Knowledge about the Brain and Societal Interests

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason (Habermas 1968, 27; transl. FWS).

In his classic book Knowledge and Interest, German social philosopher Juergen Habermas early on pointed out that all human knowledge endeavors are bound to social, economic, and technological interests emerging from larger cultural contexts and social movements. Crafted as a neo-Marxist critique of the very conditions of the modern life world and industrial sphere, Habermas intriguingly recognized the outright reliance of nearly all human relationships and communication forms on scientific developments and technological infrastructures. It therefore hardly comes as a surprise that Fernando Vidal––research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain)––and Francisco Ortega––a professor of social medicine and public health at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)––also address the question why the neurocentric view of human subjectivity emerged as one of the most powerful concepts in academic, ethical, intellectual, and political debates since the last century. From this perspective then, the authors tackle the question of the scientific ubiquity of the human brain in many different disciplines and social discourses––reaching from neuroeconomics to neuroaesthetics to neurosociology––, while tracing the economic, societal, and military-related conditions from which these diverse interests have sprung particularly since the 1990s.

Related to questions raised for instance by Michael Hagner in Ecce Cortex––Beitraege zur Geschichte des modernen Gehirns (1999) and by Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of Mind (2013), who emphasized that the social technologies among mind and brain sciences have been importantly related to new forms of human productivity, postmodern living conditions, along with distributed forms of governmentality in international consortia and associations, this new book by two leading historians and philosophers of the neurosciences and psychology offers an intriguingly fresh perspective on the problem of the modern condition of the human brain.

Being Brains presents a remarkable investigation of the “encultured brain,” even though both authors take the concept to translate rather into neuroanthropological perspectives emphasizing fieldwork, yet they aim primarily at investigating the problem and challenges in all neuro-disciplines that see that “their assumption that culture is essentially, both ontologically and causally, a by-product of the brain does not equip them well to deal with cultural phenomena––while at the same time it gives them a powerful tool for shaping culture itself” (105). Vidal and Ortega’s take on answering the pertinent questions translates for a large part of the book into a distinct and thorough review of the existing literature. This is a special contribution yet likewise limitation of the approach, since the review style does not offer much room for the personal stances and arguments which the authors themselves hold on the topics in question. Being Brains offers a very adequate narrative of the development and implications of the cerebral subject. It at times provides fairly abstract and brief examples from the large array of neuro-disciplines and -fields, rather than delving into more clarifying and descriptive case studies working out how cerebral neurological conditions and brain plasticity came to characterize the meeting place of science and culture, a thread which stays a bit under-explored in the book.

A particular strength is the discussion of cultural diversity and its relationship to neurodiversity that is extended through different cultural settings––both Western and non-Western––having inspired neurological and psychological work, a perspective that has often been missing in the science and technology scholarship. Vidal and Ortega draw particular attention to the translational imperative in this largely philosophical book on the topic, “which demands that research be applicable in the form of products and therapies, is in practice driven by a ‘promise of porosity,’ by the expectation that, one day in the distant future, laboratory work will lead to clinical interventions.” They point out that the unidirectional model is too simplistic when compared with the forms in which the sociology of science and technology applied this notion before––often invoked by public and political authorities alike (see also in Brosnan and Michael 2014). One may ask, why the meaning of the neurosciences is principally investigated in the specific direction toward the social and human sciences as “neurology informing history,” instead of posing the question what the humanities really have to be “afraid of” (71)? After all, the neurosciences do not have so much new to offer to explain the contextual factors encultured in the brain beyond traditional psychological knowledge regarding human development, memory, consciousness, and therapy (explained in Borner 2004).

When looking at the general theme of this highly remarkable book by Vidal and Ortega, which details several of the conundrums in disorders of the brain and consciousness from a historical and social medical vantage point, it should be emphasized that it further nuances insights through research on the very foundations of knowledge translation in neurology and the psychology of consciousness. Reconnecting the argument hence with Habermas’ seminal analysis in Knowledge and Interest, it really emerges that “neural hermeneutics” (127) can deepen our insights into neurocultures of the cerebral subject. Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject provides an enriching read with inspiring perspectives on the analysis of social interests in history of neuroscience, psychiatry, and public mental health.


Works cited

Borner, M. 2004. “Eine Kraenkung des Ichs? Marc Borner ueber Konsequenzen eines Wechsels vom Seelenorgan zum Gehirn.” Uni Report Frankfurt am Main (17. November): 8.

Brosnan, C. and M. Michael. 2014. “Enacting the ‘Neuro’ in Practice: Translational Research, Adhesion, and the Promise of Porosity.” Social Studies of Science 44: 680-700.

Habermas, J. 1968. Erkenntnis und Interesse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Hagner, M. 1999, ed.  Ecce Cortex. Beitraege zur Geschichte des modernen Gehirns. Goettingen: Wallstein Verlag.

Rose, N. and Abi-Rached, J. M. 2013. Neuro. The New Brain Sciences and the Management of Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vidal, F. and F. Ortega. 2017. Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject. New York: Fordham University Press.

Frank W. Stahnisch is a Full Professor in the Departments of Community Health Sciences and History at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, where he also holds the AMF/Hannah Professorship in the History of Medicine and Health Care. His research interests span the development of experimental physiology and laboratory medicine since the late 18th century (particularly France and Germany), the historical relationship between neurology/the neurosciences and the philosophy of the mind (focus on the German-speaking countries and North America), the relationship between clinical neuroscience and public mental health (particularly Canada and the United States), the historical epistemology of the life sciences (18th to 21st centuries), and the longer history of visualization practices in medicine and health care.