Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives
This review appeared in Volume 1 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Neurophilosophy a Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain, by Patricia Smith Churchland. Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford Books, MIT Press, 1986. 545 p. ISBN G262-03116-7
Neurophilosophy is, as F.H.C. Crick has rightly said, "a pioneering work," an introduction to the neurosciences for philosophers and to the philosophy of mind for neuroscientists. But it is more than that for In the course of ten brisk, incisive chapters, Patricia Smith Churchland -- a Canadian philosopher now teaching at the University of California, San Diego -- provides enough information about, for example, functional neuroanatomy and neuropsychology to enable a semiotician previously unfamiliar with these domains to realize their immense potential for semiotics. In the course of her exploration, Churchland advances three lines of argument: "(1) mental processes are brain processes, (2) the theoretical framework resulting from a coevolution of neuroscience and psychology is bound to be superior to folk psychology, and (3) it is most unlikely that we can devise an adequate theory of the mind-brain without knowing in great detail about the structure and organization of nervous systems" (482).
Divided into three parts, Neurophilosophy begins with an introduction to neuroscience, proceeds to a survey of resent developments in the philosophy of science, and concludes with a chapter focussing on tensor network theory and its implications for the development of an expanded neurophilosophy. As a monist materialist, Churchland seeks to understand the operations of the "mind-brain," with a view to developing a "unified theory" synthesizing the neurosciences and philosophy of mind. In Neurophilosophy, Churchland is concerned first to provide a sufficient basis of neuroscientific information in relatively nontechnical language to familiarize the reader with the present state of research in this complex field.
After sketching the history of the study of nervous systems from Descartes to Sherrington, Churchland outlines the workings of the nervous system in vertebrates and includes discussion of cerebral specialization, hemispheric lateralization and imaging techniques. Turning to philosophy, she then focusses on early epistemology, logical empiricism and their implications for a theory of mind. Finally, Churchland considers various approaches to mental states, including those of "folk psychology," substance and property dualism, theories of intentionality, and functionalist psychology. In her final section, Churchland explores the tensor network theory of brain function according to which "By spatially organizing themselves into maps, and by layering so that the maps are in suitable register, neurons might, with utmost simplicity, execute any 2-D to 2-D transformation whatsoever" (442-3). This is what Paul M. Churchland refers to as the "phase-space sandwich" hypothesis (442) whose theoretical utility is considered in the concluding pages of the book.
The question remains, however, what use Churchland's neurophilosophy can be to semioticians. During the past decade, many semioticians working on literary texts have spent at least some of their time responding to the poststructuralist -- or, more specifically, deconstructionist -- charge that semiotics is a "totalizing" methodology caught in the teleological reinscription of inflexible order out of systems analysis. Thus Greimassian models of discourse structure are, for example, sometimes seen as attempts to achieve absolute meaning and order, thereby inscribing across the text what Derrida terms "Presence" or the "transcendental signified," and imposing boundaries upon the process of dissemination of meaning.
In response to such critiques of semiotic absolutism, some text semioticians have, however, perhaps leaned too far in the opposite direction, substituting for the transcendental mathematics of Greimas and his followers a naive subjectivism which serves only further to implicate the analyst in humanist hegemony. Such a recourse to psychologism in text semiotics may be considered to be a reinscription of a hermeneutics of word and world, requiring, as Augustine does in De doctrina christiana and Descartes in similar vein in the Meditations, a "god-term" (to use Kenneth Burke's phrase) to get from one element to the other and establish the possibility of meaning. That the "godterm" this time around is variously classified as "Subject," "implied reader" and "interpretive community" does not shift the fundamental principle though, of course, its realist/humanist trappings do, by turns, change.
If, as Churchland argues of "neurophilosophy," text semiotics indeed, all subsets of semiotics which deal with narrative must be both monist and materialist and must be grounded in "a unified theory of the mindbrain" (3), then our task is to generate new models of text-processing and of discourse analysis mapped onto neurosemiotic and neurophilosophical schemes. Consider, for example, the literary implications of Churchland's resolute assertion that "Our mental states and processes are states and processes of our brains" (482). If neither the reader nor the (perhaps) postulated author nor the (very likely) postulated character nor the (almost inevitably) postulated text "itself" can any longer fantasize each other's "existence," the monist-materialist text semiotician is left, like the neurosemiotician, simply with occasions of incipient and possibly infinite semiosis, texts which are teaching machines available for processing by reader-processors competent in the manipulation of the designated text-generation tactics. Semiotics, in other words, is freed of the subjectivist burden of hermeneutics with its humanist hierarchies of value, hierarchies which Churchland begins to destabilize early in Neurophilosophy with her claims that "models for human cognition are inadequate if they imply a thoroughgoing discontinuity with animal cognition" (36). Or her semiotic assertion that "the neurons in a flatworm and the neurons in a human brain work on the same fundamental principles"(77).
