Book Summaries: The First 3^3 Items from My Brain List

Today, I’m posting my first summarizing essay for my “History of the Skull, Mind, and Brain Sciences” list for you. I’m reading the items from this list with John Tresch, who is my main advisor. Be warned: it’s 14 single-spaced pages in Palatino Linotype 11p with 1-inch margins.

Works read:

The Mind Becomes a Scientific Object
Martensen, Robert L. 2004. The Brain Takes Shape: An Early History. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hagner, Michael. 1997. Homo cerebralis: Der Wandel vom Seelenorgan zum Gehirn. Berlin: Berlin Verlag.
Breidbach, Olaf. 1997. Die Materialisierung des Ichs: Zur Geschichte der Hirnforschung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 1276. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Richardson, Alan. 2005. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism 47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mesmerism, Faces, Skulls

Goodey, C. F. 2005. “Blockheads, Roundheads, Pointy Heads: Intellectual Disability and the Brain before Modern Medicine.” Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 41 (2): 165–83.
Gould, Stephen J. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Fabian, Ann. 2010. The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pick, Daniel. 1989. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848–c.1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hagner, Michael. 2004. Geniale Gehirne: Zur Geschichte der Elitegehirnforschung. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.
Darnton, Robert. 1968. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Winter, Alison. 1998. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Greenblatt, Samuel H. 1995. “Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century.” Neurosurgery 37 (4): 790–805. doi:10.1227/00006123-199510000-00025 .
Davies, John D. 1955. Phrenology, Fad and Science: A 19th-Century American Crusade. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Tomlinson, Stephen. 2005. Head Masters: Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
de Giustino, David. 1975. Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. London: Croom Helm.
Shapin, Steven. 1975. “Phrenological Knowledge and the Social Structure of Early Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh.” Annals of Science 32 (3): 219–43. doi:10.1080/00033797500200261 .
Cooter, Roger J. 1984. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, Robert M. 1985. “The Role of Psychology in the Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Debate” In Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture, edited by Robert M. Young, 56–78. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
van Wyhe, John. 2004. Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Lyons, Sherrie L. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. Albany: SUNY Press.
Russett, Cynthia E. 1989. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Malane, Rachel A. 2005. Sex in Mind: The Gendered Brain in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Mental Sciences. Studies in Nineteenth-Century British Literature 22. New York: Peter Lang.

Daston, Lorraine J. 1978. “British Responses to Psycho-Physiology, 1860–1900.” Isis 69 (2): 192–208. doi:10.1086/352003 .
Harrington, Anne. 1989. Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Young, Robert M. 1970. Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier. New York: Clarendon Press.
Star, Susan L. 1989. Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hagner, Michael. 2012. “The Electrical Excitability of the Brain: Toward the Emergence of an Experiment.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 21 (3): 237–49. doi:10.1080/0964704X.2011.595634 .

The texts in this section describe how the mind became an object of scientific investigation in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in North America between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Three major themes across the 27 books, articles, and book chapters are 1) how the mind was materialized and located in the brain, 2) what counts as a scientific approach to the mind/brain complex, and 3) the extent to which studies of the mind and brain were motivated by or influenced social, political, and evolutionary thought. The works discussed below have been published between the years 1955 and 2012. The texts from the 1970s and 1980s alone can illustrate almost the entire variety of approaches historians and sociologists have taken over the past 60 years to assess the brain and mind sciences in the long 19th century. Although written by scholars from the same generation, some of these works are progressivist intellectual histories, others strictly focus on the social context in which the knowledge was produced, some focus on practical challenges scientists are faced in the lab and in promoting their research, and yet another group of scholars tries to disentangle ‘real’ science and pseudoscience or non-science.

With The Brain Takes Shape, the late physician, bioethicist, and medical historian Robert Martensen provided his readership with a study of the emergence of the brain as the core of human life and intellect in the 16th and 17th centuries. His introductory chronicle from the Reformation to the end of the 17th century sets the stage for his main argument: that the concept of a cerebral personhood, as opposed to a humoral bodily system, emerged only in the second half of the 17th century. In particular, he argues that this shift was mainly initiated in England, where the ideas of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution clashed in particular; the church as well as the monarchy had to defend their authority while natural philosophy tried to separate itself from religion and politics. As a result, the very concepts of ‘life’ and ‘body’ changed and anatomy as well as physiology were established as fields of inquiry.

In the main body of the book, Martensen draws on a wide range of archival and published sources and elucidates his argument with some well-chosen illustrations. He discusses two natural philosophers as exemplars for larger groups of thinkers, R. Descartes and T. Willis, and describes the extent to which their cerebral models of the brain were reactions to and informed by contemporary cultural developments and political struggles. In chapter 8, Martensen explains how natural philosophy changed towards the late 17th century in that it split up into ‘scientific’ empiricism and metaphysics, disposing of earlier inquiries characterized by the omnipresence of divine notions and laws. T. Sydenham and J. Locke, Martensen argues, were major agents in stripping Willis’s doctrines of their religious connotations and promoting similar but empiricized views of cerebral bodies—without acknowledging Willis. Martensen closes with a chapter that explores the persistence of the cerebral personhood over the 19th and 20th centuries, identifying an unprecedented neuroscientific movement to elevate “likeness” (or empirical knowledge, or biology) above “presence” (or metaphysics, or phenomenology).

