Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Book Reviews

Culture in the Brain

Allan Young

Handwriting samples; flickr

Culture and consciousness as epiphenomena of the material world.

Liah Greenfeld, a professor of sociology at Boston University, describes Mind, Modernity, Madness as the product of “a new—radically different—approach that has never been tried.” At 688 pages, it is a long book that ranges in its “interdisciplinarity” from the clinical epidemiology of bipolar depression to the historiography of romantic love in Shakespeare. But it has a clear, bold thesis: that the advent of madness is connected, as both cause and effect, to the rise of nations and nationalism.

More specifically, Greenfeld contends, the historical conditions that gave rise to the nation—a community of equals; a measure of individual autonomy, liberty, and mobility; and a declining acknowledgment of divine authority—make madness not only possible but inevitable. As the value of human life grows and becomes of paramount concern, self-invention and romantic love become popular ideals, and even common people are driven by ambition, aspiration, and the pursuit of happiness. “Modern culture,” Greenfeld writes, “leaves us free to decide what to be and to make ourselves. It is this cultural laxity that is anomie—the inability of a culture to provide the individuals within it with consistent guidance.”

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