The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought

The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought

The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought

The Mind Is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought


John Locke described the mind as a cabinet; Robert Hooke called it a repository; Joseph Addison imagined a drawer of medals. Each of these philosophers was an avid collector and curator of books, coins, and cultural artifacts. It is therefore no coincidence that when they wrote about the mental work of reason and imagination, they modeled their powers of intellect in terms of collecting, cataloging, and classification.

The Mind Is a Collection approaches seventeenth- and eighteenth-century metaphors of the mind from a material point of view. Each of the book's six chapters is organized as a series of linked exhibits that speak to a single aspect of Enlightenment philosophies of mind. From his first chapter, on metaphor, to the last one, on dispossession, Sean Silver looks at ways that abstract theories referred to cognitive ecologies--systems crafted to enable certain kinds of thinking, such as libraries, workshops, notebooks, collections, and gardens. In doing so, he demonstrates the crossings-over of material into ideal, ideal into material, and the ways in which an idea might repeatedly turn up in an object, or a range of objects might repeatedly stand for an idea. A brief conclusion examines the afterlife of the metaphor of mind as collection, as it turns up in present-day cognitive studies. Modern cognitive theory has been applied to the microcomputer, and while the object is new, the habit is as old as the Enlightenment.

By examining lived environments and embodied habits from 1660 to 1800, Silver demonstrates that the philosophical dualism that separated mind from body and idea from thing was inextricably established through active engagement with crafted ecologies.


Welcome to The Mind Is a Collection. Gathered here are twenty-eight exhibits from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. Taken together, they tell a story about the development of modern theories of mind. Each of these exhibits is posed as a case study of a certain way of thinking—objects assembled as the vehicle and proof for theories of cognitive work. The era spanning roughly 1660 to 1800 was a special period in philosophy and the arts; it witnessed the widespread development of what has come to be called philosophical dualism, the strange split between mind and body that now seems to most of us to be intuitive. The general account, as it was worked up by authors, philosophers, painters, and poets, runs like this: the mind is a disembodied entity absolutely and fundamentally unlike the messy physical world in which it finds itself. It observes the world from a distance; it takes in a batch of simple sensations; it reviews them—comparing, arranging, combining, dividing; it husbands them up; it stores them for later recall. It tells the body what to do—especially by way of gathering more sensations, for, in this scheme, the body’s purpose is to be a vehicle for the mind. This is not therefore just one dualism; it is a system of dualisms, whereby one thing is split into two: subject is parted from object and “me” from “mine,” but also conscious awareness is parted from the mind’s contents, the power of thinking from thoughts, ourselves from our memories. It is not just that the mind is understood to be separate from the body, or even that the body (in much the same way) is understood to be separate from its environment. It is also that the working parts of the mind (its “faculties”) are understood to be separate from the materials upon which they work (its ideas). These are the basic outlines of philosophical dualism, which, I am suggesting, is in effect several dualisms. We are the inheritors of this peculiar seventeenth-century innovation.

The problem with the dualist account of mind emerges when we realize that this rarified substance, this mind-stuff, is so absolutely unlike the coarse . . .

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