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Physiological Ideology
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Saturday, June 09, 2012
Posted: Saturday, June 09, 2012



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Dr. Cabanis and the materialist foundation of American ideology.

 

PHYSIOLOGICAL IDEOLOGY
BY
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS

 

Dr. Cabanis and the materialist foundation of American ideology.

Pierre-Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), Ideologie's physiologist, comes to us highly recommended by Thomas Jefferson as the philosophical physician and legislator whose work we should study before taking up the texts of Ideologie’s rationalist, Destutt de Tracy, the philosopher and accomplished dancer who actually coined the term, Ideologie.

Jefferson believed theological squabbles were a waste of time. He told his intimates that he was a "materialist" and a "hedonist." That is, matter and sensation were good enough for him. As far as he was concerned, God was omnipotent enough to make matter think. And he was not alone; the popular philosopher John Locke, for example, had said that it is quite conceivable that God added thought to matter, although he thought it was more likely that he created a separate thinking substance. Whether or not god and soul is independent of world and body is a sensitive matter for those who are dying to outlive their bodies. Nonetheless, wherever practical affairs are concerned, knowledge of the natural person should have precedence over speculation on the being of the supernatural person. Tracy also believed in putting first things first, placing the sensation of matter before the abstract reflections of mind.

Since Ideologie was the science of ideas or rational thinking, it was applicable to all the human sciences. Tracy called his own ideological specialty—the study of grammar, logic, and politics—“rational ideology." However, since thinking is a function of man's physical organism in relation to its environment, Cabanis reasoned that cognition cannot be thoroughly elucidated by disembodied "rational ideology," but is more properly the subject of "physiological ideology."

Physiology is a branch of biology, the general science of life. Physiologists want to know how living things work; they are concerned with the laws or logic of their physical behavior: physiology is the science of the functions of living i.e. organic matter. Physiology may be formally distinguished from the actual practice of medicine, the art and science of restoring and maintaining health.

A modern definition of physiology's scientific domain is given in Robert M. Dowben's text, General Physiology, a Molecular Approach (1969): "Physiology is a branch of biology concerned with the mechanism of functional operation and the coordination of function of living organisms in both the plant and animal kingdoms. Implicit in physiology is the idea that the collective results of studies of partial phenomena dissected apart in living organisms will lead to an understanding of life processes. It is like the astronomer who proposes to understand that universe by patient observation of the motions of the stars. Physiology emphasizes the integrative aspect of organ function and cellular function and, in this sense, is one side of the coin, the other side being embryology, which emphasizes differentiation. The function of organs and cells depends upon processes; the analysis of these processes is the domain of physiology."

Now analysis is a mental process, a conscious process that spiritualists associate with a mysterious, immortal soul, and leave it at that. Modern scientists, however, struggle to understand how the mental processes such as perception, memory, voluntary movement and the like, spring from living tissue and electrical impulses. But “souls and synapses are hard to reconcile.” As far as Dr. Cabanis and many other French Ideologues of the eighteenth century were concerned, body and mind are a unity hence the physiological and ideological functions are governed by the same laws. Jefferson recommended the study of Cabanis’ physiology before the Tracy’s ideology simply because the body can be directly observed and the mental functions arise from that body. The analytical method of Ideologie, the "new" science of ideas most systematically exposed by the abstractions of Tracy, was difficult to understand standing alone without physical examples.

Jefferson’s great friend John Adams scoffed at French ideology in a letter to him dated 16 December 1816: "Three vols. of Ideology!' Pray explain to me this Neological title! What does it mean? When Bonaparte used it [disparagingly], I was delighted with it, upon the common principle of delight in everything we cannot understand. Does it mean Idiotism? The science of non compos mentuism? The science of Lunacy? The theory of delirium? or does it mean the science of self-love? Of amour propre? or the elements of vanity? Were I in France at this time, I could profess blindness and infirmity, and prove it too. I suppose he does not avow the analysis, as Hume did not avow his essay on human nature. That analysis, however, does not show a man of excessive mediocrity. Had I known of these things two years ago, I would have written him a letter."

The analytical method of French Ideologie was nothing new: Arabs and Jews interested in ancient Greek metaphysics developed the inductive method of empirical science and introduced it into Europe during the Renaissance. We are familiar with Francis Bacon's famous universal method for sorting things out and examining them for basic principles; whatever stood out was often the principle sought. Rene Descartes hunted for the striking ideas or principles of things. Newton’s methodic combination of experience with reasoning was world-shaking. Locke elaborated a scientific metaphysic. Over in France, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, picked up from Locke, and spoke of decomposing confused pictures, then inducing from the simple results of the analyses premises from which deductions could be made and tested against the facts in order to get the right picture of reality. After doing just that, Condillac modified his English master's philosophy, boiling Locke's sensation and reflections down to one source: Sensation. Tracy carried the work even further and made Ideologie out of it.

Thoughts are a dime a dozen and are readily available for dissection. However, for over a thousand years cadavers were not that easy for physiologists to get a hold of for analysis. The ancient physiologists enjoyed dissecting them, but Scholasticism eventually gripped the minds of dialecticians hence professors became more interested in faithful rhetoric than in physical reality. When dissection was first taken up by Renaissance doctors, the ready supply of corpses we have today was not available. Skeletal and other organ systems could be scavenged from unkempt cemeteries and analyzed. The bodies of executed criminals put up for public display were stolen and examined, or analyzed as the birds picked them clean.

The greatest clinicians of Cabanis' time were pragmatic therapists who believed that the theoretical studies of the body and its functions were useless conjectures, and that rationalists like Cabanis, a non-practicing physician, did not know what they were talking about. One practical impediment to a useful theoretical understanding of the body was religious scruples dictated against human vivisection, a practice necessary to physiology since the functions of the body are dependent upon and can only be understood in relation to its anatomy. Given the lack of human bodies to experiment with for so many years and scruples against doing so, it is hardly surprising that, as late as the eighteenth century, esteemed doctors, regardless of their faith or lack of it, thought physiological theories were useless if not silly. Wherever dissection was being practiced by the medical community, the public did not cotton to it: there were riots around dissections in the United States; for instance, one young man looked into a window and saw his mother being analyzed, and all hell broke loose shortly thereafter.

Nevertheless, enlightened physicians believed physiology was as indispensable to medicine as ideology was to thinking. Some of them were particularly interested in the mysterious vital principle of living matter, a principle they identified with physical sensitivity. The vitalist doctrines tended to impede the progress of physiological science because many doctors believed that what they did not know about life, the unknown x-factor, was a sacred mystery that could only be dogmatically elaborated; not in the sense of what seems to be true for rational experimental purposes, but by way of irrefutable intuited doctrine. However, as theories of Sensibility grew popular in the moral sphere, “intuitions” were deemed to be revelations from the feelings rather than divine revelations via a transcendental process whose dictator was the Logos. Wherefore Jefferson replaced Descartes' "I think therefore I am" with "I feel therefore I am." Cabanis said, "From the moment that we feel, we exist." Reflections on sensation were part of sensation; what was sensed was material—thought was finely graded matter secreted from the brain and had no independent existence.

The liberal appreciation of feeling in lieu of abstruse reasoning was in accord with the popular view, that free people have an innate moral sense, somewhat similar to the good-old protestant conscience, a felt virtue which a person of good taste, a graceful gentleman or lady, can follow in order to achieve the happiness pursued in those days.

Hume, one of the nicest philosophers who ever lived, said that the perceived viciousness of murder is "the object of feeling, not of reason. So that when you pronounce any action of character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it."

Adam Smith referred to the "demigod within the breast, judge and arbiter of conduct," but he conceived it as founded on sympathy for what other people think of us: if we would only look into the mirror of other people's opinions, we would reform ourselves and be quite nice—he neglected to mention that each self-interested person gazing in the mirror tends to think more of himself than he thinks of others.

Rousseau, considered by moralists to be one of the most immoral men who ever lived, was intoxicated with "Conscience! divine instinct... judge infallible of good and evil, which makes man like unto God!"

Madame de Stael explained virtue: "Virtue thus becomes a spontaneous impulsion, a motive which passes into the blood, and which carries you along irresistibly like the most imperious passions."

And said Schiller: "I prejudge nothing good... He is much more estimable who abandons himself with a certain security inclination, without having to fear being led astray by her."

We could consider Nietzsche’s reflections beyond good and evil at this juncture, but we have already passed far beyond physiological ideology's scientific recognition of the fundamental importance of the living body, into the mystification of materialism after the mind was caught up by the Romantic Movement that had reverted in part to spiritual authority for the restoration of moral order.

Traditional spiritual authority was obviously being repudiated during the Revolutionary era; society was seasick with revolt; bold physicians intervened to help restore the natural balance of the physical constitution that had been over stimulated by its radical root. The origin had been obscured by metaphysics: it was the duty of doctors to observe the body, analyze the conditions, dispense with irrelevant illusions, and come up with sound solutions. The social body had been unnaturally oppressed by the Old Regime. The Revolution erupted; society was bled; politically active physicians recommended a natural regimen instead of the Old Regime that had been artificially supported by doctors of divinity more interested in the spiritual instruction of the vulgar population than in its education.

Of course a physician's first concern is not the political constitution of a people but is the constitution of the sensitive organism, particularly the natural constitution of individual human beings. Busy medical practitioners today may have little interest in politics other than upholding certain laissez faire principles of classical liberalism over bureaucratic socialism, particularly where insurance schemes are concerned. But doctors were more politically active during the Revolutionary period when the health of the society was in grave peril. That body was however was constituted by its constituent organisms, therefore observation of the human body rather than speculation on the supernatural aspects of the transcendental supreme person suited Ideology fine, that final phase of the Enlightenment just prior to the Romantic reaction and the restoration of dictatorial divine order.

Since sensations produce thought, said Cabanis, medical science alone can expose the nature of consciousness; in fact it was the only science actually exploring the nature and functions of sensibility in its environment. Physiological medicine and not metaphysics was the true queen of the sciences of man. Tracy had called his science Ideologie, meaning the "science of ideas," but Cabanis said Ideologie was the "science of man", a science naturally led by physicians because the body was already familiar while the mind was still awfully mysterious—we must study first things first. Tracy was glad the French National Institute had included a physiologist, Cabanis, in its section on Ideologie—the Class of Moral and Political Sciences. By doing so, Tracy said the Institute had followed the Delphic injunction, "Know thyself." And Cabanis was glad to be there, for he saw in the new republic a golden opportunity to deliver the gospel of the human sciences to Europe and to the future generations of the world.

Cabanis found some merit in the infamous analogy, that the brain secretes thoughts like the stomach secretes bile. But it is just that, an analogy, and one that certainly gave a number of pious people heart burn and a bad case of indigestion followed by severe headaches. The analogy appears in the text admired and translated by Jefferson, Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme, that is, Relations between the Physical and Mental in Man. 'Rapport' denotes the formality of the harmony of mind and body. That harmony was a formal dualism for convenience's sake: according to Cabanis’ monistic materialism, mind and body were actually a unity. Not that dualism may not work to throw off real spiritual authority if we so wish: the gods or God can be deported to a transcendental sphere accessible by private prayers and individual revelation only, leaving people free to conduct business on Earth in name only of their respective deities, even to the point of making war on each other while invoking the universal god of love.

A rapport might take the form of a concord. We recall that Napoleon worked out a Concordat (1802) with the Pope: Napoleon posed himself as a conductor of the harmonious relationship between spirit and matter. Napoleon despised Dr. Cabanis and the other Ideologists, whom he scornfully dubbed Ideologues; they had called on him to save France, and then abandoned him because they did not like the regimen he imposed on the political body; hence Cabanis sent his seminal Rapports (1802), banned in France, along to the third president of the United States.

Cabanis' amiable friend, Baron von Holbach, influenced the physiologist’s notion of natural rapport. The rich baron, naturalized into French life along with his intimate friend Grimm, had already written his scandalous masterpiece, Systeme de la Nature, ou les Lois du Monde physique et du Monde moral (1770). Readers could not believe that Holbach, modest maitre d'hotel to enlightened philosophers, could have written the troublesome book. Chapter VIII is entitled 'The Intellectual Faculties derived from the Faculty of Feeling.' The second paragraph begins: "The first faculty we behold in the living man, and that from which all his others flow, is feeling: however inexplicable this faculty may appear, on a first view, if it be examined closely, it will be found to be a consequence of the essence, or a result of the properties of organized beings: the same as gravity, magnetism, elasticity, electricity, &c. result from the essence or nature of some others."

