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.

At another point Porter says, in one breath, that Greek tragedy (a) is all about titanic conflict, and (b) presents the protagonist as mere plaything, crushed by the all-powerful gods. Aristotle, Scholasticism and Greek tragedy, it may be said, lie outside Porter’s period. Bernard de Mandeville, however, is squarely within it. Porter concludes, again too rapidly and simply, that Mandeville was opposed to Cartesian dualism, on the ground that he emphasised the close correlation of emotion with bodily symptoms: ‘When a Man is overwhelmed with shame . . . the Face glows.’ A person who says the glow constitutes the shame is a full monist materialist. But Mandeville, it appears, is not that person. The writer who asserts a close symbiosis of mind and body is prima facie a dualist: it takes two to make a correlation. Porter thinks the moral of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (‘Private vices public benefits’) is that self-interest makes the world go round. Mandeville makes it clear that he is thinking of the way that wild young upper-class males, out on the town, promote the circulation of wealth. The antinomy is between virtuous frugality on the one hand, and luxury on the other, where luxury still carries its old close association with lechery, and such luxury is not exactly identifiable with self-interest.

When Porter turns to literary texts his touch is not always sure. He sums up Smollett’s Humphry Clinker by saying that it shows bodily disease fuelling weakness of character. Matthew Bramble is the victim of a series of somatic disorders and is the most admirable character in the book; he is a most interesting mixture of Johnsonian grouchiness and pathological sensibility (he has ‘a skin too few’). Porter uses Claudio’s ‘shuddering’ speech in Measure for Measure, ‘To be imprisoned in the viewless winds etc’, to illustrate the traditional Christian apparatus of eschatological terror, hell, damnation and the rest. Really the speech is much stranger: ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where . . .’ This is not the familiar prison house but a new species of fear, closely involved with pure agnosticism. Porter’s account of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, the rational horses of Gulliver’s last voyage, is uncritically monochrome. He notices their Arcadian quality but not their final paradoxical stupidity. The locution habitually applied to them, ‘They have no notion of’, is in the travel literature of the time repeatedly applied to naive or undeveloped societies. When Gulliver arrives, he has to explain what a ship is, in a kind of baby talk. When Gulliver constructs his ‘canoo’, the Sorrel Nag, although an undoubted member of the master species, is assigned the simpler and more laborious parts of the job, acting as Man Friday to Gulliver’s Crusoe.

Porter is not always as aware as a historian should be of precedent and anticipation. He cites approvingly Freud’s observation that the rise of science presented man with the shocking notion that the universe might not have been created solely for him. Pope’s deeply traditional Essay on Man makes exactly this point over and over again, in lines that owe much to Montaigne, nothing to Newton. Porter says, fairly enough, that the new science was thought to have exposed Aristotelian verbiage as ‘hot air’. But the reader is led to believe that this happened suddenly, without warning. The very phrase ‘hot air’ ought to have caused Porter to cast his mind back to William of Ockham, who insisted, in the 14th century, that the universals so reverently discussed by Greek philosophers were ‘flatus vocis’, ‘mere breath’. Similarly, Porter seems to think that Mandeville’s cool defence of the social utility of brothels highly novel. While it is true that Christianity has in general demonised sex as a formidable spiritual antagonist to be wrestled with and subdued, there is an equally old physicalist tradition that treats sex as a simple secretion: ‘Libido, qua necesse est, fluat,’ male-orientated Seneca says, blandly (‘As for sexual desire, when need arises, let it flow’). Thomas More’s non-Christian Utopians place sexual relief with scratching an itch and excreting. Plutarch says that Diogenes used to masturbate in public to show how philosophical he was; he explained that, rightly viewed, the action was no more significant than scratching a mosquito bite. Porter gets back as far as Hugh of St Victor, in the 12th century, for the idea that human beings originate in a slimy emission of semen, but he could have gone further back, to the Greek poet Palladas: ‘You were born from unbridled coupling and a disgusting drip.’ The physicalist party, note, is not always for celebrating the body.

