Nature, Mind and Body in the Age of Mechanism



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ADAM’S SPECTACLES



Nature, Mind and Body

in the Age of Mechanism




Noga Arikha




A dissertation submitted in fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Warburg Institute

University of London



2001

Abstract

This thesis explores the ways in which the mind-body relationship was problematized after Descartes, in the context of the scientific revolution in the second half of the seventeenth century, both in France and in England. It is an attempt to historicize ongoing debates within the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind about the problem of consciousness. By reconstructing a history of the status of the self-aware, human mind through the history of scientific explanation, I address the question of whether or not a complete, scientific explanation of higher consciousness is possible.

Adopting a conceptual, rather than chronological framework, I concentrate on figures who played a role in the scientific, theological and philosophical debates of their day, rather than on the subjects studied in modern philosophy curricula, although Descartes, Locke and Malebranche are present throughout. Part I focuses mainly on post-Cartesian views on dualism. Part II relates these theoretical debates to discussions about the nature of scientific enquiry. The thesis begins with Fellows of the Royal Society, including William Holder and George Dalgarno, who discussed the possibility of devising a language for the deaf, as well as the nature of language, ideas and perception. Orthodox followers and later interpreters of Descartes like Gérauld de Cordemoy, François Fenelon and Louis de La Forge also wrote about these issues. Debates over the Cartesian ‘beast-machine’ thesis and over definitions of reason and instinct, are considered next, by looking at the works of Ignace-Gaston Pardies, Antoine Dilly and Pierre Bayle. These discussions were a manifestation of the need to define human nature apart from its physical embodiment. Part II begins with a consideration of the various ways that sceptical traditions informed programmes of scientific enquiry on both sides of the Channel, through the writings of Joseph Glanvill and Bernard de Fontenelle, among others. Arguments about teleology and about the relation between anatomical form and physiological function by thinkers and natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle, Nicolaus Steno and Thomas Willis are treated in the next chapter. These enquiries prepare the ground for the final chapter, which considers texts by physicians and anatomists, including Claude Perrault and Guillaume Lamy, on the physiology of the ‘corporeal soul’.


CONTENTS

Acknowledgements 4
A note on the text 7
Introduction 8



I. Signs of mind and the souls of beasts 29




Presentation 30

1. Deafness, ideas and the language of thought 40


2. From other minds to animal bodies 76
3. The beast-machine controversy:

reason, instinct and the causality of motion 107



II. Teleology, science and scepticism 131

Presentation 132


1. Other worlds: the science of knowledge 140
2. Understanding function: the organs of cognition 165

in animal and man


3. From sense to soul: God, reason and human will 201

Conclusion 242

Bibliography 248

Acknowledgements

This project, like many PhD dissertations, has taken a fairly long time to complete. It has been a privilege to be able to spend these years on research, thinking and writing, with few cares in the world apart from the joys and anxieties usually associated with the contemplative life. For better or worse, this is a doctorate I can claim to have needed to write, and I am immensely grateful to all those who have supported me in my wish to pursue this line of enquiry, and who have believed in its potential interest.

The Warburg Institute has been a unique institutional home and a haven of old scholarly values. The topic of the dissertation was conceived here, where the commitment to interdisciplinarity allows for great freedom of thought. Jill Kraye, who has guided this project at the Warburg, is bound to be one of the most available, supportive and dedicated supervisors anywhere. The thesis, such as it is, would not have come into existence without her presence; nor would it have found its shape without her editorial rigour, her intellectual discipline, her measured but constant encouragement, and her interest in helping me find a methodology suitable for the development of an argument more philosophical than historical. Most importantly, she has taught me how to temper my inordinate flights into abstraction, with a dose of the historian’s sobriety here and a dose of passion for clear thinking there. Charles Hope is another member of the Warburg staff to have witnessed the work’s progression from inception to completion, reading chapters as they slowly poured out, with sympathy, interest and a welcome eye for incoherences.

Outside the Warburg, David Papineau generously read the text as it took shape, providing me at regular intervals with necessary philosophical comments and questions on some crucial points. A meeting with Simon Schaffer at the very beginning provided enough material for the next years; Rivka Feldhay’s interest early on was encouraging. Alexander Goldbloom helped me on many occasions from his base at the Wellcome Institute. Talks with Kristine Haugen have been illuminating. Thanks to Georges Rey for a provocative conversation, to Kenan Malik for a provocative argument and to Luca Turin for a provocative remark. I am grateful to Richard Serjeantson, who read and annotated the chapters on animal minds with care and interest. Daniele Derossi has taught me much on Renaissance anatomy. Many thanks to Gloria Origgi for some especially pointed and clarifying comments she made on a few sections of the thesis; to Pia Pera and Adam Freudenheim for reading the introduction; and to Roberto Casati for helpful remarks early on. I am also grateful to David Goodhart and Prospect Magazine for providing me with a ‘real world’ base and to Edmund Fawcett for lengthy lunches and a writing outlet.

