Realism without tears I: Müller's doctrine of specific nerve energies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies has been and continues to be enormously influential in the physiology, psychology, and philosophy of perception. In simple terms, the Doctrine states that we directly perceive in the first instance the activity of our nerves, rather than properties in the external world. The canonical early statement of the Doctrine by the physiologist Johannes Peter Müller had profound influence on both the philosophy and psychology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially as reformulated and transmitted by Müller’s student Helmholtz. A common assumption of historical and ongoing debate about the Doctrine has been its supposedly idealist or skeptical implications. What is not commonly recognized is that Müller himself advanced a realist interpretation along lines that would be recognized today as a form of epistemic structural realism. This paper analyzes Müller's structuralist epistemology in detail and reconstructs his articulation and defense of the Doctrine of Specific Nerve Energies in its canonical form. Part II argues for the continued importance of the Doctrine and its structuralist interpretation for contemporary psychology, philosophy of perception, and history of philosophy of science.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-92
JournalStudies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Early online date23 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


  • history of psychology
  • Johann Friedrich Herbart
  • Johannes Peter Müller
  • perception
  • specific nerve energies
  • structural realism

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Realism without tears I: Müller's doctrine of specific nerve energies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this