Self Experimentation

Self Experimentation: Crossing the Borders Between Science, Art, and Philosophy, 1840–1920

Katrin Solhdju

Self-experimentation as a practice has always existed in various contexts, but it was only at the end of the eighteenth century that it became fully accepted as a necessary step in pharmaceutical development. Mainly for ethical reasons concerning debates on the legitimacy of human experimentation, it was felt that the researcher himself should take the primary risks. In the context of this dissertation project, Katrin Solhdju showed the role that self-experimentation played in various scientific and nonscientific contexts, claiming that it gained an epistemological status during the denoted period of time that transcended the realm of risk management and ethical concerns. The analysis focuses on self-experiments in which self and consciousness were the objects under investigation. In this context, the reconstruction of self-experimental practices not only gave rise to theoretical questions concerning the operating modes and the status of experiments but also aimed at contributing to a history of subjectivity.

Crucial in the context of a history of subjectivity is the observation that two opposing developments can be observed. As has been pointed out by historians, there was a strong scientific trend throughout the nineteenth century to "de-subjectify" research. In the case of experimentation, this meant, amongst other things, the withdrawal of the scientist as a subject: once an experimental setup had been installed and the experiment started, mechanical or automatic apparatuses should be responsible for measurements and their representation, thus assuring mechanical objectivity. At the same time, however, a shift of interest from static objects to processes within vital organisms took place, inevitably generating—amongst other practices—introspective and thus subjective self-experiments. Focusing on self-experiments in which the same body/mind made for the experimental set-up as well as for the epistemic object sheds a different light on this scientific era and reconsiders theoretical approaches to the practice of experimentation.

One of the initial observations was that self-experimentation and its method of introspection were employed whenever the object of research retreated from purely objective methods of observation and measurement. The conjunction of fleeting objects/processes and a methodology based on self-manipulation and self-observation required the abandonment of a clear distinction between the body and the mind, a scientific experiment and personal experience, and thus a clear-cut discrimination between subject and object. Through investigating self-experiments, it becomes obvious that object and subject instead share a common process of becoming, which ends in their discrimination. Presupposing such a processual becoming of subject-object relations, self-experimenters risked being excluded from the scientific majority discourse as their practice performatively questioned fundamental scientific claims. Consequently their projects were open to alliances outside of scientific laboratories not only in the context of artistic production processes (e.g., an impressionistic approach of representing sensual perception, automatic writing), but also in theoretical approaches to understanding their reception in the philosophical subdiscipline of aesthetics. At the same time, these scientific experiential practices resembled to a significant extent the self-techniques required by the exercise of philosophizing.

By giving epistemic importance to the realm of self-experience, psychiatrists like Jean-Joseph Moreau de Tours, the philosopher William James, or the psychophysicist and metaphysician Gustav Theodor Fechner aimed mainly at being adequate to the respective phenomena or processes under investigation: madness, hashish-inebriation, religious beliefs, or the soul-life of plants—all of them required a processual approach from an immanent point of view. Stressing the antidualistic tendencies of projects that tried to gain knowledge via closeness, the investigation of self-experimental practices and their corresponding theoretical reflections enabled us to understand them as contributions to concepts of knowledge in transit. This becomes most visible in William James “radical” empiricism—a philosophical practice in process. James was thus not only one amongst other case studies within this project, but at the same time his philosophy served as an instrument of interpretation.

Funding Institutions

Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science