For Holbach, empirical investigation was the only legitimate method of obtaining knowledge, and it ultimately reveals only matter in motion: matter and motion explains all phenomena. He goes on to say that "feeling is a particular manner of being moved - a mode of receiving an impulse peculiar to certain organs of animated bodies, which is occasioned by the presence of a material object that acts upon these organs, and transmit the impulse or shock to the brain. Man only feels by the aid of nerves dispersed through his body: which is itself, to speak correctly, nothing more than a great nerve; or may be said to resemble a large tree, of which the branches experience the action of the root, communicated through the trunk."

Voltaire, by the way, was left aghast by the baron's book; especially appalling was its ethical relativism, and the proposition that there is no such thing in the natural universe as order and disorder besides our wishful thinking that there is.

 

A much earlier book set the stage for the bold materialism: Julien Offroy de La Mettrie's scandalous L'Homme Machine (1747). Dr. La Mettrie obtained his medical degree at Reims then served France as an army physician. An illness convinced him that organic changes cause psychic phenomena. The publication of those views caused him to be run out of Paris—his book on the natural history of the soul was burned by the hangman. Dr. La Mettrie was the black sheep of the philosophes. Nonetheless, L'Homme Machine undoubtedly influenced Dr. Cabanis and Holbach as well; for example these sections:

“I propose... to interpret supernatural things, incomprehensible in themselves, by the light each of us has received from nature. We should be guided here by experience alone. They abound in the annals of physicians who were philosophers, but not in those of philosophers who were not physicians. Physician-philosophers probe and illuminate the labyrinth that is man. They alone have revealed man's springs hidden under coverings that obscure so many other marvels.... What have others to tell us, above all, theologians? Is it not ridiculous to hear them pronouncing shamelessly on something they are incapable of understanding, from which, on the contrary, they have been completely turned away by obscure studies that have led them to a thousand prejudices, in a word, to fanaticism, which adds further to their ignorance of the mechanism of bodies?

"Man is a machine so complicated that it is impossible at first to form a clear idea of it, and, consequently, to describe it. This is why all the investigations the greatest philosophers have made a priori, that is, by wanting to take flight with the wings of the mind, have been in vain. Only a posteriori, by unraveling the soul as one pulls out the guts of the body, can one, I do not say discover with clarity what the nature of man is, but rather attain the highest degree of probability possible on the subject. Take up, therefore, the staff of experience, and leave behind the history of all the vain opinions of philosophers. To be blind and yet believe that you can do without the staff, is blindness at its darkest."

Of course Descartes had already said, in Man, that animals are like machines—he was familiar with the automata of his day, the mechanical analogues of animals and men, particularly the articulated figures that produced the illusion of self-moving creatures in gardens. Descartes endeavored to disentangle the rational soul from previous theories and divorce it, the unique property of man, from the body; he explicitly championed the "soulless physiology" of his day, which envisioned the cosmos as a machine or clock.

In other words, said Descartes, man is unlike other animals because God joined a rational soul to the human animal: "He will place its chief seat in the brain (pineal gland) and will make its nature such that, according to the different manner in which the entrances of the pores in the internal surface of the brain are opened through the intervention of the nerves, the soul will have different feelings."

But Dr. La Mettrie did not need Descartes' metaphysical dualism; he did not buy its unknown soul a la carte: "Descartes and all the Cartesians...made the same mistake. They said man consists of two distinct substances, as though they had seen and counted them."

