The birth of the neuromolecular gaze

History of the Human Sciences 23 (1):11-36 (2010)
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Abstract

The aim of this article is (1) to investigate the ‘neurosciences’ as an object of study for historical and genealogical approaches and (2) to characterize what we identify as a particular ‘style of thought’ that consolidated with the birth of this new thought community and that we term the ‘neuromolecular gaze’. This article argues that while there is a long history of research on the brain, the neurosciences formed in the 1960s, in a socio-historical context characterized by political change, faith in scientific and technological progress, and the rise of a molecular gaze in the life sciences. They flourished in part because these epistemological and technological developments were accompanied by multiple projects of institution-building. An array of stakeholders was mobilized around the belief that breakthroughs in understanding the brain were not only crucial, they were possible by means of collaborative efforts, cross-disciplinary approaches and the use of a predominantly reductionist neuromolecular method. The first part of the article considers some of the different approaches that have been adopted to writing the history of the brain sciences. After a brief outline of our own approach, the second part of the article uses this in a preliminary exploration of the birth of the neurosciences in three contexts. We conclude by arguing that the 1960s constitute an important ‘break’ in the long path of the history of the brain sciences that needs further analysis. We believe this epistemological shift we term the ‘neuromolecular gaze’ will shape the future intellectual development and social role of the neurosciences.

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