The brain speaks the truth of the self. I imagine it would not be controversial by now to suggest that this general formulation indexes a set of implicit constraints that have to some significant degree underwritten and informed the historical ontology of the modern self since the nineteenth century.

But let me be clear: to assert that the brain speaks the truth of the self is neither to endorse that we really are our brains (that we ever have been, or that we ever will be), nor is it to accept that the neurosciences either already or will at some point access a transcendental reality with regards to who or what we are. It is instead to suggest that the conditions of acceptability have long been met for neurological discourse to function as a system of knowledge capable of possessing a veridical hold on the question of selfhood, on what will comprise the intelligibility of the self, on what will count as true or false in relation to it.

Such an assessment has admittedly come into focus as a consequence of contemporary disputes about the role the brain and the neurosciences can or should play in the determination of personhood. But to say that the brain speaks the truth of the self is not some sort of conciliation for the present. Today’s disputes around the viability of describing personhood in thoroughly neural terms are grounded on a discursive possibility, the medical and epistemological acceptability of which was formalized over a century ago. It has, in other words, once again become necessary to resolve some problem of the self through neuroscientific discourse.

This is, admittedly, not a commonly held position (culturally or academically), and it is often overshadowed by a different sort of inquiry: How do we reckon with a growing tendency that suggests that scientific claims — especially those drawn out of the neurosciences — do a better job than other kinds of claims of telling us who and what we are? This question is indicative of the concern with (or, conversely the affirmation of) the scientistic attitude towards brain research, one that has emerged as neuroscientific claims have been increasingly translated into the terms of cultural value. It is to the rise of this neuro-scientism that much recent scholarship has responded, in the form of a twisting progression of critiques, appropriations, and, eventually, negotiations — a kind of “neurohelix,” as Joseph Dumit has called it.[1] It isn’t necessary to provide a systematic account of these various twists and turns.[2] What even a small sample of them shows is that the relationship between personhood and neuroscience remains an open question, and one that does not amount to a debate on the merits or drawback of neurological reductionism.[3]

What appears so striking is that much of this scholarship finds itself situated somewhere along a continuum of acceptable positions and reactions to the issue of personhood and the brain.[4] At one end of this discursive spectrum, there lies contestation, rejection, or critique, typically directed at the supposed belief (illegitimate for many) that, through the brain, the self is entirely accounted for and elucidated.[5] And at the other end, there lies affirmation or, merely, acquiescence: either a cautious concession that neuroscientific knowledge ultimately has real effects on processes of self-identification and recognition or, on the other hand, a full embrace of the so-called “neuro-turn.” In many instances authors variously deploy both ends of this spectrum at once. What emerges here is the trend towards a renovated materialism or more judicious neo-naturalism. Otherwise we encounter harsh appraisals of the epistemological groundlessness of a set of effects that scholars concede are nevertheless quite real, from an anthropological point of view.

More noteworthy, however, than any possible position one might take is the apparent acceptability of the debate itself. It has become appropriate, even necessary (once again, I will propose) to wonder whether and how neurological discourse can, as a system of knowledge, encapsulate the truth of self and others. The possibility of being a “neural person” is, first and foremost, a discursive possibility. Precisely in the extent to which we feel incited to respond, one way or another (either through rejection or affirmation) to this state of the present, the brain speaks a certain truth of the self.

But in order to understand why such a possibility has come to pass, it is not enough to trace its inevitability across the epistemological and institutional advances of brain research over the past thirty or so years. That is because, despite the fundamental metaphysical (to say nothing of medical) privilege attributed to the brain since the seventeenth-century anatomies of Descartes and Thomas Willis, it would be some time historically before it would become necessary to speak in a certain way, in a way where brain and self could resonate synonymously. It would be some time before neurological knowledge could discursively animate personhood through and through. The question to ask is: why might such a development have occurred, when it might not have otherwise? What, in other words, might have incited a neurologist, a physiologist, or a clinician, to speak in such a way when the need to do so was neither inevitable nor “inscribed in any a priori”?[6]

