3) Materialising the Soul

The Soul, the Mind and Sovereignty

People sacrificed the life and death of their own body for the sovereign, receiving protection of their home in return. During the 17th century, British philosophers like Thomas Hobbes began to argue the political community was composed of interrelated parts, and the task of political philosophy was to understand how these parts functioned together. This was controversial as divine right had been displaced, instead proposing a contractual theory of sovereignty.

At a similar time, the French philosopher René Descartes proposed that humans should be understood as composed of disparate, but coordinated parts. He sought to explain how the component parts acted together by proposing the pineal gland was the centre of coordination. Many thought he was wrong as he tried to solve the question of consciousness without the soul which was believed to be the centre of decision-making. He contributed to establishing the mind as the secular equivalent to the soul which shows how the brain became regarded as the seat of deliberation and proper action instead of the heart. It shows the moving away from religion to anatomy too. The brain had never been afforded much attention and it was believed it just cooled down the body.

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The brain acting as a unifying entity of the body can be related to Hobbes' metaphor of the state where there is a central, autonomous controlling power. Asking how the pineal gland controlled the body was like questioning the authority of the sovereign. But, during the 2nd half of the 18th century, debates over the nature of political power, especially about the rights of the sovereign over the subjects, became increasingly intense. The subsequent Romantic reaction to the ideals of the Enlightenment led to the assertion of spiritual unity over the divisive power of reason. These issues are important to the evolution of questions about mind and brain.

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The Anatomy of the Mind

In the 18th century, the German anatomists Franz Gall and Johann Spurzheim began to ground the speculative ideas advanced earlier in the century by the medical philosopher Julien Offrey de la Mettrie who argued that, what was popularly conceived as the soul could be accounted for in parts of the body. Gall and Spurzheim argued that mental faculties were determined by the anatomical structure of the brain. They began providing an anatomical basis for the brain being the centre of decision-making. Importantly, figures like these two enjoyed considerable authority as debates over the treatment of the insane in the great asylums positioned the physician as important arbiters in the matter of minds and brains.

The 18th century also saw the beginnings of attempts to be more humane and scientific in treating illnesses. Gall and Spurzheim argued that different mental faculties had to be located in equally distinct parts of the brain. They believed that certain parts of the brain were responsible for mental capacities like secretivity. Xavier Bichat's work also focused on how the lungs were responsible for one thing, the liver for another etc. so why not the brain too?

Gall and Spurzheim measured the outside of the head and believed there were 30+ qualities that separate sections of the brain were responsible for. But, the biggest consequence of their work was that the unity of the mind, and therefore the integrity of the soul, was undermined.

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Phrenology Tenets

Gall and Spurzheim's views can be summarised as follows:

  • The brain is the anatomical seat of the mind.
  • The mind is composed of multiple distinct faculties.
  • Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate seat in the brain.
  • Other things being equal, the development of each faculty will be proportional to the size of its anatomical counterpart.
  • The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various parts.
  • Since the skull takes its shape from the brain, the shape of the skull is an index of mental aptitudes.

While they shared a controversial and materialistic understanding of the mind, they drew very different political conclusions.

  • The more conservative Gall argued that, since human mental faculties were dictated by anatomical differences, humanity wasn't as perfectible as the champions of the Enlightenment claimed.
  • The more progressive Spurzheim argued that a precise understanding of these differences could lead to a more rational administration of society, based on objective grounds rather than the political prejudices of aristocratic elites.
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The Politics of Phrenology

In Britain and the US (nations undergoing great political changes during the 1820s and '30s), the materialist understanding of the mind advanced by what was increasingly labelled phrenology proved very popular among political reformers and the more educated sections of the growing working classes. Phrenologists invested considerable energy in making their ideas about the nature of the mind accessible to those not versed in anatomy or physiology through public lectures (although these were expensive).

At the same time, those threatened by the situation, like the aristocracy and the professional elites, tried undermining the credibility of phrenology by noting it wasn't based on any professional, anatomical investigation of the brain, but on a doubtful correlation between the shape of the skull and the anatomical configuration of the brain. These anatomists also faced a problem, though. Because anatomists understood the brain as a unified whole, they didn't think it particularly interesting, and so they knew just as little as the phrenologists about the anatomical structure of the brain. So, phrenologists increasingly insisted on the existence of anatomical evidence for their views and their critics sought to reject such evidence which made the brain become an increasingly complex organ, raising increasingly difficult questions about its relationship to mental functions.

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The Politics of Opposition

Phrenologists, like George Combe (Edinburgh), found a readier audience for their work within the emerging field of anthropology (the study of the physical features that differentiated humans into distinct groups of people). The work lent great weight to the increasing differentiation of groups of people in terms of distinct human races. Such work that organised the difference between races into a historical chain of human development was fundamentally important in the emergence of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Others, like Louis Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso, applied the anthropometric techniques that underpinned the anthropological comparisons to identify criminals and social deviants. Certain races were labelled as more primitive and less developed. Phrenology was also seen in police reports.

It's not surprising that the most ambitious physiologists who came of age in the 1840s and '50s, like Emil du Bois-Reymond, Hermann Helmholtz and Karl Ludwig, turned to the brain and nervous system to advance their new approach to physiological investigation. The developments in understanding how the brain and nervous system functioned advanced new laboratory approaches to physiology.

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