"And yet in my own mind I am not sure but there may be such, an analogy between the nature of spirit and that of matter, as to admit of a receptacle of ideas."

— Boswell, James (1740-1795)

April, 1783
"And yet in my own mind I am not sure but there may be such, an analogy between the nature of spirit and that of matter, as to admit of a receptacle of ideas."
Metaphor in Context
Locke, in his essay concerning Human Understanding, exerts himself in vain to explain memory, though he treats of it with all his ability and ingenuity in the chapter Of Retention. He first adopts the ordinary definition:--"Memory is as it were the Storehouse of our ideas; for the narrow mind of man not being capable of having many ideas under view and consideration at once, it was necessary to have a Repository to lay up those ideas which at another time it might have use of." As, however, his penetration could not but see that all this is absolutely incompatible with a spiritual substance which mind is, he, immediately without any interruption or preparation whatever, proceeds very quietly, though most effectually, to contradict what he has been assuming, and to annihilate this supposed storehouse and repository. "But our ideas being nothing but actual perceptions in the mind, which cease to be any thing when there is no perception of them, this laying up of our ideas in the repository of the memory signifies no more but this, that the mind has a power, in many cases, to revive perceptions which it has once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before; and in this sense it is that our ideas are said to be in our memories, when indeed they are actually no where; but only there is an ability in the mind, when it will, to revive them again, and as it were paint them anew on itself, though some with more, some with less difficulty; some more lively, and others more obscurely. And thus it is, by the assistance of this faculty, that we are said to have all those ideas in our understandings, which though we do not actually contemplate, yet we can bring in sight, and make appear again, and be the objects of our thoughts, without the help of those sensible qualities which first imprinted them there."

It is strange that this great philosopher should have chosen to adopt a vulgar image, which he was the next moment to refute as a vulgar errour. And yet in my own mind I am not sure but there may be such, an analogy between the nature of spirit and that of matter, as to admit of a receptacle of ideas. How it may be I have no conception, I go on as I set out, I am only amusing myself with speculating on a curious faculty, of which, it seems to me, I must remain in full and astonished ignorance till the Great Giver of all intelligence (hall be pleased, to bestow a larger portion of it.

A great politician, and at the same time a very good philosopher, observed to me, that Locke, who displayed such extraordinary powers in analysing human understanding, shewed he had very little use of it himself, when he attempted to apply it practically to the subject of government. I perfectly agree with the remark, however unpopular it may be in this age of popular disorder.

But as I am of that constitution and habit of mind, that it is more pleasing to me to admire than to find fault, I with pleasure take an opportunity of bringing under the view of my readers an excellence in Locke, for which he is not usually celebrated, I mean an excellence of style. The following paragraph upon the failure of memory, in which, however, he again falls back to the notion refuted by himself, of there being in the mind a constant substance in which ideas exist, is a piece of beautiful composition, at once intelligible, pathetick, and richly figured.

"The memory in some men, it is true, is very tenacious, even to a miracle; but yet there seems to be a constant decay of all our ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in minds the most retentive; so that if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated exercise of the senses, or reflexion on those kind of objects which at first occasioned them, the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen. Thus the ideas, as well as children of our youth, often die before us: and our minds represent to us those tombs, to which we are approaching; where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away. The pictures, drawn in our minds, are laid in fading colours, and, if not sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. How much the constitution of our bodies, and the make of our animal spirits are concerned in this, and whether the temper of the brain makes this difference, that in some it retains the characters drawn on it like marble, in others like freestone, and in others little better than sand, I shall not here enquire; though it may seem probable, that the constitution of the body does sometimes influence the memory; since we oftentimes find a disease quite strip the mind of all its ideas, and the flames of a fever in a few days calcine all those images to dust and confusion, which seemed to be as lasting, as if graved in marble."
(pp. 157-8)
The Hypochondriack, No. 67 (April, 1783). See also The London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer <Link to Google Books>

See also James Boswell, The Hypochondriack, ed. Margery Bailey, 2 vols. (Stanford UP, 1928).
Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.