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Cultivating the Cortex in German Neuroanatomy

  • Michael Hagner


The cerebral localization of mental functions is one of the centerpieces of modern brain research. Though the localization paradigm in its cultural and social interwovenness has been characterized as successful in the last third of the nineteenth century by a variety of historians of the neurosciences, there is also general agreement that localization came under threat around 1900. Besides the so-called holistic protest against the localization of mental functions, the neuroanatomical approach itself was challenged by experimental psychology, psychiatric nosology, and psychoanalysis. This story underestimates the fact that anatomically-based localization remained powerful in response to these multiple challenges. This meant a neuroanatomical revision of tools, concepts, and practices. But this meant also a shift in the cultivation of the cortex from a more philosophical agenda to rather concrete political claims. More specifically, the idea of the cortex as the noblest part of man was supplemented by suggestions concerning its “Höherzüchtung.” I will analyze this re-orientation and radicalization in two steps. First, I briefly discuss the anatomical and philosophical account of Theodor Meynert and then turn to Paul Flechsig who in the late nineteenth century inscribed the ability to create culture and civilization into the cortex. Second, I focus on the neuroanatomists Oskar and Cécile Vogt, who began their careers around 1900 and expanded the cultivation of the cortex. Even before World War I, they proclaimed a “cerebral hygiene.” Consequently, the Vogts linked their innovative neuroanatomical researches with the rising field of genetics, racial hygiene, and eugenics. In the early Weimar Republic, the Vogts openly supported socialist ideas and were engaged in establishing an Institute for Brain Research in Soviet Moscow, where Lenin’s brain was analyzed. By the end of the Weimar Republic, the rhetoric of the Vogts was bluntly authoritarian. Based on a few anatomical examinations of so-called elite brains and the brains of criminals, they made concrete suggestions for eugenics and the breeding of “one-sidedly gifted leaders.” Given the remarkable popularity of the Vogts around 1930, their program is an important example of the hubris of predicting and guiding future developments on the basis of scientific authority. It can be regarded as an ironic nemesis that the Vogts – never sympathizing with the political aims of the National Socialists – were forced to finish their careers as influential Kaiser Wilhelm scientists in Nazi-Germany.

Der Mensch wird immer mehr ein Hirntier werden. (Vogt 1912, 309)

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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