- The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought by Sean Silver
When we think of the literature that offers up modern perspectives on the nature of the mind, we tend to think of the Romantics, who dispensed with what they perceived to be the overly rationalist mechanistic and empiricist models that informed the eighteenth century in favor of more dynamic interrogations of consciousness. However, in recent years we have seen a notable surge in eighteenth-century criticism focused on the philosophy of mind. This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the eighteenth century, with its special preoccupation with the mind as a physical entity or system, speaks more directly than Romanticism to our current computational and neuroscientific frameworks. Indeed, our own paradigms that couple the information-processing software of the mind with the neurological hardware of the brain appear particularly informed by the eighteenth-century models that sought to systematize how mental operations could be based in physical laws. The entanglements of mind and matter have indeed been at the center of recent essays and books by Brad Pasanek, Jonathan Kramnick, Jess Keiser, and others who have examined how literary texts coordinate mind and matter through the uses of metaphor and other literary conceits.
Sean Silver’s The Mind Is a Collection joins this conversation by centering on how philosophical models of the mind were informed by and informed specific physical objects and spaces. More specifically, the book argues that, though philosophers and authors like John Locke, Joseph Addison, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, and many others depended upon and developed the philosophical stance of epistemic dualism (dividing mind from matter) with particular force in the eighteenth century, these writers drew specifically upon their “material” belongings and surroundings in building metaphors for the “immaterial” mind. While writing about mental operations, Silver tells us, philosophers and authors were also “designing chests and planting gardens with those same intellectual models in view” (p. 14). Thus Silver ambitiously shows how conceptualizations of mental properties like association, imagination, or inspiration were tied to cabinets, gardens, paintings, kidney stones, optical devices, sheets of paper, and so forth.
The book focuses on twenty-eight separate physical items as “exhibits,” which together make up the “collection” that is the book itself. In this way, the book’s clever conceit is that its primary characters are engaged curators of various objects, and Silver is a curator himself. Like any curatorial enterprise, much of the originality of the collection derives from the curator’s mere selection and arrangement. But further, Silver’s often casual and always original critical voice serves as a reliable guide throughout. [End Page 121] The twenty-eight exhibits are categorized in six “cases”—Metaphor, Design, Digression, Inwardness, Conception, and Dispossession—each of which contains three to six exhibits. These exhibits include things as diverse as John Milton’s bed, the grotto of Alexander Pope, uric acid calculi, a shilling, and Laetitia Pilkington’s book of accounts. To peruse these further, one can enjoy Silver’s user-friendly virtual museum at www.mindisacollection.org, where each exhibit is given its own page and the book’s broader argument is more concisely presented.
In meditating on each case, Silver’s organizing concept—and his chief theoretical contribution—is the notion of a “cognitive ecology.” “Ecology” has become an overused word, liable to be vaguely deployed as a stand-in for “network” or “environment,” but its distinctive connotations are crucial here, for it conveys the embeddedness of minds in their complex habitats or homes (oeco/οἶκος). The term “cognitive ecology” has two separate but related meanings for the book: first, it conveys the philosophical notion that minds themselves are not disconnected from the outer world but always embodied in specific material networks. Second, it refers to the context in which theories of the mind were conceived: these theories were developed within specific workplaces in which “the tools of thought evolve along with the thinker, and vice versa” (p. 15). One can imagine this theoretical neologism having...