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date: 28 January 2021

Residues of (Post-)Kantian Philosophy in Early Scientific Psychology and Hermann von Helmholtz’s Idealismlocked

  • Liesbet de KockLiesbet de KockVrije Universiteit Brussel, Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science


German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) is widely acknowledged as one of the leading intellectuals and scientists of his time. Originally trained as a physiologist, Helmholtz contributed substantially to the fields of mathematics, physics, acoustics, ophthalmology, and the emerging science of psychology, amongst others. Not only did Helmholtz’s research interests cover a vast array of different topics, he furthermore paired his scientific endeavors with a continuous philosophical reflection upon the nature of science and knowledge, and of human cognition in general. Helmholtz’s philosophical interests were especially salient in his theory of perception, in which he attempted to reconcile his empirical viewpoint with insights derived from the idealist philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. This dovetailing between empiricism and (transcendental) idealism has fascinated philosophers ever since the publication of Helmholtz’s work. Although Helmholtz famously rejected Kant’s theory of space, he considered his own theory of perception as a further elaboration and empirical confirmation of Kant’s and (to a lesser degree of) Fichte’s philosophical systems. Notwithstanding the abiding philosophical interest in the nature and extent of Helmholtz’s allegiance to German Idealism, the philosophical dimension of his work has not received the attention it deserves in the historiography of psychology. Revisiting Helmholtz’s intellectual relation to transcendental idealism, however, could not only help correct and enrich simplified accounts of his psychological and epistemological position, it furthermore provides a highly interesting illustration of the hitherto poorly understood relation between (neo-)Kantianism and the dawn of scientific psychology in 19th-century Germany.

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