From Soul to Mind

Review: George Makari, “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind”

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt van Rijn
March 27, 2016

Prior to the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals for hundreds of years assumed that the animating force of human beings was a "soul" that melded elements of Christian teaching and Aristotelian philosophy. This consensus allowed priests and other religious figures to wield influence over political authorities whose legitimacy depended, in no small part, on them. Such metaphysical beliefs undergirding Christendom decayed, however, with the confessional wars of the sixteenth century. They then crumbled altogether under the pressure of an international band of skeptics whose activities led to what we’ve since dubbed the Age of Enlightenment.

This band of skeptics and the world they made are the subjects of Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern MindGeorge Makari’s book about man’s search for a natural, as opposed to spiritual, authority to guide him.

The architects of the Enlightenment were inspired by recent discoveries in the natural sciences and by a French Franciscan, Marin Mersenne. Mersenne was a crucial leader of the seventeenth-century scientific community—he was a translator of Galileo, a fellow experimenter with Evangelista Torricelli, a collaborator with René Descartes, a friend of Pierre Gassendi, an intellectual baiter of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, and an influence on Blaise Pascal.

Mersenne argued that nature could be understood as a grand machine with all matter operating as parts of the machine. To Mersenne, this analogy made sense of scientific reality while still preserving a place for a human soul with divine qualities and a God to build the machine. This analogy was a radically new way of viewing the world. In the ensuing "battle of Mr. Spirit and Mr. Flesh" sparked by Mersenne, formidable minds like Hobbes, Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi wrestled with competing explanations of humanity. Their argument centered around whether the human essence was an immaterial soul apart from the body or whether the body itself—matter—was the source of life and thought.

Seventeenth and eighteenth-century intellectuals made little progress in crafting a comprehensive alternative to the scholastic worldview. They focused their efforts instead on dividing and conquering the domains of "atoms, body… the universe, the sociopolitical world, and the spiritual"—all of which became academic disciplines we could recognize today. Within this divided world the concept of the mind was born. Distinct but not entirely separate from the body and the soul, the mind was associated with cognition, reflection, free will, and personal identity, and it was housed in the brain.

John Locke, in Makari’s account, was a pivotal figure in this evolution, resetting the terms of debate. "It was now possible to imagine a new culture in which self-definition, ethics, knowledge, and political authority could be further divested from theology and souls," predicated on "secular knowledge of conscious selves, beings with minds." 

Having set out to uncover the origins of the mind, Makari finds that the Enlightenment-era arguments for and against Locke’s conception of the mind marked the beginning of modern social thought and politics. The book tackles the Enlightenment in chapters devoted to the similarities and dissimilarities of the English, Scottish, French, and German manifestations of the movement. Makari also explores the intellectual outgrowths that sprang from the discovery of the mind as a concept, from the encyclopedia and the personal autobiography (or titillating confession, à la Rousseau) to the Reign of Terror.

In shifting from debates about the soul to debates about the mind, the Enlightenment made changes in medicine that were as revolutionary as the changes it made in politics. What had once been defined as spiritual afflictions that called for a priest’s ministrations were redefined as illnesses that called for a physician’s remedies. Whereas previous generations only had to worry about losing their souls, Makari quips, generations after the Enlightenment had to worry about losing their minds.

‘Madness’ and how to treat it became the fascination of the age. Makari chronicles how divided doctors were about the possible causes of madness: immorality, a lack of discipline in the reasoning faculty, or imbalanced sensibilities—an argument that is still with us, albeit with more nuanced positions. Dr. Franz Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism, which stipulated that behavior was the result of "cosmic magnetism" influencing the nerves, gained extraordinary influence. On the opposite side of the spectrum stood the "Jena Romantics," who embraced "bits of madness" as the only authentic expression of the self against a world of cold meaningless facts dictated by reason. Yet others argued that madness was a mental disintegration that occurred when one’s self-consciousness became fragmented. Doctor and professor Johann Reil, an advocate of this position, became a founding contributor to the field of "psychiatrie," whose practitioners were referred to as ‘physicians of the soul.’

Makari thus shows in Soul Machine how the metaphysical arguments stretching roughly from 1640 to 1815 were often discussed in medical and scientific terms, leading to the opinion that physicians alone ought to be entrusted with personal and public morality. But Makari also shows how uncertain and unreliable a guide natural science has proved itself to be. After recounting the work and often dubious conclusions of his cast of characters, the author reveals that his purpose is to vindicate psychiatry—and in particular a more unified understanding of body and mind than what has typically been accepted—in a world that clings to scientific theories long past their expiration dates.

This defense is all the more necessary, Makari indicates, given the fragmented study of the mind today. Academic psychologists focus on the mind, with little attempt to explore its relation to the body, while neurologists focus on the nervous system to the exclusion of the mind, and so on. Fields and institutions that combine biology and inner experience, such as psychiatry, have been neglected in a fragmented academic landscape. Also orphaned are living and breathing men and women. The object of so much dissection, Makari writes that even in the most basic activities of daily living they now "must navigate between competing notions of their own being."

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