Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, by George Makari

Janet Sayers on a study of the emergence of a new way of thinking about our inner world

October 29, 2015
Review: Soul Machine, by George Makari

Many of us involved with mental health worry about the reduction of the mind to the brain, and about treatment of psychological distress with pills rather than with talking cure psychotherapy. Similar worries motivate George Makari, a psychoanalyst and historian of psychiatry, in this account of the modern mind’s “invention”.

Included in the tale he tells are Descartes’ division of the mind from the body, and his critics’ depiction of the mind, as determined by nature, as a soul-less machine. Against this account of the mind, Makari seemingly prefers Thomas Willis’ anatomy of the brain and his claim that the soul is activated by God. But the real hero of Makari’s tale is Willis’ student John Locke, who argued that the mind is a tabula rasa on which ideas are inscribed. Locke argued that ideas can become muddled, as with the radical “Enthusiasts” of England’s 17th-century republican revolution. Less contentious was the liberalising effect of his philosophy in helping to bring an end to treating insanity as the effect of disrupted bodily humours in favour of treatment aimed at re-educating the mind. Its successes include the cure, claims Makari, of George III after he became insane in 1788, although his doctors apparently disapproved of his trying to educate himself by reading the story of mad King Lear.

Meanwhile Locke’s followers in France argued that the mind is activated not by God but by the vital spark of nervous sensibilities that need targeting when they go awry. Why, though, do they become disturbed? The answer, as I understand it from Makari’s account of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy, is that although our sensibilities are free at birth, they are subsequently subjugated to tyranny. This is as good a lead‑in as any to the 1789 revolution against tyranny in France. But whatever freedoms it achieved were lost, suggests Makari, with what he describes as the “mania” or madness of the 1793 Reign of Terror, the execution of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, and the oppression of Napoleon’s imperial conquests.

Makari is more heartened by Immanuel Kant’s argument that the mind includes capacities not given by experience; and by the ridicule heaped on phrenology for equating the mind’s capacities with lumps and bumps of the skull or brain. He is disheartened, however, by psychiatry in Germany becoming dominated after 1848 by doctors joining forces with “biophysicists” in declaring that the “real culprit in mental illness” is not “false ideas, sensibilities, problems of consciousness, will, or inner conflict” but “dysfunction” of the brain.

Faced with continuing “eclipse” of the mind, Makari urges us to believe that “we possess the power to think, choose, sympathize, create, love, learn, wish, and remember”. This homily will not get us far. Nor is it in keeping with the excitement of “wild-eyed prophets…witches, quacks, and pornographers” with whom Makari laces the drama he relates. It is also not helped by his encumbering this drama with many minor characters, and with unclear exposition of the issues involved, making it hard to follow the plot without help from other sources. This is particularly unfortunate as it detracts from Makari’s very worthwhile project of mounting an engaging, powerful 600-plus-page riposte to “prominent neuroscientists and philosophers” who deny the mind today.

Janet Sayers is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, University of Kent.

Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind
By George Makari
W. W. Norton, 672pp, £25.99
ISBN 9780393059656
Published 15 January 2016

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Print headline: Getting beyond the grey matter

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