Are minds today different from minds in the past and why? An equally interesting question is why do some minds seem to reflect entirely the values and attitudes of the past and others to arrive at entirely new values, some of which seem to have no obvious past equivalent? How is the 'now' constructed? I am not going to try to deal with these questions here but only to pursue a train of thought circling the position of radical scepticism about what we can know about past minds.
One major problem is, of course, that we cannot know other minds even when they are present to us. This is that central issue raised by Thomas Nagel of what it is like to be a bat. We cannot really know what it is to be a bat. We are constantly imagining what it might like to be another human just as we can imagine that we know what it would be like to behave like a bat yet we cannot ever be a bat. Other humans are, in this sense, bats. We cannot be other humans. We can only surmise the contents of other people's minds from our own mind's operations and their behaviour as seen through the lens of our own experience. We rely on evidence and if the evidence is flawed, our analysis must be flawed.
Language (texts in particular) are false friends in telling us what other minds are like. Those people who say that they know that people in the past thought in such-and-such a way are really only telling us what they think other people may have thought (a 'best and most probable guess'), generally based on these false friends (as texts) which say only what a few people said in specific literary contexts or as reported by people seeking to use the words as weapons or tools for their own purposes. Even very recently, we may have archives of papers and they may tell us a great deal about how decisions were made, the tensions between people and what people said they believed but they can never give us access to the private conversations, silences and thoughts of people who may have been playing very different games from the ones outlined in those texts.
Past minds are thus largely unknown except in defined historical conditions where the minds are really just functions of a social operation and what we do know is often based on merely textual material that the past has used for its own purposes with the inner motives often masked. All texts are performances where we do not know or perhaps care what the actor is really like but only what he or she is trying to present themselves as on stage. We reinterpret the play, guided by the script and the skill of the actors, in order to present them to ourselves as what we paid to see - as exemplars, as warnings, as tales, as imaginings, as the building blocks to an argument in our local context.
However, there do seem to be differences in minds between generations that can be observed by us in the here and now and we should not assume that such differences did not exist in the past. Things do change even if we are unsure of what we can know. For example, there seem to be functional 'brain differences' emerging between minds that depend for their meaning on texts and the rest of the population and between minds that rely on printed texts and those that rely on internet 'textuality'. There is no reason why these effects of technological change should not apply as much to the past as the present. The technological conditions of each age appear to dictate not merely the forms of thought but also our ability to contextualise and judge content so the current age of high complexity and mass interactive communications suggests that the past is going to be mentally different from the present even if we cannot know much about the minds of the present and less about the minds of the past.
The shift of minds from printed texts, cinematic story-telling and still photography and art works to fast-moving video game play, internet grazing and interactivity does seem to be, literally, changing minds. Most of this is represented in the media by standard issue cultural hysteria but the issues raised are serious and they may take some time to work their way through to changes in our own capacity and culture.
Memory effects seem to be of most interest under conditions where there is no now requirement for memory palaces and loss of interest in rote learning for anything but basic skills. However, the mind that thinks in terms of textual 'canons' (where part of the personality has been pre-templated from 'great works') is very different from the mind that operates synchronically with a fast-moving world in a constant revision of mental drafts. Rote learning is also associated with traditionalist text-based canons for a good reason - both are emergent properties of the Iron Age yet we are now in the Silicon Age where general information is broadly free and widespread and not held tight by small elites. There is no point in 'valuating' this as good or bad, worse or better, but there is equally no point in resisting the facts of the matter - minds are changing and must have changed in similar ways in the past. If we have problems understanding these changes today, how can we possibly believe we know how minds functioned even in the recent past.
There are many thinkers who have prepared the ground for the new ways of thinking based on new technologies - we have often pointed out the role of the existentialists and phenomenologists and, more recently, radical trans-humanist thought - but there are also contributions from psychologists. Again, the tentative findings of consciousness studies, neuroscience and the cognitive sciences seem to be lock-stepping with our use of the new technologies. We have already noted the flawed but dynamic reasoning of Wilhelm Reich and the absurdity of behaviourism except as a functional tool but another fruitful line of enquiry is that of Lacan.
Lacan is a problem in many respects but one stands out. It is the problem of all thinkers working within a pre-ordained theory. The truth becomes impenetrable because the thinker is operative within a framework which is mere mysticism at root. Lacan's mystical belief system is Freudianism - much as others operate within Marxist or scholastic frameworks. Early Reichian theory - for example - is hobbled by Reich's commitment to Marxism. It might be argued that Lacan cannot be removed from his framework any more than, say, Lenin or Aquinas from theirs. There is some truth in this but only if we insist on treating these thinkers as texts and not as door-openers, introducers of new ideas that help drive culture even as the texts begin to ossify their followers. One should follow the ideas through to new ideas and not dwell amidst the textual interpreters of ideas.