Michael Hagner’s Homo cerebralis, first published in 1997, provides a cultural history of how the brain, understood as the seat of an immaterial soul since R. Descartes, evolved into a material scientific object over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Hagner’s main argument is that this change in the meaning of the brain as an object of investigation preceded the Darwinian and Freudian revolutions in human self-perception. After abandoning the search for the organ of the soul in the brain around 1800, brain and mind researchers tried to access the self on the brain’s material basis.

After describing how the rise of the human sciences in the 18th century led to a redefinition of Descartes’s abstract organ of the soul into an anatomical entity that could be detected in vivisections, Hagner proceeds to illustrating the huge success of F.J. Gall’s organology and its reception in the field of mind and brain research. According to Hagner, however, only investigations by Romantic natural philosophers like K.F. Burdach and C.G. Carus marked the transition from inductive brain research to the late-19th-century tradition of experimental physiological brain localization. Hagner considers the unsuccessful revolution of 1848 as a crucial turning point in the orientation of physiologists: a new realism manifested itself in an abandonment of all scientific searches for the soul and led to purely materialistic approaches to brain parts, electrical excitability and their connections to reflexes and mental functions. The success of physiological brain localization, Hagner shows, heavily rested on the increasing collaboration between psychiatrists, physiologists, and anatomists towards the later 19th century. Only this merger of disciplines allowed for a stabilization of the brain, Hagner argues. The existence of the organ of the mind was not questioned by any of these developments, he concludes, but it was no longer a topic of interest within the mind and brain sciences.

This observation resonates with the late philosopher, biologist, and historian of science Olaf Breidbach’s argument that the past 200 years have seen a significant shift in the questions pursued around the brain and mind. Hagner focused on the changes of the brain as an epistemic object from the 17th through the 19th centuries, whereas Breidbach is more interested in the intellectual development of ideas of the self in the 19th and 20th centuries. In his monograph Die Materialisierung des Ichs, Breidbach traces the emergence of scientific inquiries into the brain and mind with a particular focus on how these investigations have changed the views of the self. He begins his intellectual history with late-18th-century searches for the organ of the soul and ends with 20th-century theories in the philosophy of mind; in the meantime, Breidbach covers the work and ideas of virtually every white European brain or mind researcher. He argues that it was a change in the ways in which questions about the self were asked that allowed for the pervasive biologization of the self and mind in the past 200 years (from the question of what is the brain to the question of how it works, p. 13), not any grand insight that was revealed merely by studying the brain over generations.

Furthermore, Breidbach shows that differing discourses around the brain and mind coexisted at any time and helped define the approach of later scientists and thinkers, often grounded in the philosophical ideas of the time. In particular, Breidbach argues that 20th-century knowledge of the brain rests on 19th-century concepts; the more recent approaches to the brain, including cybernetics and molecular biology, are only methodologically refined and do not pose a conceptual break with late-19th-century ideas of how the brain works. Finally, Breidbach concludes that no coherent theory about the ways in which the self is materialized in the brain has been postulated yet, and he doubts that this will ever be possible.

English Professor Alan Richardson’s third monograph, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, examines the impact of the rising materialization of the mind as it is spelled out in Hagner’s and Breidbach’s monographs on English literature during the Romantic era (1790–1830). The analysis focuses on the notion of what Richardson calls “neural Romanticism” (ch. 1) in the works of Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Jane Austen. Drawing also on archival sources, for instance, notes from the scientific lectures the writers used to attend or the letters they wrote, Richardson provides deeper insight into the entanglement of brain science and English literature as Rachel Malane, for instance, can provide (see below). With an eye to the alleged similarities between the concerns of contemporary neuroscience and romantic brain and mind research, Richardson investigates into the reflection of the “innovative, exciting, and threatening” potential of this science in Romantic literature (p. xv). He argues that the consideration of new scientific theories helps solve puzzles in literary studies pertaining to (changes in) the meanings of words and metaphors in English Romantic literature.

According to Richardson, important characteristics of these researchers’ ideas of the brain are 1) that they believe that the mind is located in the brain and that this brain is active, even if the rest of the body is asleep, and 2) that this brain activity rests on biological instead of mechanical processes. The belief in a similarity between the brains of humans and other animals was also a widely held Romantic notion. Richardson furthermore stresses that commonly assumed geographical and disciplinary borders were regularly crossed in the Romantic period, including the science/pseudoscience boundary. F.J. Gall is deemed to be one of the most overtly Romantic brain scientists by Richardson who influenced some of the mentioned writers.

