Biting into a Pin-cushion

A.D. Nuttall

  • Flesh in the Age of Reason by Roy Porter
    Allen Lane, 574 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 7139 9149 6

This book opens with a resounding question: ‘Who are we?’ The many pages that follow, highly entertaining and richly informed as they are, never directly answer this question. Instead, they answer another question: ‘Who or what do we think we are?’ Perhaps the choice of the plural form – ‘Who are we?’ rather than ‘Who am I?’ – already betrays the fact that the writer has the mind of a historian, since it assumes the existence of a social object of investigation, rather than the mind of a philosopher, who would assume as little as possible. Imagine how different it would have been if Descartes had written: ‘We think, therefore we are.’ Roy Porter tells the story of evolving conceptions of human nature in the Enlightenment. The basic answer offered to the unstated second question is: ‘Living as we do in an originally Christian culture, we see ourselves as a mixture of flesh and spirit.’ The word ‘mixture’ can be unpacked in various ways, as we gradually learn. Porter, who knows all about 18th-century medicine, naturally chooses to lay his emphasis on the part played in the story by flesh.

His chosen period, the late 17th to the early 19th century, is when ‘natural philosophy’ shed its origins in magic and alchemy and began to look like science as we understand it today. Physicians discovered that when a person looks at a rose, a tiny, entirely physical image appears on the retina of the eye (deliciously – a fact which would have delighted Sterne, but I don’t think he knew – this image is upside down). Vague Elizabethan talk of ‘humours’ that determine character began to turn into slightly better grounded talk about nerves and brains. William Harvey discovered how the blood circulates in the human body. There was a tough-minded drive to find mechanical explanations. When England’s greatest living poet, John Milton, wanted to explain why we are as we are, he retold the ancient story of Adam’s sin and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When Alexander Pope wrote his Essay on Man in the following century he took care to parallel his work with Milton’s in the opening lines but then replaced the biblical myth with a story of an original (political) State of Nature, out of which we ‘fell’, through the evolution of law, into our present civil state. The State of Nature, meanwhile, was itself a site of conflict. The reductive party, with Thomas Hobbes at its head, saw human motivation as entirely egoistic at root (Hobbes’s problem was to explain how a mass of competing egos came up in the end with a system of law which protects the weak multitude). Locke’s State of Nature was much less harsh: he thought certain unselfish social impulses were present from the start, and that law codified these impulses. It was a time of grand essays in reduction, Newton’s Principia being the most successful of them. But there was a huge, running difficulty.

The trouble begins with Descartes. The most powerful proponent of the twofold conception of human nature is also the writer who made succeeding philosophers feel that the union of the material with the immaterial was not just excitingly mysterious (‘the subtle knot that makes us man’, as Donne happily wrote) but impossible. Descartes himself never authorised this conclusion but it emerges pretty inescapably from his philosophy. With his famous lucidity he insisted that the part of man that thinks must be immaterial; the body, on the other hand, is a machine, a mere contraption, operated by the mind. Suppose Jane decides to move her arm. She must set in motion the muscles that work the arm. But how can her mind press the button to initiate this process if it has no thumb with which to press? In the 1950s Gilbert Ryle used the lethal phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’ to bring out the sheer absurdity of Cartesian dualism. After Descartes it seemed obvious that one must choose to discard either matter or spirit. Given that the existence of our bodies seems inescapable, the moral is clear: we must all become materialists – human beings must be fully describable in terms of material components. Porter shows the initial power of strong Hobbist materialism (together with the dismay it provoked in pious breasts) and then, as problems multiplied, the shift from physiology to psychology, followed by a convulsive shift to idealism, as we reach the great English Romantics, Blake and Coleridge.

Roy Porter died, suddenly and shockingly, before Flesh in the Age of Reason was published. He got as far as writing a paragraph of acknowledgments in which he refers to an ‘endless proliferation of drafts’. The publisher says in a note that we have before us a ‘completed, final draft’, but has to explain at the same time how, because the references had not been completed, they have been omitted from the published volume. A reviewer could be paralysed by this information. Is it fair to criticise a dead man for something he might have corrected? I have decided to criticise exactly as I would have done if the author had not died, but with a strenuously asserted caveat: Roy Porter might have forestalled or had answers to all the criticisms I offer.

Some of the errors are trivial. For example, Porter repeatedly refers to the Scriblerians (Pope’s circle) as ‘Scriblerans’. He changes Swift’s famous phrase describing man, ‘animal rationis capax’, to ‘homo rationis capax’. This is obviously just a slip, but it is a pity to lose the potentially brutalist term, ‘animal’. He also strangely transforms the tag from Plautus commonly applied to Hobbes’s picture of man in a state of nature: ‘homo homini lupus,’ or ‘man is a wolf to man.’ Porter writes nonsensically, again and again, ‘homo lupo lupus,’ which means ‘man is a wolf to a wolf.’

More important, he asserts, far too simply, that Aristotle and the Scholastics saw matter, not form, as ‘the principle of individuation’: that is, as what makes any particular thing its unique self. The form of a table, its having legs and a top, is universal, common to all tables; it is the timber from which it is made, Porter explains, that made it this table for early thinkers. But Aristotle was far from sure of this. The difficulty is that matter is itself essentially undifferentiated, metaphysically equivalent to mere potentiality until a form is imprinted on it. It is difficult to see how this primal soup can confer individuality. Aristotle rejects both form and matter as individuators at different points in the Metaphysics. Nor were the Scholastics united behind matter as individuator. Duns Scotus rejected matter and insisted on haecceitas, ‘thisness’, as the sole sufficient term. Earlier, Henry of Ghent had employed a negative principle: a thing is itself only in so far as it is not something else.

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