Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Cervantes and the Cognitive Ideas of His Time: Mind and Development in Don Quixote

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Cervantes and the Cognitive Ideas of His Time: Mind and Development in Don Quixote

Article excerpt

El Quijote se ha explorado desde el punto de vista de la filosofia medica de su epoca atendiendo a temas como la melancolia y la locura, asi como al dialogo que mantiene con el Examen de ingenios de Juan Huarte de San Juan. Sin embargo, quedan aun por desvelar aspectos importantes acerca de como Cervantes investiga, a traves del personaje de Sancho Panza, la relacion mente-cuerpo-entorno y, en concreto, el desarrollo cognitivo humano, convirtiendolo en uno de los temas principales de la novela. En sincronia con las ideas de Huarte, Juan Luis Vives y otros pensadores acerca de la naturaleza humana, Sancho representa, en un principio, el ingenio inhabil y el alma animal que se preocupa de sus necesidades mas basicas. Forzado a sobrevivir dentro del mundo caballeresco, pronto comienza a ejercitar y desarrollar sus facultades racionales (imaginativa, memoria, estimativa), iniciando una transformacion que lo llevara de ser bruto a humano.


THE CONNECTION BETWEEN CERVANTES and Renaissance medical philosophy has been explored by both humanists and scientists, often focusing on Don Quixote and Juan Huarte de San Juan. Many of these studies trace humoral imbalance and its effects (melancholy, madness) on the famous knight-errant and other characters of the novel or look for Huarte's footprints in Cervantes's work. (1) There is indeed little doubt that Cervantes was well acquainted with the ideas about the mind that circulated in early modern Spain and, as Lopez-Munoz, Alamo, and Garcia-Garcia put it, "was also familiar with several medical treatises concerning the neurosciences, which were very much in vogue in Spain in the late Renaissance period" (501). I argue that Cervantes was not only interested in the cognitive science of his time from the point of view of humoral theory and illness, but that he was also concerned with developmental psychology--mind development--in the context of early modern notions of human nature and the human soul.

The soul--what we today call the mind--along with its faculties and its relation to the body, became the center of a prolonged dialogue among sixteenth-century figures such as Juan Luis Vives and Huarte. Recognized as the father of modern psychology and the inspirer of Cervantes's masterpieces, respectively, Vives and Huarte drew on the work of Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, and the Judeo-Arabic tradition in their attempts to decipher the mysteries of consciousness. (2) Renaissance humanism and the studia humanitatis, with "an emphasis on man and his values" (Kristeller 4), became the definitive catalyzer of an investigation that Spanish thinkers carried out from both scientific and artistic perspectives, blurring the boundaries between medicine and literature. I argue that both Renaissance medical philosophers such as Vives and Huarte and fiction writers such as Cervantes shared an empirical agenda whose purpose was to understand and illuminate the workings of the human soul, the mind. The ultimate aim of this essay is to emphasize the continuity and permeability between two realms that we today perceive as separate: the humanities and the sciences.


The ability to evaluate or to judge--known as the estimativa faculty--gained particular importance in the early modern cultural period, when humanity was understood in terms of our capacity to transcend, via the faculty of judgment, our animal soul in order to embrace our rational one. One of the fundamental distinctions between brutes and humans--between the animal and the rational soul--was the free judgment, or free-will, that accompanied reason. In the context of scholastic thought, when speaking about human nature, St. Thomas Aquinas had stated:

   Other kinds of things, for example, irrational animals, act by
   reason of judgment, but not free judgment; as brute animals. For
   example, sheep, when they see a wolf, judge it by a natural, but
   not free judgment, that they should flee from the wolf, since they
   so judge by an instinct from nature, not by a comparison [. … 
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