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Out of Their Heads
Global Encounters, Peasant Metaphysics, and the Real Mind-Body Problem
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“O, these men of old knew how to dream, and did not need to fall asleep first.” —Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Is the individual person a composite of a material body and an immaterial mind or soul? And if so, what is the relationship between these two ingredients?
This is the “mind-body problem” in its simplest formulation. But simplicity is not always a virtue, and in fact this formulation conceals a good deal of the historical complexity of the issue. Most philosophers are generally aware that the problem is part of our inheritance from early modern Europe, but when it is formulated in this concise way, we miss some of the important reasons why seventeenth-century Europeans were so anxious about apportioning and delimiting the respective powers of the mind and the body. And without understanding these, neither can we understand the nature of the problem we have inherited.
Anglo-American scholars have for the most part treated the problem as a timeless one, while continental scholars have tended to see its origins in early modern Europe as a result of the cultural transformations of the wars of religion. It became urgent, these latter maintain, to account for such questions as whether spirit is coextensive with body, or rather whether it should not be said to have any locus at all, in a cultural setting in which entire populations were being massacred over disagreements about the composition of the Eucharist. But what both the historically ignorant Anglo-Americans and the historically sensitive but terribly ethnocentric Europeans miss is the crucial role of global encounters, in what used to be called the “age of exploration”, for the shaping of a distinctly modern set of philosophical problems, among them, importantly, that of the relationship between mind and body.
Now what I have said so far might sound like it is of only narrow scholarly interest, but unless you have been living under a rock you will likely know by now that in every field of activity today Americans —and, belatedly and imitatively, Europeans as well— are looking for ways to make what they do less “white”. This is no less true of the study of early modern philosophy than it is of, say, the production of Op-Eds for the New York Times or the staffing of corporate boardrooms. But for the most part the relevant specialists haven’t got the slightest clue how to go about doing this.
Now from the outside you might suppose that a professor of seventeenth-century European philosophy, when pressured by students and administrators to diversify the syllabus, could only follow the example of one elderly music professor I read about on Twitter who proclaimed in exasperation: “This is a class on fourteenth-century motets. I don’t know WTF you expect from me here.” But in fact I think there is quite a bit that can be done in the particular field of specialisation that I know best.
Most of those calling for greater diversity in this field understand, correctly, that part of what needs to be done is to make the philosophical canon —or, if you don’t like that lofty phrase, the course reading list— more inclusive. But here they tend either to look for figures who stand as representatives of traditions that, rightly or wrongly (or, rather, wrongly), are seen as pristine and eternally separate from whatever was contemporaneously happening in Europe; or they find a figure such as the African philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (on whom I myself have contributed some scholarship), who may be retroactively cast as a representative of an identity category that has historically been deprived of its voice by Europeans, even though his work itself was entirely within the European academic philosophical idiom.
What this leaves out is the study of encounters — that is, the moments at which theoretical commitments as to how the world is, for example as to how the mind and the body work, were thrown into crisis as a result of exposure to belief systems and practices that were radically different from those Europeans had previously known.
Part of the reason why such sources are neglected is that, although they engage with non-European world-views, their authors are still European, and are therefore presumed, by those most eager to see more diverse syllabi, to be mostly unreliable narrators. Sometimes —as in the study of Aztec philosophy— scholars are confronted with the brute reality that they must rely, for example, on Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex in order to have any sort of adequate picture of the belief system that is the true object of study and that the Franciscan missionary himself decidedly rejected.
But what if we wish to understand not only how Sahagún was misrepresenting Indigenous thought, but also how Indigenous thought was in the course of reshaping the contours of Sahagún’s own world? As Philippe Descola has understood of early modern writing on Indigenous Brazilian belief systems, even travel literature that is boiling over with prejudice and disdain tells us a great deal, both about the author and about the people the author is writing about. We simply have to know how to read it.
