HANDOUT PARIS 11-02-2009

 Université Paris Descartes


The Brain’s Borders

Modernity, Naturalization of Identity, and Philosophical Resistances



Dr. Maurizio Meloni (Rome, London)



Birth of the “Cerebral Subject”. The general context: Naturalism (Biology) and Modernity


Within the centuries-long construction of a naturalistic anthropology in Modernity - that is the story of “how the human animal has variously struggled to apply the categories of scientific understanding to himself” (Harrington, 1987, 4) - the figure of the brain has always played a pivotal role. If the philosopher has often dreamt of a natural history of the soul (La Mettrie 1745), it is only with the skull and the brain made “visible” by Gall that the concrete possibility of making human beings a natural object begins to flood Modern society and, in turn, to seduce scholars, politicians, and educators alike. The current proliferation of neuro-cultures and the impressive circulation of the brain across disciplines, which date at least from the Decade of the Brain in the 1990’s, can be interpreted as the last chapter of this longue-durée history of naturalistic neuro-seductions throughout Modernity (though with some innovative traits).


Three Waves of Naturalization in Modernity. Understanding The Background of the Present


At the level of intellectual history, one can point out at least three great waves of naturalization in Modernity.


  1. the first in the Late Enlightenment (Idéologues, Cabanis. But also Lamarck and the invention of the category of biology: “objective life”, “life itself”)


  1. the second following Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (1859) [naturalistic figures such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Hyppolite Taine (1828-1893), Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)]


  1. The current one from 1975 on, that marks the moment for a new, exceptional onset of a naturalistic rhetoric and thought in Modernity.


In each of these three waves, the brain – as an object of science as well as an object of social identification - has played a crucial role in the construction of a modern technology of the self.



Modernity as a field of tension between (at least two) different epistemological projects. Impact of Naturalism


At a philosophical level, I have suggested elsewhere (Meloni 2009) to imagine modernity as inhabited by two opposite trends struggling for the hegemony over what makes us human. The first, naturalism, aims at a full application of the categories of scientific understanding to human beings interpreted as “natural objects” and has vehemently come back, over the last thirty years, to the center stage of intellectual life under the impulse of research programs in neuro- and cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and so on. I interpret here naturalism less as an epistemological standpoint, as customarily happens in the academic debate in philosophy, and more as a global way of rethinking humanness, or, in other words, as the theoretical “correlative” (Foucault 2008) of certain concrete practices of naturalization of the human, coming especially today from neuroscience and molecular biology.


The second anthropological paradigm, antinaturalism is the intellectual strategy that, from Kant onwards, has aspired to limit the absorption of humanness into the discourse of natural science through the construction of a protected sphere of morality and culture where subjectivity can strip itself from the rules of scientific protocols.


If we think how the figure of the brain has constantly played a pivotal role in the development of the first paradigm, the naturalistic one, it is not difficult to understand the current neuro/bioethical fight around the brain as the last chapter, and a perfect case study indeed, of a centuries-long tension that has monopolized the modern intellectual landscape.



Philosophical resistances to naturalism and biologization of human identity in Modernity. The rise of “life itself” as a philosophical problem.


The application of naturalistic categories to the definition of human beings, especially when biologically employed, has traditionally raised strong resistances from the philosophical side. These resistances are easily classifiable following a threefold pattern of reactions: 1) Naturalism felt as a Break; 2) Naturalism felt as a Danger; 3) and finally, Naturalism felt as a Loss.


To refer specifically to the employ of the brain, at least from the moment of Hegel’s famous confrontation with Gall’s phrenology (1807/1977), philosophers have traditionally shown scepticism about the relevance of what Karl Jaspers later called “brain mythology” (Jaspers 1948), as an adequate basis for a genuine understanding of the human condition.


In a celebrated passage of the Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel 1977: 185 ff), Hegel famously criticizes phrenology for his implausible attempt to “ascertain the laws of the objective knowledge of individuality.” Gall’s project, as interpreted by Hegel, is the naïve expression of the Self-Consciousness at its first stages of development, where the Self strives to recognize itself in some exterior and accidental “osseous form” (Hegel 1977: 204), and therefore has mistaken a mere thing – the skull - for “the external trace of the most profound interiority” (Hyppolite 1974: 267). Hegel regards Gall’s “palpable wisdom” - deduction of the “true reality” of a human being from its cranial capacity- as an irremediable loss of the richness of the geistlich life. With plastic representations of the centuries-long clash between a naturalistic anthropology (constructed around the role of the skull-brain), and the post-Kantian-Continental tradition, Hegel famously concludes his point by suggesting that the only possible way to deal with the phrenologist would be “breaking the skull of the person who makes a statement like that” (Hegel 1977: 205).