Christopher Goodey’s paper on “Blockheads, Roundheads, Pointy Heads” is an analysis of the continuities in the assessment of what we would nowadays call mental disability. Goodey traces abnormal heads, abnormal intellects, and abnormal personalities since Galenic times, arguing that the mindset of contemporary researchers in their assessment of mental disability is similar to early modern scholars’ theorizing of monstrosity, but not to their models of cognitive impairment. This pathologization of intellectual disability or monstrosity, Goodey argues, has its origins in the late 17th century, a time during which causes for physical abnormalities and demonic forces merged. In the work of J. Locke and others’, Goodey detects a conflation of the “unnatural” (according to Aristoteles: unusual, but caused by natural forces) and the “preternatural” (caused by supernatural forces from outside the body, such as gods or devils), the origin of the concept of abnormality he assumes at the core of contemporary assessments of mental disability. Goodey’s paper complements the above-mentioned works that focus on the materialization of healthy minds and brains.

Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, first published in 1981, is a 200-year history of the quantification of allegedly innate intellectual capacity in humans and the notions of biological determinism—or scientific racism—that surround it. He calls the two “fallacies” he concerns himself with “reification” and “ranking” (p. 56). Polemically and with great attention to detail in the primary sources, at times even with scientific rigor, Gould aims at debunking the myth of objective science and neutral data as he discusses five major scientific attempts of linearly ranking human intelligence, from well-meaning flawed science to deliberate fabrication of data in the interest of one’s own theory: S.G. Morton’s and others’ measurement of cranial volumes; P.P. Broca’s and others’ assessment of brain weight and volume; recapitulation theories and C. Lombroso’s criminal anthropology; 20th-century American hereditarian theories of the IQ, in particular R.M. Yerkes’s advertisement of psychometric tests in the US Army; as well as C. Burt’s studies of identical twins and the development of the factor analysis to support G. Spearman’s theory about general intelligence. Gould shows how the preoccupation with hierarchically quantifying allegedly innate intelligence persisted while measurements moved from the outside and the inside of the skull in the 19th century to mental function in the 20th century. Gould does not stop at identifying subjective interpretations and skewed measurements.

Ann Fabian’s third monograph, The Skull Collectors, narrates the story of S. Morton and his followers’ acquisition and study of human skulls. Fabian focuses on the time before and during the American Civil War, but she also connects them to 20th-century controversies around repatriation and the revival of ideas similar to Morton’s in 20th-century genetics. This study zooms in on one of the episodes discussed by Gould, but Fabian’s main argument extends Gould’s point that Morton postulated a linear hierarchy of different groups of humans and that he did so motivated by his racist presuppositions. Fabian shows that the history of craniometry as “’scientific racism’” (p. 2 and many more) illustrates the deep connections between American history, the history of theories about race, and the history of burial practices and commemoration of the dead. Fabian explicates in rich detail the work involved in obtaining skulls and transforming them into scientific or museum artifacts; her archival sources, in particular the correspondence between craniometrists and skull collectors, allow her to draw a vivid picture of the mindset surrounding the alleged proof of the superiority of the Caucasian race and to show how crucial networking was for Morton’s success.

Faces of Degeneration, Daniel Pick’s first book, is an assessment of the scientific and intellectual concept of “degeneration” in the second half of the long 19th century or, rather, the Foucaultian “discourse” around this topic. Focusing on France (particularly the writings of B.A. Morel), Italy (C. Lombroso), and England (H. Maudsley), Pick shows how degeneration was promoted from one in many to the central tropic of scientific and anthropological investigation and how the field shifted from diagnosing degeneration in individuals to medicalizing entire groups. According to Pick, this shift was partially a consequence of the rise of sociology and the desire for medical mass-management of the masses in growing metropolitan societies. Mass democracy, socialism, and becoming a member of “the crowd” arose to the new threats of human modernity over the course of the later 19th century (p. 223). Degeneration discourse, Picks suggests, was used as a means of power and to establish scientific authority, evidenced both in the emphasis on the professions of degeneration researchers as well as the naturalistic, empirical language they used. He weaves together themes familiar from Gould’s and Goodey’s work into a European intellectual-political history.

In his accessible and richly illustrated monography Geniale Gehirne, first published in 2004, Hagner traces the concept he calls the elite brain from the late 18th to the 20th century. He inquires into the extent to which the search for material manifestations of genius contributed to the construction of the homo cerebralis as discussed in his earlier work. Partially overlapping and extending his earlier study by one century, Hagner analyzes the contexts in which the elite brain has become an object of study in different fields within the mind and brain sciences and to what extent these scientifically constructed elite brains, laden with moral and political meaning, have been transformed from scientific into cultural objects and have thus impacted the commemoration and perceived authority of alleged intellectual elites in the broader society.

Hagner locates a revival of exceptionalism research in the brain and mind sciences and the shift towards research on natural elite brains—as opposed to brains of admired individuals—around 1900. With resemblance to Pick’s and Gould’s studies, Hagner illustrates that this transformation was aided by eugenic theories and institutionally facilitated by the founding of the international Central Commission for Brain Research in 1903, which enabled researchers all over Europe and in the United States to collaborate and systematically classify and assess different types of brains. According to Hagner, this depersonalization in research on exceptional brains was also a cultural response to the demise of the type of the German intellectual and statesman. Instead of holding up exemplary personalities like in the 19th century, Hagner sees the early 20th century characterized by a deliberate use of the concept of elite brains as a form of “biopolitics” (p. 17) in the Weimar Republic and the early Soviet Union. Conceptually, Hagner argues, not much changed in the 20th century as compared to the 19th century, only the methods and physiological theories were more refined.

