Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson

Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson

Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson

Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson

Synopsis

How do minds cause events in the world? How does wanting to write a letter cause a person's hands to move across the page, or believing something to be true cause a person to make a promise? In Actions and Objects, Jonathan Kramnick examines the literature and philosophy of action during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when philosophers and novelists, poets and scientists were all concerned with the place of the mind in the world. These writers asked whether belief, desire, and emotion were part of nature- and thus subject to laws of cause and effect- or in a special place outside the natural order. Kramnick puts particular emphasis on those who tried to make actions compatible with external determination and to blur the boundary between mind and matter. He follows a long tradition of examining the close relation between literary and philosophical writing during the period, but fundamentally revises the terrain. Rather than emphasizing psychological depth and interiority or asking how literary works were understood as true or fictional, he situates literature alongside philosophy as jointly interested in discovering how minds work.

Excerpt

This book is about the literature and philosophy of action during the last half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century, the period that begins roughly with Hobbes and Rochester and ends roughly with Hume and Richardson. It features works that examine what happens when someone acts, when someone writes a letter or lifts her feet or kills or kisses, and so on. For many, the difference between actions and other kinds of events turned on the presence of mental states. Someone writes a letter because she wants to communicate information and intends for her reader to understand her. Her desire for the one or intention for the other causes physical movements of various kinds. And yet how does a mental state like desire or intention cause the body to move? This simple question was of vast significance for all kinds of writers during the period, and opened up literary and philosophical problems for our time as well as theirs, from how a work of writing can represent thought on the page, to how matter can be the locus of consciousness, to whether minds actually cause anything to happen after all.

Writing about the mind during the period took many forms and has been the topic of much important work in literary and intellectual history. The relation between mind and actions, however, remains relatively untapped and points in a number of unusual directions. For example, although this book is above all interested in the language of mental states, it does not make an argument about the growth of inwardness or interiority or the psychological subject during the period. Rather, considering actions leads in a different . . .

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