Daily interaction with members of the Warburg, whether staff or students, is bound to have left much more than an academic mark on life after the PhD. François Quiviger’s friendship over the years extends far beyond the Institute; his insights and our exchanges on topics we both have battled with have been formative in countless ways. Surrounded by art historians, I have not had time to miss the images absent from this thesis; but I have learned how to begin understanding them better. Ending the day in the photographic collection invariably revived the mind and gaze; thanks to Paul Taylor, Mariana Giovino and Rembrandt Duits for their catching enthusiasm. My sense of belonging to a wonderful community was due in large measure to the affection of Liz McGrath and that of Ruth and Nicolai Rubinstein, as well as to Nico Mann, who, as Director of the Institute, contributed much to this sense of belonging. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to spend these marvelous years here. Working in the bright second-floor student room of the Warburg building, overlooking the squares of Bloomsbury, has been a remarkably joyful experience; the company of Annie Giletti, Marika Leino, David Porreca and Alessandro Scafi over the last year of work has sweetened the rush to completion. Daniel Andersson’s many appearances were energizing; I thank him for comments he made on the subject of this thesis and for bibliographical advice. Guido Rebecchini was a supportive accomplice earlier on, as was Julie Boch, who sojourned further along the corridor and shared her insights on Enlightenment literary history.

The process of conceiving and writing this doctorate has been marked by numerous friendships and conditioned by timely, crucial meetings. I can only mention a few here. It is fair to say that the seeds of the project were sown when I first met Israel Rosenfield and Catherine Temerson some eight years ago - before I had even decided to pursue postgraduate studies - at the end of a formative internship at the New York Review of Books. While there, I had already begun developing an interest in the history and philosophy of the mind sciences; but it was fed over the following years by many conversations with Israel, by his scepticism about our capacity to understand minds and brains and his knowledge of the role of history in shaping our beliefs about them.

More people than I can name here helped the thesis grow, directly or indirectly. I am grateful to John Armstrong, Guido Branca, Robyn Davidson, Anthony Dworkin, Edmund Fawcett, Adam Freudenheim, Eva Hoffman, Toby Mundy and Turi Munthe for stimulating talks and for their interest; to Jeff Spier and Monique Kornell, Katia Basili, Mira Margalit, Pia Pera, Benedetta Tournon, Ute Wartenberg and Margrit Wiesendanger, present even from abroad; to my upstairs neighbour Larry Dreyfus for practicing his viola da gamba at home; to Daniele and Susanna Derossi, for their generosity. I have relied much on Alain de Botton’s insightfulness. Ian Buruma has influenced me over the years more than he might imagine. I met Claudia La Malfa in the second-floor student room at the Warburg, and she knows what her presence means. Miriam Rothschild’s passion for science has fanned my curiosity for well over a decade; week-end long conversations and her encouragement have been a great source of inspiration. Laura Bossi, whose thinking is close in spirit to mine, has also been encouraging in a most positive way. Finally, another serendipitous encounter occurred just over a year ago, with Gloria Origgi and Dan Sperber; in many ways, meeting them has been like finding another home.

I was told that the last year would be hell; but it was not. It is most probably thanks to Enrico Galliani that I have been able to hold on to sanity and finish the thesis at last; he knows how grateful I am for his patience, criticism and loving support. My sister Alba Branca and her family have more than tolerated me throughout these doctoral years and have given me sustenance, joy and encouragement. But without my parents, I simply would not have begun at all. They have believed in it from the start and have been interested readers, attentive listeners, inspiring and constantly present. There are no words to thank them for everything they have always provided in all ways, material, emotional, moral, intellectual. It is to my parents, Anne and Avigdor Arikha, that I dedicate this thesis.

A note on the text


  • Full bibliographical references are given at their first appearance in each one of the two sections; they are then in short title for the remainder of the section.




  • In the footnotes as well as in the bibliography, the place and date of publication in the first set of parentheses following the title are those of the first edition or of the edition most often used or referred to, including translations. Any further date is that of the edition used in the text, either in the original or in a modern edition. In the case of a modern edition, the place and date of publication are indicated as well.



  • All quotations from original sources follow the spelling of the edition used. In the case of seventeenth-century editions, original spelling and punctuation are followed in all cases except in the use by some authors of ‘u’ instead of ‘v’. In translations, quotations are modernized in both spelling and punctuation. In the case of Descartes, a modern-spelling edition has been used throughout.




  • All translations into English are the author’s, except where stated otherwise.


Introduction

1. Subject-matter, methodology and purpose
This dissertation presents a history of the mind-body problem in the context of the new corpuscularian philosophies of nature which characterized the Scientific Revolution. It concentrates on the period immediately after Descartes’s death in 1650 until the late 1690s, just before the fully fledged establishment in France and England of Enlightenment society, culture, science and philosophy. Its main concern is to historicize some key concepts in current discussions about the mind.

