Bioethics Blogs

On Plastic Reason by Tobias Rees by Setrag Manoukian

Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms

by Tobias Rees

University of California Press, 2016, 352 pages


Plastic Reason is an excellent occasion to reflect on the relationship between poetry and science.

One might feel the proverbial contrastive tension in naming together poetry and science, a tension one finds in certain intellectual habits that foreground a distinction between human and non-human sciences, or in postures that romantically juxtapose the supposed freedom and creativity of poetry with the hard realities of science (social sciences included). However, at closer scrutiny, this tension reveals itself as an exciting site of possible conversations, to the extent that one might even end up arguing that there cannot be poetry without science, nor science without poetry. After all, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) made a forceful case for the necessity of poetry in the “history of human nature,” conceptualizing poetic knowledge as the fundamental articulation of humans’ changing relationship with the world. Vico distinguished poetic knowledge from the sciences of nature, however this distinction was for him historical and relational, not absolute, with the understanding that, whatever humans might be, they could not be thought without both poetry and science.

Rees’s book is foremost an engagement with plastic conceptions of the brain, but as the author wrote me in a recent email exchange, it is also “concerned with a form of poetry.” So I began to read Plastic Reason asking myself what was this form of poetry, and whether the book could provide useful leads to think poetry and science together.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.