Michel Meulders

Helmh From the Enlightenment to the Neurosciences Publication date : April 1, 2001

In Germany, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz is regarded as the main nineteenth-century spokesperson for science — as Humboldt before him and as his student Planck would be at the beginning of the twentieth century. Helmholtz’s authority derived not only from his skill, but also from his reputation in the fields of art and culture.
Helmholtz is known for his research in the field of perception. Often regarded as one of the last representatives of the Enlightenment, he believed that culture and civilisation could only attain a developed level if both science and the humanities, which complement them, were the object of thorough, systematic study. Like Kant, he approached the sciences from an empirical, experimental point of view. Although he rejected all metaphysical explanations of life processes in favour of physical and chemical mechanisms, he did not reduce psychology to physiology, and believed that unconscious thoughts could play a role in understanding perception.
In the battle that raged at the time around scientific empiricism, he rejected the dogmatic, deductive methods of Naturphilosophie, in which he included Goethe’s scientific ideas. In response to Goethe’s theory of colour, Helmholtz proposed his own, very different theory of colour vision which was based on analysis and experimentation.
Helmholtz can be credited with attempting a physiological approach to aesthetics. After dealing with music brilliantly but prudently, Helmholtz went on to tackle painting more surely; in his final speech in honour of Goethe, he recognised that the artist’s aesthetic approach to humanity and nature resulted in a particular mode of knowledge.
The neurosciences and the cognitive sciences, as they are known today, owe Helmholtz many avenues of research. He was truly a philosopher of knowledge who worked toward reconciling science and philosophy. He believed that the only way that the human spirit would find peace in its quest for knowledge and wisdom would be in the combined exercise of the exact sciences, the humanities and the arts.

Michel Meulders is professor emeritus of neurophysiology and honorary dean at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. He was formerly president of Belgium’s Royal Academy of Medicine.