Tara Abraham‘s Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science is now available from MIT Press. Rebel Genius recounts the life and work of neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch. As described by the publisher,
Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.
The March 2016 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. An article by Gregory Radick on the place of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics in the borderlands of the history of psychology may be of interest to AHP readers.
“The Unmaking of a Modern Synthesis: Noam Chomsky, Charles Hockett, and the Politics of Behaviorism, 1955–1965,” by Gregory Radick. The abstract reads,
A familiar story about mid-twentieth-century American psychology tells of the abandonment of behaviorism for cognitive science. Between these two, however, lay a scientific borderland, muddy and much traveled. This essay relocates the origins of the Chomskyan program in linguistics there. Following his introduction of transformational generative grammar, Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) mounted a highly publicized attack on behaviorist psychology. Yet when he first developed that approach to grammar, he was a defender of behaviorism. His antibehaviorism emerged only in the course of what became a systematic repudiation of the work of the Cornell linguist C. F. Hockett (1916–2000). In the name of the positivist Unity of Science movement, Hockett had synthesized an approach to grammar based on statistical communication theory; a behaviorist view of language acquisition in children as a process of association and analogy; and an interest in uncovering the Darwinian origins of language. In criticizing Hockett on grammar, Chomsky came to engage gradually and critically with the whole Hockettian synthesis. Situating Chomsky thus within his own disciplinary matrix suggests lessons for students of disciplinary politics generally and—famously with Chomsky—the place of political discipline within a scientific life.
In a recent issue of French Studies, 62(4), Simon Kemp examines the recent fictional works of Marie Darrieussecq. His discussion of her novels, starting with Naissance des fantômes, focusses on her use of models drawn from psychology.
Her fiction makes use of the discipline’s discourse with and against the grain, creating micro-narratives of the mind’s surface level and present moment which contrast sharply with more familiar psychoanalytic perspectives. Narrative form in Darrieussecq, I argue, can be characterized as a stream-of-consciousness, which, while failing to conform to the literary model set by Dujardin and Joyce, is in fact closer to the original psychological conception of the term. (p. 429)
The article’s literary aspects are interesting. What will ultimately be more important for the readers of AHP, however, is Kemp’s short discussion of a contemporary dispute in French psychological scholarship: CBT vs. psychoanalysis.
…it is in this practical arena of psychotherapy that the disciplines’ disputes have come to public attention. In France this has sparked what L’Express has dubbed ‘la guerre des psys’, a cultural phenomenon which must now form the background against which Darrieussecq produces her fiction. Continue reading Fiction and ‘la guerre des psys’ in France
Margaret Boden is not a historian, but she has been a prominent British cognitive scientist since the 1970s, when she wrote Artificial Intelligence and Natural Man. She also founded the cognitive science program at the University of Sussex. Having been part of something for over 30 years often entitles one’s opinions about its history to at least a careful hearing, and Professor Boden has offered up a rather extended opinion in her latest book, Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Continue reading History of Cognitive Science