“And as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown”: Why the “Paramaterial Phantasy”?
While studying mind models available in the early modern period, I noticed an unusual confluence of supposed “influences” on the mind that generate paradoxical aspects within medieval and early modern constructions of the Imagination or the Phantasy. These paradoxes reveal a Phantasy that resembles but differs from our ordinary contemporary understanding of the imagination. For this reason, although sometimes referred to as the imagination within early modern popular treatises, I deploy the term Phantasy to signify the differences between our own constructions of the imagination and early modern ones. In 1928, Murray Wright Bundy’s book-length archeology of the faculty, The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought, argued that specters of the Romantic Imagination appear towards the end of the Renaissance, but his study halts with Dante, who, Bundy argues, approximates the Romantic conception in the Divine Comedy. Since Bundy, scholars have attempted very few comprehensive studies of the faculty, and our own understanding of its function continues to be colored through the lens of the Romantic Imagination. Romantic era conceptions cast long shadows that continue to color our notion of the faculty as detached both from “reality’ as well as from the mechanics and materiality of the brain itself.
Despite key differences, scholars often speak of the internal and external senses as if the experience of those senses were not, in part, culturally constructed and experienced differently by different cultures. Characteristically, we still discuss the early modern imagination as if it was a disembodied faculty despite the pre- and early modern insistence that it primarily functioned to retain sensory inputs which were characteristically and securely linked to corporeality. In ordinary language, we continue to reify the boundaries between the imagination and materiality and between imagination and reason. My project reveals an early modern Phantasy that served as a central point of mediation between the soul and the body, between the external and internal senses, between the material and spiritual worlds, and among perceivers and the material and spiritual worlds. While post-Lacanian scholarship recognizes the importance of the imagination and the imaginary in the very constitution of our perceived “realities,” Romanticism’s shadow persists.
The early modern period, however, while gesturing towards the boundaries between the imagination and reason, and between imagination and materiality built upon classical ideas reinterpreted through the lens of Christianity. In these models, the gap between materiality and the imagination is much narrower than with the Romantic Imagination growing out of Cartesian mind-body dualism. I would argue that the early modern construction of the sensitive soul, as received through Late Medieval Scholasticism, represented more of a continuum from body to mind to soul than in later theories that stressed a mind-body gap. While we can detect a soul-body dualism in early modern discourses, the sensitive soul was positioned between them, providing for an interface between the potentially distinct realms.
The sensitive soul, which Scholasticism ascribed to all animals, included three mental faculties. The sensitive soul consisted of the Phantasy or Imagination, the Reason or the Understanding, and Memory. While often separable from the intellectual or rational soul, which Scholasticism ascribed exclusively to humans, the human sensitive soul played a role in processing sensory data into a form that could interface with the intellectual soul. In many popular accounts, the sensitive soul and its faculties served as the dominant model of mind even as they moved towards a re-articulation of those faculties. The intellectual soul, at times, became identified with the faculty of reason, but even materialized accounts of reason suggested a need for the more material sensitive data acquired by the senses to be dematerialized and abstracted to interface with the immaterial intellectual soul or the Christian soul itself. Thomistic theories of the senses, deriving from Aristotle, became central to the Catholic Church’s explanations of the Eucharist and of the relationship of the body to the soul. While Protestants like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin expressed anxiety over the Aristotelian inheritances and their role in establishing and explaining Catholic beliefs and practices, the sixteenth century did not have a real alternative to Aristotle when it came to mental models.
On the side of materiality, early modern Phantasies remained attached to matter through Galen’s legacy. Galenic humoralism allowed early modern physicians like Andre Du Laurens to explain fantastical illusions through melancholy’s tendency to “color” not only the faculty itself but also the very “spirits” of the brain. As products of the body and as the apex of a series of hierarchized “refinements” of bodily fluids, the “spirits” of the mind could still be “tainted” or “colored” by melancholy. Melancholy’s influence on the brain and its spirits could generate “dark” shapes or thoughts or shape perception in a way divorced from “reality.” Even earlier, the physician Johann Weyer attributed for many types of witchcraft phenomena to melancholy’s influence, offering a material explanation for seemingly immaterial phenomena.
