Groping Toward the Mind

William Blake: The Ancient of Days, frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, 1794
British Museum, London
William Blake: The Ancient of Days, frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, 1794

There are three things that might be meant by “the emergence of the modern mind”: first, the emergence of modern ways of thinking about the universe; second, the emergence of modern conceptions of the mind; and third, the emergence of the mind itself with its distinctive human characteristics. A.C. Grayling, in his new book The Age of Genius, deals with the first of these questions, arguing that the seventeenth century was the pivotal century during which modern thought took its rise, particularly with respect to physics and astronomy. George Makari, in Soul Machine, deals with the second question, tracing the way the old conception of an immaterial and immortal soul gave way to a view that replaced “soul” with “mind” and placed the latter firmly within the body.

Neither author discusses the third question, though it is perfectly legitimate, doubtless requiring us to go back to prehistoric times when Homo sapiens first evolved. It is true that Makari sometimes speaks as if he is discussing that question, as when he refers to “the invention of the mind” or says, “The modern mind was constructed during the Enlightenment”; but presumably this is just a shorthand way of talking about the invention or construction of our modern concept of the mind, not the mind itself. It could hardly be that we went from having an immaterial and immortal soul to having an embodied and mortal mind! I wish Makari had clarified this point so as to ward off any suggestion that he is dealing with the history of the mind itself, as opposed to our ways of thinking and talking about it. The mind is no more created by our ways of conceiving it than the stars are created by our ways of conceiving them (the universe didn’t become heliocentric when Copernicus announced that it was).

Makari’s book is a long but lively account of how ancient and religious conceptions of our inner life (to use the most neutral expression possible) gave way to modern and secular conceptions of ourselves, taking in a great many figures, doctrines, movements, ideologies, and even wars. It tells a story of radical reorientation and fundamental conceptual upheaval. We begin with Plato and Aristotle: the essence of the human individual is his or her immortal soul, which is the seat of reason, the center of virtue (and vice), the cause of bodily motion, and the metaphysical identity of the person. The soul even predates birth, according to Plato: it exists independently of the material world and consists in a kind of wispy abstraction. Thomas Aquinas systematized this idea for the Catholic Church, which became the doctrine known as Thomism.

Once that was accomplished the concept of the soul was…

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