- Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson
In this volume, Jonathan Kramnick reconsiders one of the most pervasive assumptions we’ve held about the long eighteenth century: that subjectivity took a new and unprecedented turn inward. Kramnick brings to light the period’s preoccupation with the external, or the ways in which mental states could be both known and caused by actions and objects outside of the mind. Kramnick shows that in theorizing and depicting causation, philosophers and literary writers alike grappled with hard questions that elude easy answers even today. What is the relationship between mind and matter? In which does agency originate? And how do we know? [End Page 325]
Actions and Objects begins with a lucid reading of Thomas Hobbes’s influential theory of necessity in the wake of the English Civil War. For Hobbes—who “elaborates a concept of cause that binds atoms to thoughts to persons to kings to God”—consciousness is entwined in a vast network of determining social, political, and material factors (33). As Kramnick demonstrates, such a network made it difficult to locate in the mind a free object, agent, or cause for any given belief, action, or effect. If for Hobbes this theory had particular implications with regard to an individual’s relationship to the state, it would later come to trouble conceptualizations of consciousness and desire more broadly. That John Locke gave external objects the power to impress the mind with basic ideas is well known; how, exactly, one turned those ideas into the desire to take observable actions proved to be a thornier issue. Kramnick illustrates this difficulty nicely with a sustained study of the significant revisions Locke made to the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In the first edition of the Essay, Locke finds desire an unreliable cause of action. An individual might desire to take a particular action, yet still refrain from doing so. Consequently, tracking backward from external, observable actions to supposedly internal desires threatened to lead one to draw false conclusions about causation. Although Locke would recast desire as “uneasiness” and give it a more prominent role in the second edition of the Essay, it remained for him a “feeling possessed in response to circumstances” rather than an isolated, internal state of mind (158).
Kramnick argues that these concerns about where desire originated and what its effects were became even more entrenched in the early eighteenth century, when the debates reached a wider readership and grew increasingly concerned with locating the “sources of moral action” in either the minds of individuals or external circumstances (47). As Kramnick examines the various disputes over where actions originate, he traces a shift from what he identifies as a first-person to a third-person perspective. This is a clever observation, which joins together the philosophical and literary sources Kramnick discusses. This shift is underway in Locke’s Essay, as evidenced by his attempts to understand desire as an agent of action and as an effect of circumstances, but finds its fullest expression in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Kramnick shows that Hume does not so much try to solve the problem of whether actions originate in or outside of the mind, as require us to recognize that we only ever know the relationships between causes and effects by witnessing their external forms as completed actions in social settings.
Kramnick’s reading of Hume reminds us that literature played an important role in these debates as not only a source for registering contemporary theories of mind, but also as a theater for playing out their implications. For example, Kramnick finds that the Earl of Rochester’s translation of a few lines from Lucretius’s De rerum natura illustrates both his interest in questions of mind and matter and his willingness to entertain the possibility that “all matter has some kind of mindlike quality,” and that “the mind itself is a kind of illusion and all there is is insentient matter” (79). More significantly...