Sir Kenelm Digby's Idea

Object type: Sir Kenelm Digby's Idea

Materials: Water, Currants, Ceramic

Photo by Curator

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

In the first of his Two Treatises, the first of which is on “the Nature of Bodies,” and the second, “the Nature of Man’s Soule,” Sir Kenelm Digby compares the mind at work to a bowl full of currants.  This is a treatise on mentation as brainwork; he is interested in thoughts as physical entities, as something belonging to “bodies.”  He imagines ideas as “little similitudes… in the caves of the braine wheeling and swimming about (almost in such sort, as you see in the washing of Currants or of Rice, by the winding about of the Cookes hand).”  I have often wondered about this figure, which even among the many compelling comparisons of Digby’s moment seems to me to be especially striking.  As a compact fantasy, it seems to me exactly to capture something about a folk psychology of mind, about the mind when it is agitated or especially excited.  Ideas are aswim in the brain’s “animal spirits” in a way similar to currants in a bowl of water.  And the metaphor doesn’t only turn up here; it turns up elsewhere, albeit in subterranean ways, as when Digby remarks on ideas being “stirred up,” when they are “given motion,” or when the brain’s motion seems to be a thing of its own, like the stirring of the water which carries the currents along.

Sir Kenelm had a way with figures, but he was also well acquainted with currants.  Among his many publications is The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669).  It is a kind of cook-book, a cook-book figured as a sort of treasury or repository of “receipts”—the recipes of the learned knight himself.  Even the most cursory glance at this volume can help us see that Digby was happy when he was up to his elbows in cookery.  Shop-talk is well known to be the best talk, especially in its easy lingo, and Digby’s talk is especially nice when discussing things like currants, for which he has a refined vocabulary.  Currants might be dryed before the fire; they might be “mingled,” with flour or with “raisins of the sun”; they might be picked clean of stalks and bruised fruits; they might be crushed, strained, pressed, or exhausted.  And, of course, they are very often to be “washed.”  The intimacy of Digby’s prose, and the precision of his receipts, moreover suggests that his hands had at least some familiarity with the washing—that the “cookes hand” was sometimes his own. 

What all this means is that it was time for me to try my hand at washing some currants.  I happened just then to be pretty close to the source of Sir Kenelm’s fruits.  “Currants” comes from the Anglo-Norman “Corauntz”; currants come from Corinth, hence the name.  They were an early import from the Levant, these “grocer’s currants” became a common English ingredient in a cuisine that relied on fruits for much of its flavor.  So: down to the local market for a pound or two of the dried fruits of Corinth.  That's me, at the Sariyer Aktari...







-- and again with my lab assistant, who doesn't look like it, but was this whole time stuffing her pockets full of dried blueberries...

Then, back to the brain lab, to do a bit of currant washing.  I took a guess at how much water to use—but since a brain weighs a little more than three pounds, I thought three pints was a good starting place.  I based Digby's “winding of the hand” on the stiff-fingered technique my mother taught me for making Irish soda bread.  Here’s about a quarter-pound of currants in three pints of water.

I like to think that this is what Sir Kenelm’s brain looked like at the exact moment that the analogy between brainwork and current-washing occurred to him: rest, then agitation, followed by a return to rest.  What I find particularly interesting are the unexpected patterns that emerge, strange flows and collocations of currant-ideas as they almost-audibly click against one another.  Something almost like a sensation of intelligence emerges, here: patterns develop in the flow of unthinking ideas.

I’m working on an article just now on the prehistory of complexity.  Digby’s circle (Robert Hooke, Sir William Petty, John Wilkens, and others) had an especially fine appreciation for the sorts of patterns that could emerge in complex systems: like iron filings around a lode-stone, sheeps-wool twisting on a spinning-wheel, or currants in a water bath.  I think something like the aesthetics of emergence, of the hypnotic whorls of the currants in their slow revolutions, is embedded in Sir Kenelm’s “windings,” which encapsulates a lifetime of acquired habit, tricks and twists too complicated for prose.  Sir Kenelm was, in other words, a thinker on the trailhead to complexity.  And he was also theorizing the mind through the whirlings of complex systems like currants in a water-bath.  The mind, by his account, was made up of just such strange ropes of twisting currants.

