“The ‘physiology of the understanding’ and the ‘mechanics of the soul’: reflections on some phantom philosophical projects”

Quaestio 16:3-25 (2016)
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In reflecting on the relation between early empiricist conceptions of the mind and more experimentally motivated materialist philosophies of mind in the mid-eighteenth century, I suggest that we take seriously the existence of what I shall call ‘phantom philosophical projects’. A canonical empiricist like Locke goes out of his way to state that their project to investigate and articulate the ‘logic of ideas’ is not a scientific project: “I shall not at present meddle with the Physical consideration of the Mind” (Essay, I.i.2). An equally prominent thinker, Immanuel Kant, seems to make an elementary mistake, given such a clear statement, when he claims that Locke’s project was a “physiology of the understanding,” in the Preface to the A edition of the first Critique). A first question, then, would be: what is this physiology of the understanding, if it was not Locke’s project? Did anyone undertake such a project? If not, what would it have resembled? My second and related case comes out of a remark the Hieronymus Gaub makes in a letter to Charles Bonnet of 1761: criticizing materialist accounts of mind and mind-body relations such as La Mettrie’s, Gaub suggests that what is needed is a thorough study of the “mechanics of the soul,” and that Bonnet could write such a study. What is the mechanics of the soul, especially given that it is presented as a non-materialist project? To what extent does it resemble the purported “physiology of the understanding”? And more generally, what do both of these phantom projects have to do with a process we might describe as a ‘naturalization of the soul’?

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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès


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