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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Tyndall Blogged: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Excerpted from Psychology Today’s blog Cultural Commentary (2 February 2010):

Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later, Part 1

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He journeyed to Worchester, Massachusetts at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in connection with the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of America’s original graduate student only academic research institution. Speaking in German to a who’s who of psychologists and other social scientists (many of whom would have been multilingual in those days) Freud delivered a series of now famous lectures on psychoanalysis. One hundred years later, on October 3, 2009, Clark University commemorated one of the most significant events in its history with a series of Freud centennial keynote addresses, answering the general question “Does the Mind Still Matter?” My own lecture, originally titled “Cleansing of the Soul: Freud’s Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later” will appear in Psychology Today over the next few days as a “Cultural Commentary” blog trilogy. Part 1 of the trilogy begins below.


And despite all the attention in recent decades to Freud’s early interests in the brain sciences, and all the contemporary interest in either replacing psychoanalysis with neurology and pharmacology or turning Freud into a crypto-biologist, I read him to be pretty much in sympathy with the following non-reductive (and candidly dualistic) interpretation of the (in my view still unsolved) mind/body problem, as expressed by the famous 19th century British physicist John Tyndall. In 1868 Tyndall, who was one of the great natural scientists of that century and an erstwhile supporter of Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology, had this to say about the connection between mind and body, between soulful realities and physical realities, between the facts of consciousness and the physics of the brain. He said it in his Presidential Address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Quoting Tyndall:

“The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.”

Notice that John Tyndall takes it for granted that events in consciousness and events in the brain appear together. Nevertheless, as he suggests, the mere observation of mental and physical event co-occurrence is not the end of the mind-body problem as a problem, but only its puzzling beginning, which must, given that the chasm to which he points is in the nature of things, end in puzzlement.

Of course, Tyndall’s and Freud’s caution about the mysterious and mind-boggling theoretical or intellectual disjunction between the facts of consciousness and our understanding of the nature and workings of the physical world are not heeded very much these days, at least not in the biological, medical and cognitive sciences in the academy. And it is quite fashionable these days to be of the opinion (or at least to confidently assert) that the mind/body problem has been empirically solved by recent work in the brain sciences using new observational technologies which show that thoughts occur simultaneously with physical events in the brain. Yet that observation is not really news, given that it is an empirical fact that John Tyndall was well aware of in 1868 and Descartes was well aware of even earlier. As Tyndall makes crystal clear that fact of temporal contiguity is just one of the reasons for positing of the mind/body problem in the first place and not a theoretical or intellectual solution to the problem at all.

Read the entire post here.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment