A history of the idea of the mind might seem a curious project. We tend to assume that all human beings see themselves as creatures possessed of some kind of controlling intelligence that directs their behaviour. But it is far from clear that this has always been how human beings have thought of themselves. When the idea of the mind is examined it turns out that, far from being universally human, it is historically specific – an attempt to fuse together two quite different views of ourselves that we have inherited. We cannot help thinking we are conscious beings with inner lives and purposes that we can express in our choices and actions; but at the same time science seems to tell us we are machines, integral parts of a material world governed by physical laws.
Much of modern thought is an ongoing struggle to reconcile these perspectives and understand ourselves as being what George Makari calls ‘soul machines’. Director of Cornell University’s Institute for the History of Psychiatry and author of a widely acclaimed study of the origins of psychoanalysis, Revolution in Mind (2008), Makari