If I had my way, the study of early modern philosophy would consist overwhelmingly in the study of early modern travel literature. Such an approach, of course, would have difficulty finding any traction on what we may call for shorthand either “the right” or “the left” — which camps generally seek either to glorify European accomplishments or to minimise them (and to minimise them in part by moving on to study non-European sources). I would like to continue to learn from European sources, but to do so neither in the aim of lifting them up nor condemning them, and in a way that recognises that they were themselves never just European, but were always constituted by networks of exchange and reciprocal influence. This was the case in the scientific renaissance of thirteenth-century Europe, when Roger Bacon used recently translated Arabic treatises on natural magic in his workshop at Oxford, and it was certainly true in the era of full-throttle colonialism.
Here then I hope to provide an example of what such “connected history of philosophy” might look like. For the most part the way we pose and frame questions in philosophy today, including the question of canon formation, suffers from both a lack of imagination and a dearth of resources. In part for this reason, I believe, “erudition” must not be understood, as it so often is by Anglo-American philosophers, as an ornamentation that we are free to add to our philosophical tool-kit, or not, but is rather absolutely necessary for an adequate understanding of the real meaning of philosophical problems as they appear and evolve in history. And outside of history, I take it for granted, they are nothing at all.
So let us begin in earnest with a most noteworthy travel report, published in Richard Hakluyt’s monumental multivolume work of 1589-60, The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation. The report was sent in 1556 by the merchant Richard Johnson, travelling across the Russian Empire into North Asia, to his compatriot Richard Chancelour. It describes, among many other things, “the deuilish rites of the Samoedes”. As far as I know, Johnson offers here the earliest European eyewitness account of what would come to be known as “shamanism” — a disputed term in current anthropology, though one that applies correctly to Indigenous North Asian religious practices if it applies anywhere at all.
Johnson describes being seated in front of a fire as a Samoyed (or, more properly, Nenets) elder removes his shirt, wearing now only a pair of deerskin pants “with the haire on, which came vp to his buttocks”. The elder’s associates proceed to take a deer-hide rope and to fasten it around his neck and under his left arm, the ends of which the two men then hold on opposite sides of him. A kettle of hot water is set in front of him, and a shroud is lifted to conceal the whole scene from Johnson and a handful of other spectators. Next, we learn, the two men walk out in opposite directions from behind the shroud, pulling on the deer-hide cord. What Johnson reports at this point deserves to be quoted in full:
I hearde a thing fall into the kettle of water which was before him in the tent. Thereupon I asked them that sate by me what it was that fell into the water that stoode before him. And they answered me, that it was his head, his shoulder and left arme, which the line had cut off.
Johnson writes that at this point he attempted to raise up and peer behind the shroud, but that the Nenets men sitting next to him blocked him from doing so, insisting that “if they should see him with their bodily eyes, they shoulde liue no longer.” And it’s at this point that things get really strange:
Then they beganne to hallow with these wordes, Oghaoo, Oghaoo, Oghaoo, many times together. And as they were thus singing and out calling, I sawe a thing like a finger of a man two times together thrust through the gowne from the Priest. I asked them that sate next to me what it was that I sawe, and they saide, not his finger; for he was yet dead: and that which I saw appeare through the gowne was a beast, but what beast they knew not nor would not tell.
Our traveller is writing from a neutral point of view. He passes no judgment concerning the veracity of what he sees, but only describes it. He is far from home, and his perception of the boundaries of reality, it may be, has been correspondingly warped and expanded. The same may not be said of Hakluyt, who frames Johnson’s report in rhetoric that will become commonplace over the course of the seventeenth century, in cultural domains as apparently far apart from one another as travel relations from the Americas; legal trials against suspected witches in England, Germany, France, and Italy; and, indeed, philosophical treatises on the nature of reality and the path to certain knowledge.
In this rhetoric, there is a curious vacillation between two different accounts of the untrustworthy claims or actions of others: now they are playing a trick or lying for capricious reasons, now they are doing the work of the devil. In the witch trials, famously, prosecutors often expressed dissatisfaction with some poor peasant’s initial account of his or her illicit behaviour, and only paused in their enhanced interrogation once the suspect admitted not only to having acted indecently, but to having done so in Satan’s name. The same vacillation, between caprice and diabolism, between playing a trick and doing proper evil, will show up again in the famous thought-experiment in the second of René Descartes’s Meditations of 1641, where a character is introduced who has the power and the inclination to convince our philosopher, or at least his fictionalised avatar, that whatsoever he held to be true is in fact false, and vice versa. This being is variously described as an “deceiver” and as a “demon”.
Few commentators have paused to reflect on what the alternation between the connotations of these two labels might signify. Now it may seem all too quick to suggest that Descartes’s fictional character is conceived against the background of a broad cultural preoccupation with the figure of the “trickster”, which in turn may be traced to such proto-ethnographic participant-observer experiences as related by Richard Johnson almost a century before. So let us try to expand our frame of consideration a bit wider, in order to include some moments in European history that might help us to establish a more certain link between the abstruse philosophical thought-experiment on the one hand, and the concrete encounter with alien cultural practices on the other.
I have already mentioned witch trials, and in doing so I was linking together two dimensions of early modern cultural history that are too often studied separately: the encounter with Indigenous people out beyond the borders of Europe, and the enduring “problem” of managing the social effects of certain popular beliefs among the lower classes within Europe. The idea that the latter were in effect Europe’s own Indigenous population, subject to all the same dangerous superstitions and vicious habits as the Native peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, is one that returns with surprising frequency in the primary sources. In his 1695 treatise on the medical uses of the ipecac root, entitled De novo antidysenterico americano [On the New American Antidysenteric], G. W. Leibniz —yes, that Leibniz— explicitly observes that Indigenous Brazilian botanical knowledge is comparable —in its forms of transmission and in its depths unrivalled by male-dominated European institutional medicine— to the knowledge of the old peasant woman selling herbs at market.
In Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, composed in 1608 but published only in 1634, we find a fictionalised account of the use of hallucinogenic plants by Kepler’s own mother, Katharina. Thanks to her skill in the concoction of botanical recipes, a character by the name of Fiolxhilde, plainly modelled on Katharina Kepler, is able to induce a flight to the moon that the author then uses as the occasion for his main protagonist, Fiolxhilde’s son Duracotus, to make observations on lunar astronomy. Such hallucinogen-induced ecstatic transits are a well-attested practice in seventeenth-century agrarian cultures in Europe. They have real features in common with “pagan” rituals of the sort European travellers, among them Richard Johnson, had begun to encounter with growing frequency in the extra-European world. And they are also at the source of rumours of witchcraft, as imagined and exaggerated by European ecclesiastical powers increasingly anxious to stamp out vestiges of pagan practice within their jurisdiction — Katharina Kepler herself ended up in a Stuttgart prison, under suspicion of witchcraft, not long after her son wrote the Somnium.
From northern Italy to the only recently Christianised Baltic region, the peasants were regularly going out of their heads. Where were they going? In Friulia, as Carlo Ginzburg has famously shown us, the good ones, the benandanti, were going to do battle with the bad ones, out in the fields, where they beat each other with fennel stalks, the outcome of which battles determined the success of the coming season of crops. “I am a benandante,” one of the sources studied by Ginzburg relates, “because I go with the others to fight four times a year, that is during the ember days, at night; I go invisibly in spirit and the body remains behind.” In some parts of Europe the night-travellers rode out on the backs of cats or goats, or by broomstick. On the initial account provided by peasants there was usually nothing overtly sacrilegious about their voyages, even if they surely understood that what they were doing was something not spoken of in church. It was up to their far more learnèd inquisitors to recast these nocturnal flights as satanic, and to imagine their destinations as witch’s covens, trysts with succubi, orgies hosted by Satan himself.
