Pasanek, Brad, Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary

Brad Pasanek, Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015). 392 pp.  $49.95 Hb, ePUB, PDF, MOBI. ISBN 978-1-4214-1688-5

Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind is a bold, broad and ambitious study. This compendium of metaphors that were used in the eighteenth century – ‘the heyday of figurative empiricism in Green Britain’ (23) – to characterise the mind is a feat of digital research and incisive reading. Akin in scope to works such as Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976) and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1970), this study considers the cultural impact of terminology. In taking rhetoric -rather than author, text or genre – as material for his history, Pasanek promotes a new form of reading.

This monograph accompanies an ongoing large-scale digital database,, which contains some fourteen thousand of these metaphors drawn from keywords in texts written between 1660 and 1819 and hosted on Chadwyck-Healey, Past Masters, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), Early English Books Online (EBBO), and Google Books. The sheer scale of this project is impressive and the database provides an invaluable resource for students of philosophy, theory of mind, figurative language, social values, and any broader subject of the long eighteenth century.

The real achievement of Metaphors of Mind, however, is Pasanek’s treatment of the linguistic evidence that the data mining has uncovered. The book is divided into eleven broad sections: animals, coinage, court, empire, fetters, impressions, inhabitants, metal, mirror, rooms, and writing. Although the compendium is presented as a dictionary with headwords, keywords, and cross-references, it goes far beyond the identification and classification of metaphors. In focusing on what he terms ‘figurative empiricism’ or ‘the general analogy of language’ (the latter term taken from Berkeley’s 1713 Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous), Pasanek considers the metaphors in these groups, and their changing forms, meanings and applications as indicative of cultural change. He views a metaphor as ‘a completely thought thing, a tiny text to be interpreted, a vital expression that invites unlimited paraphrase’ (19). To this end, the analyses in Metaphors of Mind present these categorised metaphors – the mind as a room, the mind as impressionable wax, chains of thought or reasoning – as part of an examination of developing philosophical ideas and social values in the period.

The defamiliarised approach of keyword-searching that is used to find these metaphors constitutes a modern form of reading that focuses on tropes and usage. Pasanek describes his purpose as ‘to challenge commonplaces by means of commonplacing’ (2). This enables the bridging of new connections that signal the multivalence of imagery in the eighteenth century and the falsity of maintaining disciplinary boundaries when considering the writing of the period. The result of this desultory reading is a host of unexpected and insightful connections. For example, under the headword of Coinage metaphors, Pasanek points out that ‘polish’ can refer to both manners and artificiality in this period. This study of politeness is given a further dimension with the information that ‘“polite” is also a word used by Newton in his Opticks to describe glass and reflective surfaces’ (60). Similarly, in the section on Impressions, which is primarily concerned with the meanings of stamp(ing), wax, and seals, Pasanek explores how ‘[t]he widespread belief in eighteenth-century Britain that the post office was opening and reading private mail contributes to an analogy of the self as a letter looked over by a great postal clerk in the sky’ (157). Finally, under Rooms, Pasanek explores spatial ideas of the mind as a private space, from Cartesian withdrawal into solitude to the garrets of Grub Street Hacks, to the camera obscura (or the ‘dark closet’ in which the chamber pot would be stored). This grand tour around the special conception of the mind results in an idea of failed privacy in which ‘the project of much eighteenth-century popular writing is to drive the philosopher out into the public sphere, into the hurry of the streets’ (226).

One way in which this profusion of connections is particularly useful for future researchers is the ability to measure the changing nature of metaphors in the long eighteenth century. Pasanek provides a number of graphs that chart the growth and shrinkage of metaphor usage during the period. For example, he notes that the use of metaphors on the topic of empire decrease in the period – a development that is opposed to other developments in figurative language.  Similarly, the data for the use of ‘fetters’ and its cognates shows that before the rise of anti-slavery rhetoric in the second half of the eighteenth century most thinking about slavery was figurative rather than literally expressive of the state of slavery.

What difference does it make when the metaphor changes? This is a question to which Pasanek returns throughout his analyses of figurative language. One of the strengths of this compendium is its author’s resistance to easy historical narratives of development. If Metaphors of Mind promotes an overall view of the long eighteenth century, it is a post-Kuhnian conception of a period that resists storytelling. As Pasanek explains in the conclusion, ‘the narrative of the eighteenth century is not one in which Mirrors yield to lamps or in which John Locke’s adoption of the blank slate metaphor inspires declarations of independence and revolution’ (249). The transition from the mirror to the lamp, as explored by M.H. Abrams’ seminal 1953 study, is a case in point. Drawing on his new data, Pasanek challenges Abrams’ narrative of a shift from Augustan imitation and reflection to Romantic creation and originality by providing a counter-argument to the antithesis of mirrors and lamps: As he explains, ‘[m]irrors are increasingly hung in eighteenth-century interiors to illuminate the room, reflecting sunlight from without and multiplying and the candles lit within’ (194). This is only one example of incisive reading of evidence in this dictionary of the eighteenth century, but one which demonstrates the potential for this new approach to an intellectual history based on rhetoric.

Rosalind Powell, University of Bristol