The Sciences of the Soul: The Early Modern Origins of Psychology

The Sciences of the Soul: The Early Modern Origins of Psychology

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The Sciences of the Soul: The Early Modern Origins of Psychology

The Sciences of the Soul is the first attempt to explain the development of the disciplinary conception of psychology from its appearance in the late sixteenth century to its redefinition at the end of the seventeenth and its emergence as an institutionalized field in the eighteenth. Fernando Vidal traces this development through university courses and textbooks, encyclopedias, and nonacademic books, as well as through various histories of psychology.
Vidal reveals that psychology existed before the eighteenth century essentially as a “physics of the soul,” and it belonged as much to natural philosophy as to Christian anthropology. It remained so until the eighteenth century, when the “science of the soul” became the “science of the mind.” Vidal demonstrates that this Enlightenment refashioning took place within a Christian framework, and he explores how the preservation of the Christian idea of the soul was essential to the development of the science. Not only were most psychologists convinced that an empirical science of the soul was compatible with Christian faith; their perception that psychology preserved the soul also helped to elevate its rank as an empirical science. Broad-ranging and impeccably researched, this book will be of wide importance in the history and philosophy of psychology, the history of the human sciences more generally, and in the social and intellectual history of eighteenth-century Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226855868
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/09/2011
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Fernando Vidal is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. He is the author of Piaget before Piaget. Saskia Brown has translated many books from French, including Homo Juridicus: On the Anthropological Function of the Law, by Alain Supiot.

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The Early Modern Origins of Psychology


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-85586-8

Chapter One

The "Century of Psychology"

In 774, an article in a Swiss encyclopedia wondered, "What science or art deserving of our attention does not have psychology as its foundation, its source and its guide?" Indeed,

It is to ourselves that we relate all things, it is the influence of things upon ourselves that leads us to applaud or condemn them; it is therefore the relation of things to ourselves that makes them of interest to us; and without knowledge of the nature, faculties, qualities, state, relations and destination of the human soul, we can pass judgment on nothing, decide nothing, determine nothing, choose nothing, reject nothing, prefer nothing and do nothing with certainty and without error. Psychology is consequently the first and most useful of all the sciences, the source, the principle and the foundation of them all, as well as the guide which leads to each.

This triumphant passage in praise of "the most useful of all the sciences" is representative of what psychology became in the eighteenth century. It is also indicative of a state of mind. Enlightenment psychologists were convinced that psychology was the queen of the sciences, the science which laid the foundations necessary for action and thought. While the importance of self-knowledge and of the science of the soul as the most valuable and noble of knowledges was an earlier commonplace, it was redefined in the eighteenth century. Henceforth, knowing oneself would involve a new empirical science, increasingly called "psychology," which corresponded to the methodological and epistemological ideals of the Enlightenment. This science was not "new" in the sense that it was created ex nihilo in the eighteenth century. It already existed within an Aristotelian universe in which it served as an introduction to the different sciences of living beings, describing the vegetative and sensitive functions, as well as, for humans, a relatively stable set of faculties (the external senses, the common sense, imagination, memory, and the intellect).

So psychology was not invented in the eighteenth century but remade. Its object was transformed by the critique of Aristotelian frameworks: the soul ceased to be the principle of life responsible for generation, growth, sensation, and thought and was reduced to mind (mens). The science of the soul, often termed "psychology" from the last third of the sixteenth century, was redefined as the science of the mind. As an empirical science, it was to be based on observation and experimentation, dealing with the soul only in its relation to the body. It distanced itself from the theological and metaphysical discourses on the nature, origin, and ultimate end of an immaterial substance.

As regards the organization of knowledge, eighteenth-century psychology incorporated subjects from logic, metaphysics, and morals and positioned itself at the center of another uncharted field, that of anthropology, or the general science of the human being. The changes involved were by no means purely structural and lexical; on the contrary, they accompanied, sustained, and promoted psychological ways of understanding the human being and of grounding knowledge, from logic to legislation and from aesthetics to pedagogy. They were to propel humanity into enlightenment and enable human perfectibility to be realized. Such transformations also led to the creation of a new conceptual and social space, not that of psychology as a profession with its associated institutions but that of a discipline which broke with the Aristotelian scientia de anima and claimed a value and an autonomy of its own.


