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Richard Eldridge SELF-UNDERSTANDING AND COMMUNITY IN WORDSWORTH'S POETRY Prior to die rise of modern science in die seventeenth century, to understand oneself was to know one's place in a ideologically organized universe. Human actions, together with natural events in general, were intelligible as aiming at the realization of given purposes or ends. To be a human person was to have a particular sort ofend: intellectual contemplation , according to Aristotle, or oneness with God, according to Augustine. Self-knowledge becomes problematic, however, once events in nature are conceived in terms of the new physics to be only materially caused, not purposive. Given that human actions are events in nature, physical explanations then seem to be both necessary and sufficient for understanding them. It then becomes no longer possible to understand and explain one's actions as grounded in a partial grasp of an intelligible order of things. The self, it seems, is not real; bits of matter are, and their motions are mechanical, not plotted in a divinely ordered book ofnature. Thus the self or the person as a locus ofautonomous agency and understanding tends to come to be regarded as a fiction, not a physical something and not effective in the occurrence of events, so not a something at all. Human actions tend no longer to be seen as stemming from persons who can alter and are responsible for diem, but instead as complex events falling under physical laws. Yet despite the revolutionary revisions in the explanation of human action and die account of personhood seemingly forced by the new physics, self-knowledge is not something easily abandoned in favor ofknowledge of matter. It is not easy to conceive of one's actions as nonpurposive and of oneself as an unreal playdiing of fortune. Determinism seems incompatible with individual responsibility and hence with morality. Determinists make claims, investigate things, and regard diese activities as significant 273 274Philosophy and Literature and under their control, yet it is hard to see how this could be ifphysicalist determinism were true. Even within modern scientific understanding, autonomous creativity and human understanding are generally allotted roles in experimentation as well as in the rest of life. Yet this acknowledgment of human autonomy is seemingly in fundamental conflict with the commitment to the explanation of all events under physical laws that is characteristic of the modern scientific attitude.1 In the absence, however, of a well worked out description of how we can autonomously generate partial understandings of our proper ends as persons, understandings to which we then give expression in action, these objections will seem hollow, and the sense diat it must be possible to explain our actions fully under physical laws will press upon us. Ifwe cannot say how we can understand ourselves and our end in ways that inform our actions, then it will seem wise to abandon trying to understand agentive persons and to try instead to formulate the physical explanations of the motions of our bodies that are seemingly in order. Here Wordsworth's poetry can be of special value, for one of Wordsworth 's chief poetic concerns was to diagnose and locate skepticism about the possibility of self-understanding as a natural but temporary stage in the lives of persons who can grasp their proper end. Skepticism about action-guiding self-understanding, on his showing, is a plight of mind to which self-conscious end-directed beings succumb just as they most fully assert their particularity and separateness from others. Recovery from this plight occurs naturally when they come both to see that genuine autonomy requires community with others in a particular sort of expressive activity and to find themselves already so engaged. Further self-conscious and effective engagement in this expressive activity then emerges as the proper end of persons and as an end that is to be achieved communally. The scandal of philosophy, as Wordsworth would have it, is diat this natural development of die mind, a development Wordsworth traces throughout his own career, should be ignored in favor ofdie pursuit ofoverly abstract, narrow, and impoverishing causal explanations of our behavior. Wordsworth thus offers us a detailed and comprehensive description of how action-guiding self...


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pp. 273-294
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