All the evidence suggests that the peasants understood perfectly well that their bodies, along with their heads, stayed at home in bed as their spirits went out to engage in night-battles. But —and here we come to the key point of this discussion— it was simply not part of their world-view to suppose from the fact that their bodies stayed home that therefore what their minds experienced must have been a mere hallucination or phantasm. For the realm of phantasm, what goes on in what the philosophers were coming to call “the faculty of the imagination”, had not yet been reduced for them to mere private subjectivity, to something that seems to them to be happening, even though it is not really happening.
In this respect, what we might appropriately label “peasant metaphysics” continued to share, well into the modern period, in the same basic understanding of the imagination, of dreaming and of phantasm, as the great majority of human cultures throughout history. According to this understanding, dreams and phantasms are every bit as real as the rocks that Samuel Johnson would soon feel inclined to kick in order to “refute” Berkeleyan idealism. They are every bit as real, but also real in a different way — in a way, namely, that would render absurd the endeavour to prove their existence by kicking them or locating them under a microscope.
It is clear that early modern philosophers were, just like the ecclesiastical authorities, broadly aware of this dimension of peasant belief, and that they understood it as the “homegrown” instance of an understanding of the relationship between mind and body that may be commonly found throughout the extra-European world. Thus to cite just one of many examples, in the Antidote against Atheisme of 1653 the Cambridge Platonist Henry More relates the story of a “Souldier out of whose mouth whilest he was asleep a thing in the shape of a Wesell [i.e., a weasel] came.” As many eyewitnesses would attest, More tells us, the little animal was seen struggling to cross over a brook, and was helped by another soldier who laid down his sword for it. Upon awakening, the first soldier told “how he dream’d he had gone over an iron Bridge, and other particulars answerable to what the spectatours had seen afore-hand.” Like Richard Johnson when he saw the finger-sized “beast” emerge from the Nenets shaman, More himself is non-committal about the truth of this story. But he maintains that if there was such a weasel then it was not the soldier’s soul, but the devil himself.
Another still more remarkable example of the impact of such popular beliefs on philosophical debate comes in the form of a satire published by the Jesuit anti-Cartesian Gabriel Daniel in 1690, under the title Voiage du Monde de Descartes. One of the principal conceits of Daniel’s delirious tale is that Cartesian mind-body dualism willy-nilly permits and encourages night-travelling. The Jesuit imagines a sort of secret cult of Cartesians who, along with their study of the dualistic doctrine of the separateness of mind and body, are also initiated into concrete practices by which they may put this separateness to use for their own diabolical amusement, flying from one end of France to the other “in under an hour”. It should not be surprising to learn that the specific trigger by which this power is induced, as was the case for Kepler’s fictional mother (and likely his real one too), is an illicit substance. Daniel imagines Descartes growing homesick when he moves to Stockholm to serve as court philosopher to Queen Christina. He becomes an addict there, getting stoned out of his mind every night in order to take voyages back to France.
It is not that anyone ever really travelled from Sweden to France by ingesting a special herbal brew, or ever emerged out of his own mouth in the form of a weasel. But the belief that one could do such things, and the cultural practices shaped around this belief, remained important in early modern Europe. And if these beliefs and practices came to be contested by philosophers in that era, this is in large part because it was now possible to see them in relation to the beliefs and practices of non-European peoples — in the mirror of the outer world the enduring paganism of Europe was cast into clearer relief. The transits documented by the inquisition, by Henry More, by Gabriel Daniel, or by Joseph Glanvill in his influential Sadducismus triumphatus [Witchcraft Defeated] of 1681, are plainly similar in all important respects to the rituals observed, for example, by Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt and related in his Forschungsreise durch Sibirien [Research Voyage through Siberia] of 1720-27. There the German explorer recounts his participation in a Buryat shamanic ritual, where an elder drinks fermented mare’s milk mixed with European-style distilled alcohol (this latter ingredient being a new sign of cultural hybridism, and of the ravages to come), and begins “to dance and growl until his spirit is transported to the world where his gods dwell.”
