be regarded an offspring of this
debate – and with it Habermas’ discourse ethics. Bertalanffy argued about the limits of existing
scientific explanations, as did Goldstein, but their conceptualization of reason and rationality
differed certainly very much from Spengler’s or Klages’. These differences and their co-existence
are at least as important for an appropriate understanding of the Weimar Zeitgeist.

       And, finally, these debates did not match with a neat distinction of progressive modernism
versus romantic irrationality – this is the third problem. At times, the progressive and the
Lebensphilosophie became insolubly intertwined in Weimar culture. The most famous example
probably is the modernism of the Bauhaus.

It has often been pointed out how surprisingly open the Weimar Bauhaus was towards esoteric
philosophies such as Kandinsky’s interest in theosophy and Klee’s in occultism or Johannes Itten’s
leanings towards mysticism. And yet, the same Itten conceived the famous Bauhaus Vorkurs, where
abstraction emerged as modernity’s dominant style. The Bauhaus’ modernist slogan “form follows
function” demonstrates how abstraction and rationality do not necessarily imply an opposition to
intuition or Anschaulichkeit, but function rather as their integration. As part of a more nuanced
understanding of the lebensphilosophische Zeitgeist, their flirtations with intuition, empathy, and
Anschaulichkeit would have to be taken seriously as epistemological resources. The interwar period
were the formative years for high modernism and provided the basis for its critique by anticipating
many of postmodernism’s arguments, especially for today’s cultural studies. To name but two
examples, one could point to Deleuze’s rehabilitation of Bergsonian intuition in his ontology or to
the codification of Walter Benjamin in North America.
       An important side of this third aspect are its historiographic implications. It entails a
perspective how the alleged irrationalism and the idea of a-causality could, at least principally, be
operationalized as driving forces for scientific developments – without taking recourse to either a

model of mock-adaptations, plainly irrational motifs, or ideological attributions of a “mystic
weltanschauung.” An investigation of how the epistemological, the social, the cognitive, and the
material articulated with each other to the chain of historical events would, instead, result in a
historically differentiated understanding of rationality, reasonability, objectivity, causality, and

       In the remaining 12 minutes, I want to very briefly introduce three examples which at least
have in common that they all blur a dualism of progressive rationalism versus irrational
romanticism. Based on, and biased by, these examples I think precisely this multifariousness, the
side-by-side of rather disparate strands, to be significant for Weimar culture. Elsewhere, I argued
that such ambivalences and the uncertainty which resulted from them (and characterized Weimar
Germany also in general, social political terms) summoned up to an experimentalization of the
everyday life. In this cultural landscape, the lebensphilosophische Zeitgeist was but one of various
threads, their coming-together in their heterogeneity allowed for the emergence of
epistemologically radically new projects.

       The first example is the emergence of the electric brain out of psychodiagnostics in Weimar

       In Spring 1926, Emil Ludwig, prolific author of profitable biographies, proclaimed a very
special scientific breakthrough. According to his report in the Berliner Illustrirte, Weimar
Germany’s most widely read weekly, a little machine had recently determined an almost perfect
personality profile of himself by little more but the application of weak electrical currents to a
sequence of diagnostic spots scattered across his head.
       In the cold light of today, this was just another revival of Gall’s old phrenology, thanks to
the new availability of electrical gadgets. Zachar Bissky, the guy propagating the new electric
diagnoscopy, did not hesitate to make this link to phrenology explicit in his advertising material.
And yet, this did hardly impede the stellar, though short-lived career of his invention. His success
with the new method became the news of the day. Still, one could argue that this was little more but
exaggerating hype, concocted by news thirsty media. However, phrenological-personality profiling
by means of a surprisingly simple technology enrolled quite a remarkable list of supporters and thus
forced major players into action.

       By 1926, diagnoscopy was already used for personality testing within the Swiss postal
services and clock-manufacturing industry. Soon after a first conference on the new method in
Karlsruhe, many German institutions became interested, including technical universities, police
departments, prison administrations, large industries such as the Gelsenkirchener Bergwerks-AG
and small enterprises such as those recommending diagnoscopy for marriage counseling. At many
of these places little more but curiosity may have been behind such experiments, but diagnoscopy
held a more specific promise to rational modernizers. With Fritz Giese and Robert Werner Schulte,
two young aspiring psychologists embarked on a scientific investigation of diagnoscopy. These
psychologists envisioned psychotechnics as an economically beneficial and individually rewarding
form of counseling, and hoped to get involved in the rationalization of life and labor on a national
scale. They praised diagnoscopy as efficient means for Germany’s modernization – which in their
view meant an Americanization.
       The enrolment of professional psychologists by and for diagnoscopy called further players
into action. Various congresses of psychotherapy and psychology established commissions to
evaluate diagnscopy; Oscar Vogt, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research,

discussed with Georg von Arco, German pioneer of wireless telegraphy and radio technology,
various plans how best to secretly obtain one of Bissky’s machines. On the side of the critics, there
was hardly less ambiguity about Zeitgeist and modernity; the next project Arco undertook was a
large-scale mass experiment with radio-telepathy, driven as much by personal curiosity as by a
critical agenda.

       Just a few years later, the German psychiatrist Hans Berger revolutionized the neurosciences
by publishing the electroencephalogram, his recording of the brain’s electrical activity. This was
hard science, but not only the press got it wrong when they reported on the EEG as the final
confirmation of Bissky’s diagnoscopy. Like many other brain researchers (and physicists), Berger
was very much interested in extra-sensory perception and his success with the EEG increased, if
anything, his yearning for telepathic communication. The only major research grant he ever
received, he intended for an investigation of special, high frequency, psychophysiological
vibrations… Berger’s case resembles that of a perfect adaptation to the lebensphilosophische
Zeitgeist, permeating his views from his authoritarian political nostalgia to his belief in specific

psychophysic energy and his admiration for nature’s beauty. He desired the EEG to become the
crowning stone of his scientific worldview which already to his contemporaries looked somewhat
antiquated and obscure. However, Berger’s at times stubborn search made him pursue a highly
original path of experimental inquiry. His persistence about psychic energy acted as an “enabling
constraint” steering him conceptually as well methodologically towards the new.

