Du Bois-Reymond, Emil

Du Bois-Reymond, Emil

(ā`mēl dü bwä-rāmôN`), 1818–96, German physiologist of French descent. A pupil and successor (after 1858) of Johannes Müller at the Univ. of Berlin, he is known especially for his studies of nerve and muscle action, in which he demonstrated that electrical changes accompany muscle action.

Du Bois-Reymond, Emil


Born Nov. 7, 1818, in Berlin; died there Dec. 26, 1896. German physiologist and philosopher; member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences (1851).

Du Bois-Reymond was appointed a professor at Berlin University in 1855. His principal works were on animal electricity; he proved its presence in muscles, nerves, glands, skin, the retina of the eye, and other tissues. He discovered physical electrotonus. He showed that a transverse section of a nerve is electronegative in relation to its length (“resting current”). He established that the negative fluctuation of the “resting current” is an expression of the action state of the tissue. Physiological and medical laboratories use apparatus proposed by Du Bois-Reymond and bearing his name (induction apparatus for stimulating nerves and muscles and nonpolarizable electrodes).

As a philosopher Du Bois-Reymond was an advocate of mechanistic materialism and also of agnosticism; discussing the cognition of the essence of things, he advanced the formula “We do not know and we shall never know” (ignoramus et ignorabimus). In The Seven Riddles of the Universe (1882; Russian translation, 1901) Du Bois-Reymond, from a positivist position, declared strictly philosophical problems (the essence of matter and force, the origin of movement, etc.) to be inaccessible to human cognition, as well as scientifically unprovable. At the same time, he subjected to criticism from materialistic positions the idealist concept of a “universal soul” (which, according to his words, would require acknowledgment of a universal brain); he actively opposed vitalism. The German instinctive materialist E. Haeckel opposed Du Bois-Reymond’s agnosticism. Du Bois-Reymond was also famous as a conservative publicist.


Untersuchungen uber thierische Elektricitat, vols. 1-2. Leipzig, 1848-49.
Reden, vols. 1-2. Leipzig, 1912.
Über die Grenzen der Naturerkenntnis, 11th ed. Leipzig, 1916.
In Russian translation:
Kul’turnaia istoriia i estestvoznanie. Moscow, 1901.


Boruttau, H. E. Du Bois-Reymond. Vienna, 1922.