The mind-body problem as it stands today is the outcome of a puzzlement growing out of the increasing sophistication, precision and refinement with which we are able to comprehend the nature of matter, of our bodies and of our brains. It addresses the question of how a precise understanding of matter can yield, or correspond to, a precise understanding of what it is to be human - to have consciousness, subjectivity, a self, memory, a mind.1 But apart from representing a battle on the ground of science’s new capacity to identify, gather and interpret data about our brain and about our mental life, the mind-body problem constitutes one of the great chapters in the history of ideas, because it sits at the confluence of scientific and humanistic pursuits. In its earlier guise - from Plato and Aristotle on - this enduring question centred on exploring what sort of relation could possibly exist between soul and body (rather than between mind and brain), given that we were both embodied and capable of thought, positioned somewhere between beasts and angels. But the idea that matter alone could be amenable to scientific scrutiny and that it was entirely separate from the self-aware, conscious, immaterial mind is known to have begun life in its modern form with Descartes. He split apart matter and mind, forcing human higher cognition into a realm available only to individual introspection. The philosophical and theological debates which followed among natural philosophers and men of letters alike in the mid- and late- seventeenth-century were momentous, and the issues they engaged with are ones we still consider unresolved.

It is these debates, in the wake of Descartes’s hypothesis of mind-body dualism, which I shall attempt to reconstruct, moving between England and France and often comparing the discussions in each country. If these debates can help us put into historical, contingent context our own perplexity about the power of scientific enquiry to shed light on human nature, it is because they took place at a time when the disciplinary boundaries which prevail today in the academic world did not yet exist. These disciplinary boundaries ensure that the plentiful scholarship on the history of that period’s science and philosophy often fails to inform the prodigiously rich and varied work that has been emerging in the new fields which constitute the cognitive sciences, the neurosciences and the philosophy of mind.2 Standing at a juncture between the histories of science, medicine and psychology, the history of philosophy, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind itself, I do not claim to contribute new material to either of these fields, nor to offer a synthesis of the existing scholarship growing every day within them. What I have tried to do, instead, is to transcend disciplinary and methodological barriers that did not exist in the period covered here; failing to do so would be, in effect, to distort from the outset the nature of the mind-body problem at that time.

Analysing what this ‘problem’ was about during the period between 1650 and the 1690s entails studying a variety of texts which participated in configuring the cultural debates around the questions inherent in the very plausibility of positing an hypothesis such as Cartesian mind-body dualism, that is, the strict distinction between the body, defined as res extensa, and the soul, defined as res cogitans. These texts concern - in order of appearance in the dissertation - effects of sense-impairment on experience and thought; language use and language acquisition; learning and education; animal minds and animal souls; definitions of scientific observation and scepticism; teleology and functionalism; the modalities of sense-perception and second-order cognition. Research into all of these aspects of mental activity would be pursued in the eighteenth century, a period when materialist creeds became consolidated and atheism more widespread; and in the nineteenth century it would lead to the first attempts at a scientifically modern neurology. These same issues continue to be investigated today by cognitive scientists, whose assumptions about the nature of the mind are, however, informed by research into a biological universe that was unknown, and arguably inconceivable, until recently, whose relevant history is not entirely contained within the historiography of biological sciences and medicine.

What made it impossible for the mind’s contents to be a concern of biology before the modern era is one concrete historical question that this dissertation seeks to answer.3 A thorough treatment of this question would obviously require an in-depth study of the decisive events in the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science, medicine and philosophy. The story told here is concerned instead with the background to these developments. Criss-crossing disciplines rather than centuries, I attempt to unravel the relation that late seventeenth-century empirical observations of the mind’s workings bore to the period’s philosophical, theological and ethical concerns. Such an approach should help us understand the nature of the assumptions underlying early modern, foundational philosophical enquiries which, eventually, made it possible to devise questions and methods for the scientific investigation of cognition through analysis of the brain and nervous system, as well as through the study of the psyche and the observation of behaviour. Nevertheless, our desire to comprehend the mind-body relation is still not wholly satisfied by the increasing ability of the neurosciences and cognitive psychology to tell us what we are made of.4 It is hard to interpret the data, partly because we do not know exactly what data to look for and partly because the bounds within which science can explain us to ourselves are not fixed.

The approach here is interdisciplinary insofar as it is based on the close reading of texts with an eye to both the early modern intellectual context and the modern issues of epistemology on which they shed light. In adopting this methodology, I do not claim affiliation to any particular school of thought. What has guided me is an interest in historicizing the scientific mind, in the belief that doing so would give us a perspective on what is involved in relying, or not relying, on scientific explanation as a means of understanding ourselves, our lives, our bodies and our world. This is why I have paid attention to the reasons for holding beliefs about the nature of mind and matter, rather than to the internal coherence of these beliefs, which usually preoccupies those who study the history of philosophy.5 In no way, however, does this constitute an endorsement of an anti-realist or subjectivist position with regard to science;6 nor is it intended as a defence of ‘alternatives’ to properly scientific explanation, such as vitalism, the belief in occult forces and so on. Nevertheless, the notable popularity of extreme relativism,7 on the one hand, and of ‘alternatives’ to mainstream science, on the other, points to the need to examine what relation mind and reason bore to body and emotion at a point in time which precedes the entrenchment of positivism in mainstream scientific theory and practice.8