Simon Schama in his introduction says that Porter ventures where most historians fear: into Greek metaphysics, Christian theology, Cartesian philosophy. My complaint is that he sets out on this brave journey but then does not go far enough. The broad brush-strokes, the rapid covering of great tracts of thought are certainly exhilarating, but the strong effect is achieved at some cost to depth of understanding. He tells the reader that Berkeley dismissed matter as a metaphysical chimera and then slides at once into the common misperception of Berkeley, in his own century, as denying solidity, tangibility and the like. What is missing here, and from the exploration of British Empiricism that follows, is any recognition of the huge difficulties arising from the idea that perception is mediated by ideas. When Locke wrote that the mind ‘hath no other immediate object but its own ideas’, so that ‘it is evident that our knowledge is only conversant about them,’ he opened Pandora’s box. Now, the mind is not in direct contact with things but only with images on a sort of private television screen. It is then supposed that these images either resemble or are at least caused by objects in the external world, but we have no way of checking the degree of resemblance. We cannot go and look, because going and looking will always involve intervening optical ideas. Suddenly, loam-footed empiricism, that most earthy of philosophies, is invaded by solipsistic fear. When Berkeley attacked matter he was not attacking the vivid, coloured, sweet or abrasive world presented by the senses: he was attacking the inaccessible postulated cause of that world. Porter’s phrase, ‘metaphysical chimera’, is, we must grant, precisely accurate. The whole of Berkeley’s argument reads like a strange pre-echo of arguments that will be advanced later against that other great inaccessible cause, God. I suspect that Berkeley was aware of the incipient analogy. When Hylas, the devout believer in Matter in the Three Dialogues, explains his position and concludes, ‘I know . . . that it is the cause of my ideas; and this thing, whatever it be, I call matter,’ the cadence of the sentence recalls the phrase, ‘And this we call God,’ repeated (with minor variations) after four of the five famous proofs of the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.

Berkeley really did turn the tables. He noticed that the empiricists, the ‘philosophers of experience’, were now locating reality in an unperceived substratum, and that the world of colour, fragrance, tangibility was relegated to the insubstantial image. In the third dialogue, Berkeley makes his spokesman, Philonous, say: ‘I am not for changing things into ideas, but rather ideas into things.’ Berkeley did not, however, complete his reification of the ideas (the ‘sensa’). G.J. Warnock in his book on Berkeley wondered why Berkeley did not throw away the other half of the duplicated universe: why did he not discard the mediating idea and simply insist that the sensum and the object were a single, fully real thing? Instead Berkeley continued to use the word ‘idea’ and has therefore gone down in history as an idealist philosopher.

Porter’s fascinating account of the shift from physiology to psychology – and thence to idealism – would have gained in force if he had noticed how empiricism locked itself into an idealist hall of mirrors, with no way out. He writes as if Hume’s physical wasting-away and recurrent depression were the primary cause of the undermining of reason we find in his work. He notes Hume’s doubts about the continuous existence of a personal self and the celebrated critique of induction, but he seems not to see how terrifying it is to find that there is no reason to think the sun will rise tomorrow. He says nothing about the melting away of the external world in Hume’s philosophy. As a good British Empiricist, Hume has nothing to work with but ideas. He distinguishes percepts from mental imagery not in virtue of the fact that percepts are of-the-real (that is something we can never check) but by wholly ideational criteria: percepts are just more vivid (and, we might add, less manipulable, stabler) than mental imagery; they make up a solidly boring soap opera on one’s private screen, rather than, say, a flimsy, capricious comedy show. In fact even the percepts turn out to be discontinuous, and Hume decides that the notion of a wholly stable external thing is just as much a fiction, ultimately, as our notion of a stable self: ‘Thus we feign the continuous existence of the perceptions of our senses, to remove the interruption, and run into the notion of a soul, and self, and substance, to disguise the variation.’ Hume’s philosophy led him to the conclusion that there was no rational basis for belief in God, causality, induction, the self, the external world. Wouldn’t you be scared? He felt himself ‘invironed with the deepest darkness’. The latter part of the Treatise in a way makes all well again: although we have no reason to believe the sun will rise tomorrow, we are built, psychologically, to believe that it will. A naturally planted sentiment of belief is summoned to take the place of rationally grounded belief. Hume is clear that he is built like other human beings and is therefore just as sure as they are that, after all, the sun will rise tomorrow. Porter says that in Hume (personal) psychology causes sceptical philosophy. Hume himself saw (common) psychology as healing the ravages made by pure philosophy.