       The second example, Fritz Kahn’s Bodyworlds.

       Right next to Weimar Germany’s purported romanticism existed a biological modernism of
a peculiarly mechanistic blend which was no less successful. My example is the popular anatomy of
Dr. Fritz Kahn, a physician and science writer, who published regularly on medical topics in the
Berliner Illustrirte and the Frankfurter Zeitung. His opus magnum was a popular textbook on
anatomy and physiology for the Kosmos Gesellschaft der Naturfreunde with its more than 100,000
members. Kahn’s recipe of success was the combination of a particularly lucid style of writing with

intriguing visuals portraying the body and its functions as machine ensembles. Subscribers to the 5-
volume set got, in addition to the over 1500 images, an oversize poster as a bonus, showing Man as
Industrial Palace and thus encapsulating Kahn’s explanatory strategy. So, at least in the popular
sector or for the purposes of a popularization of science and medicine, mechanistic models
continued to be regarded as useful. But Kahn’s visualizations show more; they unfold to a historical
epistemology of biological knowledge making and knowledge circulation. Kahn’s images show the
human body as an assembly line or an industrialized urban space, populated by anonymous workers
and other members of modern society.

       Instead of stressing their mechanistic attitude, one may want to argue that these images
formed part of a larger strategy to “organicize” alien technology by recourse to the body, as, for
example, McLuhan did later with regard to communications technology. It should be noted,
however, that the images put this strategy upside down. Kahn familiarized the body’s alien organic
inside by recourse to common gadgetry, as if some techno-literacy would bear the potential to
reconnect with the body’s machinery in new ways. Man as Industrial Palace depicted a

technological paradise that misrepresented biological bodies as it measured them by rather humble
technical artifacts. In retrospect, the alignment of cognition with something as dull and limited as
the control of a switchboard seems hardly more ingenious than the outdated industrial complex of
digestion. And this is not the most significant shortcoming. How much can an image explain that
does not lead any further as to introduce some miniature operators into its world of automata and
machines, who do exactly what the technology is said to do?

       However, the images extend the common comparison of bodies and machines to a manifest
amalgamation of nature and technology. They visualize a constructivism in which technological
civilization and experimental science intervene in the biological nature of human bodies. And yet,
the many little assistants in Kahn’s images do their work so diligently and so smoothly right out in
the open of the image that it seems too simple to base a critique of the visualization strategy on their
existence. One could rather say that the limits of this visualization strategy are put on display as
well. The ambiguity of their iconography provides a key to how nature is constituted in the
contractions of the social and the scientific to a cultural construct. Precisely because Kahn took his

mission to educate the public on the human body so seriously, he arrived at visualizations that
clearly reveal their own limitations. The images visualize knowledge together with the open
questions that come with it, they trace the optical unconscious of techno-medicine and machine

        The last example, the “crisis of reality” and the emergence of the sociology of knowledge in
the life sciences.
        The second half of the 1920 saw an escalation of crisis rhetoric in the writing about science.
This abounding crisis rhetoric should not be mistaken for a single and coherent discourse; it was a
concert of discordant and overlapping voices. Physicists debated the epistemological implications of
theoretical physics, while psychologists discussed the dissipation of their discipline into ever more
specializations, the biologists argued over the lack of a coherent framework, and the crisis talk in
medicine often comprised a holistic critique of an allegedly inhumane techno-medicine. In general,
this was not a crisis of scientific productivity but a crisis resulting from scientific productivity, as
Edmund Husserl argued in his unfinished Crisis of European Sciences.

       Somewhere among these many writings on crisis, the Naturwissenschaften published a
paper of such a title. In “The crisis of reality” the neo-Kantian philosopher Kurt Riezler argued that
the very progress of the sciences undermined their progress towards “absolute reality” (Rietzler,
1929, p. 708). Today his paper and his concerns are largely forgotten; they shared little with the
lebensphilosophische Zeitgeist but were not exactly modern either. But in their time, they motivated
a little known Polish microbiologist to an intervention. Ludwik Fleck’s response to Rietzler
undercut the discussion about a crisis by arguing for a social explanation of the intellectual
functioning of a primarily collective cognizing body. Since every act of knowing related to previous
knowledge, tradition and education, epistemology had for Fleck to start with “the social and
cultural-historical context.” In all its concrete materializations, knowledge was moulded and shaped
by its own history and by its socio-cultural context. The recent developments in physics as
documented in just the next issue of Naturwissenschaften served Fleck as welcome examples for his
idea of the primacy of the social in epistemology.

       To Fleck, the “crisis of reality” provided a test case for the kind of epistemological ruptures
he was to describe in his coming monograph. A critical study of the history of science would reveal

a continually changing and shifting enterprise, a permanent and infinite reconstruction of bits and
piece of concepts and theories. The reflexive socio-historical analysis of such changes offered a new
epistemological foundation, according to Fleck, if and only if the misguided ideal of an
approximation of the absolute were to be replaced by a democratic competition between scientific
concepts and different styles of thought. The socio-cultural analysis of the sciences he propagated
required extended time before it won recognition; the difficult process of social-cultural-scientific
negotiations had hardly begun when Fleck died. In addition to the crisis of reality, it took the
structure of scientific revolutions and Forman’s insistence on extrinsic influences on science to
rediscover his fine-grained theory of social-material-cognitive interaction in the history of the


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