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That human action is quite unlike anything seen in other parts of the animal kingdom is perhaps an uncontroversial claim, but how precisely it is different is a subject of much debate. This problem can be approached by paying attention to something that seems to be closely bound up with the difference, although it enters rarely into discussions of the nature of action. This is the observation that human action is generally difficult and problematic, and that failure to achieve its intended outcome is very common, perhaps as frequent as success. This perspective is not often expressed in academic discussion, although it must occur to most people if they reflect in an unbiased way on human affairs. Hopefulness is of course a valuable asset for living, and is therefore socially prized. In academic circles we often view ourselves as having a benevolent purpose of clearing the way, through theoretical analysis and critique, for improved modes of living and acting. But is this activity genuinely beneficial if it fails to rest on an adequate estimate of our situation? And if human action has a certain proclivity toward failure, is this not an important feature that merits consideration? Does not the pursuit of self-knowledge call for facing up to all pertinent realities, including the less agreeable ones? In academic philosophy one often writes as though major obstacles to attaining forms of living that are more sociable, harmonious, and just can be removed by the clarification of ethical principles and the elimination of errors of an epistemological or metaphysical character.

Certainly it is important to bring public attention to the perils of misguided projects based on questionable appeals to science, unreflective enthusiasm about technology, and reductionist thinking. But it can be safely ventured that even with great improvements in such areas of thought, social and political life would remain a contentious, turbulent, and often violent affair that variously engages, repels, and amuses human observers and actors. In this essay such reflections will not have a more familiar focus on clearly social and political questions and topics but on what might seem a side-issue.

A few words from Alfred North Whitehead can assist one in this matter.
   What distinguishes men from animals, some humans from other humans,
   is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a
   disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. It
   is a tropism to the beckoning light--to the sun passing toward the
   finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. (1)

Kant refers to a kindred phenomenon when he writes "[I]n all humans, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics." (2)

Kant also brings forward something like the disturbing aspect that Whitehead mentions when he characterizes the critical inquiry as a necessary propaedeutic to metaphysics, determining the capacity of reason for metaphysical inquiry. He notes that "human reason, being by its nature dialectical, can never dispense with such a [critical] science, which curbs it, and by a scientific and completely convincing self-knowledge, prevents the devastations of which a lawless speculative reason would otherwise quite inevitably be guilty in the field of morals as well as in that of religion." (3) Kant believes great progress can be made both in determining the grounds and boundaries of the legitimate use of speculation, and in reducing the devastations arising from lawless forms of it, although he also asserts that humanity is made of such crooked wood that from it nothing straight can be fashioned. (4) At the moment this matter will be left at saying that in related ways Whitehead and Kant make a point extremely relevant to the theme of action. There is indeed something about our speculative nature, as seeking the unattainable, which disturbs settled orders and tends toward the lawless. A certain indirect tribute to this point has been paid by a good deal of twentieth-century philosophy, which, influenced by Kant but not proceeding in true accord with his intention, has worked very hard to put out of play the metaphysical urge. (Kant instead wants to save it by reinterpreting it.) Yet from an anthropological standpoint it is insufficient to proceed in this dismissive way, and in particular it is fatal for understanding the problem of human agency.

It is doubtless the case that much of early modern philosophy is engaged in a battle with the speculative urge. (5) At the same time, it regards this urge as a profoundly important aspect of the human psyche, and has much of interest to say about it. This subject will return later. By way of introduction, one can observe that in early modern philosophy, the problem of the speculative urge is directly linked to the new accounts of philosophy as a project, thus, as a form of action. The French political philosopher Pierre Manent writes that
   modernity is in the first place a project, a collective project
   formulated in Europe, implemented at first in Europe, and intended
   from the beginning for all humanity.... A project presupposes that
   we are capable of acting and that our action is capable of
   transforming our situation or the conditions of our life. (6)

He adds:
   We are capable of acting. A whole world is contained in that
   statement. Humans have always acted in some fashion, but they have
   not always known that they are capable of acting. There is
   something terrifying in human action. What expresses human beings
   is also what exposes them, makes them come out of themselves, and
   at times lose themselves. In the beginning people gather, fish,
   hunt, even make war, which is a sort of hunt, but they act as
   little as possible. They leave the greatest room for the gods, and
   they hamper themselves as much as possible by all sorts of
   prohibitions, rites and sacred restraints.

This is why, Manent says, when human action becomes self-conscious, as human action proper, it first appears as a crime, a transgression, a theme that Hegel develops in his account of Greek tragedy. Again Manent: "Tragedy tells ... the passage from what precedes action to properly human action. It tells of the passage to the city, the coming to be of the city. For the city enables one to act. The city is that ordering of the world that makes action possible and meaningful." (7) In the city people discover they can govern themselves, they learn politics, the chief domain of action, and they form great projects. Modernity as a project of collective action is a later outgrowth of this discovery. It is not accidental that the appearance of the city as a realm of action coincides, more or less, with the appearance of philosophy. The self-consciousness of action gives rise to attempts to lead action from its criminal and transgressive origin onto a path that is nontragic or, as one would say, "rational." This effort is central to ancient philosophy and remains so in the modern era. And in philosophy both ancient and modern it is always understood that the place of the speculative urge in human affairs, thus its relation to action, must be a major theme of that reflection.

