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Freud's criticism of the localization project as carried out by Theodor Meynert and Carl Wernicke has usually been seen as marking his break with contemporaneous brain science. In this article, however, I show that Freud criticized localization not by turning his back on brain science, but rather by radicalizing some of its principles. In particular, he argued that the physiological pretensions of the localization project remained at odds with its uncritical importation of psychological categories. Further, by avoiding a confusion of categories and adopting a parallelist reading, Freud was able to develop a fully “physiologized” account of nervous processes. This opened up the possibility for forms of mental pathology that were not reliant on the anatomical lesion. Instead, Freud suggested that lived experience might be able to create a pathological organization within the nervous system. This critique—a passage through, rather than a turn away from, brain science—opened the possibility for Freud's theory of the unconscious and his developing psychoanalysis. On a methodological level, this article aims to show how the intellectual history of modern Europe can gain from taking seriously the impact of the brain sciences, and by applying to scientific texts the methods and reading practices traditionally reserved for philosophical or literary works.

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I would like to thank Edward Baring, Alice Christensen, John Forrester, Michael Gordin, Scott Phelps, and the three anonymous reviewers at MIH for their insightful comments and suggestions. I am also grateful for the support of a fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study in Konstanz, Germany.

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John Forrester , Language and the Origins of Psychoanalysis (London, 1980)

Olaf Breidbach , “Vernetzungen und Verortungen: Bemerkungen zur Geschichte des Konzepts neuronaler Repräsentation,” in Axel Ziemke and Olaf Breidbach , eds., Repräsentationismus: Was sonst? (Braunschweig, 1996), 3562

Theodor Meynert , “Beiträge zur Theorie der maniakalischen Bewegungserscheinungen nach dem Gange und Sitze ihres Zustandekommens,” Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 2 (1870), 622–42

Otto Marx , “Freud and Aphasia: An Historical Analysis,” American Journal of Psychiatry 124 (1967), 815–25

José López Piñero , Historical Origins of the Concept of Neurosis, trans. D. Berrios (Cambridge and New York, 1983)

Erik Porath , “Vom Reflexbogen zum psychischen Apparat: Neurologie und Psychoanalyse um 1900,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 32 (2009), 5369

Sandra Janßen , “Von der Dissoziation zum System: Das Konzept des Unbewussten als Abkömmling des Reflexparadigmas in der Theorie Freuds,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 32 (2009), 3652

Ruth Leys , Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2000)

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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