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Technological Metaphors and the Anatomy of Representations in Eighteenth-Century French Materialism and Dualist Mechanism

  • Timo Kaitaro
Chapter

Metaphors and explanatory models referring to cultural artefacts, especially machines and symbolic representations, are commonly used in modern neuroscience. One often pictures the brain as a complex machine. Today the brain is usually compared to a computer that manipulates symbolic representations according to syntactic rules. The retention of information is often explained by “memory traces” stored in the brain. Such technological and semiotic metaphors have ancient roots, but they were especially popular during the eighteenth century after Descartes had pictured the human body as a machine. Thus many philosophers and scientists attempted to give explanations of psychological phenomena by referring to underlying neural mechanism. It was also during the Enlightenment that one started to emphasize that mental functions should be studied as material phenomena. Philosophers who wanted to examine mental phenomena in the context of materialist ontology criticized the traditional dualist ontology that emphasized the distinctness of the mental and the material. Surprisingly, these two aspects of modern neuroscience, the first related to reductionist explanatory models and the second to the ontology of scientific explanations, were, however, not so closely coupled in the eighteenth century as they are today. On the contrary, in the eighteenth century, these features usually appeared in opposing camps. Dualists like Charles Bonnet were keen in propounding explanations of mental phenomena in terms of neural mechanism. In this they differed from the medically oriented materialist philosophers like La Mettrie and Diderot who – although they used mechanical metaphors – were not so much interested in suggesting mechanistic explanatory models as they were in criticizing dualist metaphysics and the mechanistic explanatory models attached to it. In this article, I shall examine how the dualists and the materialists differed in their respective ways of relying on mechanistic metaphors and models.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Neural Mechanism Memory Trace Mental Phenomenon Cultural Artefact 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Timo Kaitaro
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of HelsinkiFinland

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