Technological metaphors and the anatomy of representations in eighteenth-century French materialism

University of Joensuu and Academy of Finland

The eighteenth-century French materialists, like La Mettrie and Diderot, are sometimes mistaken for “mechanistic materialists”, who according to this interpretation have simply generalized the Cartesian animal-machine hypothesis to man. But in fact, in so far as they had recourse to mechanical metaphors, they used them, not to prove that like Cartesian animal-machines men are soulless automata, but to point out that certain kinds of material entities can have representational properties that are not reducible to the properties that matter has in Cartesian metaphysics. Since such properties were considered to be properties of the brain or of the body as a whole, it was no longer necessary to attribute representational properties to specific parts of the brain, as it was in dualistic theories in order to explain the interaction between the mind and the brain. This explains the fact that it was the dualists, like Charles Bonnet, and not the materialists, who postulated discrete and localizable representations in the brain. By correlating mental phenomena with specific events in the brain the dualists were able to propose what the materialists did not even attempt at giving: mechanistic explanations of mental phenomena.

18th Century Neuroscience Symposium -- Function in the "Long" 18th Century: The Transition from Medieval Cell Doctrine to Cortical Localization Doctrine
Saturday, 26 June 2004, 9:00 am - 6:30 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada