Robert Burton:
The Anatomy of Melancholy


Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is arguably the first major text in the history of Western cognitive science: not because Burton is the first to theorize the nature of cognition or engage in cognitive modeling, as is made plainly evident by the many quasi-plagiarisms and numerous references to other thinkers which appear in Burton's text, but because of the thematic underpinnings and encyclopedic nature of Burton's vision. Burton's theories are based upon no contemporaneously new medical evidence about the anatomical workings of the human body or mind. As Floyd Dell has pointed out, "early 17th-century medicine, at the time Burton wrote, was humbly relying upon the authority of the great Greek and Arabian physicians, Galen, Hippocrates, Avicenna, etc.; there was no new scientific knowledge to serve as the basis of any large and illuminating generalizations upon the subject of morbid psychology." In the absence of such information, Burton focused his gaze upon the widest scope of previous thinkers about cognition available to him. There is hardly a previous thinker or school of thought on humanity which is not referenced in Burton's text, and Burton's own references show that he was familiar with nearly all the medical, astrological, and magical books then extant. Burton assimilated these previous thinkers, often playing them off of each other, and produced a model of human consciousness which, while anatomically and logically flawed in almost every respect, canonized a set of conceptual divisions of the human psyche and body which continue to the present day to determine how we examine consciousness and cognition.

As its title suggests, the bulk of Burton's text is devoted to cataloguing the many variants, manifestations, and causes of the mental "disease" Melancholy; but before Burton begins his dissection of the anatomy of melancholy, he first embarks upon a more general discussion of overall cognitive functioning, believing it "not impertinent to make a brief digression of the anatomy of the body and faculties of the soul, for better understanding of that which is to follow." This digression, which appears in Partition I, Section I, Members 1 and 2 of the text, provides a detailed analysis of human cognitive processes and of their physiological (and sometimes neurological, in Burton's own terminology,) basis.

The Model:

Burton's model of human cognition is a mix of philosophizing about the qualitative nature of consciousness and attempts to identify the physiological mechanisms responsible for carrying out the various cognitive processes of which humans are capable. At the heart of Burton's cognitive model is a conception of the mind and body as a total organism. While he does at times gesture towards an historically familiar mind/body dualism, the primary focus of his anatomy is a discussion of the physiology of thought. (see the Discussion below for a more detailed discussion of Burton's dualism.) As such, he begins his anatomy of the mind with an anatomy of the body. Relying on the systems of Laurentius and Hippocrates, Burton asserts that everything that is contained within the human body is composed of either a Spirit or a Humour. In his definition of Spirits, however, he sets the stage for a type of theorizing about the nature of thought and consciousness in which the Greeks themselves did not engage. According to Burton, "Spirit is a most subtle vapour, which is expressed from the blood [but is not actually blood itself, which is a Humour] and the instrument of the soul, to perform all his actions; a common tie or medium betwixt the body and the soul" (129). This belief is, in itself, not radical; but Burton goes on to explain exactly where in the body Spirits are produced, thereby anchoring the soul in the body in a way which is historically unique.

According to Burton there are three types of Spirits--Natural, Vital, and Animal--originating in the liver, heart, and brain respectively. The liver produces the Natural which are carried through the body by veins; the heart converts the Natural spirits into Vital spirits and transports these through the body via the arteries; and the brain converts the Vital spirits into Animal spirits and diffuses them "by the nerves, to the subordinate members, giv[ing] sense and motion to them all." The nerves themselves are "membranes without, and full of marrow within; they proceed from the brain, and carry the animal spirits for sense and motion" (129). Burton goes on to distinguish between two types of nerves: Soft and Hard. Soft nerves, he claims, serve the seven senses, while the harder nerves "serve for the motion of the inner parts proceeding from the marrow in the back" (130).

After a not so brief description of the exact functioning of the harder nerves and of all the internal organs which they control, Burton begins to lay out the beginnings of a rudimentary model of human cognition which is based in physiology. According to Burton, "in the upper region serving the animal faculties [the head], the chief organ is the brain, which is a soft, marowish, and white substance, engendered of the purest part of seed and spirits, included by many skins" (134), divided into several parts, each with a unique function. The "fore part hath many concavities distinguished by certain ventricles, which are the receptacles of the spirits, brought hither by the arteries from the heart, and are there refined to a more heavenly nature, to perform the actions of the soul. Of these ventricles there be three -right, left, and middle. The right and left answer to their site, and beget animal spirits; if they be any way hurt, sense and motion ceaseth. These ventricles, moreover, are held to be the seat of the common sense. The middle ventricle is a common concourse and cavity of them both and hath two passages, the one to receive pituita, and the other extends itself to the fourth creek: in this they place imagination and cogitation ...The fourth creek behind the head is common to the cerebel or little brain, and marrow of the backbone, the last, and most solid of all the rest, which receives the animal spirits from the other ventricles, and conveys them to the marrow in the back, and is the place where they say the memory is seated" (135).

As for the soul itself, which is 'infused' into the fore part of the brain, Burton claims that "We can understand all things by her, but what she is we cannot apprehend" (135); however, this does not prevent from theorizing both about its nature and about the details of how it performs its work. According to Burton, the soul is divided into three principle faculties: 'vegetal', 'sensitive' and 'rational'. The vegetal soul is "a substancial act of an organical body, by which it is nourished, augmented, and begets another like unto itself' (135). It does not include the conscious impulses to engage in these activities, but rather the subconscious impulses which, for example, tell the stomach to digest. The sensible soul is "an act of an organical body, by which it lives, hath sense, appetite, judgment, breath, and motion" (137). This faculty of the soul is seated in the fore part of the brain and is divided into two distinct functions -'apprehending' and 'moving'. "By the apprehensive power we perceive the species of sensible things, present or absent, and retain them as wax doth a seal. By the moving the body is outwardly carried from place to place [conscious movement, as opposed to the unconscious movement brought on by the vegetal soul]" (137), including all of the appetites which stimulate bodily movement.

