In his book In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.
In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.
The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.
By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.
The mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’, drawing parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain
Its an interesting article. This section caused me some difficulty. These two sentences in particular. “The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.” (1)
On a side note I notice the author (I suspect he may be American given the language choice) uses illness as a metaphor here ‘handicapped,’ medicine suffers from this disability because it has a poor philosophical system (could my author be by any ‘chance’ a philosopher?).
“Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it.” As I study enlightenment perspectives on language I would be as tempted to use this as I would be to use plague, air borne contagion, meme or one legged dog, to describe metaphorical language.
I can tell that this feature causes me some discomfort. I suppose what causes the most concern is that I can’t evaluate if it’s simple tone, and over-inflection that causes me issues or if the roots are deeper.
Do I think my author is doomed to exist trapped in some metaphorical language as he uses an ancient metaphorical relationship between infirmity, illness and thought in his description? Or an idea that looks to close for comfort to enlightenment theories on the relationship between the language of art and science as a mediation conducted by the philosopher priest who hands language down from on high to the vulgar masses.
I don’t think language is the issue, words can be changed when the thought that underlines them shifts. I don’t think my discomfort here undermines his wider concern. Mistaking terminology for thought is an occupational hazard everyone is subject to including me.
Being disabled I find the language here mildly offensive (culturally learned perspective). But it’s not a basis for rejecting wider thought.
(1) The humours was adopted in western medicine post 12 th century. Its existence between the 6th century and 12th century is a matter of some debate. Ireland for example had texts in circulation that used the humours (Isadore of Seville) from the 6th century onwards but the subject had little impact or relevance for medicine until the middle ages; by the late middle ages it was the guiding authority in medical belief and practise.
Subject to a gradual processes and it seems between the 6th and 12th century that Irish medical practitioners managed to resist the siren call from a language that was certainly known if somewhat limited in terms of circulation.
Research here depends on classical scholars working alongside early medieval scholars. In relation to Ireland the research is slight as negotiation between departments is somewhat similar to cat herding. It has a history prone to ending prematurely and abruptly.
Unless you want to evoke the spectral figure of Irish exeptionalisim, I don’t think the argument works as the evidence here seems to demonstrate a differing picture of the transmission of medical belief and language.