on 23 July 2014
Much pleasure can be derived, for anyone initiated and curious enough, in tracing the source of things. Here, we are concerned with the sources of contemporary scientific, rational thought. Or rather thinking about thought scientifically and rationally. How did we come to think, refer and talk about brain, the "mind", the body, the "flesh"-essentially ourselves- in the philosophical vocabulary and dialectical context like now? The answer, for those familiar with Roy Porter's ouevre,was in the European Enlightenment: the diffuse century-long intellectual movement where dialectics, politics, humanities, economics, medicine, science, linguistics, art, literature and all major spheres of human knowledge were retrieved from the dungeons of religion and replaced by models alight with reason, method, causality and critique.
Here we have Porter, Britain's go-to historian for everything Enlightenment-related, who in his endearing enthusiasm, holds his reader's fingers and takes you down the alleyways of British Enlightenment, knocking on the door of every iconoclast on the way and distilling their philosophical discourses for you. He had hinted he would do this in his earlier book: Enlightenment (a magnificent, authoritative history that is as compulsive a read as this one) and he rises to the occasion beautifully. For starters, he does a new, elaborate trip down the history lane before you meet these super-thinkers by summarising the major philosophical discussions over "soul" from Classical era to the religion-clogged thought-space of Middle Ages. How, beginning with Locke, piecemeal by piecemeal, the deconstruction of body-soul dualism got executed and supplanted by the dualism of body-mind through a battery of thinkers from a variety of professions forms the crux. Like its parallel Industrial Revolution that transformed the landscapes of Britain and Europe, this Intellectual Revolution transformed the thought-scapes, roles and lives of every creature that peopled the new Industrial cities and towns. It is from within these changing times that one can spot the germs of all modern institutions and contemporary discourses.
Fiercely erudite, intimidatingly intellectual, this mind-expanding text with a supremely pertinent enquiry at its core is a bonafide history tome for the shelf. Porter's excitement with this project is palpable with how patiently he constructs the synecdoche in the introductory chapter which distillates the book in the most magnificent prose possible. For me, the best delights are when, turn by turn, he gets to summarise the philosophical output of Locke, Wollstonecraft, Hume, Darwin, Godwin, Blake and Byron. Porter pens such passionate, feverish mini-autobiographies that I could literally smell the thought-soil these thinkers smelt, felt the force of their thought-shoots erupting and felt like I myself took the mind-bending philosophical leaps they took. From feminism to journalism to Romanticism: the reactionary, the off-shooting: all kinds of movements and their conductors get an applaud-worthy condensation here.
Porter, for me, was one of the foremost thinkers of the twenty first century whose histories are so throbbing with life and language that they have to be read. Flesh In the Age of Reason is an exhilarating and sublime swan song from a genius writer who left us too soon right at the peak of his powers.