 

Dr. La Mettrie, in L'Homme Machine, took advantage of the principle of irritability, or the inherent tendency of muscle to contract when touched, which had been “discovered” by the Swiss physiologist, Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777)—L’Homme Machine, much to Dr. Haller's outrage, was dedicated to him. Haller had also isolated the principle of sensitivity: nerves do not apparently change shape when touched but transmit impulses that cause muscles to contract. He believed sensitivity was a property of the unified central nervous system and consciousness. La Mettrie, focusing on Haller’s irritability when building his machine-man model, hypothesized that each little fiber, independent of the nerves, had an "innate force" that the nervous system transmitted to the brain. The principal spring of the entire machine, referred to by Hippocrates as the enormon or soul, meaning a pervasive essence in creation presiding over the elements it generates and constitutes, was really "only a principle of motion, or a sensitive material part of the brain." Consciousness is not an independent soul but is a property of matter. Apes and humans are not two kinds of creatures but differ only in degree—man has language. Everything is a portion of a single uniform substance, or matter, subject to inherent natural law. Material man, if not deformed or depraved, has pleasure in moral conduct. Hence living matter is not merely mechanical, but possesses a sensitive motive force.

La Mettrie had satirized the medical profession from time to time, and he, in turn, was called insane and frenetic, insolent, a glutton and a hedonist—he was rather fond of Epicurus. The Machine Man with his lawfully operating spring was a rather nice device compared to the irreverent models its author had constructed elsewhere. The good doctor had previously opined that nature is simply an unplanned, amoral, fortuitous motion of matter. Vulgar man, incapable of fundamental moral improvement, is by nature a "wicked" or antisocial machine. He is an animal who requires legal coercion in order to get along with his kind. He does not need the arbitrary religious standards of conscience, the relative ideas of good and evil that make him feel unnaturally guilty and remorseful. Crime makes some people happy hence criminals should be externally restrained. Psychological restraints, inculcated guilt and remorse, do more harm than good since they are mostly felt after the commission of crimes. External coercion actually leaves the individual much freer, more in accord with human nature. Of course, enlightened philosophers like the Epicureans, in contrast to ordinary people, who are brutes, will retire to a conservative retreat—Epicurus retreated to his garden and deported the gods—who could care less about humans - into an undisclosed remote location.

Despite his pessimism, La Mettrie was obviously an activist who deliberately exaggerated his case and flouted conventional thinking in order to open the glazed eyes of his fellow man. The rhetoric runs all the way back to the master himself, Hippocrates, who was not beyond castigating metaphysicians posing as physicians, thus exposing the nonsense of his day. He came up with some foolish ideas of his own, but the general principles he expounded were sound. Cabanis, one of his countless disciples over the centuries, certainly thought so. The disciple of Hippocrates who works with nature will reject supernatural explanations and carefully observe the matter at hand, the organism and its environment, in order to isolate factors that cause disease and health, that he may preserve man's natural state and restore it when deranged. The physician will observe and not interfere with nature's own recuperative power. Hippocrates states, in the sixth chapter of Epidemics:

"(Nature medicatrice). La nature est le medecin des maladies. La nature trouve pour elle-meme les voies et moyens, non par intelligence; tels sont le enlignement, les offices que la langue accomplit, et les autres actions de ce genre; la nature sans instruction et sans savoir, fait ce qui convient." [Nature is the healer of disease. Nature finds her own ways and means, not by intelligence; such are the alignment, the offices achieved by the tongue, and other actions of that kind; nature without instruction and without thinking, does what is appropriate....] (E. Littre's Oevres completes D'Hippocrates, V, 314).

The physician strives to do good or at least to do no harm. Hippocrates naturally recognized that there are times when the physician must boldly intervene in nature's business with surgery, drastic laxatives, bleeding and the like. He also posited the four internal "humors" of temperament and expounded on such subjects as diet, climate, epidemic, head injuries, fractures, joint problems, ulcers, leprosy, fistula, and reproduction—expounded in texts on gynecology. The equilibrium or balance of powers of the organic constitution is of prime importance to Hippocrates and his followers, including physicians of the body politic who would adhere to his injunction to do good or at least do no harm, thus observing physiological laissez faire.

Hippocrates' constitutional equilibrium was given a modern voice by Claude Bernard (1813-1878). He called it the milieu interior i.e. the relatively constant internal environment that bathes the cells of complex animals, enabling the organism to survive in an adverse environment. The American physiologist, Walter Cannon, expanded the concept in the 1920s with elaborate experiments. He dubbed the balance "homeostasis", the "wisdom of the body"; that is, the body's ability to maintain dynamic albeit relatively stable internal conditions although the environment is changing. This is accomplished via control mechanisms, feedback from the endocrine and nervous systems.

