I’m reading Frances Yates’s book The Art of Memory, in which she investigates the history of the classical art of memorization by imagining images in a building; she came to it by way of her earlier studies of Giordano Bruno, and her understanding of late medieval and Renaissance ways of thinking is remarkable.
Her understanding of twentieth-century ways of thinking, however, left something to be desired, as I discovered about halfway through the book, in the chapter “Giordano Bruno: The Secret of Shadows,” where she says:

The efforts towards finding a way of conciliating the classical art of memory, with its places and images, and Lullism with its moving figures and letters, had continued to grow in strength in the later sixteenth century. The problem must have excited a good deal of general interest, comparable to the popular interest in the mind machines of today.

Mind machines?! I pictured an alternate universe, in which something like Kir Bulychev‘s mielofon had been invented by the mid-sixties (Yates’s book was published in 1966). Since I was on the subway at the time and couldn’t investigate further, I shrugged and went on. Later in the chapter I came to this passage:

As I have emphasized in my other book, the Renaissance conception of an animistic universe, operated by magic, prepared the way for the conception of a mechanical universe, operated by mathematics. In this sense, Bruno’s vision of an animistic universe of innumerable worlds through which run the same magico-mechanical laws, is a prefiguration, in magical terms, of the seventeenth-century vision. But Bruno’s main interest was not in the outer world but in the inner world. And in his memory systems we see the effort to operate the magico-mechanical laws, not externally, but within, by reproducing in the psyche the magical mechanisms. The translation of this magical conception into mathematical terms has only been achieved in our own day. Bruno’s assumption that the astral forces which govern the outer would also operate within, and can be reproduced or captured there to operate a magical-mechanical memory seems to bring one curiously close to the mind machine which is able to do so much of the work of the human brain by mechanical means.

Oh, she’s talking about computers! Now, Frances Yates was born in 1899; she grew up in a world of automobiles, telephones, and motion pictures, and was still a young woman when radio came along. But she took her degree in French, and by the late twenties was publishing articles like “Some new light on ‘L’Ecossaise’ of Antoine de Montchretien” and researching John Florio. Presumably by the late forties, when computers were being developed, she was so deeply immersed in the Renaissance that she had no idea what was going on in the technological world around her; at some point she became aware of the existence of large whirring blinking machines that did amazing tricks with numbers and were thought capable of someday matching the capabilities of the human mind, and she attached the label “mind machine” to them. Well, there’s no reason she should have been au courant with such things; what struck me was that nobody at the publishing house said “Uh, Frances, what are these ‘mind machines’ of which you speak?” The tweedy, pipe-smoking editors of the day were as out of touch as she; they could discuss Updike and Picasso, but had no interest in things that whirred and blinked. Editors have changed, of course, but the cultural divide persists; there’s a straight line between Yates’s “mind machines” and the “morphogenetic field” of the Sokal hoax of 1996. When will the sciences and the humanities finally learn how to talk to each other, and perhaps even absorb some much-needed perspective?


  1. Some more recent work on this subject has been done by Mary Carruthers. She has three books: “The book of memory,” “The craft of thought,” and “The medieval craft of memory.” The former two are more historical writing/analysis (one owes more to art and the visual, the other is more textual, but I’m damned if I can remember which is which), while the latter is a collection of medieval texts and images bearing on this question. I think Carruthers’ work is wonderful, and on top of that she really does know what a computer is. It also sounds like Yates confines herself to the late Middle Ages & Renaissance, whereas Carruthers includes a discussion of the relationship between medieval techniques of memory and the rhetorical and mnemonic techniques of the Classical world.

  2. I loved that book; as a computer scientist/applied logician, I read it as a prehistory of computer science, just as you can read about alchemy as a prehistory of chemistry and physics. I can’t recall exactly the time it appeared, but it may well have been when it was much more common to refer to computers as ‘electronic brains’ or ‘thinking machines’: the age of cybernetics and faith in strong AI as a Grand Challenge.
    All the same, I can’t help sharing your wish that Yates had talked more to those who understood both formal logic and computation, and drawn a firmer line connecting Leibniz’s dream with the forebears surveyed in the book. Even a better understanding of calculus on her part would have made things clearer.
    However, the term “morphogenetic field” didn’t originate either in the humanities or in the Sokal hoax: its creator, Rupert Sheldrake — a biologist by training — meant it to be taken seriously as science. It isn’t, in general, but it isn’t the result of a misunderstanding — rather, it is a new hypothesis. (Myself, I am deeply suspicious of it, but I am not a biologist and hesitate to form a stronger opinion than that without much investigation.)

  3. xiaolongnu: Yates starts with two chapters on the ancient sources and traditions (she opens the book with the famous anecdote about Simonides and the banquet), but her main interest is in the Renaissance.
    Epecho: I didn’t mean to imply the phrase was made up for the hoax, simply that it was accepted without a qualm (and without further research) by the people who published the essay.

  4. I believe that “The Memory Palace of Matthei Ricci” was a description of a practical application of the Art of Memory. Ricci, a jesuit missionary, did something that almost no foreign adults have ever been able to do — learn classical Chinese well enough to be accepted by the Chinese as a write and scholar.
    Llull was an amazing figure — one of the first poets in the Catalan language, for example.

  5. It is only by doing a search using the Google search engine that I was supplied with further hints as to why the expression “mind machines” (note the plural) didn’t immediately connect with “computer”. Apparently in some quarters, the term is applied with machines meant to create pretty patterns to soothe the mind and associated with various forms of biofeedback.
    I guess that the term “mind machine” is immediately associated with computers by readers who have a sense of some of the titles and the discourse circulating at the time _The Art of Memory_ was composed and went through the hands of the editors of the publishing house.
    E.g. W. Sluckin, Minds and Machines (Penguin, 1954)
    I have not located a resources that traces out the history of the term as it came to be associated with the mechanism for producing flashing patterns of light. However a search using Google with the term “mind machine” (note the singular) nets a link to the Mind Machine Museum – “a virtual museum and gallery of vintage computers”

  6. Ah, very interesting — I had no idea the term was actually used for computers at one time (though I doubt it had much currency by the mid-’60s, because I was aware of computers by then — I programmed Fortran using punch cards a few years later — and I never heard it). Thanks!

  7. An aside on the “morphogenetic field” term origin:
    While I was certain that the term “morphogenetic field” was first used by either D’Arcy Thompson or Alan Turing, who actually wrote a paper called “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” it turned out I was wrong!(Sheldrake is an inheritor of a not too long – and somewhat obscure- scientific tradition on the mathematical study of morphogenesis). While searching for the origins of the term in Google, it turned out that the person who introduced the concept and the term was a certain Nicholas Rashevsky, in the early 30′s. He seems to have been a very interesting figure.
    So thanks for the trigger! I just found an whole new subject to read.
    I think the tern was chosen by Sokal because it’s a scientific term as little related to cosmology and quantum gravity as possible!

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