- The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought by Sean Silver
"If you want to unpack his metaphors, you will have to unpack his library," writes Mr. Silver about John Locke. Patterns of thought and the spatial arrangement of one's environment are brought into close correspondence in Mr. Silver's study by means of one of the core metaphors of the human mind in the period: the mind as a collection. Across a series of "case" studies, Mr. Silver goes on to "unpack" the minds of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors, essayists, and philosophers, and he puts a sometimes predictable, sometimes intriguing set of objects on the green felt for his readers: Locke's Commonplace Book, Milton's Bed, Robert Hooke's Camera Obscura, The Iliad in a Nutshell, Addison's Walk, A Book of Accounts, The Skeleton of Jonathan Wild, but also the humble Blank Page and the Full Stop. In each of these "cases," thought is shown to be shaped by the arrangement of its habitat, and Mr. Silver pursues these ways of extending the mind into the material traces that have remained in physical objects, descriptions, and representations in images, prints, and written texts.
Mr. Silver argues learnedly and convincingly for the need to think about the history of ideas through material culture. The metaphor of the mind as a collection is unpacked in multiple ways: organizing and arranging the material allows us to develop and shape abstract thought, and in turn intimate musings and feelings are externalized, circulated, and communicated through material manifestations, making inwardness accessible. Such an argument is underwritten by recent developments in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, studies that consider the mind as "extended" into the environment and thought as something that emerges in exchange with our material setting and is shaped by the way in which we design our environments. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, according to Evelyn Tribble, for example, facilitated a rapidly changing repertoire of plays through its stage-design, through the practice of creating narrative outlines, [End Page 173] "plots," that orient actors in the flow of the play and allow them to limit their attention to their own lines. Libraries and commonplace books can obviously be considered through the same pattern of "extended mind." As the notes indicate, Mr. Silver is well versed in these current ideas exploring cognition and its relation to designer environments.
The Mind Is a Collection, however, does not simply apply notions of extended cognition to its subject matter. Mr. Silver refers to the approach to make the argument that, while thinking is profoundly extended into the environment, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used exactly these capacities to create the illusion that the opposite is the case. Leafing through Locke's commonplace book provides one with a material object that can be rearranged and manipulated, a place where the mind rests as separate from Locke's material body. The notion that there is a separation between mind and world, often discussed in terms of Descartes's Error, a well-known book by Antonio Damasio, depends on the ways in which the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries decided to shape their material worlds. Moreover, these material objects served the purpose of making embodied cognition (that is usually preconscious) accessible to conscious thought and inward reflection. Mr. Silver's argument that the very distinction between mind and matter was enabled by embodied and embedded processes of cognition needs to be considered more widely in discussions concerning the extended mind and embodied cognition.
The Mind Is a Collection builds its very own logic on what Mr. Silver has to say about books, bodies, and minds. The preface, entitled "Welcome to the Museum," leads readers into the chapters of the book that are arranged as "cases" in a museum exhibit. If you are so inclined, you can also visit a website that has been created to accompany the book, where these "cases" are assembled in a virtual world with accompanying texts. MIAC, as he calls this museum, is less...