2. Philosophical context

The advent of the ‘new philosophies’ of mechanism and atomism during the century preceding the Enlightenment - roughly, from Galileo and Descartes to Newton and Locke - shattered the harmony between man and nature which had been imposed on the practice of natural philosophy in the Renaissance by the almost exclusive reliance on traditional, Aristotelian and scholastic texts. It thus provoked major changes in the understanding of the nature of matter and bodies, together with elaborate discussions about the status of the new physics and about physical explanation generally, about causality and forces in nature, and about the limits of reason. These discussions can be illuminating for us, as can be the humanist scepticism which informed the best writings of the time. There was a pressing need then to redefine, in order to preserve, the privileged status of human beings in the realm of nature, as creatures of God endowed with an immortal soul and with free will. At the forefront of the debates about and within the new mechanistic and atomistic systems was the profound anxiety about their consequences for the non-material human soul. In this way, epistemology (questions about what constituted human knowledge) was inseparable from both psychology (questions about the human passions and their relationship to reason) and metaphysics (questions about the place of humans and of the human soul in the God-created universe).

Having separated the soul from the body, Descartes failed to convince many of his contemporaries of the viability of the resulting physical organism, which led him to identify beasts with automata. Today’s ‘zombies’ are not dissimilar to Descartes’s ‘automaton’ and ‘beast-machine’: they are creatures spawned by a thought-experiment frequently used by modern philosophers of mind to imagine how an artificially contrived organism mirrored on ourselves but deprived of ‘consciousness’ would function. Descartes’s own thought-experiment served the opposite goal, since it was supposed to prove the immateriality of mind rather than show how hard it was to prove it; but it provoked fear in his time that a ‘man-machine’ might eventually be conjured up, as indeed Julien Offray de La Mettrie would do a century later, in L’homme-machine.9 Furthermore, our questions about how an organic substance could ever ‘produce’ consciousness and reason are not far removed from the earlier worries about the place of the soul within the purely mechanical Cartesian organism. Given that we think of higher consciousness as unique to humans, our puzzlement about its status within our mortal frame echoes, too, the need of seventeenth-century religious thinkers to preserve the immortal ‘rational soul’ which humans alone possessed and which marked the difference between man and beast.

Although the theological concern with the immortality of the human soul is no longer a defining element in Western culture, the evident wedge between man and animal ensures the persistence of human exceptionalism.10 It is true that, ever since Darwin, we do not dare to think of nature in anthropocentrically hierarchical terms, with humans at the top. It is now widely accepted that consciousness must be embedded in cognitive processes we share with other creatures: even language, it seems, began with physical gesture.11 But the interest today in speculating about the nature of animal minds12 does have an historical counterpoint in the obsessive need of earlier thinkers to draw the - theologically necessary - boundaries between animal and man by establishing what kind of soul God could possibly have granted to creatures seemingly deprived of higher cognition and language. There was a metaphysical dimension to debates about how to distinguish deliberative reason and acquired knowledge from natural instinct, just as there is today a philosophical dimension to debates in the cognitive sciences about the nature of mental representations and of their relationship to our distinctly human linguistic capacity.13 These present-day debates include questions about the nature of what is understood as ‘higher order thought’, or ‘metarepresentational’ consciousness,14 a concept which appears to be parallel to that of the earlier rational soul. They also include questions about the nature and significance of our capacity to know ‘other minds’, a problem posed with great force from Descartes onwards and which formed one aspect of the deliberations about animal minds.15 These discussions now reflect wider, topical concerns - at times ideologically inflected - about how to define ‘innate’ and ‘acquired’ knowledge, which are themselves connected to anthropologically inflected questions regarding the ways in which we define the relation of ‘nature’ to ‘culture’.16


3. Conceptual framework

Although I have been aware throughout the writing of this dissertation that anachronistic fallacies lay just around the corner, I have strived to remain on a straight line in the telling of a story that in itself is not temporally linear. Its structure is based on a number of assumptions that arise from the course of ongoing discussions about the nature of the human and the animal mind and about the related difficulties inherent in defining the self-conscious, human person as an individual member of a species. The dissertation is thus conceptually, rather than chronologically driven, in that its protagonist is a concept (and anti-hero of sorts): the ‘explanatory gap’,17 inherent, as some argue today, in physicalist explanations of consciousness. Such arguments state that since human consciousness is irreducibly subjective and immaterial in phenomenal terms, its depiction in physical and naturalistic terms seems to leave out the very element such an account seeks to embrace, the ‘what-it-is-like-ness’ of subjective experience, the so-called ‘qualia’ that make it up. Seventeenth-century discussions of the mind-body problem in the context of Cartesian dualism reveal an equivalent explanatory gap. Unnamed until the twentieth century, it is nevertheless at the heart of this discussion simply because it determines the very structure of the mind-body problem in its post-Cartesian guise.

