Spiritualizing Neurology In The Fin De Siècle

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Larry S. McGrath, a Mellon Fellow at Wesleyan University, delivered last night's talk.

Larry S. McGrath, a Mellon Fellow at Wesleyan University, delivered last night’s talk.

French spiritualists? Neurology? Indian food? Honestly, what could be better? But, more importantly, what do any of these things have in common? Columbia hosted Larry S. McGrath last night to speak about the “the persistence of spirit within the experimental, quantitative, and pathological methods that lie at the origins of the modern neurosciences.” Bwog sent Staff Writers Raji Ganapathy and Jennifer Nugent to check out the event. 

Last night, Larry S. McGrath, a visiting Mellon Fellow from Wesleyan University, delivered an complex and deeply nuanced talk on “Spiritualizing Neurology in the Fin de Siècle” as an event put on by the Center for Science & Society at Columbia University. We entered the Second Floor Common Room of Heyman Center, where the talk was held, armed only with knowledge acquired in six weeks of Intro to Psych and plates heaped with the Indian food available at the door. As the packed crowd of approximately a dozen people went around the room introducing themselves, we were struck with the overwhelming understanding that everyone present had at least 8 years of experience and about 10 IQ points on us. However, we soon found that the lecture and discussion were both accessible and thought-provoking to even the most casual of observers.

McGrath presented a case for spiritual-positivism, a sort of dualist concept that originated in 19th century France. He followed the evolution of French teaching of philosophy in high schools, highlighting the significance of the growing divide between the scientific and the metaphysical. This polarization of neurology is significant because, as many French philosophers and psychologists would argue, the study of the mind loses essential context and significance without metaphysical considerations.

  • He began by clarifying that the French concept of l’esprit is very different from our modern understanding of spirit. In McGrath’s words, “Spirit in the French sense comes close to consciousness, or what philosophers today [would] call mind.”
  • Because of this, spirit and neurology were always studied in conjunction in France, providing the educational capstone of a lycéen (French high school student). McGrath sees this integration as essential to the historiography of French neurology because “before modern means of communication, education [was] the primary ideological mouthpiece of the state.”
  • What makes this situation unique, and distinct from our modern-American views, is the way that this educational set-up influenced thought. At a time when metaphysics and sensorimotor activities were being researched separately, they could still be found working together in a French “philo” class. Now, when one takes on subjects like psychology or neuroscience, often this “spiritual” component becomes easily dismissed or even mocked for being “unscientific”. However, in the French system in the Fin de Siecle, “…metaphysics [began] where science and experiments [could] no longer say anything.” (Paul Janet)
  • The problem of reconciling l’espirit and neurology remains a point of contention in the neuro-psychological community and beyond. McGrath sees this tension as significant because the realm of the mind has become a subject of public inquiry.

At this point, McGrath opened up his talk to a Q&A session with the audience. One of the advantages of attending an event like this in person is the ability to learn from the audience’s questions and the follow-up discussion that ensues. Each question pulled McGrath’s point into the realm of expertise of each audience member. As the talk was analyzed by a philosopher, a historian, a therapist, and even a journalist, insights and clarifications abounded.

As we digested his ideas (and our samosas), we felt grateful to have been a part of such a rare Columbia experience. The opportunity to have these experiences is often missed by our fellow undergraduates, who are busy with classes, clubs, and cubs (hey sports fans). However, Bwog encourages students to take advantage of the time they have access to incredibly thoughtful individuals in a casually academic setting.

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