Let us, for instance, shift our gaze back to the late nineteenth century, the period when brain research came to be organized according to concepts, methodologies, and institutional formations that are still familiar to us today. Beginning in the late 1880s, John Hughlings Jackson, the so-called “father” of clinical neurology and neurophysiology, inaugurated a very peculiar and surprising resolution to the problem of personhood and neuropathology. Rather than correlating mental derangements caused by neurological disease to the various lacunae of personal identity — a decision that would have linked Jackson to a centuries-old view of personhood instituted by another English physician, John Locke — Jackson instead proposed that neuropathological disruptions were the introduction of another, “new” person, which he understood in a legitimately epistemological and forensic sense.[7] A disordered brain was the instantiation of another brain, which, while certainly debilitated, nevertheless retained some semblance of physiological normality; another brain, therefore, meant another self. What would have compelled Jackson to describe the relationship between the brain and self in this way? In other words, why would he have deployed such a level of formalized synonymy that speaking about a brain (normal or pathological) was, in effect, always to speak about some person (whether it be myself or another)?

To begin with, consider the context in which Jackson is writing, in terms of developments within psychiatric and neurological medicine from the 1860s to 1890s. Within the growing interest and discussion of behavioral abnormalities, there was a greater willingness to view the dangers and precariousness of pathology not in the extent to which it opposed normality, but in the extent to which disorders could so easily and in such unsettling ways intersect, overlap, and coincide with normal neural conditions and states of mind. There emerged a prevalent view of the ordinariness and regularity of being reduced to states of automatism, somnambulism, and other “masked” pathological states, where a person would be said to be simultaneously unconscious while acting in ways that appeared entirely rational and socially intelligible. It was not always easy to ascertain according to what mental process or neurological function a person was really herself, and therefore who she might be in a state of derangement. The emergence and apparent intelligibility, not to mention seriousness, of a disorder like double consciousness suggests that medical professionals felt a certain obligation not only to consider the medico-legal significance of these normal abnormalities, but to address, if only implicitly, the more underlying forensic conundrum related to the very status of “personal identity, and its morbid modifications” — to quote the title of a 1862 article by psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne (who was, along with Jackson, one of the founding editors of the journal Brain).

In the late nineteenth century, the very category of personal identity found itself in a state of medical reconsideration, something tantamount to a sort of crisis of the self, at least for anyone committed to a Lockean view of personhood. And this was a crisis indeed. Mary Douglas has argued that Western industrialized-capitalist societies, with their respective “enterprise cultures,” have come to rely on a conception of a singular self, whose claims to unity and self-accountability are, in Lockean fashion, usually tested against forensic standards and juridical constraints.[8] Furthermore, during the historical materializations of fin-de-siècle industrial and modernized life, certain neuropathologies (e.g., neurasthenia, railway spine) were profoundly coupled with the emerging civilizational imperatives of labor power, technological development, and the new political economies and legal demands that came with them.[9]

During the same period, when a unified sense of self was becoming an increasing economic, political, and legal obligation, behavioral medicine witnessed disorders related to personal identity itself – an unhealthy, yet dangerously normal disposition of becoming disunified. As Georg Simmel warned, “The metropolis extracts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than rural life….”[10] Perhaps the extractions of mind are as much a cost as they are, in concert with the knowledge systems that classify and diagnose them, a requisite for entry into the political economies of industrial modernity.

Yet in Jackson’s case, thanks to the language of neurophysiology, illness was not the strict absence of personhood, but its dramatic retention, albeit in the form of the transformation of self. Through Jackson, neurological discourse justified, explained, and provided an entirely new neural architecture to rationalize the dangerously normal disposition of the illness of personal identity. And yet, by rationalizing the disunity of personhood, neurological discourse successfully enshrined the very framework of the modern self, as a classificatory limit that could be expanded and multiplied but not ruptured or undone. In its rationalization, neurological discourse itself became the unity, the singular system of knowledge (or power-knowledge, if you like) that could newly encapsulate and circumscribe selfhood and its possible diffusions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, selfhood became a problem that neurological discourse could frame, stabilize, and resolve, by establishing itself as the knowledge system that could successfully imbue meaning and coherency into the frequent incoherencies of personal identity. The language of brain research established a new truth of the self wherein the presence of personhood would be guaranteed, even in its absence – or, rather, guaranteed because the self could never be neurologically absent as such. The modern self, with its numerous political, economic, and legal imperatives, was always able to fall ill; but now, thanks to neurological discourse, the illness of one self was tantamount to the recuperation of another. Where there is brain, there will always (some) person be.

