Wilhelm Wundt’s chronoscope, used to measure reaction times and choice time [Wahlzeit]. In W. Wundt, Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie, vol. 2 (Leipzig, W. Engelmann, 1874 [1880]), 231.

Project (2017-2018)

Maturity in the Age of Wissenschaft: The Emergence of Adolescence, 1760–1910

This project examines the diverse attempts by scientific practitioners to chronicle, explain, and represent the transition between childhood and adulthood over the course of Germany’s long nineteenth century. The aim of these attempts was to define the criteria for and stating point of maturity and to imbue definitions with scientific and legal authority. These approaches paid particular attention to understanding the physiological and psychological components of the will—that facet of mind that had long been considered the essential index of moral freedom. Locating and measuring the will also implicated research in other areas related to cognitive and human behavior, such as choice, attention, consciousness, habit, reflex, and language. In effect, drawing the boundary between childhood and adulthood became a way to discuss freedom and moral agency, and, indeed, social scientists, in grappling with maturity, were debating what it meant to be an autonomous human being, responsible for one’s actions. Amidst the array of developmental theories that proliferated in the nineteenth century—evolutionary, historical, phenomenological, and ontogenetic—tracing the formation of the human being through infancy and childhood contributed to the promises of education and psychology to be able to intervene in development and mold the human toward the interests of the state.

Focusing on the implications of child development studies for the administration of public education in Germany as well as debates between prioritizing practical training versus the development of moral character, this study investigates the politics of pedagogy in the period of Germany’s industrial modernity. It traces how practitioners of various inchoate human and social sciences drew on one another’s findings to bolster their own claims about the criteria of maturity, and how their work formed the backbone of such lasting institutions as the reformed Prussian school system, the juvenile court, and adolescence as an object of scientific inquiry. By examining scholarly microcosms of pedagogues, statisticians, jurists, and psychologists, this project considers the institutional and cultural contexts, the instruments and technological apparatuses, and the various textual genres (from meticulous observations of infant life to classifications of mental disorders in children) that shaped the conceptual distinctions between childhood, adulthood, and, by the end of the century, adolescence.