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  • Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary by Brad Pasanek
  • Sean Silver (bio)
Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary by Brad Pasanek Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 392pp. US$49.95. ISBN 978-1-4214-1688-5.

When Alan Turing sketched out a research program for artificial intelligence, he began by peering into his own mind. What he found there was like "a notebook as one buys it from the stationers"; such a mind is "rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets" ("Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind, n.s., 59 [October 1950]: 433–60). The moment is striking for the directions it points: at once summarizing millennia of cognitive models, even while setting out a development program for the modern computer. The mind, by Turing's account, is either a blank page or a database—depending on how you look at it. He had named the very tools he used while thinking as the platform for a new generation of cognitive modelling. After Turing's moment, a technology of writing would lurk at the heart of modern thinking machines. [End Page 672]

I was recently reminded of Turing's essay when reading Brad Pasanek's book, which is itself a modern thinking machine. As Turing's paper charted a way forward by summarizing a history, so Metaphors of Mind points in two directions. The book is a throwback, a dictionary of passages drawn from eighteenth-century print. It is an "eighteenth-century dictionary," kin to the kind assembled by Pierre Bayle, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot, and Samuel Johnson. But it is also a cutting-edge project, developed in the heady, experimental atmosphere that includes the Stanford-based Literary Lab. The brilliant and original essays refer continually to a painstakingly compiled database of examples (available at; thus, the database, our moment's key mnemonic metaphor, is put to work to mine metaphors of the past. Not the least of these is memory's blank page, which Turing found somewhere within his skull, and which appears as the last entry in Metaphors of Mind ("Writing").

The author is aware that he charts a difficult path between metaphor as subject and metaphor as method. Familiar structure is one of his resources. Like any dictionary, Metaphors of Mind is organized alphabetically. Each of its eleven essays addresses a constellation of related metaphors, beginning with "Animals," and ending with "Writing." Readers are invited to consult it as they please, dipping into it like any reference work. But the reference genre partially masks an underlying structure of argument, and astute readers will recognize that the book anticipates being read straight through. A generous introduction prepares the way, slyly including a discussion of history's many dictionary readers. Moreover, the book's first two entries explicitly and pointedly address fundamental issues of method: "Animals" discusses key procedural questions, while "Coinage" explores ways that metaphors make differences in the world (coinage "as a metaphor for metaphor" [52]). It is only then (in "Court") that the book shelves a primary interest in technique, allowing itself instead to explore the contours of a metaphor of mind that will be familiar to most readers: the mind as a space presided over by one or another faculty.

Because book and database are alike constructed with keywords in their literal context, each cuts across traditional ways of doing critique or intellectual history. A literalist treatment of metaphor justifies this approach, which leans on half a century of developments in post-structuralism. One mainstream theory would treat metaphor as the asymmetrical yoking of ideas to objects: a quality of some notional thing is mapped onto a putatively real subject. Pasanek's approach, in the tradition of Max Black, Donald Davidson, and Roger White, argues instead for metaphor as the provisional, symmetrical overlap between two parallel statements. The approach is literalist because it offers no extra-discursive ground from which to judge a metaphor; it is egalitarian because it offers [End Page 673] no way to judge the priority of subject or object, tenor or vehicle. Viewed this way, metaphors are relentlessly linguistic phenomena, the stuff of discourse. Tracing them demands the exhaustive...