One could multiply such examples, whether from Siberia, America, or the English countryside, from any moment between roughly 1550 and 1750, but we have already seen enough, I think, to appreciate much of what is at stake. As reports accumulated of people whose imaginations remained as it were undomesticated, a philosophical consensus was emerging in Europe according to which imagination is fundamentally a bodily process — it is, now, literally “imaginating”, or the rendering of images that are ultimately always supplied through the sensory organs. If the spirit is capable of anything at all on its own, this is not flying by night or transiting to the moon or the realm of the gods, but rather engaging with the pure ideal abstractions of geometry. This was Descartes’s solution to the problem of imagination, anyhow, while many others would come to prefer to eliminate any independent activity at all in which the mind may engage by itself.
Thus did persons become permanently and rigorously anchored to their bodies. This incipient materialism was, ironically, the ultimate price of the suppression of paganism, a central element of which, again, was a belief in the reality of what we may call “the dream life”. Over the coming centuries, this dimension of our existence, in which we are totally immersed for roughly eight hours a day, and which we never fully escape in the remaining sixteen, would be reduced and folded down into what we now know as “subjectivity”: all that stuff we are supposed to bracket in our waking and sober encounters with other rational adults.
Some people, notably Freud, have tried to bring the dream life back and make it salonfähig again, suitable as a topic of conversation in polite society. But for the most part they have been unsuccessful. You might be able to talk to your shrink or to your friends about your dreams, but you are not likely to find much success in the corporate world, say, if you openly allow oneiric visions to play any role in your practical rationality. And in any case even Freud saw our night-visions as part of our own individual and private constitution, as part of our “inner world”. No one over the past four hundred years has attempted to fully rehabilitate the phantasmic dimension of our existence to the position it previously held, to grant it the status of “reality” — at least not without drifting off into the banished fraternity of the crackpots.
But even the boundaries of crackpottery are historically conditioned. Historians who concern themselves with this conditioning, it is to be hoped, may be granted immunity from any suspicion that they themselves are trying to rehabilitate anything at all.
“At the last,” Johnson tells us of the shamanic ritual he observed among the Nenets, “the Priest lifted vp his head with his shoulder and arme, and all his bodie, and came forth to the fire.” The traveller does not seem quite sure of what he has just seen, but he is relieved at least to find familiar everyday reality restored.
This relief is understandable, for a practically minded merchant such as Johnson. Philosophers by contrast should not be in the business of preserving everyday reality, but rather of questioning the historically conditioned reasons why its boundaries are placed where they are. Even if we are too cautious to go out of our heads in the manner of a Buryat shaman or a Friulian peasant or Kepler’s mom, we should at least be prepared to approach what they were doing, and what they thought they were doing, with all the interpretative charity and interest we can muster.
Now, some Housekeeping. I’ve been surprised and delighted to see so many people sign up for this newsletter. The vast majority are people I do not know, and since the only information I have on subscribers is an e-mail address, for the most part I have no idea who you all are or how you heard about this new project. So, wow, and thank you. Thus far, this experiment has provided me with ample confirmation of my long-held suspicion that for many purposes editors are superfluous middlepeople, who do not improve the voice of an author but rather weaken and distort it, and that therefore the best way for a writer to reach an audience is the most direct way.
I have already said that one thing I like about this format is that I call all the shots here, and do not have to think about “engagement” as one does on social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or (let us call them what they are) Academia.edu or ResearchGate.net. That said, I am responsive, as any provisioner of goods or services must be, to “demand side” expectations, and to that end it has come to seem to me that my original promise of a fortnightly essay was insufficient. I will accordingly be posting once a week, but every other week, rather than posting a new essay, I will post a draft excerpt from a forthcoming book, or perhaps some rudely rejected piece of mine that I’ve been sitting on and that still deserves to see the light of day, or, if the spirit moves me, some satirical bagatelle or comic subversion. We’ll see. But the original writing every two weeks will continue to come. That’s all for now. Thanks again for reading.