The mind and the faculties: the controversy over 'primitive mentality' and the struggle for disciplinary space at the interwar Sorbonne

Chimisso, Cristina (2000). The mind and the faculties: the controversy over 'primitive mentality' and the struggle for disciplinary space at the interwar Sorbonne. History of the Human Sciences, 13(3) pp. 47–68.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/09526950022120764

Abstract

This article deals with some aspects of the study of the mind between the 1920s and 1940s at the University of Paris. Traditionally the domain of philosophy, the study of the mind was encroached upon by other disciplines such as history of science, ethnology, sociology and psychology. These disciplines all had weak institutional status and were struggling to constitute themselves as autonomous. History of science did not as a rule reject its relationship with philosophy, whereas ethnology, sociology and psychology were constructing their identities by breaking away from philosophy. A discussion about Lévy-Bruhl’s La mentalité primitive, hosted by the Société Française de Philosophie in 1923, showed that the positions of philosophers, sociologists and psychologists about the questions posed by the book, namely the fixity and universality of the mind, were strictly linked with their views about the ‘scientificity’ of ethnology. A compromise between fixity and historical transformation of the mind was put forward by Gaston Bachelard, who institutionally represented the discipline of history and philosophy of science. This discipline was institutionally linked to ethnology, psychology and sociology, but, unlike them, had no claim to ‘scientificity’. Bachelard realized this compromise by breaking the unity of the mind and by employing an extra-institutional discipline: psychoanalysis. His freedom of choice corresponded with an increasingly weak institutional position for the discipline of history and philosophy of science.

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