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  • Neurosciences, Syntax and LanguageThe Subject’s Challenge
  • Mario Eduardo Costa Pereira (bio)

Does the concept of “subject” still have any logical-scientific consistency that could give it some relevance in the contemporary demands of rationality? Or is it rather a kind of fossil of metaphysical speculation that should be completely ruled out? Judging from the course of the history of philosophy, which for nearly 400 years has been devoted to the criticism of the subject’s conception directly deriving from the Cartesian cogito, it is amazing the stimulant power of this phantom that has so productively haunted our thinking throughout the centuries.

From a critical and deconstructive perspective of subjectivity and selfhood, neurosciences could be seen as the definitive blow to the “I,” conceived in Cartesian terms, as a self-conscious and rational agent, capable of knowing, deliberating, and acting freely and autonomously. By radically deauthorizing the ego’s conception deriving from the cogito, neurosciences goes against the founding ontological certainty offered by the Cartesian “I,” that is, the transparent evidence that as long as he thinks, the subject himself is the author of his own thoughts.

Under the investigation of what he considers to be “the Descartes’s error,” Antonio Damasio (1994) demonstrates that nothing in the human brain seems to function as a kind of central, rational, and self-conscious control unit, in other words, that would offer some neurofunctional consistency to the hypothesis of the “Cartesian subject” (Pereirinha, 2009).

The so-called ontological explosion he alludes to would be just an illusory effect that entails a subjective reality, resulting from synchronous brain activities, that occurs in anatomically distinct regions within the same temporal window, a term he uses.

In this way, the subject conceived in Cartesian terms, would be a mere illusion engendered by the terrifying malicious demon argued by Descartes and now incarnated by the brain’s biology. We are under the impression that thinking is a truly voluntary act and not simply an effect of external causes that escape our experiential subjectivity. In this sense the conception of “subject” derived from the Cartesian cogito would be totally devoid of theoretical validity, as it would be no more than a metaphysical fallacy.

Nevertheless, we could appropriately ask ourselves if the hindering of the Cartesian approach of the agency problem inexorably lead to abandon the concept of “subject” or if this same matter could possibly be formulated in different terms, as it was remarkably made by authors as distinguishable as Marx, Freud, and Foucault, but now put in terms compatible with neurobiological demands. Freud himself made a famous attempt in this direction with his “Project for a Scientific Neurology,” presently debated by prominent neuroscientists [End Page 103] (Kandel, 2005), in which questions related to the self and to the desire were expressed in the language of the natural sciences. In other words, if we disregard the notion of subject owing to the flaws of the Cartesian formulation, wouldn’t we be wasting a profitable reference when we switch from the neurobiological field to its applications in humanistic specific areas, especially the psycho-pathological field?

The subject of psychopathology: What plural is it made?” focuses precisely on this central theme for psychopathology: the status and relevance of the notion of “subject” as the core reference of mental phenomena and, by extension, for the description of psychopathological states. In fact, the argument aims to avoid the following conclusion: if the causes of mental pathology depend fundamentally on neurological processes, thus, the category “subject” would be completely irrelevant to the description of different psychopathologies. Moving in an opposite direction, this text attempts to defend the importance of this notion to psychopathological rationale.

The article refuses any form of substantialist conception of the ‘subject’ conceived as an ethereal entity, bearing properties, such as “will,” “freedom,” “autonomy,” “ineffable,” “consciousness,” “reason,” “emotions,” “desires,” “beliefs,” and so on. Having said that, the idea that the “subject” bears no substantial or essential density does not necessarily mean we could discard it as an idealistic conception. Although the text agrees with the need to separate it from any ontological pretension, it ultimately argues that the “subject” category makes possible the “psychopathological” status to a...


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pp. 103-105
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