Brief Lives: Hermann Von Helmholtz

Thomas Dylan Daniel breaks down the revolutionary mind of a towering polymath of the 19th century.

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Hermann von Helmholtz by Hans Schadow, 1891

Sight, Sound and Reality

Philosophically, Helmholtz was a rather devout pupil of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). His most significant break from Kant came in his investigation of non-Euclidean geometry. Otherwise, like Kant, he believed that space (among other things) was not a fact of the world beyond the human mind and instead has to do with our perception.

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Eyeball in 1890 © Charles Henry May 1890
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Eyeball in 2018 © Hariadhi 2017

Helmholtzʼ Mental Life

In his book Descartesʼ Error (1994), the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio poked holes in Cartesian Dualism. Descartesʼ famous theory is basically a vision of the physical human body as being controlled by a non-physical soul or mind which is fundamentally separate from it. He believed the mind interacts with the body through the brainʼs pineal gland, a position long since scientifically invalidated. For Damasio, cognitive neuroscience has now removed the various elements of thought from the black box of ‘mindʼ and placed them in the body, where a clear and verifiable account of their workings is easily accessible. We are familiar with some components of the body, such as muscles, bones, hearts and lungs and livers, but other parts still mystify us, particularly the brain. The staggeringly difficult problem of tracing the functional connectivity in the brain provides little in the way of yielding elegant verifiable accounts useful for the details of the inner workings of consciousness. In this situation, the Kantian insight developed by Helmholtz is still very cutting-edge. Even Damasio might agree with Helmholtzʼ idea that minds map our bodies and generate mental images of ourselves and the world around us by constantly recording and comparing images (percepts) generated by neuronal interactions.

Philosophy as a Source for Science

For me the most interesting aspect of Hermann von Helmholtzʼs life is the extent to which he borrowed from philosophy to inform groundbreaking, awe-inspiring scientific studies in a variety of disciplines. It is as though his gifted mind decided at an early age to test Kantʼs problem-set in any ways possible, and the rest of his studies were a natural consequence of this interest. From the concept of an unconscious inference of ideas, to the physiological study which fleshed out his ideas of perception, Helmholtz was an example of excellence in philosophy as well as science.

Contact the Author:

Thomas Dylan Daniel is an existentialist philosopher, professional ethicist, author, and biophysicist. He has written four books and started a Medium publication called Serious Philosophy.

Written by

Philosopher. Author of Formal Dialectics and Bring Back Satire. Editor and founder of Serious Philosophy

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