Modern philosophy carries forward on new principles the effort to make action nontragic. (8) Manent notes that as the Christian church attempts in the medieval centuries to be a universal community it incorporates the ancient models of city and empire. This gives rise to the perplexity of Europe that is the driving force behind the project of modernity. The words of the bible, the Greek philosophers, and the Roman orators, with their many contradictions, lead to the experience of fundamental disjointedness between words and action. (9) The modern moment, Manent claims, is the effort to join word to action more rigorously. The response to the "anarchy of words" in the modern political project initiated by Machiavelli seeks to liberate action by means of effectual truths from the words of traditional authorities. (10) But the anarchy of words originates, in many respects, from the human speculative urge, and thus that urge must be domesticated and controlled for the sake of the project of creating a new unified order, one assuring effective action. Manent proposes that we now live in another age of words dissociated from action. (11) The more successful institutions of modern life for some time concealed a problem that inheres in human action as such, but now emerges vividly through advances in technology, and thus ironically through the most ambitious forms of action promoted by modernity. (12) This last point is the essay's terminus. But first it is helpful to turn to some ways of thinking about action in recent and early modern philosophy and to reflect on the fact that recent philosophy has less to say about the problematic relation of action to the speculative element than early modern philosophy, even as recent philosophy is intensely engaged in criticism of early modern thought.


One begins with the widely held and narrow view of human action suggested by modern natural science: action is the causal production, according to natural laws, of discrete physical events by discrete mental events, commonly called representations. It is the judgment of many contemporary thinkers that this view is inadequate if not wholly wrong. In various ways the argument is made that the physical aspect of an action cannot be separated from its significance, that is, from its interpretation by human agents. Setting aside involuntary motions, all human action is expression of meaning or is a mode of signification. Thus to walk down the street to the grocery is as full of meaning as the verbal articulation of the plan to take that walk. Conversely, the verbal articulation of the plan, whether voiced or unvoiced, is not less an action than its execution by walking. In his still valuable but now seldom cited book, Thought and Action (1959), Stuart Hampshire questions "the naive dualism that divides the internal and mental from the external and physical. The concepts of thought and action, that is, of deliberate human action, prevent any such separation being carried through consistently." (13) Recently several authors have proposed radical ways of linking thought and action. One prominent contemporary thinker, Robert Brandom, in an account of what he calls discursive social practices, argues for the priority of action in semantic, epistemic, and cognitive considerations, whereby the inferential role of concepts in linguistic performances replaces mental representations as determining meaning. Our cognitive life cannot be separated from the world of norms, obligations, entitlements, standards of correctness and of right and wrong. (14) The straightforward scientific view of action then must be turned on its head: the sphere of human action as discursive practice is the only context in which deliberate action is intelligible.

The standard scientific view of action is subject to the criticism of the "myth of the given," a criticism associated with Wilfred Sellars, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom, which has antecedents in Kant, Hegel, pragmatism, the later Wittgenstein, and the phenomenologies of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. These approaches share the conviction that the account of human cognitive and practical activity in terms of the so-called primary qualities (the leading modern candidate for the "uninterpreted given") and the laws of their regular conjunction, as divested of all emotional, moral, and aesthetic attributes, necessarily fails to describe, much less to explain, the relevant phenomena. Considered here are first the thought of McDowell, whose penetrating analysis of mental life illuminates the problem of action, and briefly afterward some related reflections in Charles Taylor.

With an avowed affinity for Kant, McDowell links concepts to spontaneity, and characterizes rational activity as a "space of reasons" that is also a "realm of freedom." The freedom of conceptual spontaneity is exercised in critical self-scrutiny and the rational justification of beliefs. The grounds of such activity cannot be the causal interaction with the "brute given," appeals to which are intended to alleviate anxiety about the basis of empirical knowledge. What lies wholly outside the conceptual cannot be used in justification. The appeal to the brute given offers only an exculpation (the basis for a claim that we could not have done otherwise), but not a rational justification. (15) At the same time, McDowell regards coherentist justifications as insufficient. Adducing Kant's maxim, "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind," he seeks a way to end the oscillation between coherentism based only on spontaneity and appeals to a given externally related to the conceptual realm. Neither position can show how empirical knowledge is possible. The external cause to which the coherentist appeals to remove arbitrariness entails a view of the natural world as disenchanted, as the brute given lacking relation to human concepts and interpretations. (16) Kant's view of sensibility points to another alternative: our receptivity to empirical intuitions already has conceptual content; knowing does not involve contact with the bare given. Kant shows that our concepts are not limited in their operation from the outside, and our knowledge does not encounter an outer boundary at which concepts come into direct relation to the nonconceptual. (17)

