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  • Action and reaction: The life and adventures of a couple by Jean Starobinski
  • Lorin Card
Action and reaction: The life and adventures of a couple. By Jean Starobinski. Translated by Sophie Hawkes with Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2003. Pp. 468. ISBN 189095120X. $35.

Self-described as ‘an expanded semantic history’, this monumental work from the author of The living eye and Montaigne in motion, among others, follows the words ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ from their origin in Medieval Latin treatises to their modern usage in 1999. In this work, Jean Starobinski explores the evolution of the words in the writings of philosophers (Aristotle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Jaspers), scientists (Sir Isaac Newton, Xavier Bichat, Claude Bernard, Hippolyte Bernheim, and Sigmund Freud), and writers (Denis Diderot, H. Benjamin Constant, Honoré de Balzac, Edgar Allan Poe, and Paul Valéry). Two of the most famous uses of the words, uses which Sexamines in-depth, are in Newton’s third law of motion: ‘To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction’, and the French Revolution of 1789 and counterrevolution of 1848.

Action and reaction includes 88 pages of endnotes, an index, and a 3.5-page ‘Preface to the American edition’ by the author. The text begins with a preface, then presents the following chapters: Ch. 1, ‘A word from physics’, which examines the origins of the word pair in the realm of physics; Ch. 2, ‘Diderot and the chemists’, which examines motion and chemical reactions; Ch. 3, ‘Life reacting’, which examines how ‘reaction’ describes living organisms existing in their environments; Ch. 4, ‘Reactive pathologies’, which examines psychoanalysis including that of Freud; Ch. 5, ‘Raphael, Louis, Balthazar’, which examines the word pair as used in literary texts, including Balzac’s The wild ass’s skin and Louis Lambert; Ch. 6, ‘Dead world, beating hearts,’ which further examines literary texts (Johann von Goethe, Poe, and others) and their use of ‘action’ and ‘reaction,’ including Valéry’s ‘I am a reaction to what I am’; and Ch. 7, ‘Reaction and progress’, which examines revolutions and reactions, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The communist manifesto, and Nietzche’s The genealogy of morals.

In the preface to the American edition of this work, S reveals how his intention to trace the ‘biography’ of ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ found its source in the discussions held among members of the History of Ideas Club during his three-year residency at Johns Hopkins University. Sophie Hawkes and Jeff Fort did a wonderful job rendering this edition. Their translation presents transparent, tight writing. At no point did the translation seem opaque or calqued, and the translators used received translations with a few modifications, so creating a very readable target text. In conclusion, if Newton’s third law of motion holds true in this case, for the action which was the publication of the American edition of this book (in English), there should be an equal reaction, which would be praise for the author and his translators for allowing the reader to indulge in such an in-depth study, and to follow with intense interest the life and adventures of the word pair ‘action’ and ‘reaction’.

Lorin Card
Okanagan University College


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