An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2006

Experience & experiment

William E. Connolly

William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins University. He has published numerous books on political theory, including “Political Theory and Modernity” (1988), “Why I Am Not A Secularist” (1999), “Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, and Speed” (2002), and, most recently, “Pluralism” (2005).

Social scientists and interpretive theorists of culture have struggled with the ‘mind-body problem’ since the inception of the human sciences. To emulate the natural sciences as they understand them, many social scientists pursue a predictive science (‘in principle’) that curtails attention to the creative dimension of culture. Cultural theorists, on the other hand, sometimes minimize the role of biology in human life in order to preserve a space for creativity in thought, emotion, and culture. Even culturalists who study bodily representations seldom examine the body as a site of biocultural dispositions and relay point for political mobilization. The anxiety is that to do so would be to play up the importance of genetic determination. In fact, cultural reductionism–that is, the minimization of how biology and culture are always mixed together in human life–threatens to generate the result its practitioners fear. It depreciates the layered character of the body/brain/culture network and thus ignores some aspects of that network implicated in cultural creativity.

The contemporary revolution in neuroscience offers the possibility of opening a new dialogue between advocates of a science of society and those of cultural interpretation. The most promising route, in my judgment, is to forge links between neuroscience–the observational and experimental study of body-brain processes–and phenomenology, understood as the explication of implicit structures of experience that infuse perception, desire, and culture. But what philosophy of mind and body can inform such inquiries without lapsing into either cultural or biological reductionism?

The approach that inspires me is a descendant of Baruch Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism.1 His philosophy has gone through several modifications by those indebted to him. I will present some of them, trying to make my own position plausible as I proceed.

Spinoza projects a world of one substance without embracing mind-body reductionism. He asserts that each change of the body is matched by a parallel change of mind (and vice versa), even though neither body nor mind can be understood through the concepts appropriate to the other. There is, rather, one substance with two attributes: extension and ideas. A few formulations in Spinoza suggest that while God possesses the concepts to subsume ideas and extension under one rubric, human beings are capable of knowing that substance is univocal but incapable of understanding bodies and ideas through the same concepts.

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  • 1See Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (with the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters), trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992).
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