Such Wondrous Science: Early Modern Literature and the Birth of Neuroscience (forthcoming)

Assistant Professor Lianne Habinek’s forthcoming book project offers a novel approach to a question at the heart of intellectual work in the early modern period: how could the relationship of immaterial soul to material body be expressed and understood? In answer, she creates the interdisciplinary discussion envisioned over fifty years ago by C.P. Snow in his work on the “two cultures,” the sciences and the humanities. Lamenting that thinkers in each culture viewed each other with “mutual incomprehension” and at times open hostility, Snow called for a “third culture” to bridge the gap. Most modern third culture writers are scientists (e.g., Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins) whose perspectives have been shaped by their training: though influential, their work nonetheless often misses important subtleties in interpreting humanistic texts, de-emphasizing effects of culture and history on scientific and artistic thought. Conversely, literary critics tend to subordinate scientific history to literary argument. Instead of reading science through the lens of literature or vice versa, Habinek aims to comprehend as a whole the intertwined projects of what appear to be two discrete disciplines.

She shows that the inception of modern neuroscience in the 1600s depended on metaphors drawn from literature to articulate a sophisticated understanding of the body’s relationship to the soul. Second century CE physician Galen identified the brain as the physical location housing functions of the soul. Opening up the possibility of studying the soul firsthand, this localization was the crucible for a burgeoning neuroscientific endeavor, culminating in 1664 with the publication of Thomas Willis and Christopher Wren’s Cerebri anatome (the first neuro-anatomy). The intuitive ranging across different domains of thought that metaphor makes available proved crucial to such work.

Habinek is invested in making her work accessible and relevant to both academic and lay audiences. She hopes her recent work will forge a happy medium: a book rigorously researched and appealing to specialists (in literary and historical studies) and casual readers alike. An approach that bridges both audiences and fields is especially appropriate to the study of early modern literature. The sorts of rifts among thinkers that are part and parcel of our modern experience were far less apparent then, and often it is only the prevalence of current assumptions of a sharp division between the arts and the sciences that leads us to see such rifts in texts from an earlier era.

Two chapters of the upcoming book are adapted from essays which can be found online:

“Finely Woven Webs”

“Is There A Doctor In The House?”

Lianne Habinek is an Assistant Professor of English at Bard College.