Even during the tumults of French Revolution, the French philosophical and scientific culture was thriving, as we’ve seen a while ago with Volney and Condorcet. This time I’ll take a look at a friend of Condorcet, Cabanis, and his seminal work, Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme.
Although the title of the book might suggest a work on ethics, this is far from the case. Instead, morals mentioned mean simply the mores or habits of a human person. In other words, Cabanis is investigating the question, how the two sides of a human being, traditionally marked by the names “body” and “soul”, relate to one another.
In principle, Cabanis has an easy solution – he is a straightforward materialist, and what had been called soul, or the kernel of human behavior, is nothing else but brain. Then again, there are interesting nuances in the materialism of Cabanis. Firstly, Cabanis appears to be a sort of an emergentist. Physical laws reveal one layer of the world, but they cannot by themselves explain the more complex chemical laws, and even more complexity arises on the biological level.
Even if Cabanis appears to deny that the regularities of the more complex level could be reduced to those of a simpler level, he does admit there are certain analogies running throughout the whole system of nature. One might say that there is a certain centralizing tendency, starting from the gravitational forces working between large bodies. Similar centralizing tendency can be seen in chemical combinations, Cabanis adds, but again, with complexities that were not apparent on the lower level. Chemical combinations are elective in the sense that a substance shows more inclination to combine with one reagent than another. Cabanis goes even so far as to suggest that this elective affinity is the first sign of will in nature.
The centralizing tendency gets even more apparent with biological entities, which form clear organic units, in which individual organs interact with one another. The highest pinnacle of this development is an animal organism, in which sensibility is added to life. This sensibility, Cabanis notes, is not restricted to just brains, although it is its center, but can be detected throughout the whole nervous system as an ability to receive affections and react to them.
An interesting aspect in this view of animal organism is the emphasis on the organic unity. Thus, Cabanis criticizes Condillac’s thought experiment of a statue, which receives one sensitive power after another, beginning from smell and going finally through all different senses. Cabanis notes that one cannot really isolate individual senses, because they work in so close co-operation with one another and with the whole organism.
Another interesting aspect is Cabanis’s discussion of the development of moi, or self. He notes that a newborn baby is not a complete tabula rasa. Firstly, it has surely managed to receive certain sensations even in the womb, of course of its own internal condition, but also of the world outside, through voices vibrating to its ears. Although these sensations must have been quite muddled and soon their memories are overcome by more vivid sensations, they have been there. Secondly, the newborn also comes with some instincts, probably caused by the centralizing tendency. Thus, a baby is already bent on conserving itself and feeding itself with nourishment given to it. Especially interesting is one of these instincts, namely, the instinct to move. Through moving the body, the brain becomes volitional and gets a sense of its own self.
Even though it has a will of its own, brain is still affected by the body around it and its constitution – change the muscular structure a bit and it becomes more difficult for the brain to move itself around. The effects of the constitution to the brain form different personality types – a baggage, which Cabanis inherits from traditional medicine and only slightly alters by adding two further unnamed types to the traditional four (melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic).
Cabanis goes so far in insisting on correspondence between bodily constitution and personality that he of necessity must also find a clear difference between male and female personalities. His descriptions of women as frivolous creatures with no patience to conduct proper scientific studies sound more like cultural roles extended without any justification to the whole humanity. At least Cabanis is willing to admit that not all women fall under the stereotype – that is, if they have a rare physical constitution.
Cabanis does not fortunately state that the rare constitution of manly women would be an illness. He does acknowledge that real diseases can, through affecting body, affect also personality. Indeed, all effects of the environment can have an effect on our constitution and personality, especially those that come through senses – for instance, a certain odour might invigorate us. Particularly forceful effects are caused by climate, which we are in contact with daily. In a somewhat Lamarckian fashion, Cabanis thinks that all these effects can be inherited by the next generation. And because climate will have the same effect on the next generation, this will eventually lead to clear differences between various types of same species in different continents – thus Cabanis explains also the supposed racial differences in human species.
Although the majority of the book is dedicated to the influence of external surroundings to personality or brain, Cabanis does admit that the causality can go the other way also – after all, brain is a part of the material world and can affect it on its part. This suggests to Cabanis the possibility of affecting one’s own constitution and hence also one’s personality. Although this is no true book on ethics, some phrases indicate, to which direction Cabanis wished to develop humankind – to a vigorous harmony, in which all capacities of human personality are used to their utmost.