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Constructing the organism in the age of abstraction

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This paper examines the mutual influence between Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) and his cousin, the neurologist Kurt Goldstein (1878-1965). For both Cassirer and Goldstein, views on the nature of human cognition were fundamental to their understanding of scientific knowledge, and these were informed both by philosophical theorising and empirical research on pathologies of the nervous system. Between the wars, Goldstein published a series of famous case studies on brain damaged WW1 veterans with the Gestalt psychologist Adhémar Gelb. This activity culminated in the book published by Goldstein in exile, Der Aufbau des Organismus: Einführung in die Biologie unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erfahrungen am kranken Menschen (translated for publication as The Organism: A holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in Man).

In contrast to Harrington (1996), I argue that Goldstein’s methodological prescriptions are not straightforwardly holistic, but require the biologist to alternate between holistic and “dissective” ways of characterising living organisms (Goldstein 1934/1995, p.316). Following Cassirer, and in agreement with the contemporary logical empiricists, Goldstein held that the physical sciences had progressed by arriving at abstract, mathematical forms to take the place of qualitative characterisations of empirical reality. Unlike the logical empiricists, Goldstein was not sanguine about the fruitfulness of the abstractive approach in biology. An interesting point of comparison is with the other famous Aufbau treatise of the era, Carnap’s Der Logische Aufbau der Welt. Whereas Carnap constructed the scaffolding for a unified science operating according to mathematical and logical principles, Goldstein argued that biology must retain descriptions of the “qualities” that are excluded by mathematical abstractions (Goldstein 1934/1995, p.315).

According to Friedman (2000, p.155-6), the rejection of mathematical logic as the unifying language for natural and human sciences motivated Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms as a means to provide a systematic epistemology for the non-mathematical disciplines. Friedman points to Cassirer’s failure to buttress his claims for the “underlying unity” of the symbolic forms in human cognition as the reason for the failure of his programme. I examine the ways in which the neurological writings of Goldstein offer insights into Cassirer’s unificatory project, where the bio-medical sciences take an intermediate position between the human and the physical sciences.

This talk is part of the CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) seminar series.

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