One way of describing Jonathan Kramnick's Actions and Objects is as a report on the fallout, in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English letters, of what sociologist Bruno Latour has called the work of "purification": the attempt to separate out agents from objects, and to locate agency in the human animal and not in nature. Latour holds that this on-going quest is basic to what we habitually call modernity, arguing that we have never been modern and ought not strive to be so.
Though coming from a very different intellectual formation, whose project answers to a different set of disciplinary concerns, Kramnick frames his history in a very similar way (though whether his response to this history is similar to Latour's is an open question). Kramnick shows that the philosophical and literary writers he discusses found themselves confronted with a field of questions about action and personhood that resulted when theories of necessary causation, having yielded such stunning results in the study of the natural world, were applied to the study of humankind. Knitting human thoughts and behaviors into the chain of causes and effects vexed the sense of human uniqueness that came from having a spiritual existence separate from the body or a rational self that could control the passions. The central concern of Actions and Objects is to look closely at some of the ways seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers responded to the "hard problems" this historical and cultural watershed produced: problems like how consciousness emerges from matter, how minds cause things to happen, and what (if anything) it means to say that humans have free will. How does the mental state I feel right now—pain, hunger, arousal, boredom—relate to a chain of physical antecedents and consequences? Should we approach these questions from a first-person perspective, or from a third? What is gained and what lost in such shifts of perspective? By inflecting these questions in different ways through the techniques of their craft as poets or fiction writers, the literary figures he studies discover that a dualism that would confidently distinguish minds from objects will not hold. This is so not in spite of the fact that conscious agential beings like humans act, [End Page 77] but actually because of it. As Kramnick writes, in an apothegmatic formulation that runs like a motif through the book, "actions extend mind into the world" (3).
I situate Kramnick's book in this fashion because he himself declines to do so, preferring in the main small claims to grand ones. His expository style, which purposefully imitates that of the Anglo-American philosophy that helps to orient him, backgrounds cultural history so that the field of conceptual problems comes more sharply into focus, and this can mislead the reader into missing how thoroughly historical many of his claims are. Though nowhere in the book does Kramnick mention either "modernity" or "enlightenment" (such terms are buried in the bibliography), his book may turn out to be intelligible as a contribution, less modest than it seems, to recent revaluations of those two key terms. For the story he tells is not just the history of some philosophical problems. More importantly, it is about how personhood, identity, culpability, consciousness and consent went from being the subject matter of relatively elite discourses—the kinds of thing jurists and theologians disputed about—to lived categories, and how ways of representing those categories in writing helped form what counted as a person or an action.
One of the virtues of this book is that it strives to keep this array of questions open as a field of problematization, rather than charting the increased consolidation of categories across the period in the way many genealogies have done. Seeing categories crystallize out of the premodern flux is what much of eighteenth centuries studies does, but Kramnick avoids this approach. The main thrust of his polemic is against those literary scholars who "witness a new language of inwardness and subjectivity with the joint rise of empiricism and the novel" (2). Some such shift undoubtedly...