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Herophilus of Chalcedon on the soul and the nervous system

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Herophilus of Chalcedon, working in Alexandria in the early 3rd century BC, is probably best known for his discovery of the nervous system, that is, for his anatomical isolation of the nerves as a distinct structure within the body, and his recognition of their function in mediating sensation and voluntary motion. In antiquity, his research was taken by many, including Galen, to have established the brain as the seat of the so-called hegemonikon, or ruling part of the soul. Yet it has often seemed surprising to historians, or at least regrettable, that the dominant Hellenistic philosophical schools failed to take account of this major advance made by Herophilus, given that the Epicureans, Stoics and Aristotelians stubbornly continued to regard the heart, or chest, as the central organ of the soul. This paper will argue that in fact Herophilus’ own claims as to the brain’s importance were much more limited than is usually assumed, and that the primarily Aristotelian framework within which he approached the question of the soul’s functioning led him to a more complex view, one that preserved an important role for the heart.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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