I take the explanatory gap to designate primarily the sense that any theory of cognition based on neurological or generally physical explanations does not constitute an answer to the question of how it is that we are what we are, in the terms in which we experience, and think ourselves to be what we are, that is, individuals endowed with consciousness. This was a truism at a time when the concept of ‘soul’ had potency. Today, given the available tools of scientific interpretation, together with the scientific ineffectiveness of this earlier concept of ‘soul’, there remains a great difficulty in explaining what sort of relation consciousness, invisible as it is, bears to the visible white and grey matter with which it is obviously associated, how brain events correspond to mental events, which is the cause of which, and what the modality is of this correspondence. ‘Consciousness’ as such only became a subject-matter by default, out of the sense, which arose in the wake of the short-lived behaviourist trend of the 1960s, that models of the mind based on neuroscientific theories left it out of the picture. I assume from the outset that the existence of this metarepresentational capacity as a central aspect of our embodied, evolved and mutually interacting selves must be taken into account within any theory of the human mind for such a theory to be plausible.18 This is a relatively new notion, although by now monism does seem to be slowly replacing the Cartesian dualism within which the explanatory roles of modern philosophy and modern science, respectively, were defined.19

The issue of whether or not the explanatory gap can be closed has been discussed abundantly in recent years. My concern, however, is not to treat the explanatory gap within a technical philosophical discourse, but rather to trace its genealogy by reconstructing the terrain on either side of it. This terrain is made of shifts in the very notion of explanation. Today, it is a terrain on which conflicting, seemingly incommensurable beliefs about the place and status of naturalistic scientific explanation20 coexist within a universe which it is acknowledged we still barely understand. My account is not guided by the attempt to find answers about the nature of consciousness or about the existence of souls in either man or animal. It focuses instead on showing the extent to which the construction of theories about cognition and the conscious mind is rooted in the historically shifting nature of the semantic ground on which we ask questions about ourselves - about our lives, our bodies and our world.21 It thus turns around the central matter of the status of the immaterial, rational soul at a point in history when the explanatory gap, this blind spot in our knowledge, was fully accepted, if not required within a theodicy. The ‘mind’ here, then, is not so much an object of scientific or philosophical enquiry as the very site of the blind spot, the blurred boundary between metaphysical and physical or biological enquiry, which sets the realm of modern philosophy, apart from the practice of experimental natural philosophy.22


4. Themes and outline

The study of this semantic ground on which we ask questions about ourselves - the very ground on which reason reveals itself to itself - constitutes the starting point of this dissertation and the subject of the first chapter. It presents the enquiries of Fellows of the Royal Society such as George Dalgarno, William Holder and John Wilkins into the role and status of language with regard to human knowledge, particularly through the case of the deaf persons’ ability to acquire it. Language was considered the most direct manifestation of higher cognitive faculties and was discussed as a manifestation of rationality within the dualist framework by the Cartesian lawyer Gérauld de Cordemoy, who presented language as proof of the dualist thesis. Fénelon discussed its acquisition in his treatise on the education of children. These enquiries touch on the question of whether or not language was a tool exceptional to humans. They are also related to worries about whether or not animals could be considered endowed with a mind comparable to that of humans. These worries - which correspond to our ‘other minds’ problem23 - and their historical background in the breakdown of the Aristotelian tripartite soul from Descartes onwards, are recounted in Chapter 2: it presents a study of the status of human reason within the new science and Cartesianism, via John Locke, Nicolas Malebranche and the Cartesian Louis De La Forge, and Pierre Bayle’s account of arguments put forth by Antoine Dilly and Ignace-Gaston Pardies about the border between animal and man. Malebranche and Locke reappear in Chapter 3, in discussions about the characteristics of animal minds following Descartes’s beast-machine thesis; Marin Cureau de la Chambre and Pierre Chanet follow, with earlier arguments about the distinction between, and respective definition of, reason and instinct.

The very definition of the human, as opposed to the animal, mind was thus presented in part as a linguistic issue. Moreover, the territory that language defined and described was the natural world. At stake in these enquiries, in the context of the practice of experimental, empirical, Baconian science, was the question of the knowability of this natural world and of our place in it, as well as the relationship between knowledge and human reason. The second part of the dissertation, in which the focus is mainly on natural philosophical works, takes off from here. The knowability of the world was debated within the framework of scepticism about the cognitive capacities of humans. This is the subject of the first Chapter in this section, with the study of works by the clergyman and Fellow of the Royal Society Joseph Glanvill, by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (eventually Secretary of the Académie des Sciences in Paris) and by other notable natural philosophers including Robert Hooke. The role of teleology in shaping the functionalist assumptions underlying the investigation of the natural world (including the human body and brain) is analysed in Chapter 2, in relation to texts by the anatomists Nicolaus Steno and Thomas Willis and by the natural philosopher, natural historian and architect Claude Perrault (the brother of Charles, author of the famous Contes for children). This Chapter traces the shift in the use of teleological explanations of the relation between - visible or invisible - structure and - visible or invisible - function in the natural world, much studied by historians of science over the past decades. It prepares the ground for a look at the fate of debates about the rational soul - and thus, in modern terminology, of consciousness - in the context of the new mechanistic explanations of the motion of living and inert bodies. This is the subject-matter of Chapter 3, where the possibility of materialism is explored with the Parisian physician - and ‘libertin’ - Guillaume Lamy. All these issues, and in particular the recurrent problem of the status of animal minds, needed to be considered in an era that had not yet given birth to the ‘man-machine’, but which foresaw it with great anxiety. This essentially moral anxiety about the consequences of naturalism for the human soul was partly expressed in the difficulty of placing living, biological creatures somewhere on the long, complex continuum between the mechanical and the organic. This difficulty is still with us.