There is another great 18th-century book in which the frailty of reason is exposed: Tristram Shandy. The mildly deranged, lovable denizens of Shandy Hall inhabit a world of incompetently linked ideas – Toby’s obsession with war games, Walter’s doomed theories – in sporadic collision with unco-operative physical facts. Porter rightly says that the book keeps leading us back to ‘a body which never lets the mind forget its presence’. In general he sees the body and natural sentiment as joyously curative agents in Sterne. If we stick to sentiment, this holds up well. The Shandies can never communicate successfully at the level of reason, but they communicate very well in the rosier field of sentiment. With the body, however, things are less clear. I can agree at once that bodies are, so to speak, ontologically strong in Sterne, obstinately real. The pin-cushion into which Walter bites in a spasm of intellectual frustration has to be a real pin-cushion. While Sterne shares with Hume a doubt about the efficacy of reason, he shows no sign of succumbing to empiricist doubt about the existence of an external world. Rather, that world stands as a powerful mockery of the cobwebby pretensions of philosophy. Yet the book is still much less ‘physically optimistic’ than Porter supposes. It is haunted by the idea not only of intellectual impotence but also of sexual impotence. Tristram Shandy begins with an impaired act of generation and ends with a bull who may not be able to perform as required with a cow. Scattered through the intervening pages are images of emasculation. Both Rabelais and Sterne are startlingly indecent writers; in Rabelais the indecency is naturally robust, almost triumphalist. In Sterne it is consciously asthenic.

Porter is in some ways like Dr Johnson’s friend, who, as he said, tried to be a philosopher, ‘but, I know not how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.’ Porter never tries to be a philosopher: he tries to be a historian, and succeeds magnificently. But the cheerfulness is certainly there (one is drawn to use adjectives from Porter’s own field, the history of medicine: ‘sanguine’, ‘euphoric’). Without this energy of mind he could never have carried through his immense investigation. Descartes, Willis, Boerhaave, Hobbes, Locke, Swift, Mandeville, Hume, Gibbon, Erasmus Darwin, Hartley, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Blake, Byron, Coleridge and many, many more are vigorously characterised and placed in an intelligible narrative. Schama is right to say that the author’s death is the more shocking because the book is so exuberantly vital; Porter was at the height of his powers. One effect of this crackling energy is to provoke the reader into a wish to talk back, to engage the author in a conversation that, now, can never happen. I would like to ask Porter why, in his account of William Harvey, he leaves out the great physician’s description, in lyrical Latin, of the splendid private parts, examined after death, of Old Parr (1483?-1635). Why did he omit from his discussion of gross physicality in Swift’s Brobdingnag the clear suggestion in the text that the Brobdingnagian maids of honour use the diminutive Gulliver as a sexual stimulant? He explores the pathological obsessions, bodily disorders and eccentricities of Johnson but says nothing about the strangest thing of all: the fact, noted by several contemporaries, that Johnson’s apparently convulsive movements were associated with a habit of forming mathematical figures with his feet, as if he were striving to combat incipient madness with somatic geometry. Such were the uses of flesh in an age of reason.

Meanwhile, however, Porter dispenses wonders in abundance. Mrs Thrale, he tells us, held that we shall exist in heaven not at any particular stage of development but at every age, simultaneously. I remember a conversation I once had, after looking at a Bambina Maria, encrusted with jewels, in an Italian church. It was explained to me that good Catholics do not pray to such figures; rather they ask them to intercede in putting the petitioner’s case to God. It is then supposed that Mary as baby, rather than Mary as grown-up woman, might be especially effective in softening the divine rigour. I asked if Mary was in heaven, then, in infantile form and received the astonishing answer that persons in heaven are long objects, tapered at the end where birth originally occurred, swelling to maximum thickness at the point of maturity, and that this cigar shape, the person of all ages, is present, in full simultaneity, in the next world; when we call the Bambina Maria to our aid we are asking one cross-section of the cigar to detach itself, step forward and solicit divine attention. Porter tells the story of the less than lovable Thomas Day, who reasoned from Locke’s denial of innate ideas that, if he could find a young enough girl, he could as it were sculpt himself a wife, a living doll; accordingly he took a little girl from the London Foundling Hospital and began to form her character. Things went wrong. When Day dropped hot wax on her arm and fired blanks at her skirts to toughen her up she merely screamed, so he abandoned her. Among other good things found by Porter are the suggestion, put forward in the Athenian Gazette, that black people will probably turn white as they ascend to heaven, and the amazing George Cheyne, an expert on dieting who weighed 32 stone (dieting and exercise, at least among the upper classes, seem to have been as much a talking point in the 18th century as they are today – narcissistic Byron was obsessive on the point).

