Juli 2019

Sa20Jul19:30Sa21:00Charles T. WolfeThe Case of Animal Spirits


Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art (SFSIA) is pleased to present the public lecture „The early history of brain plasticity: the case of animal spirits“ by Charles T. Wolfe. Early modern ‘neuroscience’ and philosophy appealed to an entity to explain animation throughout the nervous system and in the brain: the animal spirits. Animal spirits were viewed as the ‘messengers of the body’, as Mandeville called them, and they cross domains such as neuroscience, literature, culture, and economics. Additionally, they are not a neutral concept. On the one hand, the history of neuroscience (Eadie, C.U.M. Smith and many others) tends to claim that it was the abandonment of animal spirits which allowed experimental neuroscience to emerge: modern science doesn’t believe in them anymore. In contrast, more culturally oriented historians of ideas (GS Rousseau, J Sutton) see the spirits as ‚freed‘ from a linear scientific development, as agents of fluidity and dynamism, whether strictly as regards models of the brain and nervous system, or of matter and life overall. Animal spirits then seem to be a particularly vivid case for ‘historical neurophilosophy’. For they testify to a tension between two models of the brain, both in their heyday, with Descartes, Thomas Willis et al., and now: a more mechanistic picture of brains (the brain is a mere lump of inert substance and/or a fully mechanistic system) and a more dynamic picture of the brain as self-transforming and malleable (plastic, in current parlance), as I have described elsewhere with reference to Diderot’s image of the brain as a ‘book which reads itself’. In this paper I seek to reconstruct this dynamism, including in relation to a dynamic form of materialism.

Charles T. Wolfe is a researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Ghent University (and associate member, IHPST, Paris). He works primarily in history and philosophy of the early modern life sciences, with a particular interest in materialism and vitalism. He is the author of Materialism: A Historico-Philosophical Introduction (Springer 2016) and La philosophie de la biologie: une histoire du vitalisme (Garnier, 2019), and has edited volumes including Monsters and Philosophy (2005), The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge (2010, with O. Gal), Vitalism and the scientific image in post-Enlightenment life-science (2013, with S. Normandin), Brain Theory (2014), Physique de l’esprit (w. J.C. Dupont, 2018), Philosophy of Biology before Biology (w. C. Bognon-Küss, 2019) as well as various special issues of journals, most recently Sketches for a conceptual history of epigenesis (special issue of HPLS, 2017), and authored articles in journals including British Journal of the History of Philosophy, Early Science and Medicine, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Journal of the History of Biology, Perspectives on Science, Science in Context, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Synthese and others. He also co-edits the Springer series in History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences.

Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art (SFSIA) is a nomadic, intensive summer academy with shifting programs in contemporary critical theory. SFSIA stresses an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the relationship between art and politics. The program consists of seminar-style lectures, deep readings, and workshops. An evening lecture program is free and open to the public. SFISA was founded and is directed by Warren Neidich and is co-directed by Barry Schwabsky. Sarrita Hunn is the artistic coordinator.

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