Part I, then, mainly analyses the ramifications of the dualist, post-Cartesian (but not necessarily pro-Cartesian) picture of the mind-body relationship in fields beyond those currently surveyed by philosophers and historians of science. Part II introduces issues surrounding the definition of what constituted empirical research at this late stage of the Scientific Revolution; and it ends by suggesting that, within the mainstream natural philosophy of the period, there were accounts of reason as embodied. The notion that modern philosophy began with Descartes may thus be shown to breed confusions regarding the nature of the questions to which it has led.

5. Choice of sources

The many voices I discuss, apart from those of Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Malebranche and Locke, are mostly of ‘minor’ - as opposed to canonical - figures from France and England. Because of the abundance of sources and exchanges, together with the interconnection of themes and the variety of views, what I offer is a necessarily biased selection, informed by a concern not only to reveal them with historical accuracy, but also to let them speak to us about the issues which remain important today. Some fundamental aspects of the period, as well as names and schools of thought, have had to be left out of this study. Great thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz, who found highly inspiring alternatives to mechanism and atomism, do not appear here precisely because they are exceptional. Hobbes, another great exception, appears in Part I, but only briefly. Some pages might have been devoted to Pascal and to Jansenism, but that would have taken us off-track. There is also the matter of space: to do justice to the great thinkers and to the secondary literature on them would have been impossible in the limited context of this dissertation. Neoplatonist alternatives, especially the views of the Cambridge Platonists, are excluded from this account for the same reason, but also because such alternatives to the corpuscularian philosophies do not help explain why the latter eventually became dominant. Moreover, an investigation of the Cambridge Platonists would have to consist in a study in the metaphysics of mind, which is not the purpose here.


Those who do appear here owe their presence, however, to outstanding qualities. Glanvill was wonderfully eloquent about scepticism (though equally so about the existence of witches). Cordemoy can be considered a forerunner of Malebranche; and both he and La Forge espoused Cartesianism in a novel, important way. Bayle has earned a place in intellectual history on account of his monumental Dictionnaire historique, his elaborate, foundational use of footnotes, his erudition, prolixity and scepticism. Pardies was a Jesuit with apparently Cartesian sympathies, well-known for his work in geometry, physics and optics, which had an influence on Newton. He and Dilly were also known for their controversy about animal minds, which, in many ways, reflected intense but confusing disagreements over the possible dangers inherent in overthrowing Aristotelianism for the sake of Cartesianism. Chanet and Cureau de la Chambre confronted each other earlier on, but for similar reasons. Cureau de la Chambre was a physician to Louis XIV and a dedicatee of Steno, who himself had unusual, but widely respected ideas about anatomy. Willis remains a major, influential figure in the history of neurology and psychiatry. Perrault’s breadth of activities and interests, as well as his connections with the Paris establishment, make him a central character on the official French scene. Lamy was a materialist when few dared to be, as well as an intriguing, quarrelsome, polemical physician and anatomist.


These, and other authors in the account, may be familiar to historians of medicine; still others will be familiar to historians of science. The context in which they appear, however, as I have indicated, is not that of the history of science or medicine. It should be pointed out, too, that the focus here is exclusively on the life sciences - physics makes only a tangential appearance: there is no mention of Newton, for example, just as I have not taken into account the important and well-studied relationship, especially in Italy, of the Jesuits to physics and mathematics and to assaults on Aristotelianism.24 Many more treatises of the period on the corporeal soul, anatomy and physiology could likewise have been included. Italian and German natural philosophers are virtually absent as well (there is one Dane, Steno, but he worked for a while in Paris, on his way to Italy). The reason for these limitations is, again, partly lack of space; but it is also because France was the epicentre of arguments about Cartesianism, and England of arguments about empiricism. The relationship between the two traditions is rich and complex; and it has consequently been given priority over the concern to draw a complete picture of the pan-European, politically intricate web of relations between natural philosophers at the time,25 such as it was reflected, for example, in the activities of Athanasius Kircher.26

6. Relevant scholarship

It has not been possible for me to consult all the vast quantity of secondary literature which has been written over the past fifty years or so on the two major areas that make up the subject-matter of this dissertation: on the one hand, epistemology and metaphysics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences; and on the other, early modern intellectual history broadly understood. There is a plethora of literature concerning the subjects included in the first area, some instances of which I have referred to in the footnotes to sections 1-3 of this Introduction (and the number of books on mind and consciousness destined for the specialist as well as the non-academic public increases every month). Material on the great seventeenth-century philosophers who treated it is also more than abundant. Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Leibniz and Spinoza are routinely integrated within the philosophical curriculum. Descartes and Locke, especially, are points of reference in the study of epistemology and the philosophy of mind. All these thinkers constitute fields of research in their own right, along with those who remain more historical than canonical, such as Gassendi or Malebranche, and who are studied mainly within the history of philosophy and ideas.

