Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan,’ which presented human beings as material objects subject to the laws of mechanics, was a frontal assault on the idea of the immortal soul.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s ‘Condemned Soul’ (1619), thought by some to be a self-portrait, at the Spanish Embassy in Rome. A pendant sculpture, ‘Blessed Soul’ (1619), stands nearby.PHOTO:BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
Scientism, manifested most dismally in exaggerated claims about the capacity of neuroscience to explain (or explain away) human nature, is perhaps the most serious intellectual disease of our time. This is one of the many reasons why George Makari’s brilliant, compendious “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” is essential reading. The story he tells so engagingly is of a vast, polyphonic argument about what it is to be a human being. It involves some of post-Renaissance Europe’s most profound thinkers, as well as an extraordinary cast of charismatic figures, not a few of them charlatans and rogues. They were all driven by the ambition, as the author writes, “to close the gap between mind and body,” but attempts to do so “rested heavily on analogies and wishful thinking.” This sounds very much like the situation today.
Mr. Makari’s tale begins in the mid-17th century, when Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought faced serious questions. At the heart of the Thomist vision was the human soul—“the knot of the universe,” as one medieval philosopher called it. Since it was the link between nature, man and God, the soul was, as Mr. Makari puts it, “the single most prized human attribute”; it provided believers “with universal dignity, repose before a bewildering, brutal world, and consolation in the face of death.” But religious beliefs that were centered on the soul and its salvation had licensed priestly corruption, widespread oppression and the endless bloodbath of confessional wars. Moreover, there was a rival world picture emerging from the scientific revolution—of the universe as matter in motion. This proved to have extraordinary explanatory power.
By George Makari Norton, 656 pages, $39.95
Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” which presented human beings as material objects subject like other material objects to the laws of mechanics, was a frontal assault on the idea of the human soul. His contemporaries sought alternative ways of representing the soul, in a manner that was compatible with emerging science.Descartes led the charge with his dualistic notion of an unextended, eternal mind somehow connected to a machine-like body subject to mechanical laws.Spinoza collapsed the distinction between the body and mind, the natural and the supernatural, and nature and God, thereby earning the posthumous reputation of being both an atheist and a pantheist.
The agenda for an argument spanning centuries had been set. Finding a place for the spirit in the flesh—and understanding how the one could interact with the other—presented insuperable difficulties: No one, Mr. Makari says, could seamlessly bridge atoms, body, mind, the universe, the sociopolitical world and the spiritual one. “The knot of the world,” he writes, had been “transformed from an all-purpose answer into a series of nearly impenetrable problems.” Ad hoc solutions, such as the proposal by the 17th-century Oxford physicianThomas Willis that animals had a material soul while only humans had a rational one, were a sign of desperation.
The terms of the debate were shifted decisively by the English philosopherJohn Locke. The eternal soul was pushed aside by the embodied “mind,” which had dominion over cognition, reflection, free will and personal identity. The mind, unlike the soul, was not fully formed at birth but a tabula rasa written on by experience and reflections upon experience.
These metaphysical issues were not just a matter of theoretical interest, as Mr. Makari makes clear. What people were made of should determine the appropriate form of government. Hobbes’s vision of humanity as essentially amoral matter in motion underwrote his belief in the necessity for absolute power invested in a sovereign, to pre-empt a war of all against all. Locke’s opposing contributions to the birth of a tolerant liberalism were rooted in his sense of the contingency and fallibility of the human mind.
Locke was idolized by Voltaire and the philosophes, who embraced his heretical notion of “thinking matter.” The idea that all human knowledge and interior life could only be the result of external impressions, Mr. Makari writes, “supported a wide-ranging attack on religious fanaticism, magical claims, bigotry against other religions and morality predicated on the hereafter. If knowledge was always contingent, then there could be no incontestable basis for these things.” Unfortunately, this may have inspired the more radical, as well as the reformist, aspects of the French Revolution, when the Jacobins attempted to establish a political tabula rasa and “the libertarian and rational ideals of the Revolution came up against the brute logic of violence.”
