Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 5: The Soul of the Empirical Brain: Thomas Willis and René Descartes

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 5: The Soul of the Empirical Brain: Thomas Willis and René Descartes

Article excerpt

Finally, the machine of our body is constructed in such a way that a single thought of joy or love or the like is sufficient to send the animal spirits through the nerves into all the muscles needed to cause the different movements of the blood which, as I said, accompany the passions. It is true that I found difficulty in working out the movements peculiar to each passion, because the passions never occur singly; nevertheless, since they occur in different combinations, I tried to discover the changes that occur in the body when they change company.

rene descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637)

What is now termed the long 18th century began to take shape in the mid and late 17th century with the urge to look outward in order to gain a greater understanding of the Creator through the world He created. The lines of research are now associated with the Enlightenment or Age of Reason and one distinguishing feature is that the study of God's presence in the natural world was very much tied up with an unprecedented increase in learning and scientific advancement. Those who studied the brain and the nervous system challenged older theological and Scholastic teachings as ideas were clarified, revised in fits and starts, and refined using a variety of innovative devices. Within the investigative mix, of course, not all were in agreement as to the appropriate methods and paths to follow. What is clear is that a number of fallacies were rejected, new areas for investigation arose, unresolved topics remained, and there were, as always, areas that remained opaque to researchers. At this time natural philosophers - for this was the term used for both experimental scientists and discursive philosophers then - began to probe brain mechanics, to develop techniques to learn more about the brain's organization and functions, and to erect theoretical interpretations as they evaluated empirical results. As knowledge of the human body complexified, one lively discussion topic was the nature of the soul. Within this, the questions explored as thinkers considered how the brain, the mind, and the body are involved in sense perception included whether matter was in itself active or passively mechanistic (inactive).

Neurology and Modern Philosophy

René Descartes (1596-1650) and Thomas Willis (1621-1675) offer a good point of entry into the long 18th century discussions - which actually began in the 17th century - because both Willis and Descartes left influential legacies behind (Figs 19, 20). Considered the "Father of Neurology" by many, Thomas Willis' contributions were foundational to experimental neuroscience and are said to have ushered in a new era in the histories of the neurosciences. He wrote:

I determined with my self seriously to enter presently upon a new course, and to rely on this one thing, not to pin my faith on the received Opinions of others, nor on the suspicions and guesses of my own mind, but for the future to believe Nature and ocular demonstrations: Therefore thenceforward I betook my self wholly to the study of Anatomy: and as I did chiefly inquire into the offices and uses of the Brain and its nervous Appendix, I addicted my self to the opening of Heads...and so a firm and stable Basis might be laid, on which not only a more certain Physiologie than I had gained in the Schools, but what I had long thought upon, the Pathologie of the Brain and nervous stock, might be built (Willis 1664/1978: 54).

Descartes, by contrast, is often called the "Father of Modern Philosophy." His contributions became a cornerstone of philosophies of mind. In his well known cogito, he writes:1

While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks. …

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