- The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and the Practice of Self-Experimentation
In his 1960 novel, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy allows his soul-searching narrator to scribble the following proposal to himself: “Explore connection between romanticism and scientific objectivity. Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is a left-over from his own science?” 1 The present essay is, in part, a response to Percy’s query. It is an examination of the privileged yet precarious position of the self within the empirical sciences of the romantic era in Germany. The ideology of romantic science insisted upon the mutual implication of self-knowledge and knowledge of nature. As the geologist Henrich Steffens succinctly put it: “Do you want to know nature? Turn your glance inwards and you will be granted the privilege of beholding nature’s stages of development in the stages of your spiritual education. Do you want to know yourself? Seek in nature: her works are those of the self-same spirit.” 2 Assertions of a perfect fit between an external natural environment and an internal self had become increasingly common by the end of the eighteenth century. 3 Comforting as Steffens’ words may have been, such formulations consistently obscured at least two difficulties to which his contemporaries were far from blind. On the one hand, by portraying nature as a living creature whose visible history corresponds to the life-history of an individual, this ideology conflated knowledge of the body and knowledge of the self. On the other, it tended to exclude an essential third term: the communities within which self-knowledge and knowledge of nature each sought their place. The claim that knowledge of nature led directly to [End Page 453] knowledge of the self, and vice versa, must be read in the face of an awareness that the two held radically different status within the contemporary scientific community and within a communally shared body of knowledge.
This essay is thus embedded at once in a history of modern subjectivity and in an analysis of how concerns about personal knowledge came to define the parameters of a distinctively scientific public sphere. 4 To put it another way, I am asking why, at this critical moment in the “structural transformation of the public sphere,” the self became an issue within science—and how, within a discourse ostensibly devoted to nature, attention to the self of the scientist helped shape a new conception of individuality. 5 I want to begin to unpack the romantic ideology of self-knowledge first by considering the peculiarities of locating the self within the body of the experimenter, a body conceived at once as a laboratory instrument, a metaphor for nature, and a sign of the experimenter’s individual identity. Historicizing the relationship between the self and the body of the natural philosopher also requires scrutiny of the tensions between solitude and community at the turn of the last century. 6 Those who experimented on their own bodies did so at great personal expense and often under intensely private conditions. Their withdrawal into an internal world may appear to have been an attempt to escape from the political and intellectual turmoil that accompanied the Napoleonic Wars and the demands of an emergent public sphere, but these retreats also presupposed an eventual return to a historically specific community whose reservations about personal knowledge were well known and often ambivalently shared by those who fled. 7 It is thus essential that our study of self-knowledge attend to the difficulties anticipated and encountered in trying to convey knowledge rooted in a particular body to a scientific community that was, for ideological reasons of its own, coming increasingly to esteem general over particular truths.
My focus here will be on the work of Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810), the leading experimentalist and most dogged self-investigator of the romantic era. 8 Both his commitment to the ideology that bound self-knowledge to knowledge of nature and his occasional insights into the difficulties inherent in maintaining this commitment make him an exemplary figure. To comprehend Ritter’s use of his own body as an instrument, a source of knowledge, and an...