Interwar “German” Psychobiology: Between Nationalism and the Irrational

Science in Context 4 (2):429-447 (1991)
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The ArgumentThis paper is concerned with “holism” as a German cultural “style” of doing psychobiology in Central Europe between the two world wars. The paper takes its starting point from a critical analysis of Forman's writings on nationalism versus internationalism in interwar German science, and the alleged “accommodation” of interwar German physics to an antiscientific, irrationalist culture. The paper argues that psychobiological holism was not just a reaction against nineteenth-century atomistic or mechanistic approaches to modeling life and mind; it also represented a domestically directed answer from within the German biomedical scientific community to broad religious and cultural “disenchantment.” As such, holistic psychobiology emerges as a phenomenon that challenges us with at least four levels of discourse: experimental/clinical, epistemological/philosophical, existential/religious, and ideological/political. The paper defends the methodological appropriateness of a collective case-study approach to the problem of holism as a multilevel discourse. It concludes by offering a preliminary contextualized analysis of the thought of three representative holistic leaders of the time: behavioral biologist and ethologist Jakob von Uexküll; clinical neurologist Constantin von Monakow; and neuropsychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.



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