Lest we lose Dr. Cabanis in an extended, convoluted history of medicine, let us consider whether or not he made a unique contribution to medicine or to physiological ideology, something analogous to the contribution of the brothers who assembled an airplane and flew it for a few hundred feet. Unlike Galen, Dr. Cabanis did not produce a coherent theory of temperament based on the classical four humors. Nor did he write the first textbook on physiology; Aristotle had already done that many centuries prior. He did not reveal that life processes are fundamentally chemical, as did the alchemist Paracelsus. Nor did he realize the function of pulmonary system; for that the credit goes to Michael Servetus, whom Calvin had burned at the stake along with the heretical book in which the description appeared—Restitution of Christianity. And it was William Harvey who provided us with the conclusion that "the blood in the animal body moves around in a circle continuously, and that the action or function of the heart is to accomplish this by pumping. This is the reason for the motion and beat of the heart."

Cabanis did try to generate life from both organic and inorganic matter, but he failed, whereas, in 1748, John Needham presented his memoir describing the spontaneous generation of living 'animalcules' from sealed, heated beef broth—Needham ascribed the generation of life to a "vegetative force" that "vivifies organized bodies" and "furnishes the soul material for thought."

Nor did Cabanis' physiological ideology arise spontaneously from a vacuum, or from beef broth, or abiogenically from a hot 'chicken' soup of prebiologic compounds subjected to volcanic pressure or to a high voltage discharge. He did emphasize and elaborate certain concepts derived from his predecessors and contemporaries. To begin with, he stressed the fundamental importance of medical science and its independence from collateral sciences: "Physiology, the analysis of ideas, and morale are but three branches of one and the same science, which can rightly be called the science of man," he stated, but physiology must take precedence. The study of moral and physical behavior is a single science, a zoological study of the natural history of man. Simplistic mechanistic explanations are untenable - there must be strictures on the applying the doctrines of sciences collateral to the "animal economy." Since moral science has a physiological basis, the medical expert should replace the moralist. He is prudent and cautious. He did not deny the special status of life nor is he pessimistic about its future.

Furthermore, Cabanis emphasized the ancient notion of man as an organic constitution in temperamental equilibrium. The organism seems to be designed, to be a final cause finality, however, it is the result of natural laws, and it is imprudent for the scientist to infer the existence of an author from its design.

Temperament was anciently conceived to be the mix or composition of four humors derived from the elements, but that notion was giving way to the idea of the total force or potential energy of the vital principle observed in the weakness or strength of sensations, appetite, convulsions, et cetera. Cabanis attributed individual differences in temperament to causes external and internal: climate, diet, gender, lifestyle or modes of living, health, unconscious thoughts and desires, instincts, and so on. Again, he admitted that innate instincts have a purpose or final cause, but he refused to speculate on their "author." As for the self, it is pre-formed by instinct and dispositions, building for itself an external world with those elements that interest it. There are several egos, but we refer to the egoistic feeling as the center for sensation. Happiness is simple "the free exercise of the faculties, in the feeling of force and ease with which one puts them into action." The "faculties" of man are generalized statements of organic operations.

Moreover, for Cabanis the human constitution was not a blank state or passive statue upon which external stimuli alone makes an impression, pushing the machine around. Man had his internal, vital operations, and they were for the most part instinctive. That is, not only is the body impressed from without but it expresses itself from within. Indeed, his views on this very subject influenced Maine de Biran, the French philosopher who developed a vitalistic theory of will, a theoretical turning point in French philosophy that eventually led to the Victor Cousin's popularization of eclecticism and synthetic Spiritualism. Cousin was influenced, like the Ideologues, by Locke and Condillac, but he also liked Kant; to both he applied so much Hegel that Hegel said his friend Cousin had stolen his soup. In America, New England Transcendentalists found what they liked best in Cousin's soup, and, ignoring Kant's warning about transcendental illusions, ran hog wild with it.

