Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Brain and the Unconscious Soul in Eighteenth-Century Nervous Physiology: Robert Whytt's Sensorium Commune

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Brain and the Unconscious Soul in Eighteenth-Century Nervous Physiology: Robert Whytt's Sensorium Commune

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In 1787, the noted Bath physician James Adair remarked, "Upwards of thirty years ago, a treatise of nervous diseases was published by my quondam and ingenious preceptor Dr. Whytt, professor of physick, at Edinburgh. Before the publication of this book people of fashion had not the least idea that they had nerves."1 The pivotal doctor in question was Adair's former teacher, Robert Whytt, who by the end of his life had become Professor of the Theory of Medicine at Edinburgh, President of the Scottish Royal College of Physicians, and First Physician to the King of Scotland.2 Indeed, fewer figures were as central to the eighteenth-century theory and medicine of the nerves and to debates surrounding nervous "sensibility" as was Whytt, and his role in the conceptual redefinition of man as predominantly nervous (in both an anatomical and pathological sense) will be the central consideration of this article.

Yet despite his integral role in the history of nervous medicine and also in the intellectual milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment,3 Whytt's ideas have been, with a few scholarly exceptions, overlooked. This has partly to do with the fact that after his death, Whytt's position, professional appointments, and even his conceptual approach to the nervous system were effectively bequeathed to his successor, the more prominent William Cullen.4 But even in recent scholarship on eighteenth-century medicine, Whytt's ideas tend to be only selectively examined. The curious philosophical tenor of his writings usually remains underemphasized or simply ignored. For Whytt, a theory of the nerves could not avoid a certain amount of philosophical reflection into the relationship between the body and the soul. His combined medical-philosophical approach (he was dubbed the "philosophical doctor"5) meant that his ideas were difficult to take up in their entirety. Despite the recognition he received during his professional life, and the influence he had historically, Whytt's physiology has often remained divorced from the broader conceptual system of which it was a part, and its important theoretical implications have rarely been closely examined.

Whytt was particularly emblematic of an eighteenth-century trend to regard nervous disorders as issuing from an overactivity of the otherwise normal sensibility of the nerves. In his influential 1765 work on nervous pathology, Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cure of Those Disorders Which Have Been Commonly Called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric (the text to which Adair refers), Whytt lists the primary cause of nervous disorder to be "a too great delicacy and sensibility of the whole nervous system,"6 challenging a prevailing sentiment from the end of the seventeenth century that nervous pathology was the result of a morbid contamination of the brain. The English physician Thomas Willis had popularized the earlier view in his Essay on the Pathology of the Brain and Nervous Stock.7 It was the threat of a spreading contamination that explains why Willis described the structure of the brain's anatomy as "like a castle," a defensive fortification that safeguarded the mind from disease.8 Whytt was, after Willis, one of the few physicians to redefine the relationship between the normal and pathological dimensions of nervous processes; and the possibility that the nerves could easily be overstimulated meant that disorder became intrinsic to the sensible properties of the nervous system rather than solely a result of external contagion or disease.9

Yet Whytt's historical significance amounts to more than his contribution to nervous pathology. When Whytt characterizes nervous disorder as an excessive "delicacy and sensibility," it is quite specifically to the "whole nervous system" that he refers. His emphasis on the "whole" nervous system was a reflection of two related premises that he introduced into the study of the nerves. The first was that the nervous system was not simply one among other vital systems or causes of motion in the body but was the system that subtended all the rest. …

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