1. John Locke's Library

Books: the remnants of Locke's library are at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  

Bookpress: an oak and brass recreation of the bookpresses commissioned by Samuel Pepys for the Bibliotheca Pepysiana, Magdalene College Cambridge.  (Pepys's reflection is caught in the glass; a more general discussion can be found in Exhibit 16.)

See Wormald & Wright, The English Library before 1700 (1958), plate 2.  Another surviving bookcase, evidently by the same joiner, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum: W.12:1 to 11.1927.

Location in MIAC: METAPHOR

It's worth starting by laying out the argument of The Mind is a Collection.  The argument is this: philosophies of mind, especially those that argue that the mind is absolutely unlike the world through which it moves, are modeled on working habits in special kinds of environments.  John Locke is the person, at least in the English-speaking tradition, most responsible for arguing that the mind is its own place.  He insisted, among other things, that it was a cabinet, or a dark room, with little nugget-like contents called "ideas."  The paradox is this: Locke built his philosophy in his library.  Among other things, he thought of the mind as containing "abstract" ideas, even while he was pioneering methods for keeping and indexing "abstracts" in little notebooks.  If I wanted to recover the contours of Locke's philosophy, in other words, I'd have to go to where he forged it; I'd have to visit his library.

Actually, though, speaking autobiographically, it happened the other way around.  I first got seriously interested in John Locke as a philosopher while reading Peter Laslett’s extraordinary account of Locke’s library, which Locke compiled over the last fifty or so years of his long and productive life.  Laslett’s book is an example of a minor scholarly genre, joined by books like Al Hazen’s indispensable catalogue of Horace Walpole’s library, or Francis Broun’s three-volume inventory of Joshua Reynolds’s gallery of paintings, prints, and sketches.  Similar studies exist for most major collections.  John Woodward’s cabinet collection of stones (Exhibits 6-7) has been twice recatalogued; William Hunter’s museum has been the subject of several similar efforts, as have his letters and his pathological preparations (see Exhibits 20 and 16); and so on.  Scholars who tackle inventories of this sort often wind up giving them the best and most active years of their lives, becoming paired in memory alongside the collector they catalogued.  In this sense, books like Laslett's inventory of Locke's library are a bit like marriages.  It’s hard to imagine any curatorial project like this as ever anything less than a work of love.

Most projects like Laslett's inventory dwell on the contents of a collection.  Perhaps they risk a few occasional reflections on the contents of the collector’s mind, but mostly they are interested in recovering, against the tide of time, what was once gathered together in one place of work.  There are well-known reasons for being skeptical about clues gleaned from the contents of a bibliophile’s library.  Indeed, most of the times people have expressed skepticism about my work in The Mind is a Collection, it is for these very reasons-- they express skepticism that studying a library has much to say about the person who put it together.  For one thing, there is no guarantee that a book collector ever reads the books he or she owns!  I have heard of a famous collector of Ottoman books who is incapable of reading the difficult windings of Ottoman script.  I myself corresponded with a collector of micrographia—that is, small books and small writing (see Exhibit 10)—who had several copies of the Iliad in his collection, but was perfectly ignorant of the wrath of Achilles.  It is very tempting to make judgments about a person’s convictions based on the things they own—but this says more about our own folk psychology than it does about the cognitive habits of the collector.

The wrath of Achilles, that brought numberless ills upon the Achaeans-- reduced to the size of a packet of cough-drops. Dacier transl., Paris 1817.

The real interest in these studies, I find, is when scholars dwell at length on collecting habits, attempting to reconstruct how a librarian worked in his library, a surgeon among her pathological collections, and so on.  Laslett’s book, which I greatly admire, is especially nice in this regard, not least because Locke, it turns out, was such a curious collector.  Locke is often known as the man most responsible for installing the modern conception of “self”; between his two most important books, his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and his Second Treatise on Government (an important edition of which was by Laslett himself), Locke lays out the groundwork for what has come to be called a philosophical or epistemic dualism.  This is the claim that the mind is unlike the objects it perceives, that there is an ineffable difference between mind-stuff and the stuff of the world.  In such a system, faculties like “reason” or “understanding” stand apart from the contents of thought.  This system of thinking is what makes possible, so the argument runs, the entire empiricist project; the mind is a cool deliberator, that presides over its ideas, in much the same way that a librarian presides over his books, or a collector over her collection. 

 John Locke, seated in his (?) library.  Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1697), Christ Church, Oxford. Photo by Curator.

John Locke, seated in his (?) library.  Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1697), Christ Church, Oxford. Photo by Curator.

