“I think therefore I’m Liberal”; “I think therefore I’m Dangerous”; “I think therefore I’m Single”; “I think therefore I’m Vegetarian”; and my personal favorite “I think therefore I’m Ham.” These phrases—emblazoned on t-shirts, billboards and, in the case of the latter, the headers of blogs—offer up perverse reinventions of Renee Descartes’ oft-cited (and oft-misunderstood) theory of human consciousness and existence, articulated in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).
These modern slogans do not, however, make much sense if we try to see them as a logical extension of Cartesian philosophy. Descartes’ theory is not strictly partisan, for starters. His excursus is, in part, an attempt to make sense of what makes all (or at least most) humans human—what makes them more than “rocks and turnips” (44) or “blueberries and doorknobs” (78), as Jonathan Kramnick might say, with characteristically wry humor, if he were writing about Descartes.
Kramnick’s new book, Actions and Objects: from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford, 2010), from which I have borrowed these phrases, is not strictly about Cartesian philosophy. Kramnick’s delightfully written and keenly insightful new book is, however, about a series of related philosophical conundrums concerning human consciousness that preoccupied a wide array of writers in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These writers run the whole gamut, from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume to the poet known as Rochester and novelists Eliza Haywood and Samuel Richardson. In theorizing conceptions of consciousness, as Kramnick discusses, these writers debated attendant theories of existence, motivation, feeling and action that still preoccupy philosophers of mind today. In throwing a wide net, Kramnick’s book reminds us that these seemingly strictly philosophical questions were engaged by writers who came at them through a myriad of genres of writing.
The communities of thinkers and writers obsessed with these questions of action, agency, and consciousness may have narrowed over time. And yet, the larger problem contemplated by writers then and now has persisted: like doorknobs and rocks, humans are composed of atoms, but “piles of atoms don’t make men; they make piles in the shape of men (and a great many other things)” (221). Humans, we believe, are uniquely endowed with critical faculties and the capacity for rational judgment. Consciousness makes me much more, for example, than “ham.” And, yet, how did I become more sentient, more feeling, more rational than a slab of bacon if not also the pig from which that bacon came? As Kramnick summarizes, “[h]ow do small bits of matter add up to larger entities? How do nonthinking atoms create thought and experience? And how do thoughts as experiences cause events to happen?” (62). Modern philosophers call this the “hard problem of consciousness”: “matter seems by definition to be without experience, yet put together in certain ways it gives rise to sentience, awareness, pleasure, pain, appetites and the like” (10).
This is the problem with which Kramnick’s Actions and Objects begins and ends, and which remained as enticingly unanswered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as it does today. The implications were and are wide-ranging. They begin with the origin of our consciousness and they extend to serious issues of agency, free-will and moral responsibility. Do feelings and motivations start exclusively in the mind or do they arise from particular experiences of and in the world? Or, more disturbingly still, are they imposed on our minds from outside? When we start asking these questions, we begin unraveling the conventional understanding of human actions and their causes.
We also lose hold of much-prized notions of human subjectivity: foremost among the “philosophical, social and literary concerns” that the book addresses and that Chapter 1 introduces “is whether persons are special kinds of agents, endowed with immaterial souls, or whether mental states like desire and belief are made of the same stuff as the rest of the world and thus susceptible to a kind of limitless causation” (27). Where does causation begin and end? There are two primary and yet intertwined accounts in the literature that Kramnick examines: the internalist account and the externalist accounts, which I will describe in turn.
The “internalist” account, as Kramnick insists on more than one occasion, has been largely misunderstood particularly by literary scholars. We might imagine that the internalist account places the causes of action inside the mind—in, for example, feelings that we can consciously register, like desire or anger. If we assumed, however, that this is entirely or exclusively how late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophers thought about feeling, motivation and action, we would be wrong, asserts Kramnick. Even the philosopher most often cited as a proponent of an internalist account of causation—John Locke—is unclear on what inspires feeling, where it is located in humans and how feelings lead to actions. This is the subject of Chapter 4, which contains a beautifully persuasive reading of the first and second editions of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the context of contemporary debates. Kramnick reveals that as much as Locke concerns himself with human feelings and states of mind, he is never entirely clear on the way in which those interior states lead to action. To be more specific, when we study human action, we can only see the result (the action) and are unable to perfectly or surely see the feeling that led to that action. We face a problem of intuiting causes from effects.
