Organized Session

Physical Intermediaries between Mind and Brain from the 18th to 20th Centuries

Organizer

Edward Halley Barnet

Stanford University

Chair

Nima Bassiri

Duke University

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Session Abstract

The mind is, as Noam Chomsky remarked in Language and Mind, at once tied to the organic structure of the brain and unbounded by it, making "infinite use of finite means." Despite recent advances in mapping the neurological structures of the brain, contemporary cognitive science still grapples with the paradoxical relationship between the mind and the brain first described by Descartes in the 17th century. For over three centuries, philosophers and scientists alike have searched for physical intermediaries to remedy this incommensurability, whether in the aether, the central nervous system, or the mirror neuron. This panel brings together a variety of historical perspectives - natural philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific - to explore the evolutions and continuities of these scientific approaches to the mind-brain problem. The panel will unfold over three acts, set in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries respectively. We start in the mid-18th century, with Edward Halley Barnet's paper on David Hartley's attempt to establish a material foundation, through aetherial vibrations, for his associationist psychology. We then turn to the 19th-century, as Zachary Levine explores the elaboration of "archetypal" brains and individuals in the context of the French neurologists Alfred Binet and Charles Féré's development of the neurological case study. We conclude with Katya Guenther's examination of René Zazzo's and Anne-Marie Fontaine's investigations of the self through mirror images and self-recognition in the 1970s.
The panel's chronological scope is a reflection of the enduring nature of the mind-brain problem. By bringing together scholarly perspectives from a broad range of time periods and historical scientific disciplines, the panel illustrates not only the techniques scientists have used to investigate the relationship between the mind and the brain over time, but also the evolving nature of the mind-brain problem itself.

Presenter 1

David Hartley's Mental Acoustics: The Doctrine of Vibrations and the Beginnings of Associationist Psychology

Edward Halley Barnet

Stanford University

Abstract

Taking inspiration from the Newtonian aether, the English physician George Cheyne speculated in The English Malady (1733) that, "between pure, immaterial Spirit and gross Matter," an "intermediate, material Substance may make the Cement between the human Soul and Body, and may be the Instrument or Medium of all its Actions and Functions." But while Cheyne was one of the first English physicians to realize the potential of the aether for remedying the problem of the union of body and soul, it was the younger physician David Hartley who, in his Observations on Man (1749), would use the aether not only as an intermediary between body and soul, but also between the mind and the brain. Although Hartley is best known as an early theorist of associationist psychology, he built his philosophy of mind on the physiological foundation of the aether, whose subtle vibrations bridged the gap between the ideas of the mind and the movements of the brain and the nerves.
My talk explores two important aspects of David Hartley's philosophy of mind. In the first half, I address the historical development of the aether as a physical and functional intermediary between the mind and the brain, from Isaac Newton's first explorations of the idea in the late 17th century to Joseph Priestley and Thomas Reid's rejection of the theory in the late 18th century (albeit for very different reasons). In the second half, I investigate the relationship between Hartley's "Doctrine of Vibrations" and his associationist psychology. I suggest that, through these vibrations, Hartley proposed a theory of perception that relied on a new model of mental representation based not on the image, but rather acoustics and sound.

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Presenter 2

Experimenting Between Brains, Nerves and Selves: Alfred Binet, Charles Féré, and the Form of the Neurological Case Study

Zachary Levine

Columbia University

Abstract

Fin-de-Siècle France was replete with famous neurological patients, from Paul Broca's "Tan" to J.M. Charcot's "Augustine." As Régine Plas has shown, many of these were part of a larger group of wonderous figures that fascinated scientists and laypeople alike, and as Jan Goldstein has argued, such patients could not be divorced from broader concerns in the Third Republic. And yet, many aspects of the case study, from the selection of patients to their presentation to medical and popular audiences in written form, have begun to receive attention only recently - for example, in the work of Goldstein, John Forrester and Philippe Huneman. In this talk, I attempt to elucidate the methods of the neurological case study in fin-de-siècle France. To do so, I draw on patient records, private archives of neurologists and philosophers, and published case studies. In particular, I focus on the work of psychologists Alfred Binet and physician Charles Féré: their joint experimental studies of hysteria, their broader neurological and psychological interests, and the patient populations they drew from.
I argue that the methods of the neurological case study helped to stabilize the fluctuating relationships between nerves, brains, and selves in Third Republic France, in particular by building on a model of "archetypal" forms of brains and patients. These were not only a product of medical and scientific milieus, but drew from, and informed, broader ideas about the self. Binet and Féré are especially fruitful figures for understanding these connections, because they were interested not only in studying, but also experimenting on the material interactions between brains and nerves. Their work reflects Third Republic conceptions of the physical intermediaries between brains, nerves, and minds, such as animal magnetism and nervous energy. But it also illuminates the conceptual intermediaries that made sense of these physical intermediaries, in particular, the neurological case study.

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Presenter 3

Mirrors, Twins, and the Developing Child: Capturing the Self through Glass and Film

Katja Guenther

Princeton University

Abstract

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientists have used the mirror to shed light on mental processes. They asked the question: does the child, the animal, the machine, or the non-Western human adult recognize themselves in their mirror image? The search for a definitive test of self-recognition, however, was fraught with difficulties. The subjects' behaviors in front of the mirror-smiling, looking behind the mirror, or turning around to search the room-were certainly suggestive, but how could one know what exactly they meant? In this paper, I examine the work of the French psychologists René Zazzo and Anne-Marie Fontaine during the 1970s, when they sought to address these difficulties by drawing on another medium: film. At their Laboratoire psychobiologique de l'enfant in Paris, they placed sets of twins within a range of different situations-separated by glass and in front of the mirror-and carefully documented their results with cameras. Through a close reading of their films-for instance A travers le miroir, L'image qui devient un reflet and Un autre pas comme les autres-I show how and why they sought to achieve interpretative control of the ambiguous mirror encounter, and how it shaped their understanding of the moment when a child comes into her or his own.

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Commentator

Thomas Dodman

Columbia University