So it was gratifying to me when I ran across a similar sentiment in a treatise by the man most responsible for sketching out a certain strain of complexity theory.  This was Henri Poincaré, whose solution to the so-called “three body problem” was among the most brilliant of his early mathematical triumphs.  Poincaré was the first person rigorously to suggest that Newtonian calculus cannot explain the interactions of multiple objects in mutual interaction with one another-- systems not unlike the whirling of currants each around each.  He, too, thought of the mind in similar terms, as the non-arbitrary agitations of minuscule particles, each responding to the others.  He later in life penned a monograph on thought processes, in which he risked an analogy that will look familiar to students of Digby’s currants.

If I may be permitted a crude comparison, let us represent the elements of our combinations [i.e. ideas] as something resembling Epicurus’s hooked atoms.  When the mind is in complete repose these atoms are immovable; they are, so to speak, attached to the wall…

      On the other hand, during a period of… work, some of them are detached form the wall and set in motion.  They plough through space in all directions, lie a swarm of gnats, for instance or, if we prefer a more learned comparison, like the gaseous molecules in the kinetic theory of gases.  Their mutual collisions may then produce new combinations (398).

Poincaré’s remarks would not have looked out of place in the hand of Sir Kenelm Digby.  To be quite clear, Epicurus would not have agreed with this comparison at all; neither he nor Lucretius believed that the mind was a container, or that ideas were atoms.  They seem to have imagined thought as the receptivity of the body’s animal spirits to films of things flying through the air.  The notion of ideas as objects was something introduced by the new science—through analogies like Sir Kenelm’s, who has adapted a Lucretian metaphysics to a theory of brainwork.  This is one of the many routes through which the mind was reinvented as a collection.

So much for Sir Kenelm's currants.  I am left, however, with a more pressing but pleasant issue.  What to do with all these well-washed currants?  What might Sir Kenelm do?


Take a pound of the best Currants clean picked, and pour upon them in a deep straight mouthed earthen vessel six pounds or pints of hot water, in which you have dissolved three spoonfuls of the purest and newest Ale-yest. Stop it very close till it ferment, then give such vent as is necessary, and keep it warm for about three days, it will work and ferment. Taste it after two days, to see if it be grown to your liking. As soon as you find it so, let it run through a strainer, to leave behind all the exhausted currants and the yest, and so bottle it up. It will be exceeding quick and pleasant, and is admirable good to cool the Liver, and cleanse the blood. It will be ready to drink in five or six days after it is bottled; And you may drink safely large draughts of it. (Digby, Closet Opened, 98)

I didn't have an earthen vessel quite large enough-- so made do with two, side-by-side, like primitive batteries.  After getting it set up, and setting them in the sun to "keep... warm," I received a pleasant shock:

It looks to me like an experiment in early-modern artificial intelligence.  What are they thinking?  Are they speaking to one another?  Or are they just letting their own ideas percolate and ferment?

Bibliography: See Digby, Loose fantasies, ed. V. Gabrieli (1968), Two Treatises: in the One of which, the Nature of Bodies; in the Other, the Nature of Man’s Soule (London, 1644), and The Closet of the Eminently Learned Kenelm Digby, Knight (London, 1668).  On his life and influence, see M. Foster, ‘Sir Kenelm Digby as man of religion and thinker’, Downside Review, 106 (1988), 35–58, 101–25; ‘A new Digby letter book’, ed. V. Gabrieli, National Library of Wales Journal, 9 (1955–6), 113–48, 440–62; 10 (1957–8), 81–105; J. Needham, History of embryology (1959), 121–7, 130, 235; R. T. Petersson, Sir Kenelm Digby, ornament of England (1956).  On Digby’s philosophy, bridging atomism and neo-Aristoteleanism, see Paul S MacDonald, “Introduction” in Digby, Two Treatises (Leiden: Brill, 2013); B. J. Dobbs, ‘Studies in the natural philosophy of Sir Kenelm Digby’, Ambix, 18 (1971), 1–25; 20 (1973), 143–63; 21 (1974), 1–28; R. H. Kargon, Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton (Oxford , 1966), 72-73; M. Foster, ‘Sir Kenelm Digby as man of religion and thinker’, Downside Review, 106 (1988), 35–58, 101–25; B. J. Dobbs, ‘Studies in the natural philosophy of Sir Kenelm Digby’, Ambix, 18 (1971), 1–25; 20 (1973), 143–63; B. R. Smith, the Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 116; John Sutton, “Soul and Body,” 292-95.