The intellectual and political worlds in which these philosophers worked is also a thoroughly ploughed terrain, although its findings tend not to inform significantly the actual practice of philosophy. It is now established within the general field of intellectual history, however, that one needs to contextualize the thought of the great, canonical figures, if only to understand better where they were coming from, and why they became - and remained - canonical in the first place. This is what the Cambridge Companion series has done for Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz and others. The recently published Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy is contributing to broadening the field.27 The history of education is an important tool for understanding the intellectual situation; Laurence Brockliss, for example, provided a magisterial work on education in France.28 Michael Hunter has been editing the correspondence of Boyle and has completed the edition of his complete works;29 he has also written extensively on the history of science in England in its social, political, religious and generally intellectual context.30 The history of scepticism in the England of the period was traced many years ago by Henry Van Leeuwen,31 while the complexity of philosophical reactions to Cartesianism has been studied by Richard Watson32 and Albert Balz.33 Amos Funkenstein has provided an in-depth analysis of the relationship between metaphysics, rational theology and natural philosophy from the Middle Ages to the early modern era.34 (There also exists a tradition of writing on the notion of interiority in the seventeenth century, which I have not followed here.)35

Descartes’s sources and background have been much analysed by, among others, Henri Gouhier;36 and more recently, Stephen Gaukroger in his illuminating biography.37 Gaukroger also co-edited a volume on Descartes’s natural philosophy,38 now studied along with his metaphysics. His Augustinianism has been studied by Stephen Menn,39 and his relationship with scholasticism by Roger Ariew.40 Daniel Garber has written extensively on Descartes both as an historian of ideas and as a philosopher.41 Roger Woolhouse has explored the concept of substance in Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza but with a view to embracing the period rather than figures isolated from one another.42 Studies on the impact of Cartesianism in Germany,43 Holland44 and Italy45 have been added to our previous knowledge of its fate in France and England. Margaret Osler and Lynn Joy have produced fundamental work on Gassendi.46 Steven Nadler’s Arnauld and the Cartesian Philosophy of Ideas47 was heavily immersed in the Cartesian and Jansenist context in which Arnauld thought, focusing in particular on the controversy with Malebranche; Nicholas Jolley’s The Light of Nature includes a detailed account of Malebranche’s theory of ideas, along with that of Descartes and Leibniz.48 Susan James has written on theories of the passions, though confining herself largely to the canonical figures.49 Anthony Levi’s work on theories of the passions in France is an earlier classic.50 André Robinet, for his part, has investigated mainstream French philosophy, theory of language and metaphysics in the seventeenth century, from Descartes to Arnauld, Malebranche and Leibniz, notably producing an edition of the Leibniz-Malebranche correspondence.51 Editions of correspondences in general have been giving us a more accurate picture of how concepts developed through the intense interaction of scholars and thinkers, and thus feeding into the history of scholarship, as well as the history of science.



The history of science tends to overlap with the history of philosophy. The pre-1950s classic by Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, had the ambition to trace, as its subtitle indicated, ‘the history of an idea’ in a broad sweep through the complexities of man’s relation to nature.52 More prosaically, and more recently, Ernst Mayr’s history of biological thought is a useful work of reference which bridges the philosophy of science and its history, helping to understand, for example, where Darwinian theory came from.53 Henry Harris has traced the history of the cell from Hooke onward,54 while, some fifty years ago, Walther Riese55 and F. N. L. Poynter56 produced histories of neurology in terms of ideas about brain function and localization. Andrew Pyle has analysed forms of atomism from Democritus to Newton and John Yolton a history of theories of perception from Descartes to Reid. 57 The classic study by Jacques Roger on the sciences of life,58 and especially on early Enlightenment theories of reproduction and generation, remains an invaluable source of information on a world where natural history, natural philosophy and metaphysics were dependent on one other. In the 1950s, Jean Ehrard provided a study of the ramifications of the idea of nature for a slightly later period,59 as did Bernard Tocanne later on, for the second half of the seventeenth century.60 The relationship of Hobbes to the Royal Society was a central aspect of a much-discussed work by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer.61 Shapin’s introductory book The Scientific Revolution contains an excellent, commented bibliographical guide, with a particular slant towards the historiography of studies on the relation between the creation of scientific knowledge, religion and politics.62 Catherine Wilson, in a vein close to Peter Dear on experiment,63 has analysed the complex relation between theory and practice specifically with regard to the introduction of microscopes as a tool of enquiry in the 1660s.64 Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s study of wonders, gestated over many years and published in 1998, traces more broadly the psychology of scientific enquiry over five centuries in the context of the changing status of nature and of explanations of natural and supernatural phenomena;65 their bibliography is another useful reference tool. Dennis Todd’s Imagining Monsters did something similar for eighteenth-century England.66 These works also fit into the category of the ample literature on the social and political history of scientific practice and academies,67 which is related to the history of epistemology but on which I have not relied to any great extent in this dissertation.

