For a start of my blog (how did this weird abbreviation of “weblog” come about in the first place?), I want to share the main ideas of my Master’s thesis, which I handed in on Maundy Thursday this year. My thesis consists of roughly 80 pages German text dealing with the question whether fMRI research can legitimately be reproached for being “a new phrenology” or not. To tackle this extensive problem, I narrowed it down to the question in how far initial fMRI1 research in the late 1990s searching for sex/gender differences in human brains was similar to early phrenology dealing with the same question. Specifically, I concentrated on Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), who put “organology,” as he himself called it, into practice. Gall and later phrenologists tried to localize mental faculties in the brain by palpating skulls, while fMRI tries to situate specific functions in several brain areas by scanning people’s heads.
Due to a significant lack of research literature on sex/gender differences in the history of the neurosciences,2 I analyzed mainly primary source material: Gall’s books and 16 neuroscientific journal articles of the years 1995–1999. I read through the texts and took notes of sex/gender issues, i.e., reflections on the origin of differences between sexes/genders, sex/gender specific examinations, stereotypes etc. I grouped all of my findings, and was able to systematize them concurrently to reflections on (1) sex/gender as dichotomous experimental or investigative category, (2) the close interconnection between sex/gender and sexuality, (3) sex/gender distinctions and stereotypes as part of the methodology, (4) sex/gender as physically measurable difference, (5) sex/gender as construed quantity beyond collected data, (6) sex/gender as persistent metaphysical world order, and (7) some rather rare instances of postulated sex/gender similarity. Please get in touch if you like me to send you a copy, since for now I am only going to tell you that there have many more investigations to be carried out in order to find out a little more about the resemblance of early and modern neurosciences in terms of concealed ideas and unquestioned methodologies.
It turned out to be important, though, to leave some interesting questions from the introduction unanswered. How else could I have continued research on this topic for at least five more years?! With this blog, I do not only mean to let you know what is going on in my brain concerning the social history and philosophy of the neurosciences, but also what is going on in my environment, and how I am taught and will teach to think about these and other issues within the wide field of the history, philosophy and sociology of science. You see, the “Social Contexts” of the subhead are not only those of Gall and the modern neurosciences (and anything in between), but also mine: I will try to reflect on myself studying and researching. Therefore, you will be able to read about my work on the history of the neurosciences since Gall, on additional topics within the context of the University of Pennsylvania’s PhD programme on the History and Sociology of Science, and about the transition of a 26-year-old Swabian from Berlin into a new academic environment at one of the world’s finest universities as well.
Writing about the title of this blog, there is one more thing to add: While having lunch in a canteen with two fellow students back in Germany, I decided to headline this blog “The Semipermeable Membrane” because I want to share my thoughts and views with you while your comments are supposed to diffuse back. Feel free to enrich my entries with your ideas concerning content, and—almost as important—please correct my language (if you do not dare to do so in public, write an e-mail—honestly, I mean it!).
1 functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
2 Stahnisch, Frank W. (2005): Über die neuronale Natur des Weiblichen. Szientismus und Geschlechterdifferenz in der anatomischen Hirnforschung (1760–1850). In Frank W. Stahnisch / Florian Steger (ed.): Medizin, Geschichte und Geschlecht. Körperhistorische Rekonstruktionen von Identitäten und Differenzen. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner (Geschichte und Philosophie der Medizin, 1), p. 197.