International Conference: Shaping the brain 06/12/2014

affiche-programme Shaping the brain(1)Shaping the Brain in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

The brain has, throughout history, been considered an important achievement in the creation of man, although often secondary to the soul and the heart. Our knowledge about how the brain has been conceived in the past is, however, very fractional, especially for the late Medieval and early modern periods. This conference looks to re-situate the question of knowing the brain anew in a dialogue between medicine (anatomy, physiology and pathology) and natural philosophy (inter alia physics, biology and psychology). To this end, we seek to unite contributions concerning Medieval and early modern knowing-making of the brain from several perspectives.

The brain has become an object of great importance in Western culture, and also a very complex one, for it stands in a polemical space occupied by the cultural dimensions of human nature, on the one hand, and a biological dimension on the other.

Traditional peripatetic psychology explains movement, sensory perception and cognition as an operation of the soul and not of the brain. The internal senses processing sense data are, however, in the cerebrum’s ventricles, leaving it nonetheless unclear whether – and to what extent – the brain intervenes between the sensory organs and the soul. The intelligible power of the soul – although inorganically so – was closely related to these internal senses located in the brain. It was a problematic construction, interlacing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval and early modern periods are of particular interest in this polemic, for during this period the brain was ‘extracted’ from the skull and, as such, objectified. Anatomical knowledge of the brain stems from the increasing practice of the dissection of human corpses in Europe from the 13th century onwards. The decomposition of the body urged the dissector to accelerate his demonstrations – in the order of decay, the brain was the last thing left on the table. Trusting their eyes and their fingertips, these anatomists described what they saw and felt, following also the artists in their turn to naturalism. The decaying nature of the object of study encouraged the anatomists to think about conservation, mostly for demonstration. Books with plates were commissioned, cranes were prepared, and wax models were manufactured. The segmented brain was, however, exempt from internal senses.

Anatomical preoccupations were framed by natural philosophy as well as by medicine. How do these knowledge-frameworks intersect, superimpose and challenge one another? Studying the brain at the crossroads of these different settings raises new questions. How much anatomy, for example, is needed to understand the philosophy of the soul? In what way are the internal senses in the ventricles? How did the soul disappear from the scope of anatomy? How do the methodological and explanatory structures that physicians have developed relate to those of natural philosophers? How did the brain become an ‘objective’ research object, outside of our heads?

We are especially – but not exclusively – interested in:
The extent to which natural philosophy, physics, anatomy and medicine share a common history and practice in the shaping of knowledge about the brain and its functions, as well as the extent to which they operate within different strata.
The inference of knowledge about the functioning of the living brain from the observation of dead tissue.
The methods, instruments and techniques by which the object was studied, as well as its effect on knowledge-making.
How objectivity, as a scientific category, encouraged the objectification of the brain, as well as how it relates to other learned cultures of knowing, such as philosophy and theology.
The process by which the brain became an isolated object from the rest of the body, independent of its functions.

Among the confirmed speakers are Danielle Jacquart, and Tanja Klemm, Sander de Boer, and Pauline Koetschet. Participation is free. Thank you for letting us now if you’re coming for organizational reasons.

Where: Paris
When: December 6th, 2014. From 10H — 17H.
Contact: Dr. Annemieke Verboon (
Dr. Rafael Mandressi

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