Swans Commentary » swans.com August 23, 2010  



The Phrenology Of Mind
On the Precursors of Cognitive Science in Hegel (and Marx)


by Maxwell Clark





(Swans - August 23, 2010)   It is much the lesser known fact that in the biographical memoirs of Karl Liebknecht he accounts of his close comrade Karl Marx applying phrenological tests to his brainpan in England. No doubt Marx's suasion towards the phrenological movement is accounted for by his deep reading of Hegel. Indeed, under the then unabashed heading of "Phrenology," the table of contents of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind lists the following topics of observation for his book:

(a) The cranium interpreted as an external actualization of mind.
(b) Relation of cranial formation to individuality.
(c) Mental disposition and actuality.

And all of this to rounded off with a "Conclusion. The identity of thinghood and reason."

On first discovering this, one deserves a full and good derisory postmodern laugh at our late, great paragon of Critical Reason. Then, that brief merriment ended, it is time to pick up the onerous Hegel once again and actually read what he possibly may have understood by such seemingly silly, if not highly offensive things. For phrenology is indeed a field deeply implicated in racist and imperialist history. But immediately enough, in the chapter in question, in the conclusion of his critique of contemporary physiognomy, right before the opening of his phrenological critique, we are sublimely graced with such a roaring insight as this:

In the simple fact that the act is, the individual is for others what he really is and with a certain general nature, and ceases to be something that is "meant" or "presumed" to be this or that. No doubt he is not put there in the form of mind; but when it is a question of his being qua being, and the twofold being of the bodily shape and act are pitted against one another, each claiming to be his true reality, the deed alone is to be affirmed as his genuine being -- not his figure or shape, which would express what he "means" to convey by his acts, or what anyone might "conjecture" he merely could do.

From here, refreshed by this torrent of still crackling genius, we may proceed to Hegel's phrenology. Or, rather, owing to the extreme delicacy of his argumentation, I will merely seek to highlight the pertinent passages with briefest commentary.

One does not, indeed, suppose that mind, which is represented by a skull, is defined as a thing. There is not meant to be any materialism, as it is called, in this idea; mind rather must be something very different from these bones of the skull. But that mind is, means nothing else than that it is a thing. When being as such, or thingness, is predicated of the mind, the true and genuine expression for this is, therefore, that mind is such an entity as a bone is.

Hegel's own recognition here of his proximity to materialism proper betrays the orthodox Marxist axiom of cognitive science: "that mind is such an entity as bone is."

Continuing in the Hegel:

When the statement is ever made about mind, that it is, has a being, is a thing, an individual reality, we do not mean it is something we can see, or knock about, or take in our hands, and so on, but that is what we say, and what the statement really amounts to is consequently conveyed in the expression that the existence of mind is a bone.

Is it wrong to see Hegelian phrenology as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science as such? I merely plunk this bait into the water here and await more informed responses.


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About the Author

Maxwell Clark is, rather paradoxically, a writer living in New Haven, CT. He has been published in the Socialist Worker (U.S.), the Socialist Review (U.K.), and the upcoming (May) issue of decomP literary magazine.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/clark03.html
Published August 23, 2010