Lacan was imaginatively engaged in the mind and was closely associated with the surrealist movement which was a living cultural force in the interwar period. It was not just that surrealism responded to a psychological theory (Freudian) but that Lacan's thought and surrealism engaged in a direct dialectic with the intellectual life of artists and thinkers.
The first Lacanian case (amongst scarcely any published) is that of Marguerite. Forget the detail (which involves a 'mad' attempt to murder a famous actress of the day) except to note that we have a paranoiac who identifies with the actress, in herself a 'false front' for social performance. Forget also that Lacan stank as a psychotherapist and was a consummate narcissist on his own account (in the minds of some, a brilliant high functioning sociopath) and see him as an interpreter of culture which is where he may have something to say to us. The desire to be an actor or actress is not uncommon but it is madness to seek to kill one because you have over-identified with her (if we accept Lacan's interpretation).
What is important here is not the case but the use to which Lacan put it. Here were the seeds of the uncovering of something that divides the contemporary mind and those who just 'exist' in inherited versions of the past - an understanding of how our identities are constructed by our appropriation of the social (of objects and of others, both real and imagined). This awareness is revolutionary and certainly derives from the 'uncovering' of the unconscious as a central cultural concept. Once we know this, then the search for individual identity or individuation (to leap across to the world of Jung) requires a shift from having the social thrust upon us in order to create our identity from without to re-ordering the social in order to have it reflect an identity that we have created for ourselves alongside the social.
What is interesting about this is that cases like Marguerite are 'mad' only because they have taken a step towards liberation (the attempt to construct an identity that chooses what to appropriate in the social to meet psychic needs) but have imaginatively detached themselves from the functional reality of the social. One is reminded of the 'mad' Last King of the Imperial Dynasty of America in Chambers' the Repairer of Reputations: the hero has a collection of books on Napoleon, the quintessential mad appropriation of the nineteenth century, on his mantelpiece. It could be argued that the fully socialised who are mere reflections of social order and have 'no individual mind' represent one radical category, the individuated who can see the social as just a set of tools for individuation as another radical category and the 'mad' (especially the paranoiac) as representing a half world radical category between the two. The 'mad' simply seek to appropriate the social (in Marguerite's case, the adulation and status of the actress) as a tool without understanding how it all works.
From this perspective, 'madness' (and an awful lot of persons are mad by this definition) is a perceptual problem about the social and its functional reality equivalent to the perceptual problems of inadequate sensory inputs but it is one that is essentially a failure of reason (as madness is classically understood) combined with a failure to 'know thyself' in a socialised context. Madness' thus lies somewhere between the rationality of the social and the reasoning of the individual - the first operating as a blind machine underpinned by manipulative social engineers (the 'reasonable' basis for individual paranoia) and the second struggling to assert the individual will against the enormity of the first (whilst not descending or ascending to the status of high functioning sociopath).
Some cannot cope with the strain - if a mind is not intellectually able to understand the machinery of the social and yet desperately seeks to be something that is not represented solely by the identity thrust on it by the social, then paranoia and other forms of mental disturbance become understandable, ranging, in the paranoid case, from the rigid conspiracy theory of the half-socialised to complete break-down. Lacan is most interested in what he thinks of as narcissism (perhaps because he identifies with it deep down) but there is a fine line here between the narcissism of the maladapted and the sensible narcissism of non-sociopathic self development on the one hand and the need to collaborate and co-operate in a complex society and the loss of self in total socialisation on the other.
And how does this fit with our introductory comments about knowing other minds in the past? Only that, when trying to understand how other past minds might have thought, the relationship between the complexity of the social and the individual and the amount of self awareness permitted in analysing the social in order to assert the individual claim against the social become relevant. To say that minds were like ours in the past is both probably true and probably false (though unknowable). Probably true is that the basic substrate of the mind is biologically similar (for simple evolutionary reasons) across vast tracts of time and probably false because that substrate is dealing with its own dialectical relationship with exponentially increasing social complexity and increasing awareness, through communications, of not only the fact of the complexity but the contingency of the complexity. Existential anxiety is thus not only a matter of death (as we have from the classical existentialists) but of the problem of social complexity and the death of social stability - of uncertainty in the relationship between the individual and the world.
Of course, while there is still room for madness today, there is less room for attributing madness simply to not being adequately socialised. So, for example, being homosexual is no longer seen as a deviation (from a norm), someone who hears voice is no longer automatically seen as insane and someone is no longer requiring treatment for saying they are a woman trapped in a man's body. Attitudes to these things represent material differences in 'what it is like to be a human being' and until we know what people in the past actually thought of such things at the micro-level of 'ordinary people' who did not write texts and did not use texts in elite contexts, we simply have to start admitting that we really do not know how past minds worked. We scarcely know how our own minds work.