The Unending Search for the Soul

In a brilliant new book, George Makari charts the ways Western thinkers have wrestled with questions of how the human mind is related to the material world.


In 2008, George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis described how Sigmund Freud reconfigured elements of 19th century neurology, philosophy, medicine, and psychology into a adventurous body of work and an ambitious intellectual movement.

In Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, Makari goes back further into the past, charting the ways great (and not-so-great) thinkers in the West have been engaged with questions of how the mind (or soul or spirit) is related to the physical body and the rest of the material world. At a time when neuroscience enthusiasts often pretend to have answered these fundamental questions through a new (and improved) synthesis based in brain imaging and genomic sciences, Makari’s study is a powerful reminder of how many seemingly novel intellectual paths return us to long-standing thoroughfares of thought about how consciousness is related to other living beings and the environment.

Makari, the director of Weill Cornell’s Institute for the History of Psychiatry, poses the fundamental questions early on: how can we be free if we are also determined by factors we have not chosen? How does agency arise out of matter? The pre-modern answer appealed to an immortal soul, a gift from God—not the effect of a cause. By the 17th century, as Christendom had become more fractured and as scientists were increasingly able to make accurate predictions about the natural world, the religious consensus about “soul” had evolved into disputes about the borders of the material world. “What if the mind was not so much spirit as it was body? What if thinking matter existed within human flesh?” From the 18th century to the present, Makari notes at the beginning of his book, “the concept of mind is everywhere, and yet at the same time, it is strangely nowhere.”

Makari’s project is vast, attending to major philosophical figures from the 1600s through the mid 19th century. Hobbes and Locke, Descartes and Rousseau, Kant and Schelling are at the head of a long list of intellectual worthies. But Makari is also interested in writers and doctors, poets and theologians, political radicals and the reactionaries who fought against them. At times this makes for unwieldy reading, as he presents thumbnail sketches of ideas that inspired, say, hospital reform, and then returns to more nuanced readings of major philosophers dealing with much more abstract issues. And we learn little about the material world of the thinkers he discusses. This is intellectual history of a consistently cerebral kind—not cultural or social history.

Soul Machine focuses on shifts in understanding about perception and whether it is a passive reception of the world or an active reworking of it into representations we can use. If one leans toward the first, then we seem merely buffeted by the environment; if one leans toward the second, we seem disconnected from the reality of the world around us.

Makari writes mostly about thinkers from England, France, and Germany, but sometimes the narrative requires excursions to Amsterdam (Spinoza) and Vienna (Mesmer), among other places. Somehow, Makari manages to hold his cultures and characters together within a framework of questioning how the human constitution enables reason, judgment and freedom, while also allowing for madness, dissolution, and tyranny.

Between 1650-1700 there was a “torrent of writings” considering how the mind and brain were related to passions, politics, education, and madness. As the doctrinal authority of Christianity waned, philosophers and medical writers wondered where morality and stability would come from. If all was matter and causality, what was the basis of rationality, of political order? Did might make right? The civil wars and revolution in England in the 17th century certainly revealed the evils of chaos, but who could convincingly claim a legitimate basis for taming disorder? Just as civil war showed the brutality of political strife, so madness displayed the suffering of an individual no longer governed by reason and balance. Writers like Descartes and Hobbes were deeply impressed by the analogy between a person no longer in charge of his senses and a country no longer obedient to traditional rulers.

By the end of the 1600s, great strides had been made in mathematics and the physical sciences, but understanding people was something else entirely. “I can calculate the motion of Heavenly bodies,” the great Isaac Newton confessed, “but not the madness of people.” Others stepped into the breach, and eventually many would follow Locke in subsuming all moral life in mental life. “Ethical conduct could be created or destroyed,” the Lockeans argued, “based on mental functions.” Morality, they argued, was learned by experience—not given by God. But what would count as a rational approach to mental function? And would that same approach work for understanding rationality and politics as well as madness and civil strife?

Throughout the 1700s, French writers offered an alternative to Locke’s emphasis on experience. They wrote of “sensibility,” the mode through which “nervous tissues” transmitted impulses that became consciousness and reflection. For many Enlightenment philosophers, “mental disease did not result from Lockean misassociations but rather from the overflow of sensibility or conversely, its excessive restraint.” By the end of the century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the idea of sensibility to conceptualize people as “living, feeling, sensitive creatures whose moral and physical lives were deeply intertwined.”

Makari offers a fascinating description of how 18th century doctors seem to set a mad King George III back on a path of reason through stable mental associations and discipline. And he also shows how at the end of that same century French revolutionaries used the language of virtue and freedom to tear down “the walls that once separated the sane from the immoral and the mad.” Sweeping away traditional morality felt like heady freedom; that is, until the Reign of Terror turned that liberty into “the repeated rise of unreason and streets filled with blood.”

Makari doesn’t have much new to say about the Revolution and Terror, but it is most interesting how he weaves these events together with an account of changes in the treatment of mental illness. He is an historian thoughtful about the entangled evolution of medicine, politics, and philosophy. From the School of Montpellier to the moral treatment of Philippe Pinel, Makari shows how practitioners dealing with suffering patients found less abusive ways to turn their charges away from hallucinations and other manias. “The mad are not wholly lost to reason,” he writes glossing Pinel, and the doctor’s task was to build on the less damaged elements of the patient’s mind.

In the last section of this masterful intellectual history, Makari shows how Immanuel Kant drew on the English and French traditions to create a new system for thinking about the body and the mind. Kant offered an intellectual revolution with no straightforward political ramifications—joining, as Madame de Stael wryly commented about German intellectuals generally, “the greatest boldness in thought to the most obedient character.” Kant argued both that “the universe was wholly deterministic and that humans possessed the capacity for free moral choice.” We could have knowledge of the forces determining causation in the world because our conscious minds actively formed the world into something we could investigate and come to know. But what was it like “in itself?” This could not be known. Empiricism was valid for the world we make through active perception. But as for the soul, its salvation, and God’s ultimate plans, this was the realm of faith and not reason.

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In many accounts of the history of mental illness and its treatment, historians enamored of the Enlightenment come to optimistic conclusions about the increase in scientific knowledge and more humane efforts to ease the suffering of patients. Others, most notably Michel Foucault and his followers, see instead an evolving world in which the powers of normalization and control increase at the expense of the abnormal … and everyone else. Makari’s wide-ranging study takes a different tack, showing how “modernity would be characterized by … competing conceptions of human nature, each of which held powerful, political, scientific, medical, and philosophical ramifications.”

Perhaps we are now at a point at which we can recognize that there is no final “fact of the matter” answer to our questions about human nature, body, soul, and brain. Brain imaging, like phrenology before it, won’t offer satisfying answers to key philosophical questions. Human beings “navigate between competing notions of their own being,” and Soul Machine is a very fine guide to that modern and ongoing effort.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.