The philosophical–anthropological foundations of Bennett and Hacker’s critique of neuroscience

Continental Philosophy Review 49 (2):223-241 (2016)


Bennett and Hacker criticize a number of neuroscientists and philosophers for attributing capacities which belong to the human being as a whole, like perceiving or deciding, to a “part” of the human being, viz. the brain. They call this type of mistake the “mereological fallacy”. Interestingly, the authors say that these capacities cannot be ascribed to the mind either. They reject not only materialistic monism but also Cartesian dualism, arguing that many predicates describing human life do not refer to physical or mental properties, nor to the sum of such properties. I agree with this important principle and with the critique of the mereological fallacy which it underpins, but I have two objections to the authors’ view. Firstly, I think that the brain is not literally a part of the human being, as suggested. Secondly, Bennett and Hacker do not offer an account of body and mind which explains in a systematic way how the domain of phenomena which transcends the mental and the physical relates to the mental and the physical. I first argue that Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology provides the kind of account we need. Then, drawing on Plessner, I present an alternative view of the mereological relationships between brain and human being. My criticism does not undercut Bennett and Hacker’s diagnosis of the mereological fallacy but rather gives it a more solid philosophical–anthropological foundation.

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