Know Thyself: Community, Mind, & Place

Sam Phelps ’19 , Guest Writer


Recently I was struck by how the author and environmental activist Wendell Berry discusses the human mind. I will quote him at length in order to summarize his thought.

In Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Berry examines the popularly accepted reductionist idea of the human mind: “mind = brain = machine, … the mind is singular, material, and altogether what it is in itself. … A human brain, in a social and cultural vacuum would still function on its own as a human mind.” He contrasts this definition of mind with his own: “one can’t be a brain without a body, or a body (for very long) without a familiar homeland. … The correct formula… is more like this: mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history. ‘History’ here would mean… the whole heritage of culture, language, memory, tools, and skills. Mind in this definition has become… an immaterial presence or possibility that is capable of being embodied and placed.” I encourage you to read Berry’s book from which this definition is drawn, especially if you disagree with the definition; Life is a Miracle: an Essay Against Modern Superstition is available in the library, and consider it in context for yourself.

Berry’s definition of mind inherently places a responsibility on each individual to constantly and intentionally engage with all of these categories, and the how of that engagement becomes essential. Some of them (like “brain,” “body,” and “world”) are more or less familiar in our cultural milieu. However, we predominantly engage as consumers with Berry’s other categories (“local dwelling place” “community,” and “history”) if we consciously attempt it at all. We mistakenly equate supportive community, with validation and agreement with each other, which allows us to maintain a consumptive, self-centric attitude while feeling like we’re connecting. How many relationships here in our “local dwelling place,” our “community,” —personal, academic, and professional— are based on various kinds of mutual using? How often are we encouraged to “get” or “take advantage?” How often do we denigrate or complain about our food, roommates, professors, living quarters, or ideological opponents and how do we justify these complaints? We feel entitled to certain things and this entitlement justifies our sullenness if we don’t get them.

By Berry’s definition, to live as a consumer of your places and communities (that is, to live towards the absolute primacy of your own wishes) allows your own will to gnaw on a large part of your own mind. In this way, self-centrism is self-consumptive.

The question remains: if our “brain, body, world, local dwelling place, community, [and] history” together constitute our mind, how should we engage with them? I think we’ve got to humbly participate — to lean into a dailyness of place and community which is relational, and particular to the individuals involved. I don’t think all-embracing political or institutional answers are enough. This participation can’t be systematized. It can’t be faked. It can’t be summed up in nice sentiments about discourse, acceptance, or respectful conduct (though those are all good things — pieces of the whole.) It can’t just be talked about; it has to be lived. For this to be real, we have to be humble enough to know and care for each other regardless of social pecking-order or ideological disagreements, forgive others’ faults and the wrongs they commit (and admit our own), and will the good of the other above our own. We must do all that in truth not as a result of coercion or external pressure.

This would create an interdependent web of mutual support —a community in the deepest, most real sense— which not only allows but encourages an un-fragmented mind. Of course, this would be terribly difficult. I’d say it’s impossible except I’ve experienced it profoundly and I know a few others who can say the same. Though I don’t think it’s at all normative here, there are even perhaps veins of it in our “local dwelling place.” Let us then, dear readers, embrace this troubling complexity of place and community.