The debate on human automatism in mid-Victorian England

Christopher U.M. Smith

Research output: Unpublished contribution to conferenceOtherpeer-review


During the 1830s, Marshall Hall carried out innumerable experiments on a great variety of animals to establish the concept of a ‘reflex arc’. In France F.L.Goltz showed that decerebrate frogs were still capable of complex behaviours. Thomas Laycock in England and Ivan Sechenov in Russia sought to apply the reflex idea to the brain. This paper follows the debate in the periodical literature of mid-Victorian England and discusses the contributions of WB Carpenter, Herbert Spencer, TH Huxley, W Clifford and others. The previous outing of this issue in the post-Cartesian seventeenth century had been largely suppressed by ecclesiastical authority. In the nineteenth century ecclesiastical power had waned, at least in England, and the debate could take a more open form. As neurophysiology and behavioural science developed, with the widespread acceptance of Darwinian evolution, it became more and more difficult to deny that brain and mind were part of the natural world and subject to the usual laws of cause and effect. This, of course, had powerful implications for the human self-image and for jurisprudence. These implications are still with us and the work of neurophysiologists such as Benjamin Libet have only reinforced them. Should humans be regarded as ‘automata’ and, if so, what becomes of ‘free will’, ‘responsibility’, and the rule of law? The Victorian debate is still useful and relevant.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2006
Event11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) - Pavia , Italy
Duration: 21 Jun 200625 Jun 2006


Other11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)
Internet address

Bibliographical note

Abstract published in Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 15(4):418, December 2006.


  • automatism


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