Archive for April, 2012

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Charles Darwin and Medical Associationism: Marks on a Blank Slate

April 12, 2012

Katie Tabb

It is widely recognized that Charles Darwin upended contemporary concepts of human nature by showing that the human mind, like the bestial one, was the product of evolution. This paper argues that a revision of traditional notions of human rationality was, in fact, a prerequisite for the development of Darwin’s theory, rather than simply a corollary of it. Examining Darwin’s early reflections on instinct during his so-called “Notebook Period,” I argue that Darwin drew on association psychology – particularly associationist theories of madness – in order to formulate his theory of inherited mental characteristics. Stemming from the work of John Locke and popularized during the following century by David Hartley and Joseph Priestley, associationism posited the interconnections of ideas and, concomitantly, the spirits or nerves that bore them, to be the foundation of human understanding and rationality. Associationists believed that the mentally ill differed in degree rather than kind from sane people, and replaced classical theories of the rational agent with an embodied theory of a contingent complex of ideas that could become pathological. Under the associationist model, the mentally ill misassociated ideas, and thus acquired corrupted chains of irrational thoughts. It was these pathological chains of ideas, rather than a dysfunction of any faculty of reason, that led to mental illness. Combining this theory with an embodied view of the mind (in part borrowed, I argue, from his phrenologist contemporaries) Darwin was able to construct a theory in which unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors could be acquired and inherited across generations. I will conclude that in so doing Darwin buried in the foundations of his mature theory a vision of self that can be traced back to John Locke – of the human not as the rational animal, but as the animal with a memory of his own past.

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