The Mind Is a Collection

The Mind Is a Collection approaches seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theory of the mind from a material point of view, examining the metaphors for mental activity that invoked the material activity of collection.

The Mind Is a Collection
Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought

Sean Silver

2015 | 384 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Preface: Welcome to the Museum

Case 1. Metaphor
1. John Locke's Commonplace Book
2. John Milton's Bed
3. Mark Akenside's Museum

Case 2. Design
4. Robert Hooke's Camera Obscura
5. Raphael's Judgment of Paris
6. A Gritty Pebble
7. An Oval Portrait of John Woodward
8. A Stone from the Grotto of Egeria
9. Venus at Her Toilet

Case 3. Digression
10. The Iliad in a Nutshell
11. A Full Stop
12. A Conical Roman Tumulus
13. The Reception of Claudius
14. Addison's Walk

Case 4. Inwardness
15. William Hay's Stone
16. Two Calculi Cut and Mounted in a Small Showcase
17. An Ampulla of the Blood of Thomas Becket
18. A Blue-Bound Copy of The Mysterious Mother

Case 5. Conception
19. A Blank Sheet of Paper (1)
20. A Folio Sheet with Two Sketches of a Single Conception
21. A Triumph of Galatea
22. Joshua Reynolds, William Hunter

Case 6. Dispossession
23. A Shilling
24. A Book of Accounts
25. A Blank Sheet of Paper (2)
26. A Ring Containing a Lock of Hair
27. The Lost Property Office
28. The Skeleton of Jonathan Wild



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Preface: Welcome to the Museum

Welcome to The Mind Is a Collection. Gathered here are twenty-eight exhibits from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. Taken together, they tell a story about the development of modern theories of mind. Each of these exhibits is posed as a case study of a certain way of thinking—objects assembled as the vehicle and proof for theories of cognitive work. The era spanning roughly 1660 to 1800 was a special period in philosophy and the arts; it witnessed the widespread development of what has come to be called philosophical dualism, the strange split between mind and body that now seems to most of us to be intuitive. The general account, as it was worked up by authors, philosophers, painters, and poets, runs like this: the mind is a disembodied entity absolutely and fundamentally unlike the messy physical world in which it finds itself. It observes the world from a distance; it takes in a batch of simple sensations; it reviews them—comparing, arranging, combining, dividing; it husbands them up; it stores them for later recall. It tells the body what to do—especially by way of gathering more sensations, for, in this scheme, the body's purpose is to be a vehicle for the mind. This is not therefore just one dualism; it is a system of dualisms, whereby one thing is split into two: subject is parted from object and "me" from "mine," but also conscious awareness is parted from the mind's contents, the power of thinking from thoughts, ourselves from our memories. It is not just that the mind is understood to be separate from the body, or even that the body (in much the same way) is understood to be separate from its environment. It is also that the working parts of the mind (its "faculties") are understood to be separate from the materials upon which they work (its ideas). These are the basic outlines of philosophical dualism, which, I am suggesting, is in effect several dualisms. We are the inheritors of this peculiar seventeenth-century institution.

The problem with the dualist account of mind emerges when we realize that this rarified substance, this mind-stuff, is so absolutely unlike the coarse world in which we move and breathe that it offers no way of speaking about itself. There is a primal paradox here, a remnant of the violence of the dualist split. The mind comes with no instruction manual, nor any ready-made vocabulary. The only way to speak about it, indeed the only way to conceptualize it, is through systems of metaphors that refer to embodied experience. Metaphor is the crucial route by which mind is made sensible; it is how a vocabulary and way of speaking is worked up in order to make the mind available to itself. It will become apparent, therefore, that this dazzling accomplishment, the work of an age to disengage mind from materials, came through a counterintuitive embeddedness. Theories of a mind separate from matter was repeatedly developed by tinkering with physical gadgets; the sovereign intellect was constructed in and shored up through dialectical relationships between persons and the places in which they lived and worked. This is the basic claim of this book, so it bears repeating. The doctrine of radical separation was elaborated through a series of profound entanglements: subjects entangled with objects, owners with property, awareness with memory, the power of thinking with thoughts, conscious awareness with the mind's contents. Put simply, the fundamental split between mind and matter was established and confirmed through embodied engagement with crafted environments.

This to-and-fro between models and minds, spaces of thinking and habits of thought, is what this book will mean by cognitive ecologies. A cognitive ecology is a system crafted to enable certain kinds of thinking, indeed, to confirm and to conform to a specific working theory of mind. Libraries count; so do workshops, notebooks, and collections. Museums offer the paradigmatic example—for a "museum" is nothing other than an active space of thinking, the favored seat of the muses. The age is littered with people modeling their intellect on the spaces in which they worked. John Locke says the mind is like a cabinet; Joseph Addison compares it to a drawer of medals; Francis Bacon calls it a repository; Robert Hooke calls it a workshop. The thing to notice is this: Locke was a bibliophile, Addison a coin collector, Bacon a collector of curiosities, Hooke a laboratory technician. The faculties and capacities of the minds that were invented there are roughly equivalent to what we might expect from any librarian in a library, conservator in a numismatic collection, curator in a museum, or artisan in a workshop—because these spaces provided the vocabulary for the theory in the first place. And this means that philosophical dualisms have histories that are not confined to histories of ideas; their histories spread out into the material, cultural, and political beds in which they find themselves. We should, in other words, attend to Locke's cabinet, Addison's medals, Bacon's repository, and Hooke's workshop, not as curiosities of museology, but as histories of ideas. These were the sites where the museum metaphor of mind was worked out in all its rigor. And they were also sites of profound entanglements, where conceptual systems were continually, dialectically returned for their material purchase and rhetorical force.

The Mind Is a Collection offers an ecology of such ecologies. It is arranged as a series of case studies, forming an argument through the elaborations of objects in place, particular objects in the particular cases in which they were once found. "Case" is a term that will receive more attention in its place (Exhibit 16); for now it is enough to note that it means to capture two things at once. It means to signify the spaces in which thinking takes place—a room, a cabinet, the skin, the skull. "Case" in this sense is the sort of thing one might find in a museum, things custom built to display objects or books (exhibit cases, book cases, and so on). But "case" also, as Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it, means to capture the whole world or situation that is implied by something as small as a statement or local relation: "the world," Wittgenstein begins, is "all that is the case." A legal case is defined by the slightest of evidence; a medical case is decided by the merest of symptoms. Partly, tracing these case studies will mean a wander or two through philosophy, especially in the empiricist legacy of John Locke. It will mean more than a few journeys through the so-called sister arts, curatorial forms like poetry, painting, and architecture. Each of these, it will appear, was imagined as the confirmation of a mind that works by arranging ideas. But it also means a renewed attention to active objects of thought; the material arrangements of things were developed and then cast aside in order to launch the Enlightenment figure of the autonomous mind. The Mind Is a Collection brings to life a few of the collections left behind by this historical development, as cognitive models were used to separate cognitive activity from bodily work. And I should mention that by no means is this study the first to think of thinking as an embedded practice, or even of empiricist thought as itself arising from its various situations; John Locke, among others, was himself invested in the links between thinking and tinkering, mental discipline and the library arts. In other words, some of the very people we most commonly associate with the distinction between body and mind were also the earliest theorists of cognition as an embedded practice. This is why The Mind Is a Collection begins with the library and commonplace book of John Locke (Exhibit 1).

The following twenty-eight exhibits provide the fabric of an argument. They trace epistemic dualism as an intimately felt experience and a philosophical belief. They do not exhaust the topic. How could they? Particulars are like that; more can always be found, and the ones we have are never enough. These twenty-eight exhibits offer the merest trajectory or constellation, objects as points suggesting a larger picture of Enlightenment being. At the same time, if more can always be found, one never has quite the right ones. The particularity, even idiosyncrasy, of the objects in this collection is one of the many ways that gaps and cracks will be felt, emerging precisely in the imperfect fit of things one to another. I myself spent many years as a furniture maker, what in the tradecraft lingo was called a "joiner." Mortise-and-tenon, dovetail, bridle, and key joints: my whole job was the seamless fit of one piece of wood to another. Nothing disturbed me more than a gap. And as a joiner, I had the luxury of not having to accept the rough fit of things. But the task of a curator is different; as a curator, you work with what you have got. You care for things, in all their irreducible particularity. Gaps are the frustration and promise of the labor. In telling the story of the rise of theories of the sovereign intellect, in proposing to recast this story in the concrete stuff its manufacture left behind, this museum will concentrate much of its attention on the craft of a few familiar figures. There will be, I trust, at least a few unexpected ecologies represented here—but in general the first twenty-two exhibits mean to undo the familiar account of mind over matter by concentrating precisely on its most familiar champions. The final six final exhibits are however different. These are asked to provide the conceptual weight to balance the museum's first twenty-two, indeed to call into question the fundamental assumptions of possessive individuals by unpacking the textures of dispossession. In this sense, these six are the most important—and the least adequate to the burden they are made to bear. So, the seams will show—which is another way of saying that much work remains to be done. If I had it to do over, I would have lavished more labor in finding objects fit for telling this other story—the story of the dispossessed. But since I only discovered these precarious things through the archives of modern philosophy's more familiar champions, I'm afraid these six exhibits will have to make the case by themselves.

As someone who cares for all these things—a "curator" in the word's original sense—I would ask you, as you read this book, to think of it like the virtual museum to which it refers. Like any caretaker, I invite you to wander. Please feel free to move quickly through some sections, seek out the ones of most interest to you, skip others altogether. Leave for coffee and return; your ticket is good for multiple entries. But, like any museum, this book also aims for a certain representative scope. As its curator, I flatter myself that it has a total story to tell—an argumentative arc intended to emerge implicitly through examples. I am tempted to say that the exhibits in this museum have been arranged according to the confidence with which they were owned. From Exhibit 1, the cognitive ecology of the architect of possessive individualism, to Exhibit 28, an object special to a man who wedged himself between possessions and individuals, The Mind Is a Collection passes from habits of ownership to patterns of dispossession. But this gets it backward; it is better to say that the museum passes from authors most confident in the systems they construct, to ecologies most attentive to the dynamic nature of embedded thought. The book means to turn possession inside out, moving from the confident possessors of things to people living wide-eyed in the shifting marketplace of mental materials. As one form of authority recedes, the empire of things begins to emerge. By the time you reach the gift shop, this museum hopes to have emptied out possession as a meaningful way of thinking about thinking, opening up, in its place, a different form of ecological awareness.

One more thing. This book is the exhibit catalogue for a collection of objects that can be visited online; the website has the same name as the title of the book. When you arrive at the museum, you will find images of exhibits, with short captions attached, and gateways to outside resources. The catalogue is here to explain the importance of these objects to the overall argument the museum has been assembled to pose. Also housed at the museum are objects mentioned in this catalogue but not illustrated here, an extended bibliography, and curator's remarks engaging broader questions of the mind's metaphors.

Welcome to The Mind Is a Collection. Now, on to the museum . . .