John Haldane: from scalpel to palette knife

November 24, 2006

Anantomy Acts
St Andrews and Dundee universities, until January 13

For all that metaphysics has to say about the mind-body problem, it remains largely silent on the nature of the human figure. "Mind-body" has really meant consciousness-brain, as if general physiology and behaviour were matters of no philosophical interest.

It wasn't always so. René Descartes, founder of modern philosophy, was familiar with the physiology and medical anatomy of his day and with the writings of classical and medieval authors. The latter had resumed anatomical dissection in the 13th century, defying a prohibition by the Council of Tours in 1163. They may have reasoned that if God can resurrect the dead, their dismemberment is unlikely to be a problem.

Descartes dissected eyes, brains and hearts, and applied his knowledge to a mechanistic theory of human life that aimed to give "such a full account of the entire bodily machine that we will have no more reason to think its movements are due to our soul than to think that there is a soul inside a clock to make it tell the time". Yet that very practice deepened his conviction that mind itself is immaterial. Body is essentially extended in space, hence divisible. Mind is essentially conscious and unified, hence indivisible. Ergo, the two are entirely distinct.

How the twain ever meet was a question Descartes long puzzled over, though he identified a rendezvous in the pineal gland. Located between the two hemispheres of the brain it seems close to the "viewpoint" of consciousness. Some occultists have claimed the pineal as the site of the "third eye" of psychic perception, others identifying it with the uppermost of the seven chakras of tantric yoga.

Descartes avoided such fancies; but his restriction of the person to the subject of conscious thought left philosophy ill-equipped to discuss the body. Only in recent times has there been a recovery, and it has been led not by metaphysicians but by cultural theorists and bioethicists.

Something of their influence is detectable in the touring exhibition Anatomy Acts begun in Edinburgh and continuing at Dundee and St Andrews universities until January (and around Scotland until June).

This aims to promote Scottish medical collections; but the scale and interest of these becomes apparent only in the accompanying book, which catalogues the works and offers a dozen interesting essays linking medicine, science, history, sociology, art and museology.

Art and anatomy have long gone together: the first illustrating and being informed by the second. Apart from two and three-dimensional depictions of parts and layers of the body, since extended dynamically in scanning, there is the genre of the portrait group, here illustrated by A. van der Groes's A Surgical Demonstration (c 1700). It shows a high-wigged surgeon holding a piece of the recumbent deceased who, unbutchered from the neck up, looks to be in peaceful slumber, untroubled by the knowledge of his severed hand in a dish on the floor.

In the background, unbeknown even to the living, stand (like heraldic supporters) a flayed figure and a skeleton with the skin of the first hanging between them. These probably represent Democritus laughing and Heraclitus weeping. Perhaps this recognises that when science and art have done their worst and best, it remains for philosophy to decide whether human bodily life is something to celebrate and/or to mourn.

John Haldane is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews University.

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