But Locke, who is often named as the chief architect of such a dualism (by Charles Taylor, for instance), was clearly invested in his books in a way that a dualist account struggles to explain.  John Locke compiled an extraordinary collection of books over his lifetime-- a compendium of roughly 3000 volumes that sought to capture the current state of letters, sciences, and the arts.  Traces survive of his orphic system of sigils, paraphs, marks and glyphs.  And we know as well a few other details: as that Locke had special crates built and shaped specifically for his books, or that he had them all bound identically, or that he rarely suffered them to be handled by anyone other than himself, and perhaps his lifelong friend Damaris Masham.  Depending on how you look at it, Locke was either a minor pioneer in library science, or a closet bibliophile, who was happiest among his collection of books.  This, at least, is Laslett's verdict, after having painstakingly reconstructed (along with John Harrison) Locke's collection from its surviving fragments, nearly all of which are now at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  

Thomas Hyde, by an unknown hand.  Hyde is now best-known for coining "dualism."  Image from Hyde, Syntagma dissertationum quas olim... Hyde (London, 1767).

Locke bought and kept books for nearly all of his adult life, finally settling them at Oates, the manor house of Sir Francis Masham, where he spent the last years of his life.  The most important of the over 800 books that survive is a copy of Thomas Hyde's Catalogus Bibliotheque Bodleianae (1674-- see below, right), a then-current catalogue of the holdings at Oxford's most important library.  Locke had this volume interleaved, and used it as a means of indexing his own collection of books.  It is from this volume that we know the contents of his collection, which, despite his extensive travels and the many times he was separated from his library, seems to have contained no duplicates.  But important clues are also to be gleaned from the surviving copies of Locke's own books.  From these we can begin to see the extraordinary lengths to which Locke went when accessioning a book to his collection.

Facing pages of John Locke's interleaved copy of Thomas Hyde's Catalogus Bibliotheque Bodleianae (1674).  Location: Bodleian Library, Locke 16.17.

Locke was perhaps the most important philosophical writer of his day, but his best-selling book was a slim volume and practical manual on the keeping of commonplaces.  Commonplaces are a reader's notebooks, a place to scribble abstracts for later use.  Much has been written lately about commonplaces, as people recognize them as early attempts to manage "information overload"; in fact, the commonplace developed early on as part of the first information revolution, as people like Locke started thinking of the world as a mass of facts to be collected and sorted.  And it was Locke who installed an indexing system that matched the way he understood the mind to work.  It was an indexing system that grew along with the commonplace.

An early index from John Locke’s medical notebook for the years 1662–1667.  Bodleian Shelfmark MS. Locke f.25.

The details of his system can be found in Locke's remarks, and I discuss them in the book The Mind is a Collection, so I won't dwell on them here.  It is enough to know that Locke learned to keep commonplaces according to inherited ideas.  That is, by the old method, you would already know the kinds of ideas you were looking for, and would simply write down examples when you came across them.  Since rhetoric was largely understood to be the defense or attack of well-known positions, having such a commonplace made it easy to find examples to attack or defend an argument.  But Locke was looking for ways of discovering new ideas as he collected examples.  This is how the empirical sciences works, and Locke's empiricist epistemology was dedicated to these ends.  He therefore developed an indexing system that allowed ideas to emerge as he collected abstracts.  As such, a commonplace book grew along with the mind that kept it.  This is clearly a simple form of a cognitive ecology-- mind and space growing in reference to one another-- and it helps explain strikingly similar passages in Locke's Essay and elsewhere.  Such a mind, as Locke puts it, is like blank paper, that grows along with the simple ideas it collects. 

Locke was happiest in his library, and it offered a set of metaphors, really, a whole organizing scheme, for how he thought about intellectual labor.   The importance of Locke's library is, therefore, less for its content (though this can be sometimes illuminating) than for the paradox it begins to suggest.  The man many name as the one most responsible for the philosophy that divides subjects from objects, persons from things constructed that philosophy through lifelong entanglements with his collection.  For the library, in the end, provided the material ballast for the metaphors that became central in to his thought.  It is from his work with his collection that certain critical and pervasive figures derive their material ground: the mind is a cabinet; it is a dark room with shelves; it is a book or sheet of blank paper containing abstracts.  The fragments of his library are the leftover materials of a cognitive ecology in a very real sense, the husk of a life of the mind.


Notes: The best study of Locke's library remains John Harrison and Perer Laslett's painstaking study, compiled half-a-century ago: The Library of John Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).  John Locke's copy of Thomas Hyde's Catalogus... Bodleianae is Bodleian Library, Locke 17.16.