More in general, in the Twentieth Century, this opposition to naturalism radicalises.


During the Thirties, a first wave of resistances is easily detectable in the works of authors like:


Alexandre Kojève, with his celebrated description of a “post historical” stage of humanity in which,  once man has returned to an animal state again:


“ (….) ses arts, ses amour set ses jeux doivent eux-aussi re-devenir purement ‘naturels’[-1] . Il faudrait donc admettre, qu’après la fin de l’Histoire, les hommes construiraient leurs édifices et leurs ouvrages d’art comme les oiseaux construisent leur nids et les araignées tissent leurs toiles[1], exécuteraient des concerts musicaux à l’instar des grenouilles et des cigales, joueraient comme jouent les jeunes animaux et s’adonneraient à l’amour comme le font les bêtes adultes » (Kojève 1933-1939: 1969)


In a short text written by a young Emmanuel Lévinas, in the year immediately after Hitler’s ascent (1934), that addresses the enchaînement[2] to our biology as the distinctive mark of the Nazi ideology. In Nazism, Lévinas claims, « le biologique avec tout ce qu’il comporte de fatalité devient plus qu’un objet de la vie spirituelle, il en devient le coeur” (Lévinas : 1934/1997).


After the second world war, first Hannah Arendt and then Michel Foucault address the increasing intertwinement of the “life itself” and politics in Modernity as one of the most urgent philosophical issues. Arendt clearly emphasizes the tie between biologism and totalitarianism, and radically confronts philosophy with the fact that, in modernity, Bios - the biographical, cultural life - is increasingly collapsing into Zoe - the natural, animal, bare Life (Arendt 1958). Foucault’s work on biopolitics is much more known, and today at the root of a long list of contemporary works (Agamben, Esposito) addressing the issue of a deeply biopolitical/thanatopolitical dimension of Modernity.


What is opposed today to the “cerebralization” of experience?


More recently, philosophical resistances to the “cerebral subject”, and to the naturalization of the human existence in general, can be today classified mainly following a threefold pattern:


  1. Epistemological Resistances, coming especially from the Analytic tradition, that have mainly questioned the linguistic confusion typical of neuroscientific literature when it ascribes to the brain “attributes which logically can be ascribed only to the creature as a whole” (Bennett & Hacker 2003)


  1.  Societal/Holistic Resistances, coming especially from the post-Wittgeinsteinian tradition (Putnam 1994, 1998; Descombes 1996, 2001; and for the sociological field, a reworking of these topics in Ehrenberg 2008) where the philosophical presuppositions of the “internalistic view” of mind dominating neuroscience (according to which “meanings are in the head”) are challenged in name of an “anthropological holism” (Descombes 2001) stressing the inter-personal, societal, and normative level where meanings are instituted.


  1. Political and Moral Resistances, where the link between naturalization, objectification-reification, and manipulability/dominion is emphasised (Habermas 2005, 2008; Honneth 2005)[3]


All these three lines of criticism to the naturalization of identity situate themselves at a normative level from which to judge the inadequacies of what is coming to light today in terms of homo neurobiologicus. While this is certain a legitimate stance, I suggest here a different approach: that is, to let this new profile of the human overtly come to light in order to understand how this new figure challenges (and sometimes traumatises) our inherited view, and pushes us to clarify what is at stake in the present intertwinement of science and the human condition. Homo Neurobiologicus is meaningful to our present to the extent that it represents a piece of a contemporary ontology of ourselves.


Profile of the new Homo Neurobiologicus: Bare-Life Naturalism/Life Itself Naturalism


My rough genealogy of the Homo Neurobiologicus is the following. From 1975 onward, we have witnessed the rise of several research programs: from the rise of socio-biology and evolutionary psychology to the advent of ethology and behavioral genetics; from the emergence of neuro- and  cognitive science to that of Chomskyan linguistics, today recast in neurobiological terms; from the dawn of the “second biological psychiatry” with its emphasis on a molecular diagnostic style, and its focus on the biochemistry of the brain as the crucial site for mental disorders, to the creation of psychopharmacology.


The global results of all these programs, beyond their single differences, has been to produce a dramatic renegotiation of the boundary between nature and culture, and a global redefinition of the profile of our humanness in terms of an increasing weight of naturalistic arguments.


