Sorana Corneanu's "Regimens of the Mind" [(Academic) Book Review]

Title: Regimens of the Mind: Boyle, Locke, and the Early Modern Cultura Animi Tradition

Author: Sorana Corneanu

Rating: 4/5

9780226116396

Is this book for me? Probably not. It’s an academic book of the difficult sort and far, far from an easy read. But if you’re up to a challenge, it can be pretty damned fascinating.

This review is way overdue, considering I finished reading the book awhile back. Still, this morning I was cheerfully reading an article on psychology and the scientific method which brought Regimens of the Mind back into my thoughts. So, time to discuss it.

I’ve already mentioned in another article that I believe the humanities have a horrible academic writing style. Most of the books I’ve been subjected to as an undergraduate student and afterward are highly difficult to read because of their sentence structure and their assumption that the reader has a highly specialized vocabulary and kick-ass history and culture skills. Regimens of the Mind is pretty much like that. You’ll find yourself googling terms like ‘postlapsarian condition’ (it’s the first that came to mind now. It means ‘the condition of humankind after the Fall from the Garden of Eden’, yes?). Or, you know, looking up ‘regimens’. You’ll find yourself re-reading that last paragraph because you somehow failed to catch the meaning. Still, it’s a lot more readable than a lot of other academic texts out there – if you’re up to it, it’s a fun challenge.

Enough of my inner editor being a bitch. Because the humanities’ cryptic academic style is the only minus I think the book has.

You can’t tell from the title, but Regimens of the Mind is a book about the origins of the scientific method, of objectivity and reason – the way we take them for granted today. Imagine a world where people are trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, which arguments stand and which don’t. There’s no path that’s been laid down for it yet – sure, Aristotle went around explaining basic logic in Ancient Greece, but there’s a huge difference between theory and practice, between the simplicity of ‘if all A are B and x is an A, then x is B’ and being faced with the entirety of the material world and of the spiritual world, trying to tell when you’ve picked the right terms for your logical sentences. So people devise ways of explaining how to do that.

As an aside: you’ve got to love mankind, no? When we need something new, we create it. Whether it’s a computer, in order to decipher secret messages, or ways to further knowledge and understanding through providing clear guidelines of what to do and what not to do.

And there’s Francis Bacon, who starts discussing “idols of the mind”, false ideas which stop us from seeing the truth – because we have preconceptions and think we see more order in the universe than there really is, or because we simply like or don’t like certain things and want them to be true/not true. Or there’s John Locke, saying that sometimes we don’t see the truth because we subject to a higher authority telling us what to think – what the ‘truth’ is. I’ll stop with the examples here – Sorana Corneanu presents them and their connections much more neatly than I would.

So here we are, in this interesting world where objectivity and rationality emerge. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you’ve read theories of rationality in the contemporary world and have heard of a lot of reasoning mistakes by their modern, fancy, scientific-sounding names. Because things, as Corneanu presents them, are a bit more fascinating than you’d think.

Have you looked up ‘regimens’ and ‘cultura animi’ yet?… Because they explain the fun of it: ‘regimen’ means something like work-out, therapy, training – the sort of process you go through to make yourself better. And the ‘cultura animi’ isn’t far from the intuitive translation you might come up with: a cultivation of the soul. So all this reasoning stuff?… Thinking correctly about things, seeing nature objectively, as it were?… It’s not just for science, not just a method to figure out physics or chemistry. It’s for personal development. It’s a way to grow yourself. It’s a spiritual endeavor. It’s a way of life, of religious practice. The ‘Christian Virtuoso’ seeking to better himself through educating his mind, the ‘Lover of Truth’ pursuing reality are on the move, searching, in a pilgrimage of the soul.

That’s what makes Regimens of the Mind fascinating. Corneanu looks deep into the motivations these philosophers had for seeking the truth, for devising methods to discover it and to avoid mental traps. It’s an insight into another world, into a rich spiritual tradition that basically led to science being what it is. And she stops there, where you can pick up this strong, memorable insight into the past and consider it from any number of points of view.

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