Traces, dreams, and spirits : the physiology of memory representations in 18th-century British neurophilosophy


Dept of Philosophy, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Sydney, Australia


In John Harrisí vast synthesis of natural philosophical knowledge, Lexicon Technicum (2nd edition, 1708-1710), "memory" is categorized under "Anatomy", alongside topics like "animal spirits", "brain", and "nerve" : but "remembrance" and "reminiscence" are part of "Logick, Metaphysicks, and Ethicks". In the 17th and 18th centuries, as in the late 20th, problems of memory were part of both life science and literature, of both physic and philosophy. Many early modern "neuropsychological" accounts of memory and of relations between body and self invoked the venerable animal spirits or other nervous fluids, which offered much more than a simple proto-scientific "balloon" theory of muscular motion. Seeing cognitive capacities as dynamically coupled to other bodily processes and to the natural and cultural environment, physiological philosophers in both Cartesian and Newtonian traditions used a twofold framework of fleeting patterned motions and enduring neural modifications to understand learning and context-dependent remembering. But in Britain, an increasing reliance on memory in maintaining strong continuity of personal identity in 18th-century philosophy and autobiographical writing meant that control of the personal past could not safely be left up to the fleeting passage of spirits and fluids through pores of the body and brain. I examine the role of bodily spirits and neural fluids in Enlightenment theories of dreams and imagination, and seek an account of the gradual disappearance of fickle spirits from moral physiology.


Panel 7A   (Nervous Fluids and Innards in Early Modern Physiology and Culture)
Friday, 17 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999