Robert Darnton’s first book inquires into the evolution of radical political thought in pre-revolutionary France. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France draws from published material and formerly secret manuscripts. Darnton tells France’s cultural history through the lens of investigations into animal magnetism as proposed by F.A. Mesmer in Paris. Mesmerism functions as an illustrative example of the ways in which popular science was used to promote and at the same time benefitted from and incorporated radical political views. Darnton makes an even stronger argument, though, and suggests that Mesmer’s popular science and later versions of it shattered the Enlightenment in France by overriding the quest for reason and order with a longing for sensation, spectacle, and change and the hierarchy of privilege and scientific exclusivity with popular mysticism for the unlearned.

Darnton’s monograph virtually begins where Martensen’s ends and provides an overview of the French literate society’s fascination with technological and popular scientific spectacle in the 1780s in his richly illustrated first chapter. Darnton wants to prove his point that: “The progressive divorce of science from theology in the eighteenth century did not free science from fiction” (p. 12). Mesmerists, Darnton shows, voiced political discontent in a predominantly unpolitical, scientific tone, despite the always-existing “underground current of radicalism” (p. 104). The desire for change had united the mesmerists, but since they did not share any concrete political visions for a post-revolutionary society, the movement dispersed and former allies became enemies in the late 1780s. Early 19th-century mesmerism, Darnton shows, was mostly practiced as mystic philosophy, but it regained some of its political force leading up to the attempted revolution of 1848, during which the two core principles of liberty and health were upheld again in the hope they may lead to a democratic society.

Alison Winter’s first book, Mesmerized, sheds light on the mesmerist movement in Victorian England in the mid-19th century after it had made its way to the isles. Drawing on a wide range of correspondence and personal manuscripts as well as contemporary journal and newspaper publications in Great Britain and colonial India, Winter shows how mesmerism impacted virtually all realms of British cultural life: religion, music, literal art, politics, as well as science and medicine. She demonstrates that mesmerism was everything but a fringe activity between 1830 and 1860 and that the question of intellectual and social authority was at the center of the controversies around mesmerism. Winter puts particular focus on the social and technological changes during these three decades of mesmerism and reform in Britain and argues that mesmerism was used as a tool to expose hidden assumptions and point to social inequalities, that it blurred the boundaries between public and private life, and that it broadened the range of possible modes of consciousness. By the 1870s, when physiology and medicine were transformed into laboratory sciences, mesmerism lost is function as a social mirror within the Victorian society as it was absorbed by other movements such as psychic research and psychoanalysis.

In “Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century,” Samuel Greenblatt, a retired neurosurgeon, argues that F.J. Gall laid the foundations of contemporary neuroscience in the early 19th century in that he insisted on a materialistic approach to the brain and suggested the localization of individual faculties. Greenblatt summarizes the phrenological movement since Gall in continental Europe (until the 1820s), in Great Britain (in the 1820s and 1830s) and in the US (1820s to 1840s). He also touches briefly on brain localization in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, emphasizing that these scientists shared ideological convictions with Gall but labored hard to distinguish themselves from this alleged pseudoscience. Greenblatt further emphasizes that the success of phrenology in the US derived from the phrenologists’, mainly the Fowler family’s, targeting the lower classes, an argument that is in line with Winter’s and Darnton’s analyses pertaining to the audience of mesmerism. However, Gall and the European phrenologists had mainly advocated for theoretical phrenology that did not seem useful or accessible to uneducated individuals, Greenblatt argues.

John Davies’s Phrenology, Fad and Science is one of the oldest monographs about phrenology. He wrote it at a time when phrenology was widely discarded as a pseudoscience in historical circles, with the exception of a few medical historians who aimed at reading phrenology as a precursor to 20th-century neuroanatomy and physiology—as Greenblatt still did in 1995. Davies’s intervention was to look at phrenology as a popular movement of self-improvement that rested on scientific promises. Davies also agrees that F.J. Gall was a precursor of 20th-century neuroscience since he was the first scholar to aim at an ‘objective’ study of the human mind and brain, leaving behind any biases. In line with Greenblatt’s and Tomlinson’s accounts, Davies presents phrenology in America as a movement that built on J.G. Spurzheim’s optimistic views about humankind, in contrast to Gall, who seemed to be less convinced of the perfectibility of humans and located many anti-social drives on the cortex.

Davies suggests, in line with Hagner’s argument from almost half a century later, as I indicated above, that Darwinism and Freudianism took over the spot held by phrenology. This stands in contrast to John van Wyhe’s, Robert M. Young’s, and Roger Cooter’s works on the intellectual continuities between phrenology and evolutionary theory (see below). Davies emphasizes in line with works mentioned in the following that phrenology crucially influenced 19th-century fiction and that it had a major influence on American progressive movements, for example, in education, psychiatry, medicine, and penology; he also shows, however, how phrenology adopted structures, practices, and ideologies from other fields, such as religion, alternative medicine, and mesmerism. Phrenology, Davies concludes, posed an option for Americans to develop an optimistic secular morality on a scientific basis and with a strong social agenda, but it did not permeate everyday-life. In particular, he argues, phrenology put too much focus on individualism and liberty to have that strong of an impact in any non-American society.

