Monday, January 14, 2008

Dimitri's Discussion of the Humanities, Part Zwei

Upon repeated requests from some Heteronormativity and Performativity readers, my good friend and collaborator, Dimitri, is contributing another post on the Humanities.
Thank you, Dimitri for contributing to a most relevant and important topic of discussion.
To access Dimitri's blog, click here.

Boundaries between sciences and humanitarian disciplines exist only in part thanks to objective qualitative differences between the phenomena that they study and methods employed by their practitioners. No reason should convince us to respect these boundaries. New disciplines and approaches prove most useful when they breach these mostly artifactual boundaries. In many ways the language we speak defines our vision and prevents communication with someone studying the same subject using a different language.

Let me give you an example. In the middle of the 19th century few disciplines seemed as disparate as psychiatry and anatomy. Theodor Meynert, an Austrian anatomist, spent the early part of his career dissecting the brains of deceased patients at the Vienna Asylum. Through this experience, he came to appreciate the significance of anatomy in diagnosing mental disease and argued that psychiatry should become a branch of neuropathology, a controversial position at the time. He became the founder of the brain psychiatry movement. His 1874 treatise Psychiatry: Diseases of the Forebrain became a textbook in both neuroanatomy and clinical psychiatry. Neurobiology today owes much to Meynert's anatomic methods. Using Meynert's techniques and observations, his student Carl Wernicke formulated the disconnection theory of aphasia and modern theories of regional and hemispheric specialization of the brain.

Meynert's most acclaimed student, Sigmund Freud, was fully immersed in his teacher's mindset and recognized the organic origin of the mind. Daunted perhaps by the complexity of the physiological approach to the mind, Freud shied away from physiology and developed his psychoanalysis -- an abstract dead-end discipline that has never passed the muster of empirical proof or brought about any effective treatment.

Meynert coined the term Ego denoting the totality of structural connectivity patterns in the brain formed and honed by the experiences specific to the individual. This conception of the psychological personality remains coherent with modern neuroscience research, over a century later. Freud's redefined ego, super-ego, and id remain abstract 19th-century ideas.

What lesson do we learn from this? Insistence on the unity of knowledge, or consilience, and disregard for constructed barriers will always push our understanding forward. Another lesson: doing so may not make you more famous than someone who will help you blame your problems on your mother.

What boundaries will we disregard tomorrow? How about the boundaries between arts, literature, engineering, science, ethics, and philosophy. Let's recognize and understand the tools that each employ and apply them in every unlikeliest permutation.


Andy said...

Am I to understand, per you, that Freud's shying away from the 'sciences' may be attributed to 'the complexity of the physiological approach to the mind?' So, was he just afraid of tackling the sciences?
I think I like your take but it does sound a reductionist....

dave said...

that boundaries shift is something that mot of us can agree on, whether we are scientists or Hum, folk. Just to what degree the boundaries shift is what we have to come to terms with, perhaps..... right?

Dimitri said...

Yes, physiological methods seemed way too crude for Freud and they yielded results much too slow. Freud thought of his ideas as scientific while refusing to subject them to the scientific method. Although reductionism is not the only option in science, empirical validation is. Psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, became a cultural phenomenon and made us more conscious of the subconscious, but it may have inhibited our understanding of cognition.

Dimitri said...

Andy, my main point was that deliberate disregard of interdisciplinary boundaries has produced some of the greatest intellectual achievements. I happen not to consider psychoanalysis among the greatest intellectual achievements as it does not live up to its claims.

Dimitri said...

Dave, what we should come to grips with is that boundaries need to be crossed and eradicated. The ancients were not aware of them, why should we limit ourselves?

Becca said...

The ancients were not aware of [boundaries], why should we limit ourselves?"
I don't think we should. There's nothing about the ontology of cognition, at least I don't think so, that lends itself to this particular 'interpretation.'
I enjoyed your phrasing a good deal. Thank you.

B.R. said...

Are you calling psychoanalysis a pseudo-science b/c Freud refused to subject his ideas to the scientific method?
Not that I'm a proponent of Freud, far from it actually, but couldn't one learn something from his professional choices, i.e., he came from 'science' and later made a decision to shift/move/[progress?] to a (modern) Humanities-type framework....?

James said...

Boundaries allow us to compartmentalize knowledge. We cannot, after all, work in chaos.
But I agree with you on the whole. Boundaries may shift and get reconceptialized as needed. After all, the framework should be of a functional nature.