Given the outspoken atheism and anti-clerical passion of his time, Cabanis was unusually quiet on transcendental subjects except to state unequivocally that it was not his intention to replace spiritual metaphysics with material metaphysics. In fact he is not propounding first causes but is replacing metaphysical speculations with methodic analysis of phenomena, the "essence" of which is the collection of appearances to be scientifically treated; all else is faith. The appearance of the mental aspects of the physical organism is due to the observer's perspective. We do not find him preaching extreme materialism or atheism. We get the impression that, as a philosophical physician, the doctor wished to restrict his professional observations to the matter at hand; namely, to the human body and its functions.

As for spiritualism, in 1806 Cabanis wrote a letter a young author, Claude Fauriel, wherein he indited the probable existence of a universal intelligence or First Cause, the source of all forces, and perhaps the ground of an immortal soul. A Montepelier physician found the letter in 1824 and published it. This gave due cause for critics to grind their axes and to argue that Cabanis had been converted to spiritualism or was at least backsliding from materialism as such. After all, he had heretofore painted man as a sensitive machine in an indifferent universe, and he had not bothered to use the term 'soul' in his seminal treatise, Rapports.

Mind you, however, that in 1798 he allegedly made an atheistic retort to an engineer at the Institute: the engineer, Sainte-Pierre, had reportedly praised the wisdom of God, to which Cabanis supposedly exclaimed, "I wish that the name of God never be pronounced within these walls!" If Cabanis did so exclaim, we must consider the scientific context within the walls as well as the Christian doctrine on matching duties to offices. Still, almost everyone concluded, especially after reading his statement that thoughts are brain secretions, that Dr. Cabanis was an atheist and an extreme materialist, and for those who wanted to outlive their bodies that was a terrible thing indeed.

"We see... impressions arriving at the brain, by the intermediary of the nerves; at this point they are isolated and without coherence. The viscera enters into action; it acts on them and soon it renders them back metamorphosed into ideas that are expressed in the language of physiognomy and gesture, or the signs of speech an writing. We conclude... that the brain in some way digests impressions, that it produces organically the secretion of thought." - Rapports

So what does Cabanis get special credit for? He gets special credit for writing a book about the rapport between mind and body, a book representative of the physiological ideology of his day. His ideological approach to medicine was the most systematic available at the time—that is why Jefferson recommended it to Americans. Cabanis' unique contribution was a coincidence of universal concepts handed down by a long line of doctors of body and soul; we must leave it to university professors to unravel his peculiar contribution to science and expose it to laymen who are apt to be confused about such complex matters simply because their jobs keep them from inquiring very deeply into them. The texts then are similar in respect to the most obvious matters. Of course there were metaphysical differences between schools of thought; for instance the ongoing controversy between animism, with its spiritual being or sovereign soul; mechanism, with its inexplicable force; and vitalism, with its vital, purposive principle. Mechanism and vitalism shoved animism aside and merged, so to speak. But what real difference can we really make between the terms, 'spirit', 'force', 'principle'? Cabanis' mentor, Voltaire, had this to say in his famous Dictionary:

"We call soul is that which animates. Since our intelligence is limited, we know hardly anything about the subject.... Poor pedant, you see a plant that vegetates, and you say vegetation, or even vegetative soul. You notice that bodies have and produce motion, and you say force: you see your hunting dog learn his craft from you, and you claim instinct, sensitive soul; you have complex ideas, and you say spirit. But, please, what do you understand by these words? ... The opinion we should adopt is that the soul is an immaterial being; but you can't imagine what that immaterial being is. 'No', the scholars reply, 'but we know that its nature is to think.' And how do you know that? 'We know because it thinks.' Oh, scholars! I'm afraid that you are ignorant as Epicurus: the nature of the stone is to fall, because it falls, but I ask you what makes it fall. 'We know,' they go on, 'that a stone has no soul.' Granted, I believe that too. 'We know that a negation and an affirmation are not divisible, are not parts of matters.' I am of our opinion. But matter, too, otherwise unknown to us, possesses qualities which are not material, which are not divisible; it has gravitation toward a center, which God has given it. No this gravitation has no parts; it is not divisible. The moving force of bodies is not a being composed of parts. Nor is the vegetation of organized bodies, their life, their instincts. These are not beings apart, divisible beings; you can no more cut in two the vegetation of a rose, the life of a horse, the instinct of a dog, than you can cut in two a sensation, a negation, an affirmation. Therefore your fine argument, drawn from the indivisibility of thought, proves nothing at all."

