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Seminars on the History of Science 2014

Friday, 14 February, 12-13:30
cehic 27/01/2014

Felix Schirmann (Universidad de Groningen) estudiante de visita en el CEHIC - UAB
"Acting on the Immoral Brain – Historical Perspectives on the Interplay of Knowledge, Order, and Action"
Viernes, 14 de febrero, 12-13:30h

Aula Gran, Institución Milá y Fontanals (IMF)
Carrer Egipcíaques 15, 08001 Barcelona

"Acting on the Immoral Brain – Historical Perspectives on the Interplay of Knowledge, Order, and Action"

Scientists have been trying to research the cerebral underpinnings of immorality since the 19th century. Criminal anthropologists studied misdemeanants’ bodies, anatomists tried to locate moral centers in the brain, and alienists’ searched for hereditary causes for misbehavior. This scientific quest did not happen in a vacuum. In several historical contexts, notions of corporeal or cerebral immorality have triggered therapeutic interventions on immoral persons’ brains and have disseminated into socio-political discourse thereby shaping mental health as well as penal policy. Thus, the brain science of immorality provides an instructive example for the interplay of scientific knowledge, medico-legal order, and therapeutic action. In this talk, I will discuss three pertinent examples: the discourse on the biology of moral insanity in the German-speaking countries before 1900, the British Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, and the psychosurgery debates around the middle of the 20th century. I will show how scientific knowledge on cerebral immorality ordered social realities in a twofold way. First, it framed immorality, delinquency, and anti-sociality as biological dysfunction. Second, it justified biological therapies and interventions. Against this backdrop, I will analyze the strange power of brain science to shape descriptive and normative discourses by discussing its epistemic status and moral authority.