“A mere Phantasm or Imagination”: Philosophical Skepticism and Joseph Mede’s Crisis of Sense
Hitherto, I have been focusing on the relationships established among the objects of the world and the objects of the mind predominantly in popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century natural philosophy. I do so, in part, because the divisions between perception and reality, and between appearance and reality, for contemporary critical practice, are a given and are typically unreflectingly applied to earlier periods. In this post, I want to problemetize my contention by discussing an instance in which phantasms played a central role in epistemological and ontological questions generated by philosophical skepticism.
Literary critics at least since Staley Cavell have been interested in skeptical motifs in early modern literature. Cavell’s work was instrumental in developing my love of Shakespeare and in my interest in how philosophy relates to literature and cultural productions. Cavell argues that “the advent of skepticism as manifested in Descartes’s Meditations is already in full existence in Shakespeare … in the generation preceding Descartes” (Cavell 3). While insightful in his exploration of early modern philosophical skepticism as it appears in Shakespeare’s plays, he rarely uses contemporary sources outside of Shakespeare and Descartes to support his claim and never addresses the late sixteenth-century construction of the sensory system that might shape the ways in which skepticism at the time might be culturally contingent. Cavell mentions Montaigne, but only does so to position Montaigne as a skeptic trying to grapple with an “uncertain world,” whereas the skepticism he finds in Shakespeare and Descartes “is how we live at all in a groundless world. Our skepticism is a function of our now illimitable desire.”
Since Cavell and through new historicist scholarship, critics like Benjamin Bertram and Ellen Spolsky have broadened the understanding of sixteenth-century skepticism beyond Shakespeare, devoting more attention to its presence in early modern culture beyond Shakespeare and Descartes to amend the gaps. Apart from Spolsky, however, very few literary critics acknowledge the position of the sensitive soul in their analysis of early modern philosophical skepticism, and Spolsky herself typically reserves her discussion of the sensitive soul for footnotes. The same holds true for the objects of perception and of the mind known as species and phantasms. While Spolsky’s insightful analysis of a wide range of topics proves fruitful in deepening our understanding of how early modern skepticism was “satisfied,” it is my contention that by theorizing the sensitive soul and its objects we can attend to the different grounds upon which early modern skepticism is located. Stuart Clark, in his Vanities of the Eye, does the most extensive work I know of that discusses the ways in which what he calls the “derationalization” of sight intersects and converges with early modern skepticism. Clark’s exploration of changes in the accounts of early modern visual perception is incredibly rich and developed. Clark, however, in his focus on visual perception does not attend to the other senses and, aside from an incredible chapter on Macbeth, does not include many literary texts alongside the natural philosophy and optical treatises he details.
It is my contention that the Phantasy and its species or phantasms were central to skeptical dynamics in the early modern period. The faculty, the postulated theoretical point of intersection among perception and thought, the body and the soul, the world and the “selfe,”[i] waking and dreaming, and between the physical and metaphysical realms, was saddled with so many different tasks and roles, that the inherent contradictions produced uncertainty and cause for philosophical skepticism. Equally important are the objects of the Phantasy that are often represented as bridging the same divides and containing the same contradictions.
For this post, I would like to focus on an account offered of an early modern skeptical crisis in which the phantasms or species play a central role. In the early seventeenth century, theological student Joseph Mede, while pursuing a degree at the University of Cambridge, faced a crisis of sense. Mede’s crisis occurred
not long after his entrance into Philosophical studies he was for some time disquieted with Scepticism, that troublesome and restless disease of the Pyrrhonian School of old. For lighting upon a Book in a neighbour-Scholars Chamber, (whether it were Sextus Empericus, or some other upon the same Subject, is not now remembered) he began upon the perusal of it to move strange Questions to himself, and even to doubt whether the… whole Frame of things, as it appears to us, were any more than a mere Phantasm or Imagination. (Mede II of “The Author’s Life.”)
Mede’s encounter with classical philosophy unsettled his conceptual order, making it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between reality and fiction. As Richard Popkin explains in his The History of Skepticism, Joseph Mede “was at Christ’s College, Cambridge from 1602-10, and studied philology, history, mathematics, physics, botany, anatomy, astrology and even Egyptology… in spite of all this learning ‘his philosophical reading led him towards Pyrrhonism.’ But he could not accept the possibility that mind might not know reality, and might only be dealing with delusory ideas of an external world” (66). Two components of Mede’s crisis stand out. The first is that the text, most likely Sextus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, prompted Mede’s unsettling questioning of reality. The second is that reading classical pyrrhonists prompted Mede to consider all of perceptible reality a “mere phantasm or imagination.” The belief that the world might be a “phantasm,” resulting from reading classical skepticism, produces a crisis that exposes the tenuous grasp humans have on reality.
