Neurophilosophers, Neuroscientists, and the Dreaming Brain

Neurophilosophers, Neuroscientists, and the Dreaming Brain

Nicolas Langlitz


Neurophilosophy: From brain research to wisdom? Book-cover of Patricia Smith Churchland’s Brain-Wise. Studies in Neurophilosophy, Cambridge, Mass. (MIT Press), 2002

In recent decades, brain research has led to a neurobiologization of our self-image. In the 1980s, the anthropological, epistemological, and ethical consequences of this new conception of ourselves as cerebral subjects became the subject matter of the philosophical subdiscipline of neurophilosophy, as Patricia Churchland called this new field. This historical and ethnographic research project addressed three general questions:

  • How did neurophilosophy come into existence and how can it be demarcated from previous as well as alternative contemporary forms of philosophical reflection on the brain?
  • How did and do neurophilosophers and neuroscientists relate to each other? What happens to their concepts and ideas when they cross disciplinary boundaries?
  • How do neurophilosophers seek to espouse a certain cultura animi, a rejuvenation of philosophy as both a way of life and an ethical cultivation of the soul?

As a case study, the project explored these questions in the more circumscribed context of philosophical and neuroscientific studies of dreaming. Dreaming is a particularly suitable subject matter as it has been a key problem of modern philosophy ever since Descartes’ Meditations; brain research has significantly transformed the previously predominantly psychoanalytic conception of dreaming; and the understanding of dreams has been an important philosophical and therapeutic question concerning the conduct of life from antiquity to the present. The study was based on an analysis of twentieth-century literature, oral history interviews with key actors, as well as fieldwork on a collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers at a sleep laboratory in Turku, Finland.