Muscles or Movements? Representation in the Nascent Brain Sciences

Journal of the History of Biology 56 (1):5-34 (2023)
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The idea that the brain is a representational organ has roots in the nineteenth century, when neurologists began drawing conclusions about what the brain represents from clinical and experimental studies. One of the earliest controversies surrounding representation in the brain was the “muscles versus movements” debate, which concerned whether the motor cortex represents complex movements or rather fractional components of movement. Prominent thinkers weighed in on each side: neurologists John Hughlings Jackson and F.M.R. Walshe in favor of complex movements, neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington and neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in favor of movement components. This essay examines these and other brain scientists’ evolving notions of representation during the first eighty years of the muscles versus movements debate (c. 1873–1954). Although participants agreed about many of the superficial features of representation, their inferences reveal deep-seated disagreements about its inferential role. Divergent epistemological commitments stoked conflicting conceptions of what representational attributions imply and what evidence supports them.

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Zina B. Ward
Florida State University


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