The author is a superb raconteur, whether he is describing the battle for priority between “a provincial mad doctor” and “a gaggle of envious society physicians” around the bedside of the mad George III (his apparent cure in 1789 was the talk of Europe) or the rapid progression of the French Revolution into a sea of blood, where “high ideals . . . dreams of liberty, the rule of reason, equality, and fraternity, had come down to this: kill or be killed.” His gentle wit seasons his narrative, as when he notes that great debates “between Enlightenment French writers were arguments that, not infrequently, were staged after dessert” or that “evil and sin would be reframed as medical illnesses and statistical deviations.”
Mr. Makari helps us see how, as pictures of the mind became more materialistic, authority and expertise shifted from priests to the (scarcely disinterested) medical profession. The 18th century witnessed a generation of “médecins-philosophes engaged in critical dialogues on the mind.” Many made it a goal to develop “a model in which the realm of mind and meaning might be linked to the body, its passions, fevers, ills, and actions.” Mr. Makari, a professor of psychiatry, is particularly good on the impassioned arguments about the nature of mental illness and the appropriate approaches to treatment.
Physicians of many stripes—ranging from forerunners of neuroscience such as the neuroanatomist Thomas Willis to the charismatic, indeed mesmerizing, charlatan, Franz Anton Mesmer, the father of “animal magnetism”—constructed theories of mind that provided a rationale for their nostrums. “Irritability,” “sensibility,” “animal spirits” and other explanatory notions justified treatments that ranged from the brutal—emetics, ice baths, purgatives—to a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy that was supposed to appeal to the residuum of reason in the mind of the afflicted.
The progress of materialist medicine was challenged not by the failure of their treatments in practice but by new philosophical ideas, notably those originating from Immanuel Kant and his followers, who subjected the philosophes to crushing criticism. According to Kant’s alternative account of the mind, the timeless and spaceless realm of things-in-themselves may exist but is accessible to thought alone and divorced from the world as experienced through the senses. The thinking self replaced both the soul and Locke’s embodied mind. An idealist antidote to materialist talk of the “man-machine” was launched.
This might seem to have few practical therapeutic implications, but Mr. Makari notes that it led by an indirect route, which included a good deal of dissent from Kant, to a Nature Philosophy such as that propagated by the philosopher and disastrous amateur physician F.W.J. Schelling. The mind became Geist—the spirit, animating life, in which subject and object were united, offering, as Mr. Makari says, “a powerful counter to mechanistic thought.”
Materialism, however, maintained its domination in the first half of the 19th century, most notably in the guise of Franz Josef Gall’s phrenology, which was based on the idea that different parts of the brain corresponded to different mental faculties. Though the brain was the organ of the soul, Gall asserted (to ward off charges of materialism or atheism) that it had been sculpted by a Divine Hand. The division of the brain-mind into 27 separate regions—dismissed by some who pointed to the unity of the self—was hugely influential for a time.
And that is where, for the most part, Mr. Makari’s story ends, though he gives an excellent sketch of the 19th-century emergence of materialist theories of the mind that eschewed dualism and even vitalism in favor of a “biophysics” and a view of mental illness that saw it as derived from brain dysfunction. The mind was, as he says, “eclipsed”—by the brain.
Like the late, great chronicler of medical science Roy Porter, Mr. Makari highlights how the major thinkers arose from a wider conversation to which many relatively minor but nonetheless fascinating players made crucial contributions. While he acknowledges the extent to which ideas were in part a reflection of social forces, he does not succumb to the Foucauldian error of seeing ideas, and advances in knowledge, as mere expressions of social power.
Purveyors of the doctrine of l’homme machine are still among us, though today’s metaphorical machine of choice is the electronic computer running its mental software on neural hardware. Indeed, Mr. Makari’s observation that “the epistemological problems of creating an objective science of subjectivity could easily end in a hall of mirrors” applies directly to 21st-century “neurophilosophy.”
There can be no more important task in a secular age than trying to understand our own nature. “Soul Machine” should check any temptation toward the condescension of posterity. We are not much further on than we were 400 years ago, when the conversation Mr. Makari so brilliantly describes began.
—Mr. Tallis is the author, most recently, of “Black Mirror: Looking at Life Through Death.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."