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Hermann von Helmholtz: Excerpts from a Speech Given on the Occasion of his Appointment as Pro-Rector at the University of Heidelberg (1862)

Opposing Hegel's ideal of a philosophical unity of knowledge, the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) drew clear distinctions between the natural sciences and the humanities. An influential proponent of scientific progress, Helmholtz argued that instead of assuming a unifying world spirit, scholars were called on to conduct painstaking empirical research to study the complexity of the world.

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Honorable Assembly!

[ . . . ]

It probably appears that in current times the relation of all the sciences to each other, which is the reason we group them together in the name of a universitas litterarum, has become looser than ever before. We see today's scholars immersed in a study of detail of such immeasurable proportions that even the greatest polyhistor could not even think of housing more than a tiny sub-field of present-day science in his brain. Philologists of the past three hundred years found enough to do with the study of Greek and Latin. Perhaps one learned a few European languages for practical purposes. Now, comparative language studies has set for itself no meaner goal than to acquaint itself with all the languages of all human tribes, to discover the principles of language formation itself. It has set about this task with the greatest diligence. Even within the field of classical philology one is no longer limited to the study of those works of poetry and prose which have become models for all time by virtue of their artistic perfection, the clarity of their ideas, or the importance of their content. One understands now that every lost fragment of an ancient writer, every note by a pedantic grammarian or letter from the Byzantine court, every broken tombstone of a Roman official found in an unknown corner of Hungary, Spain, or Africa contains information or evidence which could be significant. Thus another number of scholars are occupied with carrying out the enormous project of collecting and categorizing all of the remains of classical antiquity, in order to put them at the disposal of other scholars. If we count as well the studies of historical sources, the sorting through of all the scrolls and papers piled up in state and city archives, the gathering of all of the notes scattered in memoirs, collections of letters, and biographies, the decoding of all of the documents written in hieroglyphics and cuneiform; if we take all of the rapidly growing systematic overviews of minerals, plants, and animals – those alive today and those from before the great flood – there unfolds before our eyes a dizzying mass of learned knowledge. In these disciplines alone, the research expands to the same degree as the tools of observation, with no limit in sight. In past centuries, a zoologist was content if he had described the teeth, hair, foot form, and other external characteristics of an animal. By contrast, an anatomist used to describe only human anatomy, to the extent that his knife, saw, and chisel, or perhaps injections, would allow. The study of human anatomy itself counted as a disconcertingly wide field, one difficult to become proficient in. Today, one is no longer content with the so-called "coarser" human anatomy, which is almost considered an exhausted field. Instead, one's interests are absorbed in comparative anatomy – the anatomy of all animals – or in microscopic anatomy, in sciences of infinitely wide content.

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