I speak of psychology as a "discipline" partly in order to engage with a sterile but ongoing debate concerning, essentially, the date at which psychology became a "scientific discipline." Even if this question were relevant—and it seems to me badly framed—the answer would not be very important, and to prove this, I would anyway have to retain, rather than reject, the notion of discipline. I use the term, however, for a more essential reason.

Clearly, if the sine qua non of a discipline is its incarnation in a profession and in institutions, then psychology is not a discipline before the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was allegedly born as a science. Yet it can reasonably be considered to be one much earlier, according both to the traditional sense of "discipline," and to the history and sociology of science. For "discipline" is the concept which has ensured the continuity and substance of the history of knowledge in the Western world. In medieval usage, disciplina could be synonymous with ars or scientia, sometimes with a connotation of rigor that restricted its application to subjects using demonstrative methods. Disciplina is derived from discere, "to learn," which in classical Latin also designated the act of learning, of being taught or educated. It is what one learns from a master: seventeenth-century lexicons define it as "Scientia acquisita in discente" and "informatio mentis a Magistro accepta." In this sense, what was taught from the Middle Ages onward as animastica or scientia de anima in the framework of "physics" or natural philosophy was certainly a discipline. But instead of leading to a profession, it was one of the preparatory courses for medicine, law, and theology.

Early modern universities typically involved two propaedeutic cycles. The first included the "arts" of grammar and rhetoric, the second, the "sciences" of logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics. Physics, or the science of nature (phusis) prepared for medecine. It covered, among other subjects, the vegetative and the sensitive soul, while the rational soul fell within metaphysics. Psychology before the eighteenth century was therefore comparable to natural history before the end of the sixteenth century: it was taught almost exclusively from canonical works (Aristotle's De anima and its commentaries) and remained epistemically subordinate to other sciences, which it served in an instrumental and propaedeutic role. The social expression of this subordination was that psychology was a discipline but not a profession; there was no community or even isolated individuals who devoted themselves exclusively to the scientia de anima. As Johann Georg Sulzer (1720–1779), a thinker known for his writings on aesthetics, explained, the different branches of scholarship (Gelehrsamkeit) are called arts and sciences, and although the name of "science" is usually reserved for those concerned with general truths drawn from the nature of things, all may be called "disciplines."

A discipline, though, is obviously not reducible to its pedagogical function. It is also a social and intellectual structure characterized by the existence of scholars who devote themselves to it. It consists of a body of knowledge, and a set of issues, rules, methods, disagreements, and debates. It has a terminology of its own, a set of works and individuals associated with the field and recognized as authoritative, as well as periodicals, textbooks, and curricula. Last, a discipline may be linked to specific institutions such as faculties, departments, or societies. It was in the course of the eighteenth century that psychology developed the consistency and scope that made Kant think it should be promoted to the rank of "separate university discipline" (see chap. 4). The process of "disciplinary" consolidation ultimately required administrative decisions, but Kant's observation, made in the 1770s, implies that the borders, contents, methods, and place of psychology within the sciences had already been theorized by that time.

A discipline may cover several different fields. This has long been the case for psychology, whose object, methods, goals, and key questions have always been defined in the most diverse ways. Psychology itself does not exist as a unitary and homogeneous entity. The singular may be useful for naming institutions and fashioning a professional identity, but one has only to open a standard psychology textbook to realize that the unity expressed in its title is, as Georges Canguilhem declared in the mid-1950s, nothing but "a pact of pacific coexistence between specialists." Yet the American Psychological Association, the largest association of psychologists in the world, blithely explains that psychology is the "study of the mind and behavior," and that it addresses "all aspects of the human experience, from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged." It goes on: "In every conceivable setting from scientific research centers to mental health care services, 'the understanding of behavior' is the enterprise of psychologists." The vague and general nature of such a definition proves that psychology is nothing other than what psychologists do, and that any definition such as that of the APA is a function of the interests of the body that formulates it. As a result, and for precisely the reason that psychology cannot really be defined as anything other than what the people who say they practice it actually do, it has a strong disciplinary identity which resides in the individuals, texts, and institutions which act in its name.