"O man! God has given you understanding to conduct yourself well, and not to penetrate into the essence of the things he has created. This is what Locke thought, and before Locke, Gassendi, and before Gassendi, a multitude of sages; but we have bachelors of arts who know everything those great men didn't know. Cruel enemies of reason have dared to rise up against these truths acknowledged by all the sages. They have carried bad faith and impudence so far as to charge the authors of this Dictionary with affirming that the soul is matter. You know perfectly well that at the bottom of page 64, there are these very words against Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius: 'My friend, how does an atom think? Acknowledge that you know nothing about it.' Obviously, then, you are slanderers. No one knows the nature of that being called spirit, to which even you give this material name of spirit, which signifies wind.”

Again and again the student of Cabanis is confronted not only with his slanderers but with the monism of his day; monistic materialism, or the view that only matter exists, whatever it is. At bottom was matter in motion, which was sensitive matter as far as physiology was concerned. The essential nature of matter was the subject of metaphysical speculation, at the bottom of which the investigator might be left clutching thin air or spirit-wind if not absolute space; indeed early metaphysicians of modern science were astonished to discover that the definition of absolute space was virtually identical to the theological definition of God. Matter has mass and occupies space however mass and space might be defined. The final word on 'matter' is that it is a word derived from its Sanskrit root, ma, meaning "measured out" (extension); it is the root of such words as 'man' and 'mother.' The form of the symbol is arbitrary, but it means something, stands for something we experience, something empirical or real; but matter alone is not the sole thing experienced, thus some idealists go so far as to call themselves realists!

Cabanis' eighteenth-century France is notorious for its atheistic materialism. Yet the mystification of materialism does not require much imagination: matter can be conceived as living and thinking—in fact that is our experience. Notwithstanding the question of God's existence, materialism was a convenient political position. Ironically, the extreme materialists—the most radical opponents of spiritual authority and divine right of kings to tyranny—elevated matter over mind after ostensibly identifying the two as a single material substance. They were quite willing to scientifically master the world without pope or king; craving more liberty for themselves and needing some support for their claims, they were quite generous with liberty and recommended that more latitude be given to all individuals to do as they would do. After all, as Hippocrates had made plain, freedom would correspond to the underlying natural constitution of all human beings.

What does it matter if matter is constituted as long as it is constituted? Does not everyone want to exist? Certain empowered spiritualists may object to materialists for underlying, political reasons: religion worships Power, politics distributes it. Monistic spiritualists wanted spirit alone; they would not admit matter as a real substance, or even worse, as the only real substance. If nothing comes from nothing and if God is eternal, matter must also be eternal if God is to have a substance to create with. But let us not get caught up here in absurd squabbles. Suffice it to quote Voltaire's Dictionary again:

"You will be pushed by the theologian who will tell you: 'If you believe in eternal matter, you then recognized two principles, God and matter; you fall into the error of Zoroaster, of the Manicheans.' ... But we might say to the theologian: 'In what am I a Manichean? Here are stones an architect has not made; he has raised an immense building with them; I don't accept two architects, brute stones obeyed power and genius.' Happily, whatever system we adopt, none does harm to morality; for what difference does it make whether matter is created or ordered? In both cases God is our absolute master. In both cases, whether it's a chaos unraveled or a chaos created out of nothing, we must be virtuous; almost none of these metaphysical questions have any influence on the conduct of life: these disputes are like fruitless discussions at table: everybody forgets after dinner what he has said, and goes where his interest and taste call him."

It is with that in mind that we retire to the living room, where we shall soon continue our discussion with a brief biography of the practical aspects of the life of Dr. Cabanis. Although he had his medical certificate, he did not make a practice of medicine, with one glowing exception: he was attending physician to his dying friend, the revolutionary statesman, Mirabeau, who begged him for more narcotics to relieve his pain. Therefore we shall conclude the biography with an account of an agonizing end to life as we know it.

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