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  • Dans la Chambre Obscure de l'Esprit: John Locke et l'Invention du Mind by Philippe Hamou
  • Walter Ott
Philippe Hamou. Dans la Chambre Obscure de l'Esprit: John Locke et l'Invention du Mind. Paris: Ithaque, 2018. Pp. 444. Paper, €24.

Philippe Hamou claims that Locke played a decisive but underappreciated role in inventing the current notion of mind, and in setting the agenda for contemporary philosophy of mind (16). These provocative theses, even when qualified as Hamou does, strike me as strained. It is hard, for example, to imagine the convoluted route by which one might identify Locke's secondary qualities with contemporary qualia, as Hamou does (17); surely, there must be qualia associated with primary qualities too.

However, for most of his book, Hamou is concerned to advance his own intriguing interpretation of Locke himself, rather than engaging with contemporary philosophy of [End Page 347] mind. The first and larger half of the book deals with Locke's theory of ideas, while the second takes up a number of issues related to the ontological status of the mind, including Locke's use of the cogito, the hypothesis of thinking matter, and personal identity.

Hamou's book is organized around the notion of "attracteurs doxastiques," "physical or metaphysical [positions] by means of which Locke's text is, so to speak, secretly organized" (51; all translations are mine). These doctrines run the gamut from familiar claims such as corpuscularianism and mechanism to the more esoteric, and certainly original, reading Hamou gives of Lockean ideas, a tacit doctrine that, despite Locke's official agnosticism, "polarizes the description" of ideas (116; 409).

On Hamou's "picturaliste" reading, a Lockean idea is not a mental act or object but a picture in the most literal sense: a state of the eye or brain that results from bodies acting on us (200, 230, 409). This sort of view is familiar from Descartes's early works, such as Le Monde, but seems foreign to Locke. Hamou bases his interpretation partly on Locke's objections to Malebranche, though I would give these texts a different reading. (Admittedly, it is hard to know what sort of evidence counts when attributing an esoteric doctrine to a historical figure.)

A different kind of argument for the picturaliste reading emerges when Hamou says that the attracteurs doxastiques are meant to explain otherwise puzzling features of the text, rather than appearing in the text themselves. In this vein, Hamou advertises the picturaliste reading as accounting for Locke's insouciance in the face of skepticism. Locke cannot take the veil of ideas worry seriously, since for him ideas are already physical objects. As Hamou puts it, "with ideas, a corner of the world is embedded in our head: this part of reality, at least, is shared with us!" (230–31).

How the picturaliste reading improves over others is at times unclear. Hamou attacks imagist interpretations of Locke on the grounds that they cannot account for abstract ideas and ideas of reflection (164–65). However, it is hard to see how the picturaliste reading is any better off (unless that reading is simply re-defined, as appears to happen on 164).

Another aspect of picturalisme is equally striking. One might think that the literal picture in the eye or brain represents something in the world in virtue of resembling it; this would be a natural way for the picturaliste to take all of Locke's talk of resemblance. Nevertheless, as Hamou's Locke sees it, "to identify the content of an idea is already to place it in the circle of ideas" (169; see 199). On Hamou's view, ideas have no intrinsic intentionality; they come to serve as representations only when subjected to "mental operations and habitual inferences," such as abstraction, comparison, and naming (230; 410). For evidence, Hamou appeals to Locke's metaphor of anamorphic painting in the Essay's discussion of confused ideas (II.xxix.8), though I confess the interpretive argument here eludes me.

The second half of the book develops a reading of the Lockean self. As a result of the tension between Locke's agnosticism and another of those attracteurs doxastiques, Locke oscillates between...


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