The apprehensive sensible soul is further divided into two parts -outward and inward. The outward senses include the five senses ("to which you may add Scaliger's sixth sense of titillations"); and the inward senses are common sense, phantasy (or imagination), and memory. "Their objects are not only things present, but they perceive the sensible species of things to come, past, absent, such as were before in the sense" (139). Of the three, "common sense is the judge or moderator of the rest, by whom we discern all differences of objects" (139). Phantasy or Imagination, which is located "in the middle cell of the brain" is "an inner sense which doth more fully examine the species perceived by common sense, of things present or absent, and keeps them longer, recalling them to mind again, or making things new of his own" (139). And memory "lays up all the species which the senses have brought in, and records them as a good register, that they may be forth-coming when they are called for by phantasy and reason."

The last remaining faculty of the soul is the Rational. The rational soul is a type of oversoul which contains both of the other faculties of the soul -the vegetal and the sensible- and performs its function via mediation between them (similar to Freud's superego). It is "the first substancial act of a natural , human, organical body, by which a man lives, perceives, and understands, freely doing all things, and with election" (144). The Rational Soul is divided into two chief parts, "differing in office only, not in essence" (144): The Understanding and the Will. The Understanding is the most complex of these two components of the Rational Soul. It is "a power of the soul, by which we perceive, know, remember, and judge, as well singulars as universals, having certain innate notices or beginnings of arts, a reflecting action, by which it judgeth of his own doings, and examines them. It is hardwired with innate knowledge of God, good and evil -"Synteresis, or the purer part of the conscience, is an innate bait, and doth signify a conversation of the knowledge of the law of God and Nature, to know good or evil" (145)- but it contains no innate conceptions of objects upon which to exercise this innate knowledge. "The object first moving the Understanding is some sensible thing" (144). "There is nothing in the understanding which was not first in the sense" (145).


Burton's model sets the stage for mainstream European thinking about cognition in the following three centuries both conceptually and lexically. Anatomy of Melancholy introduces several key terms which remain dominant in models of cognition through the Victorian era. The most significant of these are: 1) Phantasy or Imagination as that function of the psyche which engages in some way in thinking about thoughts; 2) Reflection, a more abstract and less specific ability to think about thoughts made present to the mind via the senses; 3) the Senses, being those physiological mechanisms responsible for bringing thoughts into the mind; and 4) Understanding, the ability to recognize universalities. The definitions of and functions attributed to these various aspects of human thought vary greatly over time; however, as categories of conceptualizing human cognition these terms remain lexically and conceptually dominant for the following three centuries. In addition, also introduces the concept of Active and Passive functions of the human psyche. This division becomes extremely important by the time we get to John Locke in 1690, who borrows much from Burton's model and terminology.

The most striking difference between Burton's model of cognition and the canonical ones which follow him is the nature of the mind/body dualism which is inherent in his model. Burton's model does ultimately rely on the influence and presence of a "soul" which can not be explained by way of an anatomy of the brain. As such, he appears to be stuck in a dualist crisis in which the ultimate source of humanity exists outside of the physical. But is never willing to make this concession, and both the language which he uses in developing his model and discussing the attributes of the soul and the overall tone of the Anatomy, suggest that Burton conceived of his dualist dilemma in a manner which was significantly different than most of his contemporaries or followers. He does say of the soul that "we can understand all things by her, but what she is we cannot apprehend" (135); but it would be a mistake to perceive Burton's acknowledged lack of understanding as anything other than a lack of understanding --i.e., as a sign of a belief that it lies outside of the realm of the physical. Burton seems rather to have believed that the soul was rooted in the material, but that man simply lacked the tools or ability to recognize the actual mechanisms of this rooting. Nowhere in the text does he claim that the soul is non-material; but he is everywhere trying to locate it in the in body.

Burton's explanations of exactly how the soul springs from material body are ultimately unconvincing in two important ways (other than his obvious biological and medical inaccuracies.) First, in the face of the detailed descriptions which he provides of other bodily and cognitive function, his sparse descriptions of the soul are rhetorically unconvincing. Second, those references to the anatomy of the soul which are present are conceptually vague and unclear. There are, however, two passages in particular which, if read looking backwards through the filter of 18th and 19th century cognitive theories (a practice which is admittedly tenuous) begin to shed some light on Burton's overall conception of an anatomical soul. In the books opening paragraph, Burton defines man as a "Microcosm ...created in God's own Image." Later while discussing the nature of the highest faculties of the soul, he claims that "synteresis, or the purer part of the conscience, is an innate habit" (145). These two statements, combined with various comments which Burton makes throughout the text about the presence of innate tendencies being genetically programmed into the brain and body, suggest that he conceived of the soul as being hardwired into the brain, so to speak. Like the Romantic conception of the individual as both the center and the circumference simultaneously -the whole in the part- Burton seems to be arguing that man is built, at least with regards to brain function, literally in the image of God. Any traces of a mind/body dualism which appear in the work dissolve in the face of this model. The dualist crisis becomes a crisis of understanding rather than one of existence. While this problem is only rudimentally drawn out in Burton's text, his terms of engagement set the stage for the major treatments of dualism which will follow in the next three centuries -particularly the later British Skeptics.

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