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Charles Wolfe: Body, Soul and Brain in Diderot's Materialism

Lecture by Charles Wolfe (Gent), organized by the Department of the History of Philosophy

Materialism is the view that everything that is real, is material or is the product of material processes. This tends to take either of two forms: a more ‘cosmological’ claim about the ultimate nature of the world, and a more specific claim about how what is mental is really in fact cerebral – how mental processes are brain processes. In the twentieth century, the predominant science in this context was physics: materialism became synonymous with ‘physicalism’; the entities that were considered to be real were those described in the physics of the time.

Here I shall not be concerned with the relations between materialism and physics, but instead with the second species of materialism: claims about minds and brains. Diderot was one of the first thinkers to notice that any self-respecting materialist had to address the question of what brains do, and how much of our mental, affective, intellectual life is contained therein. After this the topic grew stale, with repeated reiterations of ‘psychophysical identity’ notably by German scientists in the nineteenth century and more complex versions thereof in twentieth-century ‘identity theory’.

If we contrast Diderot’s materialism with these other cases, several notable features emerge, chiefly that Diderot allows for a much more culturally saturated or sedimented sense of the brain, which he describes as a book – “except it is a book which reads itself”.

When & where?

Wed 29 Oct 2014, 3:15 - 5.00 pm
Faculty of Philosophy, Room Omega

Last modified:07 October 2014 2.32 p.m.