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Vidal, Fernando. The Sciences of the Soul.

VIDAL, Fernando. The Sciences of the Soul. Translated by Saskia Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xiv + 413 pp. Cloth, $55.00--The author locates his motivation for this work in attempting to answer the question of whether Psychology as a discipline existed in the eighteenth century. He takes the question as recording some confusion in light of the habit of looking to Wundt at Leipzig and others in the second half of the nineteenth century as pioneers. Vidal addresses the question systematically in nine chapters and three appendices. His choice of the soul in the title tracks the early philosophical and theological attempts to understand how life is infused in matter, how and when the developing fetus is somehow ensouled, and just what powers or properties are the gift of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and anima.

Though properly impatient with attempts at precision in dating entire perspectives and schools of thought, Vidal nonetheless takes the sixteenth century as hosting a psychology "In the Making." Oddly, the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum which did so much to transform the curricular structure of late medieval higher education is not discussed or even cited, though Louis Vives (regarded by some as the architect of this course of study) is mentioned approvingly. Aristotle's treatise on the soul is duly acknowledged, but the author misses useful and instructive opportunities to consider the Hippocratics and such ancient anatomists as Herophilus (335-380 B.C.) whose public dissections revealed so much regarding brain structure-function relationships. Perhaps the rationale is found in Vidars attempt to trace Psychology as a discipline, but even on that understanding these ancient contributions were known to Galen and, through him, continued to influence developments in the Renaissance and beyond.

Coverage of the seventeenth century includes many interesting long neglected sources. Descartes, of course, is considered in some detail but most of the chapter focuses on tensions between the physics and the metaphysics of "soul" and the proper subject matter of Pneumatology. Disciplines arise from the institutionalization of issues and methods. Accordingly, readers would have derived some benefit from the author's consideration of such significant seventeenth century institutions as London's Royal Society. Such Fellows as Edward Tyson (1650-1708) exemplify the growing interest in comparative neuroanatomy and the implications arising from structural differences in the brains of human and nonhuman species. Tyson, for example, used such findings to argue that the chimp is much closer to man in relevant neuroanatomical respects than are monkeys.

Vidal offers excellent coverage of the Enlightenment, the period that seems to draw much of his intellectual and critical energy. As with the majority of contemporary historians, he understands that this "Age of Reason" hosted an especially diverse collection of perspectives not readily reduced to a pattern. There were differences of a nearly national nature; Enlightenment in the scholarly sense came later to Germany than to France and expressed itself differently in France and England. Vidal sheds little light on the sources and consequences of these differences. At the level of detail, however, his pages are richly if selectively informing. Thus, he cites Robert Whytt, but fails to discuss what was most interesting in Whytt's in vivo surgical studies of spinal function. (Whytt established that there are spinal reflex circuits that take precedence over voluntary movement, a finding that raised questions about the volitional powers in general). Hartley is discussed, but Priestley is not identified as his self-appointed disciple. Thus, readers are left with the impression that Priestley's primary goal was a defense of his Unitarianism. Also neglected were the principled differences between such figures as Thomas Reid--arguing for a strictly observation-based approach (the methods of Bacon and Newton, as Reid would insist) to questions regarding the mind and mental life--and more theoretical undertakings yielding the broad and arguable generalizations of Hartley, Priestley and whole segments of France's community of Philosophes.

Readers will wonder why there is virtually nothing offered from that part of the history of medicine devoted to cognitive and emotional functions and to issues of madness and mental infirmity. Foucault appears in the index, but not Freud. The rise of Medical Jurisprudence in the nineteenth century is ignored, though it may have had more to do with the development of a psychological discipline than anything accomplished by Wundt and his studies of disjunctive reaction time. It was within the courtrooms and clinics of the nineteenth century that a battle of ideas was waged between those who regarded forms of insanity as arising from "a lesion of the will" and those who looked to post mortem studies of the patient's brain. La Mettrie's soul as an enlightened machine would have risen no higher than a kind of vulgar rallying cry had the medical psychologists a century later not done the heavy lifting.

On the whole, Vidal's book is commendably rich in detail but somewhat skewed in perspective. Those who have taken on the thankless task of writing histories of psychology have justified sympathy for all who would bring something new or different to what is already a robust literature. Vidal adds to that literature and, in places, importantly. There is, however, another story to be told as to how a set of very ancient interests and conundrums works its way into classrooms and textbooks and institutes.--Daniel N. Robinson, Oxford University.
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Author:Robinson, Daniel N.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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