There is also the much more perplexing and counter-intuitive “externalist” account of action, wherein feelings or motivations that cause action do not come strictly from the mind—causes that include desire, for example. To give just one example, Kramnick reads Rochester’s poem The Imperfect Enjoyment, a poem about impotence that presents the mind as unable to make the desiring body do its bidding. The poem also complicates matters by suggesting that desire is not housed in the mind. It might be housed in the body or, even more troublingly, it might be situated in the world outside the body—in the natural and social settings where the body acts and that, in a sense, cause the body to act. The mind, on its own, has only ineffective will and thus cannot cause action. Causation, for Rochester as well as for writers like Lucretius, Hobbes and the younger Locke, is not in essence a matter of the mind acting on matter, directed by feelings that begin or end in the mind.
Complicating matters further, Chapter 5 introduces another layer to the problem of consciousness: namely, consent. It is Kramnick’s reading of “consent” that fascinates me the most, perhaps because it coincides with some scholarly interests of my own. It also helpfully reframes eighteenth-century theories of both consciousness and consent that have, to some extent, been incompletely understood in their modern formulations. Most college students typically learn about consent by way of social contract theory—this is, for example, where I first learned about it as an erstwhile political philosophy major in college: in reading the works of Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes, American undergraduates discover that by merely living—inhabiting, working, studying, etc.—in a modern nation-state, we consent tacitly to be governed by that state and its leaders. In other words, we submit to the state without ever needing to offer a more overt demonstration of consent: signing a contract or saying “I do” or “I agree.” This is no doubt familiar to all readers here. For the most docile American undergraduates I teach, this seems to make sense. They would agree with the thin reading of consent, which, as Kramnick puts it “seems to invoke a psychology of individual agency as the ground of political authority” (169) at the same time that the individual never (or rarely) knowingly acts to articulate that consent.
And, yet, consent raises a host of questions and problems, which eighteenth-century writers were intent on muddling through (and often muddling up) and which remain crucially relevant in today’s deliberative democracies: “What kind of mental state is consent, and what kind of action is consenting?” (168). To take this one step further and thus to really muddy the waters, the problem is two-fold: on the one hand, with tacit consent, we cannot go looking for it in the mind of the individual because they did not know they were providing consent; on the other hand, with explicit consent, we can only see the evidence that someone has consented in their actions (in the world). We can only guess at the various, possible states of mind that have led to consent. This is the problem that Hume, Locke and Haywood tackle in their various different writings. For them (and for us), consent, choice and responsibility no longer seem to sync up in conventionally reliable ways.
I have described here only a few, and what seem to me most central, of the many issues that Kramnick addresses and explains in exhaustive detail. These are, however, tricky matters to summarize in a few sentences. This is perhaps the reason for what I think may be the only difficulty in reading Kramnick’s book—you cannot dip in and out of it. You might be only interested in his take on Clarissa, but you cannot easily read that chapter (Chapter 6), without understanding the chapters that precede it. On the plus side, in devoting the time to read the entire text, you’d have to be a rock or a blueberry—no more conscious than a pile of atoms in the shape of a man—to not enjoy Kramnick’s writing. His delightfully playful prose serves and tempers the razor-sharp clarity of his thinking. “Men and …turnips” and “wayward erection[s]” join forces with a style that, on occasion, seems to hail from analytic philosophy: for example, Kramnick uses X and Y variables to map out the thornier philosophical principles that he details.
There is something else in this text that we only rarely find in literary criticism and that contributes to the coherence and importance of Kramnick’s text. As Kramnick says from the very beginning, “this book moves freely between what in retrospect we would call philosophical and literary writing…[I view their] overlap of concerns as permission to stipulate a relation between texts that have grown to seem far-flung” (11). This self-consciousness about his methods says a great deal about the way we do and read literary criticism, including literary history. While plenty of literary scholars are doing this kind of work nowadays—reading non-literary texts alongside literary texts—very few of them do it as well or as fully as Kramnick does. Too many literary critics are content to sample from works of philosophy or science while offering a more comprehensive account of so-called literary texts. I say that literary texts are “so-called,” because the hard-and-fast distinction between literary and non-literary writing did not, it has been argued, emerge fully until the nineteenth century. Literary critics tend to privilege literary writing over non-literary writing (e.g., philosophy, science, social science, journalism), even if those categories did not exist in the periods they investigate. This is precisely the problem that Kramnick describes when he talks about scholars’ incomplete reading of Locke’s philosophy of mind. By not fully reading or understanding Locke’s writing—by only sampling passages that seem to back up modern assumptions about human feelings, motivations and actions—scholars also misread literary texts about mental states and moral action. To understand debates from the past, we must, I believe, take full account of a representative range of texts that contributed to these debates. To restrict our attention to literary texts (or indeed to just a few parts of Kramnick’s text) is to cloud our critical judgment—the thing that makes us scholars, if not also humans.