The phantasms, also called the species, played an important role in shaping the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sense of sense, serving as the “objects” of the inner senses. The phantasms were mental images “visible” to the inner senses. In addition to explaining ordinary perception, natural philosophers also deployed the concept, especially “mere phantasms,” to explain phenomena like hallucinations, dreams, memory, and the delusions of sense. The goal of my dissertation and this blog is to reveal the complex and convoluted history and nature of the notion of the phantasms or species that, I argue, play an important role in both epistemology and skepticism. As Mede’s case shows, however, determining the difference between phantasms and reality could be a difficult affair, producing a crisis of sense.
The crisis of sense Mede suffered from shows the “groundless world” possible in the generation before Descartes as Cavell suggests, but, as it precedes the broad acceptance of Kepler’s revolution in optical theory, it does not operate on quite the same ground. I contend that Kepler’s retinal image, of which Descartes too was aware, fundamentally shifted the ground of philosophical skepticism by more radically separating sensation from perception and the objects of the world from the objects in the mind. Once broadly accepted, the theory of the retinal image, combined with a shifting of the faculties of the sensitive soul, in Descartes case at least, to the far side of the pineal gland, produced a situation in which the mediating space of the sensitive soul was recast as a part of a mind that remained distinct from the body and transformed the embodied brain into something much more mechanical. This mind-body dualism, voiding the mediation of the sensitive soul and its objects, generated skeptical problems that resemble but do not perfectly copy the skeptical problems apparent in the sixteenth century.
One difference, as we find in the description of Mede’s crisis, concerns the phantasms and the imagination or Phantasy. For Mede, the possibility that the entire perceived world might only be composed of phantasms generated from his own brain rather than being the traces left in the mind by the mental objects of the external world unsettled him, leading him to doubt the very fabric of reality.
Whereas, in what I call the paramaterial Phantasy, the senses, the sensitive soul, and their objects expressed continuity and interconnection with the external world, with Mede’s case, we see a profound perimateriality. Rather than retaining connections to and with the world, Mede finds himself, with the encouragement of rediscovered classical skepticism, postulating a world radically closed off from the mind. The mental objects, the phantasms or the species, do not retain a mimetic relationship to their external world which are generated from outside the perceiving subject, but, instead, might be produced from inside the perceiving subject.
The skeptical disposition typically reinforces and reifies the boundaries between world and selfe, between objects and subjects. In the most extreme forms of paramateriality found most often in discourses of magic and witchcraft, there is a profound openness and interactivity between selfe and world. In the most extreme forms of philosophical skepticism, however, the self is radically closed off from the world to the point where the only thing that might exist is the subject. Such a gap, I contend, became increasingly wide following the discovery and popularization of the retinal image, but even prior to the retinal image cases like Mede’s could emerge from earlier models of mind.
The epistemological quandary Mede faces resembles the thought experiment Rene Descartes engages in with what is today known as the Cartesian demon. After arguing that all knowledge comes through the senses, Descartes famously posits a demon which could manufacture the illusion of reality by manipulating the senses. As Clark discusses and as I will discuss in other posts, Descartes builds upon questions of demonic manipulations of sense current in witchcraft discourses.
In many of these earlier discourses, while a devil or demon could manipulate the sensitive soul and its objects, Descartes extends the possibility of deception to the whole of sensible reality. But in Mede’s case, a similar world devouring skepticism emerges not from an externally postulated demon but rather from the solipsistic possibility that the world might be the product of Mede’s own mind.
In order to defeat his evil demon, Descartes turns to arguing that an omnipotent and benevolent God would not allow the type of all encompassing powers of delusion he attributed to the deluding devil. Similarly, the passage of Mede’s biography shifts from recounting Mede’s crisis of sense towards his life of religious study and writing. As the passage continues,
The Emprovement of this Conceit (as he would profess) rendered all things so unpleasant to him, that his Life became uncomfortable. He was then but young, and therefore the more capable of being abus’d by those perplex’d Notions by which Pyrrho had industriously studied to represent the Habitation of Truth as inaccessible: But by the mercy of God he quickly made his way out of these troublesome Labyrinths, and gave an early proof that he was design’d for profound Contemplations, by falling so soon upon the consideration of subjects so subtil and curious.
The “perplexed Notions” of Pyrrho lead to a crippling melancholy after the young Mede was “abused” by their representation of the inaccessibility of truth. The scholarly melancholy of Mede’s university days, the biographer assures us, gives way to “profound Contemplations” that drive him towards God and religious truths. Instead of Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God, Mede is led from the labyrinth of philosophical skeptical ideas by God’s “mercy,” but, through the implication, Mede turns towards God to recover from his uncertainty and melancholy.
Montaigne, too, makes such a move towards the conclusion of his “An Apologie for Raymond Sebond” where, after having taking Pyrrhonian doubt to its limit by undermining epistemology and faith in the senses, he takes issue with the sentiment “Oh what a vile and abject thing is man … unlesse he raise himselfe above humanity!” (325). Montaigne objects to this “absurd” statement by pointing out that man cannot rise above his humanity, explaining,
For to make the handful greater then the hand, and the embraced greater then the arme; and to hope to straddle more then our legs length; is impossible and monstrous: nor that man should mount over and above himselfe or humanity; for, he cannot see but with his owne eyes, nor take hold but with his owne armes. He shall raise himselfe up, if it please God extraordinarily to lend him his helping hand. He may elevate himselfe by forsaking and renouncing his owne meanes, and suffering himself to be elevated and raised by meere heavenly meanes. (325-326).