On the other hand, not every field of study becomes a discipline. For example, while research into ocular vision was a coherent field in 860s Germany, the attempts to set up university posts and institutes failed, and its "research programs" ended up flourishing within opthalmology, psychology, and physiology. The borders of a field or a research program do not necessarily coincide with those of instituted disciplines, and even a large degree of consensus on methods and core issues is not enough to constitute one.

In short, speaking of a discipline, in the singular, is a convenient abstraction that does not reflect the processes involved in the production of knowledge and the distribution of resources. What Pierre Bourdieu calls a "scientific field" can be understood as a set of competing disciplinary programs rooted in particular contexts, which vie with one another for authority and legitimacy, as well as for the control of the social, political, and economic power which often accompany them. It is in these terms that one can analyze the creation of institutions and professions, that is, the establishment of formal structures within which scientific activity takes place and groups authorized to carry it out are formed. The scientific and the social processes generally go hand in hand and involve defining requisite training and accreditation procedures, and establishing hierarchies and systems of reward and legitimation. The production of knowledge is therefore inseparable from social realms, be they disciplines, professions, institutions, or a "Republic of Letters."

Psychology is not professionalized until the end of the nineteenth century. However, in the eighteenth century there were already individuals calling themselves "psychologists," publications and teachings classed under "psychology," as well as a forceful discourse that championed psychology and advocated it as the foundation of the knowledge system. Despite the variety of geographically dispersed projects which Enlightenment psychologists undertook, a common identity was emerging. Immanuel Kant could express the wish for empirical psychology to be taught by its own teaching body at universities in the 1770s because he considered its core issues, contents, and intellectual identity to be sufficiently developed to be granted an autonomous institutional existence.

There is additionally a third sense of "discipline" we must consider, beyond the discursive and epistemic aspects on which I will be focusing. For Michel Foucault, a discipline is not solely a branch of knowledge but also a set of social practices involving both the practitioners and their subjects or clients. A discipline fashions the experience and behavior of those who practice it while also dictating the practice of others. For example, the discipline of self-observation and attention to self and other to which late eighteenth-century pedagogues subjected themselves was aimed at fashioning the bodies and minds of their pupils. A discipline would therefore be a way of imposing power relations, which themselves make possible the constitution of knowledge.

Writing turned out to be one of the major instruments of "discipline" in this sense. A "disciplined" person is one whose world is that of the administrative or scientific document which in turn constitutes a new source of knowledge and consolidates a discipline. So it was with the late eighteenth-century physician who drew up tables of patients admitted to the mental asylum, or the psychologist who examined himself and others, noting down everything with the conviction that no detail may be deemed secondary. For Foucault, these techniques, which were designed to "discipline" bodies and minds, heralded the establishment of disciplines such as pedagogy, psychiatry, or psychology, whose methods and epistemologies they partly defined.

How should we study the emergence and development of such disciplines? Writing a history of psychological ideas (including systems and particular notions such as imagination or attention) brings to light some of psychology's contents. Examining spiritual or mystical discourses points to models of the soul whose links to empirical psychology can be explored. Studying forms of sociability (academies, correspondence, master-pupil relations) confirms the existence of networks of individuals who identify with psychology. Analyzing curricula and university textbooks allows one to track how psychology developed within institutions, and research into administrative decisions, buildings, and staffing elucidates some of the material processes on which the institution and profession were grounded, while the reconstitution of practices and methods gives access to the personal and collective disciplines through which the science became instituted concretely. For the period covered here, all of these approaches are worth developing further.