The scientific philosophy founded in the seventeenth century, McDowell argues, attempts to relate our cognitive capacities to a realm of natural law divested of conceptual content. The result is disastrous, a complete failure to account for the conceptual realm as a space of rational justification. Much of our philosophical and scientific thought still lies under the spell of nomologicai explanations. Kant makes a great advance when he views Newtonian natural law (that is, the principles of the understanding) as falling within a conceptual realm, wherein spontaneity relates to sensibility as inherently structured by the conceptual. Yet Kant makes a false step, McDowell argues, in proposing the thinkable but unknowable existence of the supersensible beyond the reach of concepts. This unsatisfactory aspect of Kant was rejected by his successors, most notably by Hegel, who consistently rejects the notion of an outer boundary to the conceptual and who is the philosopher who most succeeds in supersession of the traditional problems. It is Hegel who understands fully what freedom as autonomy entails. (18) McDowell also turns to Aristotle for an account of nature superior to Kant's conception of laws of nature. Aristotle has regard for our nature as living animals responsive to meaning. Spontaneity in this account is actualized in nature as "second nature," a conception developed in the German tradition of Bildung, which regards our original nature as responsive to ethical demands. (19) Kant's view of the limited role of conceptuality in nature still relates him to modern scientific "naturalism": his account of the "I think" abstracts from the perceiving animal and the living subject of experience; he essentially withdraws agency from nature and intentionality from the body. (20)

McDowell calls his position "naturalized platonism" and stresses that he does not derive meaning solely from social interaction. Provocatively, he ascribes naturalized platonism to Wittgenstein, citing his appeal to "our natural history" to characterize human linguistic activity, which McDowell interprets in terms of our nature seen as largely second nature, a "natural way of being ... already shaped by meaning." (21) Thus McDowell abjures the stance of the "social pragmatist" who regards the social as constituting the "framework for a construction of the very idea of meaning." (22) His position also places his Hegel reading within the realist range of such readings. McDowell ascribes to Hegel the view that "the significance of actions consists in their being practical employments of conceptual capacities, and the idea of conceptual capacities makes sense only in the context of a shared practice." But at the same time McDowell distances himself from Robert Pippin's account of Hegelian reason as the social activity of constructing norms, by which Pippin seeks to avoid all realism about norms. (23) McDowell believes that Pippin is subject to a "bad picture" according to which being open to a reality not of our making would be letting something imprint itself immediately on us. But McDowell's Hegel, in thinking of normativity only as something to be worked out by humans dwelling in the space of reasons, offers less solace in his view than Pippin's idea of progressive development of norms. Hegel aims to liberate us from the felt need to pursue groundings of various kinds: empiricist, rationalist, transcendental, and constructive-developmental. Indeed, Hegel does not relieve the "anxiety of responsibility" and inspires a "conviction of groundlessness" that "can easily induce panic." "We are entirely on our own." (24)


Charles Taylor's turn to Kant and Hegel to expose problems in early modern philosophy and its analytic successors has clear affinities with McDowell's thought. Taylor distinguishes between a quantitative account of action based on primitive mental events and a qualitative account that stresses purposive capacity for action in which clarity about the meaning of action comes not at the start but only as a result of interpretive efforts. Agents "express" themselves in actions not from a privileged standpoint on their intentions, but working through initial obscurity they discover their intentions and the meaning of actions (which depend crucially on the interpretations of other actors). Such "agent's knowledge" is treated by Hegel as unfolding in a contradiction between the effective realization of the life-process of the agent and the agent's self-understanding, until finally a coincidence is achieved between the actuality of the life-process (Spirit) and the consciousness thereof. Unreflective, indeed unconscious, practice must precede explicit awareness. There is no primitive starting point; the agent's striving for self-expression is the only possible beginning. (25) Rejecting atomism as epistemology (discrete mental events) and as social-political theory, Taylor stresses expression as occurring communally in the public realm. On his reading Hegel's system is an all-embracing account of agent's knowledge.

Both McDowell and Taylor seek to correct the opposition of subject and object in modern scientific philosophy. In McDowell's case the chief move is to stress a notion of sensibility invested with meaning. Taylor's approach is by way of an expressive self that seeks clarity about itself in a dialectical process. Both of them reject immediacy, whether of mental events or desires, and both are critics of the "myth of the given." Taylor places more emphasis on the historical character of conceptual spontaneity, and says less on receptivity than McDowell, although for Taylor unreflective practice involves receptivity to our expressive selves. McDowell underlines the togetherness of spontaneity and receptivity, and, as we saw, he forbids an appeal to an external foundation. Taylor, citing the Phenomenology's image of the True as a Bacchanalian revelry of concepts, (26) brings to mind McDowell's conception of a "groundless" Hegel, as Taylor describes Hegel's project as making rigid thoughts fluid and as showing that no conceptual grasp is sacrosanct. In the view of both, Hegel (with important preparation by Kant) offers a "counter-theory to the long-dominant epistemologically-based view that the seventeenth-century bequeathed to us." (27)

As in most accounts of the origins of the modern outlook, Taylor dwells on the epochal significance of Descartes. The radical split of inner and outer, the derivation of standards of knowledge from the thinking activity of the knower, and the construction of an order of representations that meets those standards are signposts of the Cartesian revolution. Furthermore, the internal origin of the order of knowledge entails its separation from any possible moral order of the universe and the abandonment of teleological thought about the relation of the soul to the cosmos. (28) In Descartes's dualism there is no orientation of the soul toward a supersensible realm of ideas. The material world is mere extension liberated from any cosmic, value-laden ground. The soul as thinking pure thoughts engages in intramundane transcending, as Taylor usefully notes, requiring doubt of our natural embodied perspective in which things are inherently qualified by color, sweetness, and heat. Taylor observes that this change of perspective has something paradoxical about it. On the one hand Descartes separates soul from body even more severely than Plato, for whom eros is a pointer in the temporal toward the eternal. Yet Descartes needs the body more than Plato, since the thinker can affirm an immaterial nature of the self only by objectifying the body. The distance the thinker assumes toward the body is for the sake of a closer union with it. The body is an inescapable object of attention, as the soul "has to support itself on it in order to climb free of it." (29) In sum, Descartes and his contemporaries initiate the disenchantment of nature not for the sake of otherworldly reflection but to manipulate nature for human satisfaction. (30)

