Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

"Psyche Is Extended": From Kant to Freud

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

"Psyche Is Extended": From Kant to Freud

Article excerpt

Je suis corps etje pense, je n'en sais pas davantage. [I am a body and I think, that's all I know of the matter]

Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques

That matter thinks is a fact. It is a fact because we ourselves think; and we do not know, we are not aware of being, we are not capable of knowing, of perceiving, anything but matter. It is a fact because we see that the modifications of thought depend entirely upon sensations, upon our physical state, and that our mind fully corresponds to the changes and variations in our body.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, 18 September 1827.


In recent decades there has been a renewed debate about the mind-body problem, which has seen the formation of two opposing fronts, two epistemological schools of thought which are only apparently antithetical. The first, to which we could apply the old term reductionist, ever more strengthened by the new tools from neuroimaging, describes the mind as the pure outcome of cerebral phenomena and proclaims the non-existence of mental processes properly so called, since they are nothing more than the product or epiphenomenon of neurological or cerebral processes which we will increasingly be able to explain by the new discoveries of the neurosciences. The other is a rigidly mentalist approach which supposes that psychological processes are autonomous and independent of physiological ones and that, if interaction exists, it is above all because the former impinge on the latter. A part of clinical psychology, certain psychoanalytic approaches, and the vast field of psychosomatics tend in this direction. If these two schools of thought seem polar opposites to an almost ideological degree, they nevertheless have one point in common: both exclude the body as a whole. For the reductionists, the term "body" is assimilated into the term "brain," so much so that they prefer to think in terms of mind-brain rather than mind-body. For the mentalists, however, the body ends up being almost a by-product of the mind, the object that is damaged by stress, by neurosis, or by self-harming psychic states.

By taking a series of steps back into the history of psychoanalysis and philosophy, I want to re-propose the indispensable distinctiveness of the basic antinomy constituted by the mind-body relationship, by "body" meaning that complex totality of functions, not only neurobiological, but also physiological, biological, chemical, hormonal, etc., which contribute to the subjective experience of sensations, emotions, feelings, and even that of thinking thoughts, and which cannot be reduced to the specific cerebral activations observable by MRI or PET. In support of this view, it would suffice to consider the complex relationship which exists between the hormonal and nervous systems, the recent discoveries about the connections between the central nervous system and the immune system, the relationship between epilepsy and depression, the extraordinary phenomenon of the placebo effect, and so on. In any case, the relationship between brain and body does not seem definable in terms of cause and effect: the nature of this link remains to be demonstrated. Fechner (1860) spoke of psychophysical parallelism, and Freud (1891) called the psychic a dependent concomitant of the corresponding physiological phenomena. In other words, the psychic system cannot be assimilated into the nervous system, but neither can the two be separated as if they were independent of each other; we should instead think of the mind as the function and expression of the body in its completeness: that is, we should suppose that, at different times and in differing proportions, there is "mind" in the brain and in the medulla oblongata, in the hormonal and immune systems, in the digestive and the respiratory apparatus, in the feet as much as in the tip of the nose. This hypothesis has been advanced by the neurologist Antonio Damasio, according to whom both the brain and the rest of the body must exist in order for there to be mental activity: "our most refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, use the body as a yardstick. …

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