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Lecture | The Brain is a Book Which Reads Itself by Charles T. Wolfe

Friday, November 15, 2013


You are invited to a talk by Historian and Philosopher of Science,
Charles T. Wolfe
(Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Sarton Centre for History of Science, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
& Unit for History & Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney, Australia)
The Brain is a Book Which Reads Itself:
Cultured brains and reductive materialism from Diderot to J. J. C. Smart
12:30-2:00, Friday, 15 November, 2013
Broad Hall 214
Pitzer College
Talk description:
Materialism is the view that everything that is real, is material or is the product of material processes. It tends to take either of two forms: a more ‘cosmological’ claim about the ultimate nature of the world, and a more specific claim about how mental processes are brain processes. Of course, both seem to indicate a privileged relation between materialism and scientific inquiry – actually, a privileged role for scientific inquiry. In the twentieth century, the science that predominated in this vision was physics. Materialism became synonymous with ‘physicalism’; the entities that were considered to be real were those described in the physics of the time. This has spawned some new problems, both for materialism (what happens to an ontology of material entities in the era of quantum physics?) and for ontology in general (is physicalism an ontological claim? A claim about the suppleness of the relation between philosophy and science?).
However, here I shall not be concerned with the interrelations and shifts in relation between materialism and physics, but instead with the second species of materialism, regarding minds and brains. In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the French materialist philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was one of the first to notice that any self-respecting materialist had to address the question of the status and functional role of the brain, and its relation to our mental, affective, intellectual life. After this the topic grew stale, with repeated, knee-jerk reiterations of ‘psychophysical identity’ notably by nineteenth-century German scientists (Vogt, Büchner et al.), and equally rigid assertions of anti-materialism. In the 1960s, a group of primarily Australian philosophers took up brain-mind materialism afresh, under the name ‘identity theory’, i.e., they were arguing that there is an identity between mental processes and cerebral processes (Place 1953, Smart 1963, 2000/2007). They in fact waver in between being brain theorists – with surprisingly little invocation of neuroscientific evidence, as Bickle and Mandik have noted (Bickle, Mandik and Landreth 1999, 2010, and Faucher and Poirier 2013 for a further reflection on reductionism and Bickle’s neurophilosophy) – and metaphysicians bringing the rest of the world into line with physics.
If we contrast Diderot’s materialism with that of the Australian identity theorists, several notable features emerge, chiefly that Diderot allows for a much more culturally saturated or sedimented sense of the brain, which he describes in his late manuscript the Elements of Physiology as a “book – except it is a book which reads itself”; he also expressed his materialist credo in the form of an experimental philosophical novel, Le Rêve de D’Alembert (1769, unpublished in his lifetime). I have examined elsewhere both the identity theory as an episode in the history of materialism (Wolfe 2006) and Diderot’s idiosyncratic form of materialism (Wolfe 2009). Here I suggest a more comparative approach towards key episodes in the articulation of materialist thought from the Enlightenment to the recent ‘identity theorists’, in order to address some basic questions about the nature of materialism and the extent to which it can allow for a ‘cultured’, ‘social’ understanding of the brain (Wolfe 2010).
John Bickle, Pete Mandik, Anthony Landreth (1999, revised 2010), “”Philosophy of Neuroscience,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (
Luc Faucher & Pierre Poirier (2013), “Le nouveau réductionnisme « nouvelle vague » de John Bickle,” Matièraux scientifiques et philosophiques pour un matérialisme contemporain. Paris : Matériologiques. première.
 U.T. Place (1956), “Is consciousness a brain process?” British Journal of Psychology 47.
 J.J.C. Smart (1963), “Materialism,” Journal of Philosophy 60.
__________  (2000), “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (revised 2007) (
 Charles T. Wolfe (2006), “Un matérialisme désincarné: la théorie de l’identité cerveau-esprit,” Matière première 1: Nature et naturalisations
__________ (2009), “Cabinet d’Histoire Naturelle, or: The Interplay of Nature and Artifice in Diderot’s Naturalism,” Perspectives on Science 17:1
__________  (2010), “The Social Brain: a Spinozist Reconstruction,” ASCS09: Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, eds. W. Christensen, E. Schier, and J. Sutton. Sydney: Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science.

Location: Pitzer College, Broad Hall 214

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