Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind

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What constitutes the soul? What about the spirit? Are they one in the same? And what’s the deal with the mind? Where does the brain come in with all of this? How does it all figure in with regards to mental illness, or is it spiritual illness? Are they two different things? And are these scientific questions or religious ones? Did you know that when you speak about what’s on or in your “mind” that you’re speaking about something that was invented only a couple of centuries ago to initially be used as a replacement for the spirit?

George Makari takes the readers on a tour de force of European intellectual history, focusing on the Enlightenment era and tracing the evolution of these terms as different philosophical and/or theological groups gained ascendency through political power and imposed their view on everyone else. If you want a one sentence summary for the book, it is simply that whatever people call “rational” and “objectively true” during any given era is most often the view of those who hold power in academic institutions, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. In fact, it most likely is incomplete and incoherent in many ways, but to question it is to set oneself up for ridiculing and dismissal as a “quack”. Indeed, that’s precisely how every elite group had done to others during their time. Today, academics dismiss the soul and even consciousness as mere illusions, calling those who believe in them “deluded”. A couple of hundred years ago it was the opposite way around. In either case, it was political and economic power that determines who will hold the reigns of “rationality”.

For a treatment of how this could be and the way science, culture, religion, and politics can cross paths and lead to intellectual movements shifting in the most fascinating ways, I highly recommend this book. And once you finish reading the 500+ pages of text, make sure you skim through the endnotes as well where I found a few gems hidden there.

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