Taylor's mention of intramundane transcending points to a dimension that is not much discussed in contemporary critiques of Cartesianism. Whitehead indicates this dimension with these remarks: "One main law which underlies modern progress is that, except for the rarest accidents of chance, thought precedes observation. It may not decide the details, but it suggests the type.... The point is that the development of abstract theory precedes the understanding of fact." (31) The Cartesianism criticized by McDowell, Taylor, and others is limited to mentalist accounts of knowledge and action, in which the mind is relatively passive, contemplative, and "punctually" focused on the present. (32) Yet this account is not compatible with the active transcending by mind that Taylor notes. Kant himself sees that early modern philosophy anticipates his account of the transcendental, as he writes of the role of mathematics in the "intellectual revolution" of the "past century and a half since Bacon." He claims that Greek mathematicians already saw that the true method of geometric demonstration was not to "read off properties" of figures but to bring out what was implied in concepts formed a priori by construction. (33) It took centuries to see that this method could be applied to natural science, when it was learned that "reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and that it must not be kept, as it were in nature's leading-strings." Kant echoes Bacon's language as he claims that nature must be constrained "to give answers to questions of reason's own determining," and that the mind relates to nature not as an attentive pupil but as "the appointed judge." Kant grasps that natural law and causal explanation in modern natural philosophy are not understood as mirroring the preconceptual given but are from the start thoroughly conceptual. (34)

Indeed reason has palpably a dynamic character in Descartes, as one gathers from his reflections on method in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind and the Discourse on Method, where he presents the revolution of his analytic coordinate-based geometry as the conceptual basis for a transformation of philosophy. The principle idea is expansive unification of knowledge. Seeking a unification of the sciences that will allow for both the pleasures of knowing and practical benefit, Descartes discovers the first step toward unification in the natural ability of the mind to grasp truths ("intuitions") that are present to it apart from the senses. Such notions abstract from the diversifying features of ordinary perception. (This is the real point of the doubt of the senses, which is not some extravagant lapse of sanity, as so often presented.) In the case of the unification of algebra and geometry, he finds the key to forming a new science in the indeterminate concept "proportion." (35) But Descartes needs more than such concepts, and requires a new organon or art to replace the traditional logic that relies on natural assumptions. (36) Thus unifying certainties like proportion and extension must be applied within a larger unifying framework that conducts the mind in a progressive way toward comprehensive understanding. Descartes takes his cue from noting what makes for "perfection" in works of architecture, city planning, legislation, and religious founding, since the best products of such arts issue, he claims, from a single master intellect. (37)

What should not be missed in this is the conception of the intellect as productive and legislative, as giving to itself laws or rules by which to expand its conceptual grasp. Although one often says that Kant begins the appreciation of the activity of mind, one sees in Descartes a kind of spontaneity of reason, evident not only in his view of mind as rule-giving but also in the experiment of radical doubt whereby the conception of a possible world (as made by an evil genius) enables the mind to construct an order of knowledge independent of the sensible given. And surely, as Kant's own remarks on the modern theoretical revolution suggest, Kant owes much to the Cartesian rejection of Aristotelian realism for his idea of a science of metaphysics based on a Copernican reversal, wherein the failed attempt to view knowledge as conformity to objects is superseded by the proposal that objects must conform to our knowledge. (38) As Kant says, the critique of reason "has to deal not with the objects of reason, the variety of which is inexhaustible, but only with itself and the problems that arise entirely from within itself, and which are imposed upon it by its own nature, not by the nature of things which are distinct from it." (39)

If Descartes is the chief founder of modern philosophy, and his account of knowledge is projective, constructive, and dynamic, then the primary modern tradition is not that of positivism and naive scientific realism. (It can be shown that the main philosophers of British empiricism are not scientific realists and "naturalists" in the prevailing sense, and that they share more with Descartes than at first meets the eye.) Contemporary thought does have good grounds for discontent with this rationalism. One can object to the nondialogical stance of the individual thinker and the radical distancing from language, common moral opinion, and historical inheritance, in pursuit of apodictic certitude. Such criticisms already begin soon after Descartes. (One can mention Leibniz, Vico, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Burke, Herder, and many others who all the same bear traces of the Cartesian legacy.) But a great deal of contemporary thought actually seeks to sustain Descartes's discovery of a modern autonomous-constructive reason while reconciling it with those elements of life that appear endangered by it. In fact, that reconciliation can be called the central endeavor of the German Idealist movement, which is the historical lodestar for McDowell, Taylor, Brandom, and many others.