On yet another level, the early modern Phantasy remained linked to matter in a way typically less acknowledged by early modern scholarship. The Phantasy also served as a bridge between the external world and the space of the mind. The legacy of the sensible species acquired by the external senses and passed on to the internal senses had not entirely disappeared. While I will not go into the complications of the species’ legacy in this post, natural philosophers explained the relationship of extra-mental and intra-mental objects through the reception of sensible species which they often described as “stamping” or “impressing” themselves upon the matter of the sense organs as well as in the matter of the brain’s “spirits.” The mediating species provided a material explanation of ordinary perception, but the Phantasy mediated their reception in a perceiver. The Phantasy and its “spirits” were paradoxically both material and spiritual, and, since the intellectual or rational soul as well as the soul itself remained closer to the immaterial, theorists argued that the faculty of the Phantasy converted the more material sensible species into an intellectual species which could be better received by Reason and the soul itself. The Phantasy, positioned between the material body and the immaterial or spiritual soul, mediated and paradoxically took part in both natures. For this reason, I have chosen to describe this faculty as well as spirits “paramaterial” since it expresses continuums between body and soul, an among perceivers and the spiritual and physical worlds.
Medieval and early modern constructions of the Phantasy, however, were haunted by specters of the faculty not typical of classical Aristotelianism or Galenic humoralism. In addition to receiving impressions from the external senses and mediating between the material and immaterial realms of body and mind soul, the Phantasy also accessed the divine and demonic realms. The early modern Phantasy, many witchcraft treatises tell us, are particularly vulnerable to the influence of angels and demons. Visions and other divinely inspired perception, and delusions or other demonically inspired illusions had the Phantasy as a special conduit. While physicians like Johann Weyer might challenge the vulnerability of the Phantasy by explaining aberrant phenomena through Galenic humoralism, even Weyer did not go so far as to deny the devil’s ability to alter and affect perception. Instead, he suggested that most phenomena attributed to witchcraft and devils could be explained through Galenic medicine, leaving open the possibility of true spiritual influence. Weyer, and the English Reginald Scot who followed Weyer, do not deny supernatural influence upon the Phantasy, but found themselves targets of James Stuart’s ire when James published his Daemonologie in 1597. For James, Weyer and Scot’s material explanations not only denied supernatural or spiritual influences on the faculty, but also denied the presence of a soul altogether. While James mischaracterizes both Weyer and Scot, James reveals the perceived danger overly material accounts of the Phantasy and of witchcraft phenomena offered.
Tensions between the two characteristics of the Phantasy emerge from James’ hyperbolic shaping of Weyer and Scot to reveal the central paradox found in representations of the early modern Phantasy. On the one hand, it remained connected to the material body and world. On the other hand, it remained connected to the spiritual and supernatural realms, including, but not limited to, the individual soul. This central paradox leads me to shape a new term to describe popular accounts of the early modern Phantasy as paramaterial. The paramaterial Phantasy exposes the paradoxical resolution and cultural tensions emergent in early modern popular representations of the mind. As materialist Galenic accounts of mental phenomena, witchcraft, and aberrant perception increased, others, like James, worried that such accounts trapped the perceiver within a perimaterial mind, closed off from the spiritual realm which denied the soul altogether.
Furthermore, the term paramaterial underscores the permeability and porousness of early modern perceivers, whose bodies, minds, and souls remained, by popular account, much more intimately bound up not only with the material world but also with the spiritual world. As I will discuss more extensively in a later post, the external senses, receiving the “impressions” of sensible species from the material world’s objects expressed the continuity between a perceiver and her world. While the Phantasy’s task was to abstract those impressions into intelligible species, the faculty was tasked with the ability to interface with the material, the mental, and the spiritual realms. While Galenic accounts of aberrant perception and psychology might be perceived as a threat to this porousness and permeability, the door of the paramaterial Phantasy remained open to the visiting demons and angels which could populate and shape the contents of a paramaterial mind.
