History of Neuroscience

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Part 1 of Neurophilosophy aims to introduce philosophers to some elementary neuroscience. The book opens with a historical sketch of the science of nervous systems, beginning with Galen, the third century b.c.e. Greek anatomist and physician, and ending with the invention of the electron microscope in the 1950’s. Although this overview is organized chronologically, the historical details nonetheless suggest a unifying theme: the progress of science away from vitalism and toward a mechanistic materialism.

As Churchland explains, the vitalists viewed the motion of muscles in terms of a psychic breath of air, or pneuma. Although through the centuries there were occasional refinements to the theory, such as Descartes’s introduction of a mechanistic connection between the vital spirit and the body, vitalism remained scientific orthodoxy through the first half of the seventeenth century. At that time, the theory suffered its first real threat, stemming from the work of Dutch biologist Jan Swammerdam. In experiments on the leg muscles of frogs, Swammerdam was able to produce muscle contractions purely mechanically, thereby suggesting the superfluousness of vital spirits. Such experiments themselves were not enough to loosen the grip that vitalism held on the scientific imagination, but they did lead to further research, such as the nineteenth century work of Hermann von Helmholtz. A student of the father of...

(The entire section is 569 words.)