The subject, however, may also be broached more obliquely. I will address the history of the concept of psychology from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the invention of a psychological tradition, the articulation of psychology with the "general science of man" and the "history of humankind," the classification of the sciences and the psychological appropriation of logic, morals, and metaphysics, and, last, certain consequences of Enlightenment empirical psychology for the construction of "modern identity." I will attempt to bring out the role played by the representation of the organization of knowledge in establishing the forms, contents, and borders of the sciences of the soul, as well as the variety of paths which, in the eighteenth century, led to empirical psychology.

The themes explored here may at first sight appear marginal in comparison with histories of psychological ideas. I will, morever, be less concerned with the "epistemic cultures" of psychology, that is, the modes of production of psychological knowledge through localized practices, than with the mechanisms by which psychology was recast and emerged as a modern discipline. Such mechanisms belonged to a cultural field that was broader than psychology alone and affected every system of knowledge and interpretation of the human being. This is why, in the wake of Jean Starobinski and his ideal of a "history of ideas without borders," historical semantics will be particularly important to us, as will a Begriffsgeschichte and the perspectives opened up by the history of scholarship, or Wissensgeschichte. Such an oblique approach will help throw into relief certain aspects of the subject which could otherwise pass unnoticed.


Explicitly or implicitly, histories of philosophy have tended to identify the Enlightenment as the "century of psychology." This, however, has had the paradoxical effect of making eighteenth-century psychology invisible.


Excerpted from THE SCIENCES OF THE SOUL by FERNANDO VIDAL Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables 
Ad Limen

Chapter 1 The “Century of Psychology”
     Psychology as a “discipline”
     A long past but a short history?

Chapter 2 “Psychology” in the Sixteenth Century: A Project in the Making?
     The function of the neologism “psychology”
     Aristotelianism and Galenism
     Psychologia and the scientia de anima
     Rudolph Goclenius’s Psychologia

Chapter 3 From the Science of the Living Being to the Science of the Human Mind
     Psychology as the generic science of the living being
     Psychologia and empsychologia
     On whether de anima books can themselves constitute a science
     From soul-form to soul-mind
     Psychology as a metaphysics of the rational soul
     The new psychology: Christian Wolff

Chapter 4 Psychology in the Age of Enlightenment
     Psychology, anthropology and the human sciences
     A Republic of Letters
     Methodological discussions in Enlightenment psychology
         “The best way to perfect this fine Science”

Chapter 5 Historicizing Psychology
     Inventing a bibliographic tradition
     Constructing a history for psychology
     “Psychologiae historico-criticae speciminae”
     The history of the “theory of ideas”
     Philosophers write the history of psychology

Chapter 6 Psychology and the History of Humankind
     Friedrich August Carus and the “history of humanity”
     The primitives and the ancients
     Toward a total history of psychology
     The psychology of the Hebrews
     Homeric psychology

Chapter 7 Anthropology’s Place in the Encyclopedias
     Enlightenment encyclopedias
          The Syntax of the Encyclopédies
     The Paris and Yverdon Encyclopédies
     The “Systèmes figurés”
     Anthropology in the text
     The anthropological transformation of morals

Chapter 8 Human Perfectibility and the Primacy of Psychology
     Psychology in the Paris Encyclopédie
     Psychology in the Yverdon Encyclopédie
     The fields claimed for psychology
     The psycho-anthropology of perfectibility
        The union and interaction of the soul and the body

Chapter 9 Psychology, the Body and Personal Identity 
     The soul, the body and the “completeness of the nerve”
     Psycho-theology and “modern identity” 
        The body in resurrection
        The loss of the body
        The seed and the brain 
     The emergence of the cerebral subject

Appendix I The Two Editions of Goclenius’s Psychologia
Appendix II ANTHROPOLOGIE and PSYCHOLOGIE in the Paris and Yverdon Encyclopédies
Appendix III Articles from the Yverdon Encyclopédie Belonging to Psychology and Their Place in the Paris Encyclopédie


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