Professor of Education Stephen Tomlinson’s first book, Head Masters, tells the story of phrenological influences on education and educational reform movements in pre-Darwinian 19th-century Britain and the US. Though he never explicitly states it, Tomlinson illustrates that the reverse influence was significant as well. He argues that most notably H. Mann’s and S.G. Howe’s requests for adjusted school curricula, the introduction of therapeutic asylums, a change in the prison system, special schools for individuals with physical and mental disabilities, and even the American welfare system were derived from G. Combe’s phrenological system. This was possible, Tomlinson explains, because J.G. Spurzheim and Combe transformed F.J. Gall’s purely materialist organology into a “broad eugenic social philosophy” (p. 76), that is, a phrenological system that allowed for both inherited qualities and environmental influences and thus called for pedagogical and disciplinary secular reforms on the individual as well as the institutional level.

This emphasis on the reformist potential of phrenology reiterates Greenblatt’s point, but whereas Greenblatt assumes that Combe was too much of a theoretical phrenologist to reach lower classes, Tomlinson argues that Combe significantly impacted middle-class reformers not long after his publication The Constitution of Man (1828). To Tomlinson, Combe was “one of the most important and influential educators of the century” (p. xiv). Tomlinson spells this out in great detail, tracing the similarities in ideas between educators and phrenologists, drawing mostly on secondary literature as well as published contemporary books, articles, and reports. Eventually, Tomlinson suggests that all educational reforms must be based on some scientific foundation; he argues that Combe provided mid-19th-century reformers with a physiological theory of heredity and exercise that instilled, among other developments, Mann’s and Howe’s racist, classist, and sexist politics of positive eugenics in New England.

Historian David de Giustino’s first book Conquest of Mind is a history of the Combe family’s investment in phrenology and the status of popular science in Victorian Britain more broadly. Drawing on a wide variety of published sources (newspapers, periodicals, journal articles, books, reports) and archival collections, in particular Combe’s correspondence, de Giustino illustrates the deep entanglement of phrenology with the British educational reform movement in the 1840s and 1850s and thus provides the Combe-centric complement to Tomlinson’s work.

De Giustino argues that phrenology was appealing to the Victorian lower classes because it was phrased in terms that could easily be understood by lay people, it explained and was in line with contemporary morals, and yet it was “hopeful” (p. 74) in that it offered a method for self-improvement and advertised an individualized concept of society. To a notable number of individuals from the higher classes, including scientists and physicians, it seemed equally attractive because it was in line with contemporary philosophical theories and moral values, it attempted to reject metaphysics, it was built on the manual study of hundreds of material heads, and it admitted modestly that it was not a complete science yet. Since de Giustino also illustrates how heterogeneous phrenology was, one wonders how much weight should be given to de Giustino’s and his colleagues’ generalizing claims about “phrenology’s” reformist potential.

Steven Shapin wrote his article “Phrenological Knowledge and the Social Structure of Early Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh” and similar papers against purely intellectual accounts of the Edinburgh debates between phrenologists and anti-phrenologists in the early and mid-19th century. Even though the article is a response to the work of Geoffrey Cantor, Shapin’s critique would similarly apply to de Giustino’s work in that it explains the controversy around phrenology as a disagreement about scientific ideas and methodological concepts. Setting an example for how to craft a sociology of knowledge, Shapin presents in words and tables that phrenologists consisted of individuals from marginalized groups in the Edinburgh society and that the rising mercantilism endangered the Edinburgh elites’ longing for social coherence and “’common sense’” (p. 238) as much as the phrenological doctrine of inborn individual differences did. In this changing social structure, Shapin argues, both the phrenologists’ support of the working and lower middle classes and their opposition to established elite institutions were growing.

Shapin, like the aforementioned authors, also puts emphasis on the reformist aspect of phrenology. But his argument that the originally ‘nature’-focused phrenology shifted its doctrine towards a more ‘nurture’-centered model for strategical reasons is new. As Shapin argues, a theory of innate cerebral and mental differences caused disagreement among established circles, but the notion that self-knowledge and training could change one’s physical and mental constitution found support amongst the environmentally oriented conservative circles. Thus, some of the anti-phrenologists supported their reformist claims, a situation that was, as Shapin suggests, foreseen by the phrenologists and gave more weight to their demands. In opposition to Robert Young’s student Roger Cooter, Shapin thus argues that phrenology did not (only) make an industrial stratification of society acceptable; it also benefited from these new values.

With his first book, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science, Cooter has broadened and deepened de Giustino’s analysis and provided a study of Victorian phrenology that extends way beyond G. Combe. Cooter also uses Combe’s archival papers, but he complements them with a vast amount of further archival papers, tractates, reports, parliamentary papers, and phrenological journals. Cooter follows Davies and de Giustino in treating phrenology as a popularized science, admitting that it looks like “a Dickensian caricature of science” nowadays (p. 9), which makes it the perfect case study to investigate into the demarcations between science and non-science or society and science, a view also held by Sherrie Lyons (see below).

