A love of ‘words as words’: metaphor, analogy and the brain in the work of Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675)
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Thomas Willis is commonly used as a touchstone for the modern brain sciences: his Cerebri anatome (1664) is celebrated as having placed the brain on its ‘modern footing,’ while Willis is referred to as the ‘founding father’ of neuroscience. Driven by a set of present-centred and medically orientated concerns, great emphasis has traditionally been placed upon Willis’s neuro-anatomy as a precursor to our own ways of thinking about the ‘neurological brain’. Such approaches have tended to neglect Willis’s broader theoretical contributions, particularly his physiological theories, or have failed to consider how (distinctly early modern) concepts around the soul informed Willis’s interpretation of the anatomical brain. This thesis re-examines Willis through his use of metaphors and analogies, exploring the relationship between his use of language and his physical practices around the brain (dissection, chemical experiment). Although recent scholarship on Willis has turned to social or cultural history approaches, there has yet to be a detailed examination of Willis’s use of language. Ideas around the appropriate use of metaphor and analogy in scientific writing have long informed responses to Willis. His credibility has been undermined by suggestions of theoretical embellishment and imaginative speculation – charges that necessarily pick up on the use of analogical reasoning. In contrast, this thesis argues that Willis’s concept of the brain cannot be viewed independently of the ways in which it was described and represented: rather than mere ornaments, metaphor and analogy were an essential part of Willis’s conceptual architecture and tools by which the brain (as an object of knowledge) was made to exist in the world. Willis’s use of language embeds his knowledge within a specific set of intellectual, cultural and material contexts of the late seventeenth century. His ideas around the brain cannot, therefore, be straightforwardly appropriated as part of our own understanding of neurology.
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