For Montaigne, only heavenly means can allow for a transformation where one rises above humanity even if one can help, through pyrrhonian skepticism, by voiding the faith in one’s senses and abilities.
The move, characteristic of many mid- to late sixteenth-century skeptical treatises, uses pyrrhonian tropes to reinforce a subjection to God, and can, at times, resemble the negative theology offered by thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa. In both Montaigne and in the description of Mede’s crisis of sense, God becomes the point beyond skepticism and remains unchallenged, but Descartes feels compelled to defend the existence of God through argument. While such skeptical questions were rarely (at least openly) deployed against belief in God, the philosophical skepticism they found in recovered and popularized texts like Sextus Emipricus’ Outlines certainly deployed similar arguments against belief in the gods. In Mede’s case, we see that the effects of skeptical questions and method could challenge all beliefs and knowledge, leaving them in a “groundless world” in the generations before Descartes.
The sense of urgency, anxiety and melancholy found in the report of Mede’s encounter with classical skepticism presents something not found in Sextus himself. For classical pyrrhonists, skeptical methods were used not to increase anxiety about ontology and epistemology, but rather as a way to achieve ataraxia (“tranquility”) by suspending judgment on dogmatic beliefs. For Mede, however, Sextus produces feelings of melancholy and profound anxiety that the world might not exist. The anxiety apparent in his doubt that “the… whole Frame of things, as it appears to us, were any more than a mere Phantasm or Imagination” leads to anything but tranquility as his melancholy makes things and life “unpleasant” for him.
I mention melancholy because it too plays a very important role in the skeptical arguments of both Sextus and Descartes, both use the delusions of madmen and melancholics to challenge the reliability of ordinary perception and judgments. In this too, Descartes plays into a tradition available at least a generation before him. While the psychophysiological models of the mind might not have resulted in exactly the same type of mind-body dualism found in Descartes, the paramaterial model of the mind, its sensitive soul, and their objects still gave occasion for an extreme philosophical skepticism.
At the same time, however, many of the philosophical skeptics’ arguments, even while questioning the reliability of the senses and suspending judgment on all matters, often depend upon a Galenic understanding of the mind, its faculties, and their objects. I will talk about this further in a later post on an expurgated translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines often attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh. Even as late sixteenth-century philosophical skeptics reified the borders of the body, possibly speculating, as Mede does, that all of sensible reality was a delusion, the terms in which they expressed such thoughts were linked, in some respects, to a model of mind that was slowly coming to be seen as outdated.
Sixteenth-century philosophers, natural philosophers and the skeptics inherited models of the mind shaped through Galen, Aristotle, the Stoics, Scholasticism, Avicenna, Averroes and the intervening commentary on those authorities. The models derived from classical thought and shaped during the medieval period typically become the tools deployed by skeptics against dogmatic belief and against epistemology. Many sixteenth-century philosophical skeptics, like the classical skeptics before them, do not often turn their own methods against the authorities on or the dogmatism of the models of perception and mind from which they draw the explanatory models to challenge the certitude of perception. Instead, they deploy those models to raise ontological and epistemological questions, challenging the nature of other beliefs and practices.
In the brief description of Joseph Mede’s crisis of sense, we discover that the phantasms and the possibility that the phantasms might be internally generated rather than externally derived stand at the center of the epistemological questions occasioned by philosophical skepticism. As I will discuss in further posts, the phantasms or species and the related faculty of the Phantasy which retained or produced them stood at the center of sixteenth-century ontology and epistemology. Additionally, representations of those objects and their faculty expose the tensions between two competing models of the selfe that either expressed an extreme openness and interconnectivity with the world in a model that I am calling paramaterial and one, offered by skeptics, that radically, and perhaps solipsistically, closed the selfe from the world in a model that I am calling perimaterial.
Bertram, Benjamin. “The time is out of joint:” Skepticism in Shakespeare’s England. University of Delaware Press, 2004.
Clark, Stuart. Vanities of the Eye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Mede, Joseph. The Works of the Pious and Profoundly-Learned Joseph Mede. London: Roger Norton, 1672.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays: Volume Two. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1942.
Popkin, Richard H. The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1979.
Reiss, Timothy J.. Mirages of the Selfe: Patters of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe. Stanford UP, 2003.
Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, Burlington, Singapore, and Sydney: Ashgate, 2001.
[i] Here and elsewhere, I opt to follow Timothy J. Reiss’ use of the term “selfe” as he describes in his incredibly insightful Mirages of the Selfe, saying that he chose to use the early modern spelling of “selfe” because of its “defamiliarizing effect” since “It just named whatever interior nature it was that made a person a human and no other kind of being” (25). In other posts, I also refer to “perceivers” to avoid using the modern spelling and notion of “the self” where appropriate.