In her first book, Purnell gets our nerve endings tingling with an exploration of the interplay of mind and body as seen through the lens of the Enlightenment.
The author, a history instructor and “lover of bizarre facts,” presents 10 episodic chapters plumbing the effects of 18th-century ideas and technologies on human culture. Of particular interest are her considerations of the philosophes, polyglots whose studies were not confined to formulating esoteric principles but rather practical applications, girded by the Enlightenment's belief in human perfectibility. For Purnell's purposes, the 18th century is defined as the period from 1690 to 1830, a time when societies were fascinated with every aspect of the senses, often ascribing to us more than the five basic ones recognized today. Purnell demonstrates how Enlightenment thinkers, building on new theories of the brain and nervous system, began with the premise that all we have of knowledge derives from the uses of our senses and then avidly pursued an understanding of their relationships to each other. The author presents the senses as a complex weave, and her book, a fine companion to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses (1990), is by turns thoughtful, quirky, and richly—sometimes excessively—detailed. It can be surprisingly moving, as in the chapter chronicling the rise of philanthropic societies, which created a dramatic shift in the way the handicapped were viewed, reflecting the Enlightenment's impulse to engage all citizens in society. Purnell effectively scrutinizes modern perceptions of the Enlightenment as a time wholly dominated by reason and the scientific method. She also examines the dark side of the era's theories of physical perfectibility while reacquainting readers with Enlightenment thinkers both famous and forgotten. If not all of her arguments are convincing, they remain succinctly rendered: “The senses not only allowed access to pleasure, but they also lifted Nature's veil, allowing humans to understand the deeper patterns of the world.”
A lively and edifying narrative with lessons for today.