In the realm of the history of medicine and anatomy, Edwin Clarke and C. D. O’Malley’s compilation of historical texts on The Human Brain and Spinal Cord remains a useful source book,68 as does Edwin Clarke and Kenneth Dewhurst’s An Illustrated History of Brain Function.69 There are a number of recent interdisciplinary volumes covering key aspects of the history of seventeenth-century medicine and physicians.70 Roy Porter’s history of madness in England, Mind-Forg’d Manacles, analyses not only the social history of what we understand as ‘psychiatry’ but also its intellectual and ideological underpinnings.71 The body itself, as a historical object, is today in vogue. Jonathan Sawday has explored what was involved in the study and dissection of the body in the early modern period,72 while the bodies of scientists are scrutinized in a volume edited by Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin.73

As for the history of ideas about animal minds, it has been studied in the context of the evolution of the idea of nature, for instance, in Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World,74 which concentrates on England. Elizabeth de Fontenay’s recent Le silence des bêtes, on the other hand, focuses on animal minds, but is mainly confined to France.75 Leonora Cohen Rosenfield’s book on the beast-machine thesis in early modern philosophy has been a standard work for decades.76 The seventeenth-century debate has been explored in a special issue of the periodical Corpus;77 and articles abound on various aspects of the topic, including its classical and Renaissance sources.78 The philosophical debate is connected to ethical questions about the status of man in nature, like those posed some twenty years ago by Mary Midgley in her Beast and Man,79 and analysed by Peter Carruthers.80 Laura Bossi’s forthcoming history of the soul also engages in the ethical issues inherent in our relationship with the non-human animal world, tracing the shifts in this relationship as they appear in science, philosophy and general letters from antiquity to our day.81

To the best of my knowledge, however, here again there is a dearth of literature which bridges the philosophical issues underpinning contemporary work on animal minds with the history of these issues.82 Similarly, I have found few analyses of the relationship between theories on animal minds and the place of human language in the configuration of the mind-body problem at the time. The state of the literature that falls into the category which Jonathan Rée, in the afterword (and subtitle) to his history of deafness, I Hear a Voice,83 has called ‘philosophical history’ - and philosophical history is what I have tried to write - is just as difficult to pin down. This might be because philosophical thought must treat its objects as open, and its outcome as open-ended, whereas the history of philosophical thought is less concerned with constructing arguments than with reconstructing the concepts which thinkers in the past have explicitly used to defend their ideas.


It might appear that Michel Foucault would be an unavoidable reference in a history of the kind I have undertaken; he has not, however, been a primary intellectual source for this project. I was mostly inspired by the concept-driven history of science of Georges Canguilhem84 and, to an extent, of Gaston Bachelard.85 Both William James’s Principles of Psychology86 and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception87 bridge philosophy and psychology in ways I also find inspiring. The approach guiding Élie During in his compilation of extracts from key texts on the soul is close to what I have attempted to do in this project.88 André Pichot’s compilation of texts on the notion of life is a helpful guide.89 Some thirty years ago, Ian Hacking provided what was then a new reading of the birth of the science of probability in an attempt to integrate historical narrative and conceptual drama.90 More recently, John Sutton has provided a sophisticated example of how to combine the historical exegesis of philosophical texts on the nature of memory, whether well known or relatively ‘obscure’, with an explicit effort to relate them conceptually to models of mind discussed today, especially connectionism.91 His approach is similar, if only in its foundations, to the one I have adopted, although he has dared to analyse an historical model of mind in terms of a contemporary one in much more explicit terms than I do. Catherine Wilson92 was also interested in analysing conceptually the confusions about the nature of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth century, but within a strictly historical framework; reading her book helped me to define my thinking more sharply.

It will emerge from this investigation that, as the foundations of modern science were established on the grounds of a scepticism about the scope of human knowledge, what has since been identified as an ‘explanatory gap’ was an intrinsic part of seventeenth-century accounts of the relation between mind and body. Today, it is easy to forget this early modern connection between scepticism and the claims of science. A few years ago, the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson suggested that the reason why ‘the history of modern philosophy, from Descartes and Kant forward, consists of failed models of the brain’, is that what ‘has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental processes in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive’.93 That the brain has had to ‘survive’ must be true. But Wilson’s assertion presupposes that there exists a scientific account of what the brain is (a machine); that this account can be formulated entirely in terms of the machine’s finality (survival); and that the evolutionary hypothesis overrides the brain’s incapacity to understand itself while also constituting a scientific explanation for this incapacity. The explanatory gap is here replaced with evolutionary theory. A physicist, by contrast, might be given to wonder why any effort at all should be expended on an organ (the brain) and a phenomenon (consciousness) which no ‘hard’ science will ever entirely explain, regardless of the causes of this nagging blind spot. This ‘hard’ scientist would agree with Wilson that no one knows what is really involved in ‘thinking’, but unlike him would not offer to explain why this is the case. On this view, questions about the nature of reason would be scientifically irrelevant, the philosophy of mind redundant and the presence of an explanatory gap unproblematic.94

I invite the reader to an exploration of these sceptical grounds as they stood three hundred years ago, in the hope that it may help us decide whether or not such a point of view can be justified.



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