- Doing Things with Acts
Jonathan Kramnick’s absorbing new book explores how philosophers, poets, and writers of fiction grappled with the conceptual problems surrounding the nature of human action between roughly 1650 and 1750. Kramnick presents action as an interface between the world and the mind. In a typically aphoristic phrase, he observes early on in the book that “Actions extend mind into the world” (3, his emphasis). A commonsense account of action might be to say that actions occur when people decide to do something and then perform physical motions that cause things to happen in the world. Kramnick, however, is especially interested in writers who investigated the possible reversibility of this sequence, thus bringing “the world into the mind” (5). Against standard narratives of deepening interiority, Kramnick shows how writers from Thomas Hobbes to Samuel Richardson emphasized the role of external causes in the shaping of intentional acts.
Kramnick’s book is exemplary for the clarity with which it divides up the spectrum of philosophical positions on human action. Probably the most important crux for Kramnick’s authors was the problem of defining the difference between intentional acts and physical events. This difference is nicely illustrated in the beginning pages through the contrast between the historic appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1682 [End Page 521] and the cutting of Belinda’s hair in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714). Asking why the Baron cut Belinda’s hair involves issues of intention that are irrelevant when we ask why the comet returned to the skies. The distinction between intended actions and physical events might seem simple on the face of it. But describing and accounting for this difference turns out to be exceptionally difficult.
The problem of action is bound up with the problem of consciousness: the puzzle of explaining how it is that some clumps of matter seem to possess consciousness whereas others do not. Kramnick is especially interested in the counterintuitive conclusions to which thinkers were sometimes driven by their efforts to explain consciousness and its connection to intentional actions. At one extreme was the position that consciousness is an illusion and nothing and no one really has it. The other extreme was the position that everything in nature possesses at least some consciousness. In both cases, the distinction between the things that people do and the things that things do disappears. Many writers, however, found themselves somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes, often reaching the compromise position that consciousness is a property that emerges from particles that are not themselves conscious.
The upshot was that the actions of conscious agents could not be easily disentangled from the nonconscious world that enfolded them. The idea that the Baron’s decision to cut Belinda’s hair might not be so different in nature from the return of Halley’s Comet had to be taken seriously. Pope himself points to the possibility that the “am’rous Causes” operating on the Baron may be just as irresistible as the gravitational forces operating on Halley’s Comet. Kramnick shows how writers tried to account at once for the mind-bound nature of intentional actions and also for their implication in a causal network that extends outside the mind into the world beyond the self.
Kramnick’s method is to focus on a series of cases in which a problem about the nature of action emerges in a text or in the space between texts. He begins with the debate on free will between Hobbes and John Bramhall in which Hobbes contended that the will behind any human action can be traced to antecedent causes in the world, whereas Bramhall argued that the will is formed independently of these causes. Kramnick then turns to the problem of consciousness by way of the dueling translations of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura by Thomas Creech (in 1682) and John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester. Kramnick suggests that Creech’s and Rochester’s translations are influenced by...