Hughlings Jackson: Philosopher?

George K. YORK <gkyork@ucdavis.edu>
The Såa Institute, Fiddletown; and Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Stockton, California, USA

This study examines John Hughlings Jackson's philosophic ambition and motivations, both in youth and maturity. Many commentators have stated that, as a junior doctor, Hughlings Jackson intended to leave medicine to study philosophy. Others have seen an explicitly philosophic motivation in his evolutionary analysis of the structures of the nervous system and the mind. The story of Hughlings Jackson's youthful crisis of intention is found only in Jonathan Hutchinson's 1911 British Medical Journal obituary, and Hughlings Jackson's discussion of his mature scientific motivation in found in published defenses of his theory of cerebral localization.

Hughlings Jackson arrived in London, at age 24, in the summer of 1859--18 months later, in January 1861, he had his first joint byline with Hutchinson in the Reports of Hospital Practice in Medicine and Surgery, a weekly column in the Medical Times and Gazette. Between these dates he considered renouncing the professiton. In his 1911 obituary Hutchinson wrote, "... in the belief that it did not afford attractive scope for mental powers of which he was not unconscious, he was on the point of abandoning it, intending to engage in a literary life." Hutchinson says he persuaded his friend to remain in medicine, hut wondered whether it might have been better for the world at large "...if Hughlings Jackson had been left to devote his mind to philosophy." However, Hughlings Jackson left school at age 15 to become an apprentice, and did not have any higher education in literature, classics or philosophy. In 1860 he lacked the training, the social standing and the money to enter academic philosophy. He must have been contemplating a literary rather than a philosophical career.

Hughlings Jackson's mature work has indisputable philosophic importance, hut he repeatedly denied both a philosophical motivation and any a priori philosophical position. He was led to his various theoretical stances by the demands of practical medicine. For example, his doctrine of concomitance was devised to improve bedside diagnosis. His application of evolutionary principles to the mind was similarly motivated. He made no claims for the philosophical importance of his theories though he was aware of their metaphysical implications.

A consideration of Hughlings Jackson's writings in their institutional and intellectual milieu reveals a number of barriers to his pursuit of an expressly philosophical program. He was, first and foremost, a practicing physician. His work was intended to serve medicine; its philosophical significance lies in its place as the conceptual cornerstone of scientific neurology.


Session III -- Psychiatric and Philosophical Aspects of the Neurosciences
Thursday, 14 June 2001, 2:30 pm

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany