AHA Member Spotlight: Katja Guenther

September 07, 2018

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

My career path is perhaps unusual. Before attending graduate school in the history of science, I earned a medical degree and a graduate degree in neuroscience. I was puzzled by the positivism of modern medicine and science—the assumption that disease categories were simply “out there,” waiting to be discovered and diagnosed; and that the Neurowissenschaften did not invite the expansive understanding that the German term Wissenschaft conveys. When I started studying history, it helped me make sense of what I saw; I have never looked back. But the experience of working with patients and in the laboratory still informs my thinking. I am grateful for that part of my education, even if it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do!

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

I appreciate working with smart and dedicated students, and having colleagues whom I admire and who share my excitement about my field. What is great about the History of Science at Princeton is that we enjoy the independence of having our own graduate program while being part of an excellent larger history department.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am working on my second book, The Mirror and the Mind: A History of Self-Recognition in the Sciences of Mind and Brain, which traces the history of the mirror self-recognition test, focusing on the period following World War II. The mirror test gained prominence at times when the notion of human nature was under assault; it provided a final line of defense against the tendency of the biological and cultural sciences to blur the boundaries between humans and other animals. This function has been exploited in a range of disciplines: psychiatry, psychoanalysis, animal and human psychology, cybernetics, anthropology, and neuroscience. Scientists placed infants, “primitives,” robots, and animals of various kinds in front of mirrors, in order to pose and find new answers to the perennial question: “What is man?”

Read more at Perspectives on History.