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Towards a Physics of the Soul : The Development of the Science of Man (France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Great Britain, 17th-19th Centuries) – Anthropos

Towards a Physics of the Soul: The Constitution of a Science of Man in Modern Europe

The “Anthropos” project aims at updating the genealogy of modern anthropology in Europe by studying the various problematic stages that governed its constitution.

Schemes, modalities, and objectives of a definition of the problematic development of a science of man in modern Europe.

The projects point of departure is the recognition of the problematic status of the current human sciences. The human sciences are constituted disciplines with regard to their practices and/or their institutional status, but also a privileged field for quarrels and conflict within each discipline and among disciplines. One of the of upshots this situation – and in particular in the case of contemporary physicalist approaches to the soul – is that these human sciences (psychology, history, sociology or anthropology) are frequently expected to enter into dialogue with, and open up to, the more traditional sciences. The paradox of this expectation, however, is that the common field making possible such a dialogue often remains undetermined. This common field is constituted by the polemics taking place on the boundaries of the disciplines, at the places where the problems of their interconnections are discussed. The basic hypothesis of ANTHROPOS is that such problems can only be historically elucidated. The aim of the program is exactly to define and explore the conditions under which the sciences interconnect.

The originality of the methodological approach of the ANTHROPOS research programme can be summarized by the following three axes:
1/ The first axis is an effort to overcome the manifest discontinuity in traditional historiography between, on the one hand, the discussions of Cartesianism and its heritage and, on the other hand, those of the great querelles of the 18th century where the first attempts at constituting a “science of man” were elaborated. The ANTHROPOS project proposes to reflect on the problematic unity of this period.
2/ The second axis concerns the redefining of the notions “period” and “epoch”. In opposition to the traditional conception according to which epochal unity is defined by collective adherence to shared values, we defend a conception of unity that refers to shared conflicts, conflicts that vary according to context. Hence, epochs or periods are not shaped by reference to defined qualities, but according to a process of appropriation of shared conflicts that it is historically impossible to put aside or dissimulate. Taking this approach, then, we will pay particular attention to the history of receptions according to determined contexts, and to the querelles that constitute the true dynamic conveyor of Cartesianism beyond the 17th century and also the place where the conditions of possibility of a science of man are established.
3/ Finally, this new approach to the history of ideas implies that ANTHROPOS has a multidisciplinary dimension. Taking context into account in a dynamic way implies an attempt at discerning the underlying mechanisms of the history of ideas. The question of querelles is central in this regard. Moreover, this approach pays particular attention to texts written in rhetorical modes considered marginal in traditional historiography: correspondences, scientific writings, historical relations, pamphlets, learned journals, surveys by scientific academies, reviews in journals, etc.

One of the major results of ANTHROPOS project relates to the way in which it confronts the methodological and the historiographical dimensions of the genealogy of modern anthropology in Europe. These two dimensions are present in the totality of outcomes. There are different kinds of outcome:
1/Several publications are planned, all linked to the four initial axes of the project (the reception of Cartesianism; the fate of empiricism; the querelles on materialism; the anthropological turn.) These publications are either thematic or focus on a particular place in Europe (Germany; Italy; The Netherlands; etc.). in yet other case, they the common features or differences between these geographical areas.
2/ Outreach and diffusion. Projected results of this order are also of various kinds. An anthology of texts will be prepared, while other texts will be made available on the internet. It also involves paying particular attention to the organization of research seminars for students, lecturers, and researchers, in Paris and in Lyon, and also to the participation in workshops abroad appealing to a broader audience.
3/ The creation of a web page. This web page should become permanent after the termination of the project and will serve to gather the first finished contributions and offer tools for future research (texts online; continuously updated bibliographies; reviews; links to other web pages; descriptions of common projects, planned or already completed, with foreign partner institutions, etc.)

The principal perspective of the project is of a methodological order. It consists in showing how the history of ideas cannot be limited to the passive description of historical elements. On the contrary, there exists a rational history of ideas which provides a key to understanding the great philosophical systems which often are arbitrarily separated from each other. Hence, the ANTHROPOS project aims not only at clarifying the conditions of possibility for the development of a science of man in modernity, but it also attempts more broadly, while taking its point of departure in this example, to provide a redefinition of the methodological framework for a rational history of ideas—a redefinition that displaces the framework of more institutionalized historiography (mainly by updating the conception of Cartesianism with regard to its “radical” potentials.)

Seminar on empiricism, academic year 2012-2013, University of Paris I

“Physics and Metaphysics. What is at stake in the constitution of Cartesianism and anti-Cartesianism?” International conference in two parts, one at the ENS de Lyon on 19-20 March 2013, the second at the ENS Rue d’Ulm in Paris on 3-5 October 2013.

“Philosophy for Children.” International Conference, Université of Artois, 25-27 March 2013.

“Hobbes and Materialism.” International Conference, ENS de Lyon, 26-28 March 2013-05-16

“Life and Community.” International Conference organized in collaboration with Northwestern University, Chicago, 19-20 April 2013.

International conference on the medical sources to philosophical anthropology in Europe from the 16th to the 18th Century, at the Casa Velasquez and the University Complutense, Madrid, 5-8 May 2013.

Finally, ANTHROPOS has contributed financially to the publication of the volume edited by Delphine Kolesnik-Antoine: Qu'est-ce qu'être cartésien?, Lyon: ENS Éditions 2013.

The very term of "Anthropologie" appears in the Renaissance in Magnus Hundt (1501). But it is between the end of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth century that its proper thematic life can be noticed in Europe and particularly in Germany. "ANTHROPOS" aims to trace the genealogy of such birth context and ways. The principal point of originality of this project is that it will reveal the extent to which this gradual development of anthropology is based upon a number of disputes and polemics which have their roots in the earliest reception of Cartesianism within Europe, beginning towards the second half of the seventeenth century, and which generally remain out of sight in the study of the history of ideas. In particular, we will seek to determine to what extent a certain reception of problems initially laid out by Descartes is able to offer a previously unnoticed implicit framework for thinking about the physics of the soul and about its secularisation, which runs in parallel to the development of the experimental sciences. This little-known form of Cartesianism --which provides new theoretical frameworks at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in particular through the question of empiricism and of its precise definition, but also through debates associated with materialism--, constitutes, according to our initial hypothesis, the cluster of problems that enables anthropology to emerge. We will also seek to show the extent to which the development of a science of humanity, which may certainly be considered one of the signature projects of the European Enlightenment, is anchored in the prior appearance of Cartesianism. In practical terms, we propose in our project to follow out and to articulate four thematic axes that will be treated principally on the basis of examples drawn from France, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. Axis 1. The particular features of the reception of Descartes's philosophy. Axis 2. The fate of empricism on the European continent: the experimental method and the analysis of the human soul. Axis 3. Disputes concerning materialism. Axis 4. The anthropological turn: the development of a science of humanity.

Project coordination

delphine Antoine-Mahut (Institut d'histoire de la pensée classique UMR 5037) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


ENS de Lyon Institut d'histoire de la pensée classique UMR 5037

Help of the ANR 199,992 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: November 2012 - 36 Months

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