Medieval Christian views of the mind
Chapter 8 endnote 30, from Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:
Medieval Christian theologians were essentialists, associating different cavities in the brain with distinct essences of memory, imagination, and intelligence.
The Ancient Greeks believed the mind and soul were unified, called the psyche, and the psyche was innate, as a part of nature; they did not separate the physical from the spiritual. Still, they chopped the human psyche into pieces (Plato carved out three, Aristotle five) and batted around rationality and emotions into different locations like a game of ping-pong. Most ancient greeks placed emotions within the body, and Greek medicine even had the concept “sympathy” (sympatheia) to explain why people experienced emotion in different body parts. The one exception here was the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (a contemporary of Plato), who situated emotions (along with other parts of the psyche) in the brain, writing that “from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.”  Aristotle, the other hand, transferred emotions (and the rest of the human psyche) back to the heart, relegating the brain to be a cooling system for the passions! The Greek physician Galen restored the cognitive faculties to the brain (Galen favored Plato’s tripartite psyche), but emotions remained in the heart for many centuries thereafter.
Heading into the Middle Ages, certain philosophers such as the Roman theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, a Roman theologian and philosopher who lived in the 4th century, mostly adhered to Plato’s ideas. Others such as Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle’s view. But the Middle Ages also had a key difference from ancient times. The psyche was no longer considered to be part of nature, but bestowed by God. This view provided new justification for emotions to be in the body and rationality in the brain. In ancient and medieval Christian theological writing, the body was considered the portal for evil, the root of feelings that were difficult to control and would lead to damnation. Emotions were located in the body because they were no longer considered part of the soul, and they worked against the intellect and active will. Cognition, on the other hand, was seen as part of the immortal soul, harkening back to Herophilus’s and Erasistratus’s attempts to locate “higher” mental faculties like cognition in specific parts of the brain. One popular view placed the human soul in the brain’s ventricles, which are cavities that contain cerebral spinal fluid. Different ventricles were supposed to be associated with different mental faculties like memory, imagination, and intelligence. For example, following Herophilus, around 390 CE, a Christian bishop named Nemesius localized perception to the anterior ventricles, cognition to the middle, and memory to the posterior ventricle. St. Augustine and other Christian theologians held similar views (assigning cognition to the ventricles and leaving emotions in the body). This continued into the Renaissance (mid-14th to the 16th centuries), which many historians consider a time of scientific revolution.
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment periods that followed (17th and 18th centuries) brought about a dramatic revolution in our scientific understanding of the world. Copernicus and Galileo were challenging the notion that humans were central in the universe, and conflict was brewing between faith and rationality. Where the human mind was concerned, cognitive faculties remained in the brain and emotion faculties in the body, no longer because the body was evil, but because emotions were seen as part of our animal nature, set in opposition to our more uniquely cognitive human abilities which, at first, remained the province of the soul. The bridge to this animalistic view of emotion faculties was built by French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes considered the anatomical body, like all animal bodies, to be a part of nature. All things in nature, thought Descartes, work like machines made of diverse but separate parts. Each part, including the brain, could be examined in isolation using the methods of science. Additionally and more famously, Descartes declared that the mind was separate from the anatomical body, as the mind was quintessentially human and therefore composed of ineffable stuff—a soul—that is beyond the reach of science. His separation between human mind and animal body became known as Cartesian dualism.
Whereas theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages were sometimes been willing to localize different cognitive faculties in different ventricles of the brain, those in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods were not: they viewed the soul as indivisible, which is one reason why attempts to localize mental abilities to different parts of the brain (by Broca and others) were seen as aligning better with an evolutionary (and scientific vs. a religious) approach to understanding the mind.
Notes on the Notes
- Van der Eijk, Philip. 2007. "Body and Spirit in Greek medicine and philosophy." Public lecture.
- Finger, Stanley. 2000. Minds Behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and their Discoveries. New York: Oxford University Press, p.29.
- Finger, Stanley. 1994. Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Finger, Stanley. 2000. Minds Behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and their Discoveries. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Scheer, Monique. 2014. "Topographies of emotion." In Frevert, Ute, Monique Scheer, Pascal Eitler, Bettina Hitzer, Anne Schmidt, and Nina Verheyen. 2014. Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling 1700-2000. Oxford University Press.
- Finger, Stanley. 1994. Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. New York: Oxford University Press, chapter 3.
- This official position is a bit of story telling. For example, knowledge of the heliocentric solar system was known during Aristotle’s time (the ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric theory a millennium before Copernicus).
- Descartes’s idea was a product of his time. The powerful Christian church had declared that the soul was divine, unknowable, and uniquely human. This meant Descartes was safe in comparing the human body to a machine and studying it like an animal's body, but treating the mind similarly would have been heresy. For if the human mind could be explained by science, then the divine soul could perhaps be understood by mortals, and the very concept of a soul might become unnecessary. Descartes would have faced persecution or even burning at the stake for such remarks. This prospect haunts many scientists who take unpopular positions, but for Descartes, it was not metaphorical. So, he placed science and religion in different realms, saying the body is knowable by methods of science and the mind is not. We can't know for sure that Descartes phrased his ideas to avoid persecution, but historians widely believe so; and you must admit, survival is a strong motivator.
- Harrington refs -- see note on mental organs [full reference to be provided]
- Descartes's view did not last for long. For example, in the 18th century, the German philosopher Christian von Wolff, considered by some to be the first true faculty psychologist, reinvented Plato’s tripartite view of the psyche. Wolff’s model was composed of faculties for knowing (cognition), feeling (emotion), and acting (will or volition). But Wolff went even further, creating an elaborate taxonomy of dozens of mental faculties that he believed were inborn and functionally independent of one another. He discussed them as mental organs, comparing them to physiological functions like circulation, digestion, and breathing. These faculties became the basis for much of modern-day faculty psychology that’s still part of science today. (The trail of faculty psychology can be traced through the writings of many philosophers. For excellent reviews read Klein (1970); Marshall, 1984.) [full reference to be provided]