Current Research

Making Spirit Matter: Neurology, Psychology, and Selfhood in Modern France

Connecting the mind with the brain has been one of the most pressing and persistent problems in modern thought. But it is by no means timeless. The science of the cerebrum continuously reflects our understanding of mental activities; and by the same token, what counts as a mind has never surpassed our shifting knowledge of the organ’s functions.

In other words, the mind-brain problem isn’t entirely philosophical or even scientific. It is historical. The problem has taken shape in particular and contingent cultural contexts.

Making Spirit Matter is a monograph under contract with University of Chicago Press. It tells the story of the vexed relations between mind and brain in French society since the early 19th century. Why focus on France? Because that’s where the brain sciences originated, beginning with phrenology (the method of measuring the skull’s contours) and extending through cerebral localization. Today, France is where some of the most cutting-edge research advancing the EU’s brain-mapping initiative takes place. Across this trajectory, I argue that the idea of l’esprit (spirit) has been firmly entrenched – not only in philosophers’ theories of consciousness or religious notions of the person but also in neurologists’ and psychologists’ models of cerebral matter. The slippery relations between the immaterial and material dimensions of our selfhood have proved to be incredibly resilient. Far from being laid to rest, the very problem continuously transforms and re-emerges as new brain research resonates across science and society in France.

The book’s focus is the entangled legacies of spiritualism and the brain sciences. Spiritualism was an intellectual current at the core of French history. It originated with the Enlightenment thinkers, Montaigne and Descartes, who conceived the mental domain of l’esprit against the material order of nature. But in the 19th century, the rise of neurology and psychology brought about a seismic transformation. These nascent fields toiled with the immaterial faculties of the self, translating them into circuits of the nervous system. In response, waves of thinkers (from Henri Bergson and Alfred Fouillée to Maurice Merleau-Ponty) rejuvenated spiritualism by mobilizing the very sciences that seemed to cast doubt on metaphysics and theology. This dynamic philosophical movement took shape in the wake of the nation’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. With an eye to scientific advancements in the British and German Empires, the French Third Republic invested in experimental laboratories as wellsprings of social regeneration. Far from having excised God and consciousness from the natural world, inquiries into the structure and functions of the brain were fraught with contested concepts of memory, agency, and citizenship. In this way, Making Spirit Matter reframes our understanding of the “secular” and the “spiritual” in modern Europe.


Future Research

“The Voluntary Colony”

“The Voluntary Colony” is a new book-length project I am launching. It focuses on the history of indigenous education, first put in place after the conquest of Algeria in 1830. As colonial management expanded across North Africa, educators confronted a problem: how to make Muslim students not merely learn, but aspire to become French? Seeking to activate the volition, and not only the intelligence, of Arab and Kabyle communities – especially after the Algerian revolt of 1871 – school administrators turned to sociology and experimental psychology. The result was a teaching program that integrated Qur’anic lessons, recruited talebs (Islamic instructors), and by 1891 opened courses in madrasas – all the while Republican education reformers in the metropole expelled religious influences from classrooms. These paradoxes of the French Empire followed, I argue, from educators’ efforts to mold Muslim practices into a “rational” will [volonté], a project that set in motion a contested dynamic between citizenship, secularism, and science extending from the 19th century to current debates over Muslim integration.

Colonial education primarily served to impose the French language, as ample scholarship has shown. But the surprisingly few studies addressing the role of science in schools only mention the evolutionary justifications of Islamic “barbarism.” I argue, however, that a rival discourse accentuating Arab and Kabyle malleability underwrote France’s fragile rapprochement between its civilizing mission and Muslim traditions. Despite having local customs during the early colonial regime, by 1891 the Ministry of Instruction organized courses in morals, history, and geography that reflected a new preoccupation with inculcating fidelity to the patrie. My project reframes the colonial project – fraught with competing imperatives of national assimilation, accommodating local traditions, and subduing Islamic resistance – by analyzing the voluntarist pedagogy at the heart of the French Empire.