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Making Spirit Matter

Neurology, Psychology, and Selfhood in Modern France

Making Spirit Matter

Neurology, Psychology, and Selfhood in Modern France

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

The connection between mind and brain has been one of the most persistent problems in modern Western thought; even recent advances in neuroscience haven’t been able to explain it satisfactorily. Historian Larry Sommer McGrath’s Making Spirit Matter studies how a particularly productive and influential group of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French thinkers attempted to solve this puzzle by showing the mutual dependence of spirit and matter. The scientific revolution taking place at this point in history across disciplines, from biology to psychology and neurology, located our mental powers in the brain and offered a radical reformulation of the meaning of society, spirit, and the self. Tracing connections among thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Alfred Fouillée, Jean-Marie Guyau, and others, McGrath plots alternative intellectual movements that revived themes of creativity, time, and experience by applying the very sciences that seemed to undermine metaphysics and religion. Making Spirit Matter lays out the long legacy of this moment in the history of ideas and how it might renew our understanding of the relationship between mind and brain today.

280 pages | 12 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: European History, General History, History of Ideas

History of Science


"A tour-de-force intellectual history that studies one of the most enduring problems in Western thought, namely, connecting the processes of the mind with the anatomical brain. . . . This book will appeal to scholars of modern French thought, historians of science, and humanists seeking to enrich their account of the human spirit."


“In this deeply researched, intellectually pioneering, and wonderfully stimulating new study, McGrath shows that Henri Bergson hoped to renovate his tradition of French spiritualism for a new age, and drew on cutting-edge natural scientific findings to do so. Making Spirit Matter is a scholarly triumph, relevant for how humanists negotiate their own relationship to natural science today.”

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

“Ever since Descartes tore apart the metaphysical bond between mind and world—between res cogitans and res extensa—philosophers and scientists have been pondering the question of how the wound might be healed. In this fascinating and carefully researched study, McGrath explores how thinkers offered new answers to this old puzzle, and how the threadbare idea of spirit found a new and more respectable incarnation in the scientific languages of neurology and psychology. A truly fascinating chapter in the intellectual history of modern France.”

Peter E. Gordon, Harvard University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 The Formations of French Spiritualism
Chapter 2 Measuring the Machinery of the Brain
Chapter 3 Science and Spirit in the Classroom
Chapter 4 Locating Selfhood in the Brain
Chapter 5 The Institutions of the Intellect, or Spirit contra Kant
Chapter 6 Struggles for Spirit’s Catholic Soul


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