Publication Date

September 5, 2018

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


Medicine, Science, & Technology

Katja Guenther is an associate professor of history at Princeton University. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and has been a member since 2009.


Katja Guenther

Katja Guenther

Alma maters: MSc (Neuroscience), Oxford University, 2000; MD (Medical Doctor), University of Cologne, 2003; PhD (History of Science), Harvard University, 2009

Fields of interest: History of the modern human sciences, history of medicine and the body, material culture, subjectivity

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?”

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? Since my PhD, I have developed an interest in the history of psychoanalysis. There was no mention of Freud in my dissertation, but his work, along with its reception in the United States, played a major role in my first book. In my current book project, I am moving beyond German- and English-speaking psychoanalysis, and examining the work of Jacques Lacan. In another way though, my interest in psychoanalysis is simply the continuation of my long-standing fascination with the way scientists have sought to think through the relationship between our bodies and our mental lives.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? One year out of graduate school, when I had just started to work on Sigmund Freud, I came across an unpublished manuscript, Freud’s “Critical Introduction to Neuropathology,” composed in the years 1885–7. Freud intended it to be his first monograph, but in a letter to his fiancée Martha Bernays, he expressed the concern that it was too “bold” to appear under the name of a junior scholar, given its sharp criticisms of the neuropsychiatry of his day. The text transformed my understanding of Freud’s relationship to neuropsychiatry, and led me to understand Freud’s early work, and by extension his later psychoanalysis, as an internal criticism of the brain sciences. It encouraged me to think through the relationship between the sciences of mind and brain in new ways. I prepared a critical edition of the text in German in collaboration with two leading figures in the field, Albrecht Hirschmüller and the late Gerhard Fichtner at Tübingen, and produced an English translation, both of which appeared in 2012. It is likely to be the final major manuscript by Freud to see the light of day.

What do you value most about the history discipline? History helps me make sense of the world in its complexity. I can think of no better way of coming to terms with the meaning of science and medicine.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? It is important because it keeps me and my subfield connected to the historical profession at large.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association