Publication 2935

Kay L. (2001) From logical neurons to poetic embodiments of mind: Warren S. McCulloch’s project in neuroscience. Science in Context 14(4): 591–614. Fulltext at https://cepa.info/2935
After more than half a century of eclipse, the mind (in contradistinction to brain and behavior) emerged in the 1950s as a legitimate object of experimental and quantitative research in natural science. This paper argues that the neural nets project of Warren S. McCulloch, in frequent collaboration with Walter Pitts, spearheaded this cognitivist turn in the 1940s. Viewing the project as a spiritual and poetic quest for the transcendental logos, as well as a culturally situated epistemology, the paper focuses on McCulloch’s and Pitts’ efforts of logical modeling of the mind and on the social conditions that shaped that mission. From McCulloch’s “experimental epistemology,” the mind–purposes and ideas–emerged out of the regularities of neuronal interactions, or nets. That science of mind thus became a science of signals based on binary logic with clearly defined units of perception and precise rules of formation and transformation for representing mental states. Aimed at bridging the gulf between body and mind (matter and form) and the technical gulf between things man-made and things begotten, neural nets also laid the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence. Thus this paper also situates McCulloch’s work within a larger historical trend, when cybernetics, information theory, systems theories, and electronic computers were coalescing into a new science of communication and control with enormous potential for industrial automation and military power in the Cold War era. McCulloch’s modeling the mind as a system of command and control contributed to the actualization of this potential.

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