At this juncture it is fitting to recur to the themes of the disturbing element and the anarchy of words, and to comment on their relation. For the term "anarchy of words" one can substitute "anarchy of theories," which is clearly central to Descartes's account of his training in the School: "I will say nothing of philosophy except that ... it has been cultivated by the most excellent minds who have lived in many ages, and that nevertheless nothing is found in it that is not in dispute and consequently that is not doubtful." (40) He is inspired to replace this cacophony of disputes with the unity of assured knowledge. Kant writes even more dramatically of the controversies of dogmatic reason as a natural state of injustice and violence, and citing Hobbes, he demands that one leave such a state "in order to submit oneself to lawful coercion which alone limits our freedom in such a way that it can be consistent with the freedom of everyone else and thereby the common good." (41) The figure of Hobbes, who comes to the fore here, is worth dwelling on since he more than most early modern thinkers discusses the relation between the human power of speech and the distinctive problems of the human as a thinking being.

Hobbes writes that curiosity is a passion unique to the human, as other animals have only sensual passions, and curiosity is responsible for the invention of speech. (42) Human curiosity has a distinctive object: whereas both humans and other animals seek the causes of effects, humans "when imagining anything whatsoever ... seek all the effects that can by it be produced." (43) The human with its unique inventiveness has regard for a possible future of its own making, and thus considers prospects that first exist as merely imagined. Preeminent among the human inventions is speech, "the most noble invention," (44) for by its means the human "faculties may be improved to such a height, as to distinguish men from all other living creatures." (45) Indeed, human thought is based in speech, "for understanding is a kind of imagination, but one that arises from the signification constituted by words." (46) Without speech humans would not give commands, agree to covenants, and live securely and happily in society. (47) But the same human excellence is the source of special disadvantages. The human as preoccupied with the imagined future is "famished by even future hunger" and therefore surpasses other animals in rapacity and cruelty. What is more, through the universal signification of names in speech the human "can create general rules for itself ... and so [it] alone cam devise errors and pass them on for the use of others. Therefore man errs more widely and dangerously than other animals." (48) The human has the power to teach what it knows to be false. Falsehood often has the form of self-deception, as when one listens to the words of the Schoolmen and accepts them rashly, "even though no sense can be had from them." No beast can deceive itself. Hobbes concludes "therefore by speech man is not made better, but only given greater possibilities." (49) Hobbes here touches on the anarchy of words as a human problem.

Philip Pettit sums up nicely the effect that access to words has in Hobbes's account. It gives thought an "active, voluntary profile. People will no longer just undergo thought processes, as when this or that strikes them.... They can now set themselves questions, and undertake to consider what is true, as well as what follows from what, in a voluntary or intentional search for the answers to their questions. They can think in the active fashion represented in Rodin's sculpture." (50) Thus Hobbes has an active account of thought, although many writers would have us think that active thought is absent from modern philosophy before Kant. The case of Hobbes brings forward an important consideration in connection with "the space of reasons as the realm of freedom." Activity in that space consists not only of self-critical assessment, the making of inferences, justificatory reasoning, and norm-following. The characteristic freedom of human thought sets itself questions and at the same time projects itself into the possible future of finding answers to present questions and of encountering countless questions not yet asked. This indeterminate realm of possible questions and answers always lies before us, shaping our lives in mostly unnoticed ways. The acting self is always surrounded by a penumbra of possible selves (its own and others) that are the loci of possible actions, and no human agent can function otherwise. At times we reflectively consider some of the many forks in the paths of thought tracing out possible courses of action, as speech allows the "mastery of absence," to quote Robert Sokolowski. (51) This reflection by itself can inspire hope, anxiety, enthusiasm, or fear, as we do not respond only to determinate features of the environment, and certainly not only to what is sensibly present. Indeed, in the need to respond to the merely possible there lies much opportunity for self-deception. And at the same time, the inexhaustible wealth of imagined and perceived possibilities is the home of conflicting speeches, of words that portend alluring but empty prospects, of an abundance of appealing but shallow nostrums, of misleading proposals, and simply too much thought and information to allow for coherence.

The infinity of speech-based imagination in Hobbes has the consequence that humans cannot attain felicity in this life. "For there is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense." (52) "For of goods, the greatest is ever progressing towards ever further ends with the least hindrance." (53) Another writer who comments on this human trait is Samuel Johnson. In his novella The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, one character says, "Such is the state of life, that none are happy but by anticipation of change; the change itself is nothing; when we have made it, the next wish is to change again. The world is not yet exhausted. Let me see something to morrow which I never saw before." (54) As with Hobbes, this restlessness is not an animal impulse but bound up with rationality. In a famous passage of Rasselas, the philosopher Imlac wonders at the reason for the great cost and labor of building the Egyptian pyramid, and states:
   It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger
   of the imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must
   always be appeased by some employment. Those who have already all
   that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires.... I consider this
   mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human
   enjoyments. (56)

