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  • The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought by Sean Silver
  • Marcus Tomalin (bio)
The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought by Sean Silver Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 384pp. US$65. ISBN 978-0-8122-4726-8.

This stimulating and unconventional book is, in essence, a catalogue. It describes and contextualizes twenty-eight objects from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all of which are on display in a virtual museum. As such, it is a guidebook of startling ambition. Each of the six chapters-cum-cases examines a specific theme—Metaphor, Design, [End Page 665] Digression, Inwardness, Conception, Dispossession—and Sean Silver, the affable author-cum-curator, encourages his readers-cum-visitors to reflect upon the philosophical and cultural implications of each exhibit. All the objects therefore constitute metaphorical and literal case studies. Taken as a whole, they certainly form an idiosyncratic and heterogeneous assortment. John Locke's commonplace book, John Milton's bed, a gritty pebble from John Woodward's geological collection, the magnified full-stop in Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665), an ampulla containing the blood of Thomas Becket, two sketches of conception by William Hunter, a shilling piece, the skeleton of Jonathan Wild—these are just a few of the items showcased. In this curious museum, it is always best to expect the unexpected.

The format of Silver's project may be unconventional, but he successfully avoids superficial gimmickry. This success is largely because his underlying purpose is such a serious one—namely, to show that the history of ideas is inextricably intertwined with the study of material culture. His museum has been designed specifically to demonstrate how deeply notions are grounded in things—and (crucially) vice versa. For several decades, the multifaceted relationships between the academic study of history, material culture, social structures, and cultural practices have been approached from a range of contrasting analytical and theoretical perspectives (for example, structuralist, hermeneutical, or post-modernist), and texts such as Christopher Tilley's Reading Material Culture (1990) have become deservedly established as recognized classics. The founding of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996 occurred in direct response to a burgeoning cross-disciplinary interest in the social significance of artefacts, and scholars such as Harvey Green, Tony Bennett, and Patrick Joyce have all identified a distinctive "material turn" in the recent study of cultural history (Green, "Cultural History and the Material(s) Turn," Cultural History 1, no. 1 [2012]: 61–82; Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce, eds., Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History, and the Material Turn [Abingdon: Routledge, 2010]). Nonetheless, there remains a lingering conviction in some quarters that the history of ideas can be safely removed from the grime and particularity of specific corporeal entities, that ideas float above, untethered to concrete things.

Silver discards such simplistic assumptions, and he motivates his stance by examining certain representations of knowledge that became commonplace during the long eighteenth century—especially the recurrent trope that the mind is akin to a collection (whether of books, coins, pictures, plants, or anything else). His probing analyses of contemporaneous discourses based on this metaphor prompt a re-evaluation of several time-honoured dichotomies, such as the mind-body duality—an undertaking which, in turn, reveals the potent interdependencies [End Page 666] that exist between abstract notional schemas and corporeal, cultural, and political structures. To take one example, Locke viewed the mind as a cabinet, but he simultaneously deemed his own cabinet to be a repository of ideas, and these parallel tendencies initiate a self-reflexive to-ing and fro-ing from mind to matter, and from matter to mind. Such inverse associations destabilize the conventional unidirectionality of well-behaved conceptual metaphors, which usually map lineally from one cognitive domain to another (13, 31). Instead of the reassuring directness of a one-way analogical movement, Silver repeatedly confronts us with alluring entanglements, instances in which specific mental representations of knowledge both determine and are determined by the real-world objects figuratively connected with them. This intermingling is clearly apparent, for example, in the close associations Joseph Addison established between walking in a garden (an external spatial activity) and thinking (an internal cognitive...


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