It’s easy to imagine that nothing is more familiar than the mind. But rarely do we speak plainly about the psyche. Just think of a term that seems properly “mental” in provenance, that denominates the mind simply and directly, and you’ll quickly encounter a word borrowed from the non-mental realm. When the mind “comprehends” an idea, for example, we seize upon an expression that originally denoted the physical grasp of an object. When something leaves an “impression” on the psyche, we use a term that literally describes the result of physical bodies striking one another. It turns out, then, that we need tropes to turn this most intimate thing into something intelligible to ourselves and to others—or so went the complaint of eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid. Writing in 1785, in a work that surveyed more than a century’s worth of attempts to explain the mind, Reid worried that the period had produced metaphors rather than accurate maps of our mental landscapes: “Almost all the words, by which we express the operations of the mind, are borrowed from material objects . . . so that the very language of mankind, with regard to the operation of our minds, is analogical.” (Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man [Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1969], 51.) For Reid, this was a great disaster, since “conclusions built on analogy stand on a slippery foundation.”
What troubled Reid in the eighteenth century has been a boon to modern critics. Such works as M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature treat mind-metaphors as the royal road to the eighteenth century’s cultural unconscious, a means of tracking changes in aesthetic theory or of pinpointing the rise of representationalist philosophy. The two recent books reviewed here, Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind and Sean Silver’s The Mind Is a Collection, carry on in the tradition of Abrams and Rorty. [End Page 539] Methodologically innovative, philosophically astute, and capacious in both their aims and their archives, these books are every bit the equal of the aforementioned classics. If anything, they prove more ambitious, as they consider mind-metaphors on their own terms rather than as signs of larger cultural shifts. In different ways, both Pasanek and Silver confirm Reid’s fear: that we cannot speak about the mind without speaking with metaphors.
Metaphors of Mind is the most complete account of the period’s obsessive attempt to figure the mind. Impressively wide-ranging, but carefully attentive to small formal details, Brad Pasanek’s dictionary will stand as an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the eighteenth century’s account of the psyche or the work of its metaphors. To really comprehend the latter, as Pasanek does in this book, one needs a grasp of a bewildering range of fields: economic history, jurisprudence, imperialism, brain anatomy, print culture, etc. Thankfully, the author is an impressively sure-footed guide through this otherwise disorienting terrain. He assembled his dictionary by sifting through the digital archives of EEBO, ECCO, and the Chadwyck-Healey database. The resulting book collects mind-metaphors from 3,890 distinct titles by 1,172 authors arrayed across the eighteenth century (with a few glances at important tropes in the work of ancient, early modern, and Romantic writers). Pasanek has organized his dictionary into eleven “entries,” which find the mind likened to animals, coins, courts, empires, fetters, impressed surfaces, a playground for personifications, metals, mirrors, rooms, and writing.
Pasanek’s entries are not OED-like trawls through a term’s meanings, etymology, and usage. Instead, they are closer to the essay-like riffs we find in other unconventional dictionaries such as Williams’s Keywords or Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words. Rarely following a single argumentative thread for long, the entries weave together a network of associations that cluster around a...