Such hunger of the imagination can occur only in a being that is able to compare its limited state to the imagined world of unlimited possibilities. "So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man, and so frequently are we in want of present pleasure or employment." (56) The Johnson scholar W. Jackson Bate notes what he calls the paradox of the imagination in Johnson's conception that the capacity of the imagination is so much larger than actual enjoyment. "It is the paradox that the human imagination is potentially boundless in what it desires, and yet it will fix itself hypnotically on a single aim or object." Thus the mind has "a frightening way of oversimplifying or restricting its field of interest for the moment." (57) Bate calls this a version of Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness: the tendency of the imagination to mistake the object it happens to want at the moment for a permanent source of satisfaction. (58) The intensity of such fixation relates directly to the experience of boundless possibility, as the mind flees from a sense of homelessness into intense, sometimes fanatical, attachment to a presumed permanent dwelling. But the same tendency can also spawn disappointment, as the experience of reaching a firm resting point remains elusive. "It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them. He that has pictured a prospect upon his fancy, will receive little pleasure from his eyes." (59) Hobbes and Johnson respond to the imagination's hunger in opposing ways: Hobbes exploits it as a foundation for a civil order based on fear of possible death in the lawless natural condition; Johnson counsels mindfulness of the vanity of human wishes in a Socratic pursuit of self-knowledge. (60)


The thread of the discussion has come to one of the major paths of modern thought leading from early modern philosophy and arriving at the thought of German Idealism. Some musing on the present state of affairs follows a brief consideration. The path leads through Rousseau, who once again gives imagination and speech central billing in the story of human progress as well as misery. He writes,
   [I]t is imagination which extends for us the measure of the
   possible, whether good or bad, and which consequently excites and
   nourishes the desires by the hope of satisfying them. But the
   object which at first appeared to be at hand flees more quickly
   than it can be pursued.... The real world has limits, the
   imaginary world is infinite. (61)

Because imagination is boundless, our desires and faculties are in a state of disproportion. Like Hobbes, Rousseau proposes that the invention of speech was crucial to the emergence of the restless passions, but he also considers the hypothetical existence of an original tranquil, prerational condition that was abandoned because of human perfectibility, which, chiefly through inventing speech, expanded desires beyond immediate needs, creating new desires for luxuries or unattainable goods. That expansion instituted the many forms of dependence destroying simple self-sufficiency, above all social dependence. Rousseau, quite unlike Hobbes, proposes ways of restoring, or at least approximating, original equality between cognitive faculties and desire. To make men happy and well-ordered entails diminishing the excess of desires over faculties and putting power and will in perfect equality. For Rousseau this is a project upon which depends the possibility of an acceptable future for humanity. He calls for an unprecedented revolution, insofar as he demands a transformation of the essence of rationality (for example, of speech and imagination as perfectible). As he says, "this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty is the source of all man's miseries" as it "eventually makes him his own and nature's tyrant." (62)

In other terms, Rousseau views human reason as the root of the process of self-alienation. No one had proposed before him that our humanity produces social reason as something other to itself, which enslaves it as its self-distortion, and which yet must be integrated into the self. To make alienated rationality into one's own self is the project of the social contract, for identifying one's will with the will of all is to transform a false structure of unequal powers into a true structure of equal powers. The deep effect this new approach to reason had on Kant has been well-documented and discussed. Kant agrees that reason is the ground of self-enslavement and that reason as self-legislating holds the key to its self-emancipation. In both Kant and Hegel there are conceptions in which alienated rationality comes back to itself through adoption of the moral or sittlich stance of recognizing itself in the free humanity of others. Hegel speaks of the will as having an infinite capacity for distancing itself from all concrete limitations, but even so needing to realize itself in manifold finite embodiments. It grows in self-knowledge as it progresses through deficient actualizations (such as personal property or abstract right) until it is fully realized in the social mediations of ethical life and the state. 63 Of course, many thinkers express doubts about this sanguine account of the dialectic of spirit. An interesting case is Georg Simmel, whose essay "The Concept and Tragedy of Culture" (1911) essentially reenacts Rousseau's pessimistic conception of how human beings become increasingly alienated by the world of culture, their own rational product. (64) In Simmel's conception "culture continually presents the individual with more and more gifts but the individual seems less and less able to possess them. For the individual to realize his subjectivity he must project it into the world of human culture. But in this attempt of the I to realize itself, it loses itself." (65)

This discussion of various modern authors is meant to bring forward how imaginative self-projection and the complexity of the realm of possible ways of acting and being, or, one might say, of possible selves, is seen, in different but related accounts, as central to human rationality. The intent is to enlarge thereby the notion of the space of reasons as a realm of freedom. It is not unfair to propose that the tendency of contemporary philosophy to understand human agency in terms of rational norm-following, social or communal mediation, and justificatory reasoning is incomplete, and, it could be said, entailing a rather pallid and bloodless view of human existence. This raises the question of the relevance of contemporary philosophy. One must rethink the approach in philosophy in order to address an increasingly difficult environment for philosophic thought, and not only for such thought. We are living in the midst of a large-scale crisis of culture, one in which many people are experiencing dominant institutions as alien, uncomforting, pallid, and bloodless. The cries of protest are often in alarming terms of intense national, regional, ethnic, and racial identification. At the same time, technological processes, and most dramatically the internet, have produced an expanding web of global connections that surely does not lead inherently toward more order and harmony. Amid the most radical anarchy of words ever created, people struggle to find neighborly niches which in many cases are only serving to amplify outraged feelings. The situation poses some unprecedented challenges to human action which to be satisfying must have relatively stable and lasting results, and in which the actors can see themselves, their intelligence, virtues, and talents, adequately realized in effective institutions--institutions to which they can feel a palpable connection.

