A search for the science of the mind

More history of the scientists who wanted to understand the mind. Turns out, there was a lot of racism in early 20th century science – what a surprise.

He modelled the brain’s structure as though it was an archaeological site, the different levels supposedly reflecting evolutionary advances. The neocortex, shared by all mammals, controlled basic functions while the prefrontal area was the seat of more advanced abilities.

Investigating the perception of pain, Head had two cutaneous nerves on his left forearm severed. Every Friday for the next four years, he visited Rivers in his college rooms to chart the process of regeneration and the areas of acute sensitivity. Echoing Elliot Smith’s ideas about the evolutionary levels of the brain, Rivers and Head decided that the nervous system contained two layers: one older and more primitive; the other more subtle and localized. They speculated that the two systems “owed their origin to the developmental history of the nervous system. They reveal the means by which an imperfect organism has struggled towards improved functions and physical unity”. And this “could be seen as a metaphor for the triumph of civilization over savagery in human history”. Frederic Bartlett, a student of Rivers who went on to become a leading psychologist in the next generation, noted that this metaphor informed all Rivers’s later theories in physiology, psychology and anthropology. The structure of every human organ, every social institution, revealed cumulative layers of progressive development.

Psychology was looked down on by the Cambridge establishment, but Ludwig Wittgenstein was intrigued and regularly came to Mill Lane to work with Myers. “I had a discussion with Myers about the relations between Logic and Philosophy”, he wrote to Bertrand Russell. “I was very candid and I am sure he thinks that I am the most arrogant devil who ever lived . . . . I think he was a bit less confused after the discussion than before.” When the laboratory was opened to the public in 1913, Wittgenstein exhibited an apparatus for investigating the perception of rhythm. Perhaps influenced by Wittgenstein, Myers was moving away from biological determinism. The physiologists, he complained, “in their attempts to penetrate the reality of the known, were deliberately ignoring the knower”

And some more on the history of the word ‘scientist’ (see previously):

Carrington had noticed the spread of a particular term related to scientific research [it was “scientist”]. He himself felt the word was “not satisfactory,” and he wrote to eight prominent writers and men of science to ask if they considered it legitimate. Seven responded. Huxley and Argyll joined a five-to-two majority when they denounced the term. “I regard it with great dislike,” proclaimed Argyll. Huxley, exhibiting his usual gift for witty dismissals, said that the word in question “must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.’”

…The English academic William Whewell first put the word “scientist” into print in 1834 in a review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.Whewell’s review argued that science was becoming fragmented, that chemists and mathematicians and physicists had less and less to do with one another. “A curious illustration of this result,” he wrote, “may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” He then proposed “scientist,” an analogue to “artist,” as the term that could provide linguistic unity to those studying the various branches of the sciences.

…“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains…For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.

Notes on the word ‘scientist’

 

The term ‘scientist’ was invented only in 1833, by the polymath William Whewell, who gave it a faintly pejorative odour, drawing analogies to ‘journalist’, ‘sciolist’, ‘atheist’, and ‘tobacconist’. ‘Better die … than bestialise our tongue by such barbarisms,’ scowled the geologist Adam Sedgwick. ‘To anyone who respects the English language,’ said T H Huxley, ‘I think “Scientist” must be about as pleasing a word as “Electrocution”.’ These men preferred to call themselves ‘natural philosophers’ and there was a real distinction. Scientists were narrowly focused utilitarian data-grubbers; natural philosophers thought deeply and wrote elegantly about the moral, cosmological and metaphysical implications of their work…

Charles Babbage, in designing his ‘difference engine’, anticipated all the basic principles of the modern computer – including ‘garbage in, garbage out’. InReflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830) he accused his fellow scientists of routinely suppressing, concocting or cooking data. Such corruption (he confidently insisted) could be cleaned up if the government generously subsidised scientific research…

After his sketches of these forgotten bestsellers, Secord concludes with the literary bomb that blew them all up. In Sartor Resartus Thomas Carlyle fiercely deconstructed everything the popular scientists stood for. Where they were cool, rational, optimistic and supremely organised, he was frenzied, mystical, apocalyptic and deliberately nonsensical. They assumed that big data represented reality; he saw that it might be all pretence, fabrication, image – in a word, ‘clothes’. A century and a half before Microsoft’s emergence, Carlyle grasped the horror of universal digitisation: ‘Shall your Science proceed in the small chink-lighted, or even oil-lighted, underground workshop of Logic alone; and man’s mind become an Arithmetical Mill?’ That was a dig at the clockwork utilitarianism of both John Stuart Mill and Babbage: the latter called his central processing unit a ‘mill’.

Diffusers of useful knowledge. A review by Jonathan Rose on an excellent-sounding book, Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.