But the book is not just a cabinet of curiosities. Porter’s analysis of Locke’s confinement of personal identity to a discontinuous stream of consciousness is admirable. The tracing of a gradual secularisation of thought is masterly, and at moments produces excellent literary criticism. The tombs and yew trees of Gray’s Elegy, Porter observes, no longer possess authentic religious force; they have become ‘Gothick paraphernalia’. I am sure this is right. The most powerful word for me in the Elegy is ‘heaves’, applied to the turf in the darkened churchyard. It is as if, suddenly, the source of life, germinating in the shadows, has been transferred from heaven to the earth under our feet. Porter knows that major Romantics such as Coleridge laboured to arrest and even reverse the great movement of secularisation. He understands exactly the way in which Blake is, and is not, a Christian; Blake loves Christ and hates God the Father.

Porter’s detailed exploration of the manner in which radical materialism, so attractive after the ‘blatant botch’ of Cartesian dualism, gradually discovered its own implausibility is, again, masterly. Can we give an exhaustive description of everything that exists in terms of physical bits and bobs? Strong mechanist theory derives from one half of the original problematic Cartesian doctrine. For Cartesians, only human beings have an immaterial soul: animals are contraptions – the screams of the dog on the vivisection table are exactly like the sounds given off by rusty or damaged machinery. It takes a philosopher to believe that. Meanwhile, Thomas Willis held that the soul which confers life on an organism is itself a rarefied material thing. It is as if we have abruptly returned to the etymological beginnings: ‘spirit’ once meant ‘breath’. But Willis was equally clear that there was a second soul, the rational soul, and that this was immaterial. He could not see how corpuscles could think, and so made a great rent in his own initially robust materialism. Later, Hartley supplemented his physicalist scheme of vibrating nerves with the pervasive operation of divine law. For Hartley, the idea of God makes its own way, one can almost say against nature, in the mind of the growing child, disconfirming earlier sensuous impressions that can, of themselves, never give anything but a universe of concrete things. The baroque exaggerations of physicalism offered by Swift and Sterne are funny because the writers can rely on the sheer implausibility of materialism; the implicit logic of their scorn is that such accounts of human nature are hilariously reductive. At an early stage in the game it was a poet, not a natural philosopher, who insisted that talk of ‘humours’ (fluids) must be metaphorical when it is applied to human character (Asper’s speech at the beginning of Jonson’s Everyman out of His Humour).

Descartes’s botch is oddly powerful. Like Hume’s paralysing critique of induction, it won’t go away. The 20th century saw pertinacious efforts to resolve psychology into investigation of the brain and nervous system. This immediately leads to Willis’s problem: how can corpuscles think? J.B.S. Haldane reluctantly noted that we can say of thoughts that they are true or false, accurate or inaccurate, but it will never make sense to say of any movement of molecules, however complex, that it is true. Brains obey the laws of chemistry, thoughts obey the laws of logic. He was in fact putting an argument made within Porter’s period by the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth. Haldane later repented of his concession, explaining that, guided by Engels and Lenin, he had come to see that ‘truth’ is local and socially determined by forces that are themselves susceptible of a materialist analysis. ‘Iron is heavier than water’ is true, he said, only as long as there is someone who understands English. Are we then to suppose that on that far-off day when the last English-speaker dies, iron will suddenly cease to be heavier than water? An alternative approach was to set aside the microscope and see whether the behaviour of living material organisms in relation to one another could supply all that is essential in our conceptions of mind and character. ‘Behaviourist psychology’ must have felt at first like an oxymoron, psychology without the psyche. The problem for the behaviourist was the irreducible presence of phenomenal consciousness. Gilbert Ryle strove, with ever decreasing cogency, to deny the existence of inner states. Wittgenstein pointed out the obvious: that we can all understand how there can be pain without pain-behaviour (just as we know all about our pain long before we know anything about the firing of the relevant fibres, which on the strong materialist account must be seen not merely as causing but as constituting the pain). Recent years have seen fresh assaults on the problem (‘functionalism’ and others). It is certainly hard to find a philosopher today who would describe himself as a Cartesian dualist. But, equally certainly, there is unfinished business here. Porter’s turbulent study of a turbulent intellectual world teaches us much about how we got where we are today. So perhaps his opening sentence is not so inappropriate after all.