Carelessness and Inattention: mind-wandering and the physiology of fantasy from Locke to Hume

In Charles Wolfe & Ofer Gal (eds.), The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: embodied empiricism in early modern science. Springer. 243--263 (2010)
1. The restless mind[1] Like us, early modern philosophers, both natural and moral, didn’t always understand the springs of their own actions. They didn’t want to feel everything they felt, and couldn’t trace the sources of all their thoughts and imaginings. Events from past experience come to mind again unwilled: abstract thought is interrupted by fantastical images, like the ‘winged horses, fiery dragons, and monstrous giants’ by which Hume exemplified ‘the liberty of the imagination’[2]. Then, as now, a failure to keep a train of thought on track could be blamed for both personal and social ills, for wasted lives and erratic policies. The ongoing struggle to distinguish the deliverances of reason from what Hume called ‘the loose and indolent reveries of a castle-builder’ (1739/ 1978, p.624) thus required scrutiny of daydream and fancy as much as belief and knowledge (see also Tierney- Hynes 2007 on the ‘castle-builder’). The mind’s tendencies to float and to roam were of great interest to early modern philosophers as well as to others concerned with medicine, mental health, morals, education, and taste. This paper sketches one local line of thinking and theorizing about ‘mind-wandering’ and its bodily causes in British philosophy over the first decades of the 18th century, as a small exemplar of a form of cognitive history intended to illuminate independent historical and contemporary concerns about our understanding of mental life. The dual aim is to see problems in our historical material that we might otherwise miss, and to use history to explore phenomena more or less marginalized by modern psychology[3]
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