Whirring away

P.N. Johnson-Laird

  • The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology by Jerry Fodor
    MIT, 145 pp, £15.75, January 1984, ISBN 0 262 06084 1

Who now remembers phrenology as anything other than a Victorian pastime? Yet it began as a serious scientific hypothesis. Its founder, the German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), argued that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that particular parts of the brain function as the organs of particular mental faculties. He assumed that there are distinct intellectual powers for language, music, mathematics and other domains, and that there are also distinct propensities for humour, destructiveness and even murder. Each of these faculties has its own organ in the brain, and the size of this organ depends on the development of the faculty. If you are a good musician, your musical organ of thought will be large; if you have little pre-disposition to murder, your homicidal organ will be small, and so on. Gall made a crucial mistake, however, in assuming that the relative sizes of the various organs will be reflected in the contours of the cranium. In fact, the skull does not fit the cortex like a glove, and there is no evidence that the relative sizes of the bumps or bulges in either of them have any relation to mental abilities. The putative science degenerated into a fictitious geography of the brain, which was charted by fabulous maps with such evocative regions as ‘amativeness’ and ‘philoprogenitiveness’ – maps that are as outdated as the pages of a 19th-century atlas. The subject finally petered out in party games where young persons searched for appropriate irregularities on the heads of other young persons, preferably those of the opposite sex. Phrenology had begun as science but ended as bumps-a-daisy.

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