The work of a robust genealogical reappraisal of “neural personhood” (which this short entry cannot possibly accomplish) would ideally propose that the historical neurologization of self was neither inevitable nor necessary, having had less to do with neurological scientism than with a need to attend to anxieties about personhood. With that in mind, perhaps our concern in the present should not be directed towards the specter of the “neuro.” It might instead be directed at how selfhood is being problematized today, implicitly or otherwise, such that it has become necessary and acceptable (once again) to deploy the discourse of the brain.


Nima Bassiri is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at Duke University and a postdoctoral affiliate of the Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory. He teaches in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, the Program in Literature, and the Department of Philosophy.

[1] Joseph Dumit, “Afterword: Twisting the Neurhelix,” in The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain, eds. Melissa M. Littlefield and Jenell M. Johnson (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2012).

[2] For a discussion of some aspects of these debates, see, Etienne Pelaprat and Valerie Hartouni, “The Neural Subject in Popular Culture and the End of Life,” Configurations 19 (2011): 385–406; see also Neuroscientific Turn and also Victoria Pitts-Taylor, “The Plastic Brain: Neoliberalism and the Neuronal Self,” Health 14, no. 6 (2010): 635-52.

[3] Some examples include: Fernando Vidal, “Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity,” History of the Human Sciences 22, no. 1 (2009): 5-36. Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Nikolas Rose, “Neurochemical Selves” in The Politics of Life Itself (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). Elizabeth Wilson, “Melancholic Biology: Prozac, Freud, and Neurological Determinism,” Configurations 7, no. 3 (1999): 403-19. William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2002). Emily Martin, “Self-making and the Brain,” Subjectivity 3, no. 4 (2010): 366-381; Rayna Rapp, “A Child Surrounds this Brain: The Future of Neurological Difference According to Scientists, Parents and Diagnosed Adults,” in Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences, eds. Martyn Pickersgill and Ira Van Keulen (Emerald, 2012). Margaret Lock, The Alzheimer’s Conundrum: Entanglements of Dementia and Aging (Princeton University Press, 2013). Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012); and Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou, Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). Malabou presents a philosophical orientation towards neuroscience that can be contrasted with the sort presented, for example, by Patricia Churchland, most recently in Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain (New York: Norton, 2013).

[4] It will become clear in the remainder of this essay why I am using “person” and “self” interchangeably, that is, according to a Lockean tradition. For more on Locke’s conception of self/person and the role Locke plays in the development of the notion of the “subject” as we come to understand it after Kant, see Etienne Balibar, Identity and Difference: John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness, trans. Warren Montag (New York: Verso, 2013).

[5] See for example, Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, ed. Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby (Oxford, 2012).

[6] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 62.

[7] See, for example, John Hughlings Jackson, “On Post-Epileptic States” and “The Factors of Insanities,” in Selected Writings of John Hughlings Jackson, 2 vols., ed. James Taylor (London, 1958).

[8] Mary Douglas, “The person in an enterprise culture,” in Understanding the Enterprise Culture: Themes in the Work of Mary Douglas, eds. Shaun Hargreaves Heap and Angus Ross (Edinburgh University Press, 1992).

[9] Anson Rabinbach, Human Motor: Energy Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (University of California Press, 1992), chapter 6; Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (University of California Press, 1987).

[10] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. Kurt H. Wolff (London: Free Press, 1950). Quoted in Human Motor, 154.

4 replies on “Brain”

[…] I really love what they’re doing over at Somatosphere with the Commonplaces series (if you can’t tell). I somehow forgot to add last week’s article to the digest, so just this once (yeah, right), I’ll break my own rule about putting up an article that was not from this week. Here is Nima Bassiri’s great piece on ontology and neurology. (I’m resisting the urge to put the two words together.) (Somatosphere) […]

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