From psychiatry to philosophy, from anthropology to the social sciences, over the last thirty years a massive swell of naturalistic rhetoric has increasingly occupied the domain of what we once were so proud to consider supremely cultural, historical, and social matters -- all the phenomena for which the German Idealists coined the expression Geist.


This change should be seen not only in terms of a fundamental shift of attention and sensibility, from culture to biology, from language to the brain, from ethics to genes, in the explanation of what makes us specifically human, but more fundamentally in the emergence of  a sort of zero history/zero society/“pure nature” picture of the human, a human who speaks through (or even “is”) his/her amygdale, limbic system or prefrontal cortex. This figure is in fact part of a general trend that can be called: “bare life naturalism” or “life itself naturalism”.


Often novelists, more than scientists, are aware of the relevance of this shift, and keen to let this new profile come to light. Take for instance these two quotations from Ian McEwan’s recent novel Saturday, where each of the central characters is defined largely through his or her relation to neurobiology: the main character, Henry Perowne, is a successful neurosurgeon, and two of the other featured characters are Perowne’s brain-hazed mother and Baxter, a young thug Perowne will diagnose with Huntington’s disease. In the background of the novel there seem to be only two great (meta)-political actors: the war (and the challenge of radical Islamists to our civilization) on one side, and on the other, the brain, the gene, and a frozen naturalistic gaze through which we are more and more learning to see ourselves “at the molecular level”: “Perhaps down at the molecular level” McEwan writes about Perowne referring to a typical ‘molecular’ imaginary “there’s been a chemical accident while he slept  – something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to  initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events.” Or for instance, when describing two nurses crossing a square, McEwan immerses himself in a completely biological perspective on human beings: “In the lifeless cold, they pass through the night, hot little biological engines with bipedal skills suited to any terrain, endowed with innumerable branching neural networks sunk deep in a knob of bone casing, buried fibres, warm filaments with their invisible glow of consciousness – these engines devise their own tracks”. (McEwan 2005)


I take these two quotations from McEwan’s novel as a symptom of the emergence of this “Bare Life Naturalism” -  a naturalism that aesthetically before than epistemologically aspires to make use of the bare, bodily, material dimension of life (“life itself” at the level of its genes and neurones)  as the new key site where to reconfigure the profile of the human. In this novel relationship between mind and body, brain and spirit, mainly characterised by the “flattening of the distance” (Rose 2007) between the two, one can find the building blocks of a new “anthropology of the contemporary” (Rabinow 2008).


Relevance for psychotherapy


I would like finally to discuss the impact on psychotherapy of this possible new figure of the human coming to light today in the public space. Just some hints and questions:


1)      Where can one collocate the brain discourse in relation to psychoanalysis? The brain was at the origin (an origin if not cancelled, certainly left behind) of the Freudian discourse, but almost absent from the psychoanalytic construction, and then again at the centre of the current biological psychiatry, which is clearly post-Freudian and post (if not anti) psychoanalytical. Is neuro-psychoanalysis a legitimate discourse, or the illegitimate conflation of two irreducible styles of enquiry?


2)      To what extent is the emergence of the cerebral subject/homo neurobiologicus/bare life naturalism traumatic for that dialectical space space of historical and inter-personal relationships (and conflict) through which something like our psychic space was invented one century ago (again mainly, but not only, through psychoanalysis)? I follow here Rose’s interpretation: “Over the first sixty years or so of the twentieth century, human beings came to understand themselves as inhabited by a deep interior psychological space, and to evaluate themselves and act upon themselves in terms of this belief. But over the past half century, that deep space has begun to flatten out (…). This is a shift in human ontology – in the kinds of persons we take ourselves to be.” (Rose 2007).


3)      How can the clinician deal with such an entirely naturalized portraiture of the human who projects his/her identity onto his/her bodily part?


4)      What gets lost, if any, in the shift from a figure of the human caught in the network of her/his family, social, historical relationship, narratives and symbolic/institutional dimension, and the neurobiological human attached and identified with her/his cerebral dimension, difference or even “deficit”?




[1] Please notice how much this metaphor is present today in naturalistic descritpion for instance of the rise of language from the brain-mind system (Pinker for instance)

[2] And what he calls: “être rivé”.

[3] Phenomenology would be a fourth point of resistance, but here for sake of synthesis I have to skip the topic.

 [-1]è quello che ho detto ieri e lo vorrei ridire qui: il Naturalismo è una possibilità dell’Umaneismo e della Filosofia della Storia