Taut and delicate balance: reflections in the eye of Thomas Brown
Common sense, affirmed Ferrier, can neither be set aside nor taken for granted by philosophy. Rather, it must be converted into philosophy, and this "by accepting completely and faithfully the facts and expressions of common sense as given in their primitive obscurity, and then by construing them without violence, without addition, and without diminution into clearer and more intelligible forms". In the period under discussion, the early nineteenth century, the attempt to elucidate the phenomena of mind and their linguistic moulds came under the title of 'mental science' or 'analysis'. More specifically, the process envisaged for this science was inductive, what Dugald Stewart would call a dual operation of analysis and synthesis or Cabanis the method of decomposition and recomposition. Agreement on the use of such a procedure for the philosophy of mind or on the details of the technique employed was never unanimous: in the case of the latter, it had first to be established whether the 'scientist' was dealing at the outset with 'simple' or 'compound' phenomena and whether he was to proceed from the known to the unknown or vice versa. Beneath this controversy lay the roots of an earlier separation between the 'analysis of nature' (wherein our representations are viewed as scattered across the linear board of their presentation, and so distantly and only vaguely related) and the 'analytic of imagination' (which arranges and orders the disparate segments of temporal presentation into a simultaneous table of comparative representations). Michel Foucault, whose distinction this is, argues that these two directions of analysis begin to converge towards the end of the eighteenth century. But the moment of convergence, being fraught with difficulties for those at the intersection, is less than happy. This uneasiness of mind accounts, moreover, for the strain of conversion in 'Common Sense' philosophy. Nevertheless, where the struggles at the juncture are most intense, there is a commensurate heightening of philosophical awareness. Faintly visible in the first inquiries of Thomas Brown (1778-1820) into causality and volition, it reaches a crescendo in his more mature reflections on memory and attention, the nature of consciousness and reflection itself. Emerging with this apprehension, and giving it depth, is Brown's sensitivity to the feelings of selfhood and his belief in the recovery, however imaginary, of the individual's past. That sense of an order to be captured and restored, combined with a recognition of the affections which, more often, reap the havoc of human nature, create in his writings the sort of excitement associated not with the resolution of dilemmas, but with a prolonged, agonizing and continual tension. The subsequent discussion moves towards as it is moved by that realization.