Cooter’s study of phrenology’s social and political impact is framed by A. Gramsci’s Marxist model of egemonia and heavily laden with references to Marx, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School, resulting in a rather pessimistic study of Victorian England. Cooter explains how his actors upheld conservative social structures without noticing. He mentions, for instance, that Combe’s upbringing led him to formulate a phrenological system that resonated very well with the new capitalist-industrialist order. This interpretation stands in stark contrast to Tomlinson’s argument that Combe was invested in educational reform because he had left behind and wanted to eradicate any Calvinist structures that had traumatized himself as a child. Eventually, Cooter argues that phrenology was like a religion to its followers; it changed the public’s understanding of the mind and brain and produced a new form of consent that paved the way for a new industrial social order. This reminds of Winter’s argument that mesmerism was a crucial factor in developing a concept of social consent. But whereas Winter argues that mesmerist theories of the unconscious allowed for “the development of a psychology of public judgment” (Mesmerized, p. 8), Cooter’s explanation is more hegemonic: a new theory of the mind that is characterized by “natural laws” (p. 11, italics i.o.), the medicalization of mental disturbance, and individual—or social—inequality made capitalism and the cultural changes that went along with it socially acceptable.

Robert M. Young is a psychotherapist as well as a historian and philosopher of science who left academia in the 1970s to continue his intellectual and political work without institutional affiliation. In “The Role of Psychology in the Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Debate,” first published in 1973, Young shows that evolutionary thought has been part of psychology even in the late 18th century, with “evolution” being defined as the belief “that the origin of man occurred by means of the continuous operation of natural laws and not by special creation” (p. 57). Mental, social, cultural, and physical life all became subsets of science in this system of thought. This conviction of the intellectual continuity between phrenology and evolutionary theory is shared by Cooter and explicated by John van Wyhe in more detail (see below). C. Darwin’s ideology, Young argues, was not original but derived from earlier investigations in geology and psychology; new was only the evidence Darwin presented. The bold argument that Young makes in this essay is that psychology (i.e., associationism, phrenology, and neurophysiology) lay at the core of evolutionary theory or, in other words, that “evolutionary theory … is applied psychology” (p. 69, italics i.o.).

John van Wyhe’s first book, Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism, complements older accounts of phrenology in that it emphasizes the struggle for power in phrenological and anti-phrenological individuals. Van Wyhe refines Shapin’s account of phrenology as a debate between social groups as well as Cooter’s description of a hegemonic culture. Focusing not only on phrenological publications but also drawing on a wide range of newspapers as well as popular and scientific periodicals, van Wyhe argues that phrenology was one of the most important sources of “scientific naturalism,” which was introduced by a few individuals as a main tactic of seeking social power and scientific authority. Van Wyhe argues that naturalism became one of the pillars of Victorian scientific thought. He also takes into consideration the early continental European organological sources and compares Gall’s naturalism with later British versions of the concept.

Most striking in comparison with older scholarship on phrenology is van Wyhe’s argument that phrenology was not a reform movement, precisely due to its character of being a means of personal elevation rather than an intellectual and social movement carried by a more or less coherent social group. The emphasis on the heterogeneity of individuals within phrenology resonates with similar remarks in de Giustino’s and Lyons’s works, but van Wyhe spells out the disparity in personal motives in more detail. In part, this monograph is an explication of Cooter’s claim that naturalism preceded Darwinism and stands in opposition to the works of Davies and Hagner (2000), in which phrenology and Darwinism are identified as two intellectually very distinct movements.

Sherrie Lyons’s monograph Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls is an investigation into what makes a fringe science become an accepted scientific discipline. Drawing mostly on secondary literature, she compares the abandoned fields of sea serpent research, phrenology, and spiritualism with evolutionary science, which became a well-respected field of study. Lyons uses her deeply interwoven 19th-century case studies to argue that “the distinction between science and pseudoscience is not sharp” (p. xi) and that the content of doctrines is not the reason for why some fields remain at the margins while others managed to move to the center of scientific investigation. “Social as well as cognitive factors” and issues of (un)successful professionalization crucially molded the scientific landscape, she argues (p. xii). The far-reaching concluding chapter spells out the question of boundaries between science and non-science with the help of two more contemporary case studies: fossils “as possible links between myth and science” (p. 16) and evolutionary psychology, in particular regarding postulated sex/gender differences, which Lyons’s feminist account sees in line with phrenology in its attempt to scientifically explain the human mind and nature.

In her chapter on phrenology, Lyons emphasizes the heterogeneous nature of the field that reached from “a marginal science well on its way to becoming part of the scientific mainstream” to “quackery” (p. 5). She illustrates how deeply entrenched phrenology was with then contemporary intellectual, political, and social controversies. A threat to physicians, philosophers, upper classes, and the church, Lyons shows, phrenology was more of a social movement than a (pseudo)science and should thus be called a “nonscience” (p. 178). This emphasis on the reformative aspect of phrenology resonates well with the works of Greenblatt, Tomlinson, and Davies. Her identification of similarities between the evolutionary ideas in F.J. Gall’s and Darwin’s theories is in line with Young’s, Cooter’s, and van Wyhe’s scholarship. Lyons argues that the striking ideological similarity between the two fields does not allow for an intellectual explanation of why phrenology was dismissed in the second half of the 19th century whereas Darwinism rose to power and acceptance. It is surprising that Lyons still seems to hold a teleological view of a “self-correcting” science that allows us to gain an “increasingly accurate view of the material world” (p. 16).

