The Rise of the Neural Subject

Lecture | March 21 | 4-5:30 p.m. | 282 Dwinelle Hall

 Matthew Smith, Stanford University

 Department of German, Townsend Center for the Humanities

How did we come to think of the self not as soul but as nervous system? This talk charts the rise of a neural conception of the self in Western culture and argues that the recent turn to neuroscience is a return as well: a return to a way of thinking about the human being that arose in the late 17th century and developed to maturity in the Victorian age. After sketching a brief history of the early formation of this conception, we will pay particular attention to cultural transformations in Western Europe and the United States in the mid-19th century. Concentrating on the period around 1870, we will find that works of art (such as Richard Wagner's operas, Émile Zola's novels, and Victorian "sensation dramas") combined with neurological research (such as that of George Miller Beard and Hermann von Helmholtz) to form a distinctly modern sense of subjecthood.

 ctang@berkeley.edu, 510-642-6771