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From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. McCulloch’s Project in Neuroscience

  • Lily E. Kay


After more than half a century of eclipse, the mind (in contradistinction to brain and behavior) emerged in the 1950s as a legitimate object of experimental and quantitative research in natural science. This paper argues that the neural nets project of Warren S. McCulloch, in frequent collaboration with Walter Pitts, spearheaded this cognitivist turn in the 1940s. Viewing the project as a spiritual and poetic quest for the transcendental logos, as well as a culturally situated epistemology, the paper focuses on McCulloch’s and Pitts’ efforts of logical modeling of the mind and on the social conditions that shaped that mission.

From McCulloch’s “experimental epistemology,” the mind–purposes and ideas–emerged out of the regularities of neuronal interactions, or nets. That science of mind thus became a science of signals based on binary logic with clearly defined units of perception and precise rules of formation and transformation for representing mental states. Aimed at bridging the gulf between body and mind (matter and form) and the technical gulf between things man-made and things begotten, neural nets also laid the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence.

Thus this paper also situates McCulloch’s work within a larger historical trend, when cybernetics, information theory, systems theories, and electronic computers were coalescing into a new science of communication and control with enormous potential for industrial automation and military power in the Cold War era. McCulloch’s modeling the mind as a system of command and control contributed to the actualization of this potential.

We build our castles in the air,

And from the air they tumble down,

Unless we carry them up there

Until they crack the pate they crown.


And we must lug them everywhere,

From garden walk to crowded town;

We build our castles in the air,

And from the air they tumble down.


And lucky, if when sere and brown,

Before our eyes too lofty stare,

We scape with life and pate, though bare,

On which to plant an honest frown.

We build our castles in the air,

And from the air they tumble down.

Warren S. McCullochOf McCulloch’s literary work only two thin volumes, One Word After Another (1945) and The Natural Fit (1959), have been published. Most of his poetic output was unpublished and is deposited at the American Philosophical Society (hereafter APS) in the McCulloch Papers, BM 139. The poem, originally published in The Natural Fit, is quoted after McCulloch 1989, vol. 3, 917. For commentary on his poetry, see Vasalis 1989.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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