Late historian Cynthia E. Russett’s third book, Sexual Science, also ties in evolutionary thought with theories of the mind and brain. Russett presents Victorian-style naturalist explanations for the inferiority of women—and children as well as non-white and lower-class individuals—during the first decades of first-wave feminism up to 1920 in Europe and in the United States. She draws on contemporary publications, mostly from white male scientists, but also from a few women whose writings modified the scientific arguments but reiterated similar themes of difference. After mentioning several strands of phrenology as exceptional science because it left room for female intellectual potential, Russett proceeds to show that theories of sex differences in skull shape, skull size, brain volume, brain weight, intellectual capacity, and energy metabolism were mostly carried out to attest female inferiority. This conclusion was not derived from objective, skeptical, empirical practice, she argues, but aimed at solidifying social differences and creating an efficient and easy-to-govern industrial society; but this latter argument is not as clearly spelled out as in Cooter’s work.

Russett’s emphasis on the biased approach to female heads and the attempt to locate them below white male heads in a hierarchical order resonates very well with Gould’s account in The Mismeasure of Man. Russett provides a more contextualized account of the authority of science to speak to the subject of a hierarchically ordered humanity, however. Her main goal is not to debunk the myth of objective science but to weave in already familiar accounts of scientific discrimination in the context of physical anthropology, theories of recapitulation and sexual selection, ideas of male variability and female homogeneity, and conservation theory. She illustrates how generations of scientists in different fields, before and after Darwin, have drawn from similar ideological repositories to create a pervasive and persistent net of naturalist explanations for female inferiority and the necessity of sex-based division of labor. A major difference between Gould’s and Russett’s work is that Russett believes that her account of scientific sexism reflects historical anxieties of nations transitioning into ‘modernism’ (including genetics, endocrinology, and IQ tests), whereas Gould is convinced that scientific racism persisted and progressed.

English Literature graduate Rachel Malane’s first book, Sex in Mind, is a literary cultural complement to Russett’s monograph. Malane analyses of how Victorian writers, most notably Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and Thomas Hardy, integrated scientific theories about mind- and brain-related sex/gender differences into their work and how the authors at the same time promoted these scientific theories and fueled further investigations into the topic; she calls this relationship between brain science and literary culture “mutually supportive” (p. xii). Malane focuses on different novels that span almost the entire second half of the 19th century and means to prove that the obsession with physiological correlates of sex and gender roles were pervasive in Victorian culture. Despite the differences between the authors, she argues, all of the personalities they create rest on an assumed biological difference lying at the heart of the minds of males versus females. Eventually, Malane argues, “when we find a concept, such as the gendered mind, deeply embedded in [science and literature], we can argue that such a concept is central to the internal logic of a society” (p. 203).

The “British Responses to Psycho-Physiology” identified by Lorraine Daston in her paper implicitly suggest that the legacy of phrenology made it particularly hard for British scientists to respond to the new experimental, materialistic sciences of the mind in the second half of the 19th century that have been described by Breidbach, Richardson, and Greenblatt. Drawing on the writings of well-known researchers who explicitly investigated into psychological phenomena and writers who concerned themselves with the topic, Daston argues that a decision between a naturalistic approach, resulting in compartmentalized consciousness and an exclusion of volition from the discipline, and introspective empiricism seemed inevitable to late 19th-century researchers. Daston connects the importance of the question of volition and responsibility to the strong focus of British psychology on social matters, such as education and penology. The literature on phrenology, which Daston does not mention, suggests a close parallel between early British brain research, that is, phrenology, and social reform movements—much more so than it was the case in continental Europe. It seems plausible that “the pressures to harmonize psychological and ethical perspectives” that resulted from “the marked practical slant” identified by Daston in the British psychology of the time (p. 197) is a result of the strong connection of phrenology with legal and pedagogical matters in the same region a few decades earlier.

Anne Harrington traces the scientific concept of brain (a)symmetry in her monograph Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain. She calls her work “a study in conceptual history” intended to provide “a reliable map” to the issue of the double brain in 19th-century brain science (p. 3). Harrington focuses on the years 1860 to 1910, but she begins her analysis with a quick overview of searches for the seat of the soul in the early 19th century and extends her study to some developments in the 20th century. She draws mainly from French published sources but also includes several British, North American, and German publications to support her argument that brain asymmetry was a crucial topic in 19th-century brain science.

Harrington’s description of Broca’s and his followers’ investigations into the localization of language and other characteristics starting in the 1860s makes up the major part of her book. Harrington explains how Broca turned the study of a language area in the brain into an inquiry into human exceptionalism. In this context, Harrington sheds light on the debate of whether brain asymmetry is innate or a consequence of different rates of maturity in the two halves of the brain and, thus, whether human exceptionality originates from an inborn ability to speak or from a significant potential to learn and acquire language despite being born with a brain not much different from any other animal brain. Broca himself settled on the latter explanation.