Although the difficulty we face is in certain ways novel, it can also be seen as a powerful reemerging of certain truths about human nature that have been overlooked for some time. The duality of the human, expressed by Johnson as the paradox of imagination, still resists all efforts to resolve it, since just as powerful as ever before are both the expansive-speculative urge of the mind toward the unbounded horizon and the mind's need for firm attachments to closed horizons. (66)

Tulane University

Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, 105 Newcomb Hall, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118.

* A slightly revised version of the presidential address of the Metaphysical Society of America, delivered 23 March 2018, in Atlanta, GA.

(1) Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1929), 65. And from the same: "Reason is the self-discipline of the originative element in history. Apart from the operations of Reason, this element is anarchic" (1).

(2) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter, CPR), trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), B21. Kant refers to the striving for knowledge of unknowable noumena, which he relates to moral concerns, and argues that it has its true satisfaction in the practical (nontheoretical) employment of reason. Human reason cannot be satisfied by knowledge of appearances. Whitehead writes of a spirit of facing the infinitude of things ("inspiration"), originally related to religion and having an anarchic tendency. The Greeks discovered speculative reason when they saw that the speculative spirit (which "expresses the transcendence of any particular method") is itself subject to the orderliness of method (Whitehead, Function, 66-67). Further, speculative reason continues in our time to search for a complete cosmology, which "submits itself to the authority of facts without loss of its mission to transcend the existing analysis of facts," but "unfortunately this ideal has not been realized" (85-87).

(3) Kant, CPR, A849/B877.

(4) Kant, "Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Standpoint," Sixth Thesis.

(5) The speculative urge of concern to modern philosophers is not strictly philosophical but has roots in philosophy. It could be called a spirited attempt to master the whole, leading to the creation of competing schools and doctrines. It already appears in the ancient schools of philosophy but gains force and scope in later debates about theological first principles. David Hume observes that "sects of philosophy, in ancient times, were more zealous than parties of religion, but in modern times, parties of religion are more furious and enraged than the most cruel factions that ever arose from interest and ambition." Indeed, Hume asserts that political parties based on abstract speculative principle, known only to modern times, "are perhaps the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon that has appeared in human affairs." See "Of Parties in General," in David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 60-63.

(6) Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, trans. Marc LePain (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 3.

(7) Ibid., 3-4.

(8) It might be said that Hegel rediscovers the tragic character of action that he claims is overcome by the modern state, as it fulfills the speculative logic in the modern age as a postpoetic era.

(9) The greatest poetic presentation of this problem is Shakespeare's Hamlet.

(10) Manent, Metamorphoses, 6-7

(11) Ibid., 11.

(12) The great ideological conflicts of the last century renewed the problem of warring sects, but each of the major ideologies (communist, fascist, liberal democratic) thought it was capable of overcoming its opponents in global victory, and so each saw in itself the chance for achievement of the final form of modernity. The present time has a different character, where only global technology is victorious and political life is fragmented and anarchic.

(13) The passage continues thus: "As soon as one realizes that the using of language, both in the practical calculation that may accompany physical actions and in the making of statements, is itself a kind of behavior interwoven with other kinds, one is free to consider the range of essential human interests afresh and without prejudice." Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959), 91. The most common way of regarding thinking as a wholly internal process is to ascribe it to neuronal activity, as though it is neurons rather than persons that know, prefer, seek, and so on. Thus in this account seeing an object is neuronal beholding of images in the back of the brain. See Robert E. Wood's criticism of such reductionism in Being and Cosmos: From Seeing to Indwelling (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 9-32.

(14) Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994). Loeffler argues that Brandom's pragmatism is a "systematic attempt to make sense of, and to provide a qualified theoretical defense for, Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous dictum that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Ronald Loeffler, Brandom (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 18.

(15) John McDowell, Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 4-10. Hampshire makes a related argument: "No matter what experimental knowledge of the previously unknown causes that determines a man's beliefs is accumulated, that which a man believes, and also that which he aims at and sets himself to achieve, will remain up to him to decide in the light of argument." Stuart Hampshire, Freedom of Mind and Other Essays (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 3.

(16) McDowell, Mind and World, 10-18.

(17) Ibid., 41-46.

(18) Ibid., 43-44, 83, 111. McDowell cites from the passage on Stoic consciousness ("In thinking, I am free because I am not in an other") in G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pars. 197, 120. McDowell notes that the sentence indicates the position toward which Hegel is heading but that is not yet realized in Stoicism. Mind and World, 44.

(19) McDowell, Mind and World, 77-85.

(20) Ibid., 87-91, 102-03. Here McDowell ignores the discussion in Kant (in the Critique of the Power of Judgment and other places) of culture as the actualization of freedom in our sensible nature through the discipline of the inclinations and the development of receptivity to ends (especially in aesthetic judging) higher than sensual gratification.

(21) Ibid., 91-95.

(22) Ibid., 95.

(23) John McDowell, "Towards a Reading of Hegel on Action in the 'Reason' Chapter of the Phenomenology," in Hegel on Action, ed. Arto Laitinen and Constantine Sandis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 79-96.