The picture that emerges from investigating the paramaterial Phantasy paints an early modern perceiver not as a closed off subject but as a node interconnected with sensible and spiritual realities. While developing towards the profound separation of mind and body found in Cartesian dualism, early modern representations of the mind expressed their correlation, but that correlation extended outside the individual and towards the world, remaining open and permeable to the forces of the natural and supernatural worlds. In developing the concept of the paramaterial, I hope to build upon and complicate the historical phenomenological projects that have been most recently popularized by scholars like Gail Kern Paster and others to develop a more vivid picture of early modern phenomenology that accounts not only for the interconnectedness of mind and body but also for representations of perceivers more intimately connected to the external and spiritual worlds.
Even more recently, cognitive studies following Mary Thomas Crane’s Shakespeare’s Brain apply contemporary insights from neuroscience to bear on the early modern world, developing insightful and new avenues into the early modern world. The lens of modern neuroscience provides insight into the ways in which early moderns thought and into how they constructed their own artistic productions, but cognitive studies often myopically focuses on our own contemporary constructions of the mind without attending to the ways in which early moderns constructed and shaped their own sense of the mind. These culturally contingent constructions of the mind, to an extent, expose our own cultural blind spots and the relativity of the very models cognitive studies deploy for their re-evaluations of early modern texts and culture.
While modern neuroscience provides a perspective on the early modern period otherwise unavailable, so, too, do the various ways in which early moderns shaped their sense of themselves. In a few ways, some developments in modern neuroscience resemble, through the distorted mirror of anachronistic application, bring us back toward recognitions available from within early modern popular culture itself. Advancements in pharmacology and in understanding the material matter of the brain gesture towards suturing the division between mind and body developing out of Cartesian dualism. In this respect, our fears of biological determinism and anxieties that “mind” might be an illusion generated by a material organ, the brain, find themselves reflected “darkly” in the mirror of early modern anxieties that materialist insights into witchcraft phenomena might endanger the soul. The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” fracture the glass wall erected between the individual and the world set in place as a boundary between self and others, but such fracturing of the boundaries between self and world emerge, in a refracted way, through the ways in which early moderns explained the porousness and permeability of a perceiver through their own shaping of the sensory system and the paramaterial Phantasy.
At the same time, exploring cultural constructions of the senses and of the mind reveal how differently those similar anxieties emerge and are resolved. Early modern natural philosophers and theorists, approaching the mind by compounding classical and Christian authorities, do not seem as ready to collapse soul and mind in quite the same way as some are willing to do today. The “mind,” or at least a portion of the mind, the sensitive soul, remained simultaneously both material and immaterial while the Christian soul retained its immateriality. The sensitive soul, especially its faculty of the Phantasy, interfaced between the two, partaking in aspects of one another’s nature. While paradoxically and perhaps impossibly bridging the gaps between body and soul, and materiality and immateriality, soul-body dualism and a soul-body problem emerge instead of the mind-body dualism and mind-body problem that would soon develop in thinkers like Descartes.
Tracing the contours of early modern mind maps and the topography of the shifting ways in which those early moderns shaped their sense of sense, reveals new roads to understanding some otherwise baffling conventions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From Protestant iconophobia, to concerns over cross-dressing and “performance,” to explanations of the affective potentials of fiction and love, the ways in which early moderns shaped sense have broad and powerful implications and explanatory potential, informing aspects of early modern popular culture and life. Recognizing the cultural contingency of these earlier theories of mind and the senses acknowledges that the sense of sense and the sense of perception and thought itself do not remain historically constant, exposing how the shaping of sense shapes our notions of our own sense of the world, of others, of thought, of perception, of spirituality, and of our very sense of ourselves.