Churchland's ecological and ethological claims are grounded in the neurophilosophical principle, which she traces to La Mettrie (1748), that there is "no fundamental difference between humans and animals" (16). This principle not only excludes "top-down" cognitive models which explicitly (via theories of God or the animating soul) or implicitly (via theories of psyche, Subject, or intention) insert "man" into the bleak landscape of human hegemony over earth but also eliminates the gap between word and world in Western semiotics from the time of Augustine. As Giambattista Vico's allegory has it, ownership arises from fear of the vengeful wrath of God for, having fled in fear of thunder to the safety of caves, the first men gradually discovered the principle of ownership of each other, which Vico designates as marriage. From self as property comes the move to application of the concept of ownership to the earth itself. Out of fear comes language for Vico, silence being the first and highest condition. Out of the separation of body from body come burial customs; and of body from earth, the legal system. As Marx, inheriting Vico's analysis, summarizes this cycle in the Gründrisse, "Human anatomy glosses the anatomy of the ape."
If human neurosemiotic operations also to a considerable extent gloss those of the ape, the semiotic assumption of what Churchland refers to as "commonsense" dualist notions about the relations of humans and world begins to seem exceedingly questionable. However, as Churchland notes, "So long as the brain functions normally, the inadequacies of the commonsense framework can be hidden from view, but with a damaged brain the inadequacies of (commonsense) theory are unmasked" (223). Consider Churchland's exemplum of the retired medical professor who, having suffered a stroke, was subject to bouts of weeping while at the same time reporting through his tears that he felt no sadness at all. The man's feelings were as "genuine" as his tears though, as Churchland reports, "it seemed to me almost impossible that someone could cry so heartrendingly, and yet not feel griefstricken" (222). "In a commonsense way," she says, "I had assumed there could never be a dissociation between feelings of sadness and sadness behaviour unless the subject was attempting to deceive, which this patient plainly was not" (223). Thus a neurologically restructured relation of behaviour and intention display in an extreme form Churchland's principle that "the world is in some measure a product of our brains" (21) and not simply of our experience of sense data.
Hypothesizing ourselves as "Subjects," we enter into a complex game of literary transcendental signifieds replayed in realist fiction, with variations and occlusions in postmodern reflections thereon, and our critical practice -- so overlayered with the humanist hermeneutics of text and world almost unwittingly mirrors these assumptions. What Neurophilosophy as book and as emerging discipline can contribute to the urgent project of a rethinking of text semiotics consequent upon the Derridian critique of the Subject is an awareness of the sheer materiality of cognition and of ourselves as mind-brains of extraordinary neurobiological complexity.
Seduced by psychoanalysis on one hand and naive realism on the other, text semiotics has all too frequently been caught up in the insidious process of constructing the text as humanist epistemology has taught us to construct ourselves. The challenge of neurophilosophy and neurosemiotics is not only to think through and past our own ghosts but to expel them from our readings of texts. Particularly if we are concerned with fictive texts, that simple principle will prove to be exceedingly difficult of execution so thoroughly are we enmeshed in humanist hegemony. However, it is a deconstructive process which is crucial to the development not only of a text semiotics which has taken the Derridian critique seriously but also to one which has embedded its own monist materialist tradition in its most fundamental analytic procedures. To accomplish this task , text semioticians must, in my view, be prepared to learn from neurophilosophy and neurosemiotics as well as cognitive science and artificial intelligence, disciplines which offer multiple and complex possibilities for the development of a materialist ontology and epistemology which may honourably trace their roots back to Peirce.Lorraine Weir is Professor of English and Chair of the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of British Columbia. Her book Writing Joyce A Semiotics of the Joyce System, (1989) has appeared in the Advances in Semiotics series of Indiana University Press.