“Mechanical in Head and Heart”: Carlyle and Darwin on the Mind as Machine

In last week’s post on Leo Marx and the sources of technological pessimism, I noted that Marx alludes to an 1829 essay by Thomas Carlyle, “Sign of the Times,” in which Carlyle describes his era as an “Age of Machinery.” Here is the fuller context of that phrasing:

“Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Historical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but above all others, the Mechanical Age. it is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word: the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practices the great art of adapting means to ends.”

More from Carlyle:

“Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also …. The same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavors, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection but for external combinations and arrangements for institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle.”

In Christian Worship and Technological Change, Susan J. White, pairs Carlyle’s sentiment with the following passage from Darwin’s “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character”:

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed in the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. But now for many years I cannot read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music …. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.”

First of all, this latter self-diagnosis is terribly sad. One hopes that Darwin’s experience is not suggestive of a general tendency, even as one suspects that it may very well be.

Secondly, Carlyle and Darwin, in their own way, intuited what later scholars including Mumford and McLuhan would formalize into theory: our habits of mind and patterns of thought have a way of adapting themselves to our technological environment.

Ours, however, is no longer an Age of Machinery in the same way. How might we update Carlyle’s and Darwin’s observations to better fit our own time? How might we label our age? How has our technological environment worked its way into our heads and hearts?

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