Is the Theatre a Zombie? On the Successful Failures of Émile Zola

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Naturalist theatre, in its late-nineteenth-century incarnation, and particularly in the work of Émile Zola, is often seen as advancing a physicalist view of the mind, where all mind states can be reduced to brain states. The novels and the plays do not uniformly or unambiguously support this analysis, so is the theory or the practice wrong? Physicalism is an idea that has had a recent renaissance, helped by the discoveries of neuroscience. Nevertheless I express some caution about the claims made for the eradication of free will. A range of thought experiments in the philosophy of mind have cast doubt on physicalism, culminating in David Chalmers’s much-debated zombie argument. I argue that zombies and their analogues represented deep social anxieties in the late nineteenth century, and make repeated appearances in Naturalism. The essay goes on to suggest that Naturalism should be considered to have conducted thought experiments, rather than just to have attempted to embody the theory on stage. Turning to John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ thought experiment, I suggest that theatre-making itself may be a kind of thought experiment model of the mind.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-120
Number of pages21
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2018


  • philosophy
  • Nagel
  • Block
  • theatre
  • Mind
  • Naturalism
  • Zola
  • Libet
  • Searle
  • functionalism
  • behaviourism
  • computationalism

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