Kathleen Powers

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Research Interests

Philosophy of biology
20th c. vitalism
History of medicine


I am interested in the definition of biology in the Western philosophical tradition – in particular, in 20th century vitalism’s attempt to define biological life.

My dissertation, “The Cybernetic Origins of Life”, is about the influence of vitalist concepts of the organism on post-war American neurology. I focus on the experiments and writings of neurologist Warren S. McCulloch (1898-1969) on the vertebrate nervous system to gain an understanding of how life was considered in the philosophy of science immediately before the genetic revolution. The UC Humanities Research Institute has supported the writing of the dissertation through the Andrew Vincent White and Florence Wales White Graduate Student Scholarship (2019-2020).

I applied to the Rhetoric program with a project on aesthetic theory and the documentation of trauma. I had conducted fieldwork in Tunis in the summer of 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution. After writing on the amateur photographic and televisual documentation of hospital trauma and on the relationship of these images to the protest events of the Revolution, I became interested in narrations of affliction. Specifically, I became interested in how the aesthetic or literary documentation of suffering contributes to ways we theorize our existence – how we think about Being, and how we value and understand life. I turned to the philosophy of science and to medicine.

I am currently a medical student at the University of California, Irvine, having completed the Rhetoric Ph.D. in fall 2020.