#TEDxFD – The death of the mind – and what comes next?

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I am extremely excited and incredibly honoured to be speaking at TEDxFulbright tomorrow in the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Many thanks to Lorcan, Emma, Chris and everyone else at the Fulbright Commission for making it happen, and also our fantastic speaking coach Barbara.

In my talk I will be speaking on a paper I published a number of years back, and which I still think about very often. The paper, titled ‘The origins of the psychological ‘interior’—Evidence from Imperial Roman literary practices and related issues‘, is a lot more interesting than it actually sounds!

As I will mention tomorrow, it started with sort of eureka moment I had while in the library in UCD. I was reading the Discourses of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from the first century AD.  My doctoral thesis was on the subject of attention, and this is the section I was interested in:

When you relax your attention [prosoché] for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover, but bear this in mind, that because of the mistake which you have made to-day, your condition must be necessarily worse as regards everything else… why do you not maintain your attention [prosoché] continuously? (IV, 12, ll. 1-3; trans. 1966)

What struck me about this section is that while I understood what Epictetus was talking about, at the same time, it was completely alien. There is no way I could hold my attention like that! His attention was quite different to mine! But at the same time, the difference was very profound. I realised that Epictetus’ writing about psychological concepts was missing something – something pretty big.

In modern times it is quite normal to talk about the mind as ‘looking within yourself’ or ‘finding inner peace’ or ‘getting inside your head’. And this idea of an inward mind is implicit in things like ‘repressing memories’ and ‘expressing emotion’ – we have an inner space inside us and we call this our mind.

But this type of language does not happen in ancient literature, and when it does occur, it is quite mystical. For example, Plutarch’s Moralia, from the same era, also states:

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. (I.48C; trans. 1960).

And Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from a little later, is a classic:

Men look for retreats for themselves, the country, the sea-shore, the hills; and you yourself, too, are peculiarly accustomed to feel the same want. Yet all this is very unlike a philosopher, when you may at any hour you please retreat into yourself. For nowhere does a man retreat into more quiet or privacy than into his own mind… (IV.3; trans. 1944)

Why did the ancient philosophers not think like we did? I later discovered that this ‘inwardness’ which we are now very familiar with, begins at a certain point in time, a few centuries after Epictetus, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius. Augustine wrote this passage in the late 4th century.

People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested. They experience no surprise that when I was speaking of all these things, I was not seeing them with my eyes… Yet when I was seeing them, I was not absorbing them in the act of seeing with my eye… They are pushed into the background in some interior place—which is not a place. (Confessions, X, 8.15–9.16; trans. 1991).

Augustine goes on to describe a whole theology of inwardness and writes about the mind in a way that we recognise – an interior place. And for some reason, pretty much everyone since him has done so too. Right from 386 CE up to the modern era, the idea of the mind as being an ‘inner place’ stayed relatively constant

Why was there such a dramatic shift from the ancient philosophers to Augustine? And what’s this got to do with the death of the mind? Not to mention what comes next?! I guess to find that out you’ll have to either read the paper, come to the talk or wait for the video to come online!

But suffice it to say that there was a signficant change in the information technology being used at the time. And our psychology stayed relatively similar, because our information technology didn’t change – until recently.

The implications of the information technology revolution for humanity – and all its pressing problems, from climate change, to mass migration, to cybercrime – are more profound than you could possibly imagine.