(24) Ibid., 94-95. Pippin presents a critical reading of McDowell in "John McDowell's Germans," in Robert B. Pippin, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

(25) Charles Taylor, "Hegel and the Philosophy of Action," in Hegel on Action; "Hegel's Philosophy of Mind," in Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

(26) Ibid., 93; G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, par. 47.

(27) Taylor, "Hegel and the Philosophy of Action," 40.

(28) Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 143-45.

(29) Taylor, Sources of the Self 146.

(30) It is necessary to go further and to explore Descartes's ultimate project of developing a therapeutic "highest and most perfect moral science" of the passions. See Richard Hassing, Cartesian Psychophysics and the Whole Nature of Man (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2015), and Richard Kennington, "Descartes and Mastery of Nature," in On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Pamela Kraus and Frank Hunt (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004).

(31) Whitehead, The Function of Reason, 72, 75. Heidegger similarly speaks of the role of mathematical projection in modern science, as "the application of a determination of the thing, which is not produced experientially from the thing itself, but which all the same underlies all determination of the thing, enabling it and making space for it." Die Frage nach dem Ding. Zu Kants Lehre von den transzendentalen Grundsatzen (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1962), 69.

(32) See also G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1957), 57: "Certainly in modern philosophy we have an incorrigibly contemplative conception of knowledge."

(33) Kant, CPU, Bxii-xiii.

(34) Kant's criticism of the dogmatism of "transcendental realism" is not that it tries to relate the conceptual to the nonconceptual, but bears on its thinking of the conceptual as unconditioned.

(35) See Rene Descartes, Rules 3 and Discourse on Method, part 2.

(36) Descartes, Rules 2,13.

(37) Descartes, Discourse on Method, part 2.

(38) Kant, CPR, Bxvi.

(39) Ibid., B23.

(40) Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, part 1, trans. Richard Kennington (Newburyport, Mass.: Focus Publishing, 2007), 19.

(41) Kant, CPR, A752/B780.

(42) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 3.5. On the relation between curiosity and speech and the responsibility of speech for thought, see Philip Pettit, Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind and Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 24-27, 37^0.

(43) Hobbes, Leviathan, 3.5

(44) Ibid., 4.1

(45) Ibid., 3.11

(46) Thomas Hobbes, De Homine, in Man and Citizen, ed. Bernard Gert (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 10.1 Hobbes's position on the relation of speech and thought is inherently ambiguous, since curiosity and inventiveness are forms of thought that precede speech although, Hobbes claims, speech makes understanding possible. On the question of whether it is speech or the inquiring of consequences (inventiveness) that distinguishes the human from other animals, see Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (New York: The Free Press, 1959), 176-77, the note.

(47) Hobbes, De Homine, 10.1

(48) Ibid., 10.3

(49) Ibid, 10.3

(50) Pettit, Made with Words, 37. Citing the linguistic studies of Derek Bickerton, Robert Sokolowski makes a related observation: "[Protolanguage] needs the direct presence of what it talks about in order to disambiguate a statement, to show what the speaker means. True language, on the other hand, can be spoken and clearly understood in the absence of the things to which it refers. Syntactic speech works 'off-line,' so to speak in the absence of its target. True speech allows human beings to master absence." Robert Sokolowski, "Freedom, Responsibility, and Truth," in Freedom and the Human Person, ed. Richard Velkley (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 41.

(51) See n. 50 above.

(52) Hobbes, Leviathan, 6.58.

(53) Hobbes, De Homine, 11.15

(54) Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, ed. J. P. Hardy (Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1999), chap. 47, 115-16.

(55) Ibid., chap. 32, 78.

(56) Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No. 41, in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer and Idler, ed. W. J. Bate (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968), 87.

(57) W. J. Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), 70.

(58) Ibid, 69-70.

(59) Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 58, in Essays, 325.

(60) See Johnson, The Rambler, No. 24, in Essays, 56-58.

(61) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 80-81.

(62) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, in Discourses and Other Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 141.

(63) G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, pars. 14, 35.

(64) Georg Simmel, "The Concept and Tragedy of Culture," in Simmel on Culture, ed. David Patrick Frisby and Mike Featherstone (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 55-75.

(65) Donald Phillip Verene, The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel and Cassirer (Evanston, 111.: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 81-82. Verene notes that Ernst Cassirer has a response to Simmel based on Hegel, emphasizing mediation by work and Bildung. See Ernst Cassirer, "The 'Tragedy of Culture,'" in The Logic of the Cultural Sciences: Five Studies, trans. S. G. Lofts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000). Could one say the tragedy of culture has been replaced by the farce of culture?

(66) See Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life," the second of his Untimely Meditations. From the standpoint of Heidegger's account of the history of Being, the "connectedness" of the worldwide web is but a further entrenching of the technological enframing (Das Gestell; see Martin Heidegger, "Die Frage nach der Technik"). Everyone knows from the use of email the experience of being on call as standing-reserve. Heidegger evokes the saving power of pious thinking, the transformation of the speculative-metaphysical thinking of the West from causal-grounding thinking to openness to the mysterious granting of a human share in revealing, of bringing-forth (jpoiesis). This is the most radical proposal of rethinking the speculative urge, a call for being at home in homelessness. If realized it would move the human species beyond the afflictions of its duality, and as such it would constitute a transformation of the human for which very little in its past experience has prepared it.
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Author:Velkley, Richard
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
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Date:Jun 1, 2019

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