Young dedicated his first book, Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century, to his teachers, one of which is Richard Rorty. The monograph analyzes published 19th-century works in the field of brain and mind research from F.J. Gall to Harrington’s and Susan L. Star’s (see below) actors who engaged in electrophysiology and brain localization in the late 19th century. Young’s study illustrates how psychology became an experimental science or, in Young’s own words, its “development away from philosophy and toward general biology” (p. vii). Young studies the end of the Cartesian dualism in brain localization, a field he interprets as the linking of the mind to the brain. His second concern is the study of the functions of the brain, which is, to Young, an account of how scientists perceived the interaction of humans and their environment. Young suggests that his historical account of Gall’s and later attempts to foster brain science, rather than speculation about the mind, adds to 20th-century debates within the mind and brain sciences, in particular pertaining to the diversity of approaches within this field. In particular, Young hopes to illustrate the extent to which philosophical considerations of the mind have hindered the progress of brain science and that the desiderata of Cartesian dualism should be eliminated from the field.

In line with the aforementioned authors who do not count Gall towards the phrenological reformers, in particular Greenblatt, Davies, Tomlinson, and de Giustino, Young distinguishes between Gall’s organology and the later phrenological movement. To Young, Gall was the first natural brain scientist and the later 19th-century localizationists picked up the torch that had been left behind by the phrenologists whom he regards as pseudoscientists. Since Young excludes the phrenologists from his analysis of scientific studies of the mind and brain, this account does not clearly reflect his, Cooter’s, and van Wyhe’s strong conviction that evolutionary ideas had been essential to phrenology.

Late sociologist Susan L. Star’s first monograph complicates the progressivist story told by Young. Regions of the Mind is a study of the “scientific work” (p. 1) involved in making brain localization theory acceptable throughout the brain and mind sciences. Drawing on published works and archival sources, including laboratory notebooks, Star attends to scientific and philosophical controversies around the links between mind and behavior from 1870 to 1906, when C.S. Sherrington published The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, a work that established localization theory in the so-called Western world, according to Star. She describes these decades as a time characterized by the debate between “localizationists” (mainly in England) and “diffusionists” (individuals in continental Europe and the United States), arguing that “inconstant correlation” (p. 6), the circumstance that similar lesions did not always cause the same deficits, was one of the biggest problems the localizationists encountered and at the same time one of the easiest targets for their opponents.

To Star, “scientific work”—besides the ‘usual’ pains of preparing animals for experiments, disseminating one’s viewpoints, connecting with colleagues, etc.—designates the labor that is involved in adhering to a theory despite apparent counterevidence and adapting it slightly to integrate the inconsistency as a non-incommensurability. As a consequence, she illustrates, the theories of localizationists in particular were flexible and sometimes hardly distinct from diffusionist accounts. Diffusionists and localizationists were distinguishable mainly on the basis of the camps they associated with. In the end, the localizationists officially won the debate, mostly because they were institutionalized, well-connected, and brought together clinical and physiological research strands. But the winner doctrine, localizationism, contained strong diffusionist elements.

A remarkable difference between this book and the other aforementioned works is that Star focuses on scientific practice and on how two competing groups have deliberately contributed to posing hurdles to the other group’s practice. The phrenology literature offers different intellectual, social, individual, and collective approaches to the debate between phrenologists, but the focus always lies on what to do with the acquired knowledge (reforms, class struggle, or individual authority). Star, in contrast, focuses on how the knowledge is acquired, how findings are classified and standardized, how anomalies are explained, and how evidence from different fields is drawn together; though sometimes schematic, this is refreshing and seems appreciative towards her actors.

Michael Hagner’s “The Electrical Excitability of the Brain” is a revisionist account of histories of localization, for example, Young’s monograph. Instead of putting E. Hitzig and G. Fritsch’s experiment to electrically stimulate mammalian cortices in the context of the British and French localization movement that took off with P.P. Broca in 1861, Hagner argues that the experiment was born out of a practical clinical need. A close analysis of Hitzig’s publications and talks prior to 1870 leads Hagner to the conclusion that Hitzig was first and foremost a physician who used electrotherapy on his patients to relieve their pains and help them regain mobility in their limbs. According to Hagner’s reconstruction, Hitzig discovered muscle movements in an electrically stimulated patient only coincidentally and set out to design experiments to help him understand this artifact. Since he had not enough anatomical knowledge, he teamed up with Fritsch to help him design appropriate experiments that finally led to well-known result and publication about cortical excitability. Hagner emphasizes that a result like this was unthinkable within physiology, because the discipline firmly upheld the boundaries towards clinical medicine, anatomy, and pathology—and thus cortical localization. Physiological experiments were theory-driven and not intended to provide clinically useful results or anatomical knowledge, Hagner argues. Thus, Hitzig and Fritsch were not physiologists who provided useful knowledge for clinical applications; the reverse is true, according to Hagner. This also stands in direct contrast to Star’s work, who counts her “localizationists” to the physiologists.

Cite this blog post
Tabea Cornel (2015, November 19). Book Summaries: The First 3^3 Items from My Brain List. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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