December 15, 2014

Human agency—will, person, judgment, action

Exordium: Modernity’s Gaze

The young man’s forlorn, abstracted, and blank gaze suggests disorientation and incipient melancholy: we cannot meet his eyes, and they will not meet ours. Indeed, the beholder of Lorenzo Lotto’s canvas may feel somewhat flustered, as though he or she had accidentally intruded on a scene of intensely personal, albeit ineffable anguish. For Lotto’s young man, whose identity remains unknown, seems...

Part I: Prolegomena

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Chapter 1: Frameworks or Tools?: On the Status of Concepts in Humanistic Inquiry

This is a study of two closely related concepts—“will” and “person”— which have proven indispensable to Western humanistic inquiry and its ongoing, albeit enormously diverse, attempts to develop a satisfactory account of human agency. More implicitly, what follows is also a study of our changed relationship to concepts and, hence, to the nature, purpose, and responsibility of thinking and...
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Chapter 2: Forgetting by Remembering: Historicism and the Limits of Modern Knowledge

To return once more to Heidegger’s notion of the modern Weltbild, it appears that yet another change wrought by the age of the “world picture” concerns a thoroughgoing shift in the form, function, and scope of narrative. The structure of narrative mutates from the mnemonic to the emancipatory, from the genre of epic to that of utopia, and from an evolving, deepening, and transformative engagement...
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Chapter 3: “A large mental field”: Intellectual Traditions and Responsible Knowledge after Newman

Leo Strauss’s critique leaves us with the impression of modern historicism as above all a distancing technique, driven by modernity’s visceral fear of the unknown and its consequent resistance to any transcendent or otherwise heteronymous authority. Echoing and elaborating Strauss’s view, Hans-Georg Gadamer was to argue that “our usual relationship to the past is not characterized by distancing...

Part II: Rational Appetite: An Emergent Conceptual Tradition

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Chapter 4: Beginnings: Desire, Judgment, and Action in Aristotle and the Stoics

If there is a single aspect of modernity that sets it apart from classical and Scholastic thought, it is the supposition that the spheres of human knowledge and human action, theoretical and practical rationality, are fundamentally distinct and possibly altogether unrelated. Such a partitioning of the order of fact from that of value and of cognition from willing, which eventually finds its consummate...
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Chapter 5: Consolidation: St. Augustine on Choice, Sin, and the Divided Will

To understand the adaptation of ancient philosophical concepts to changed social and intellectual purposes, what Hans Blumenberg calls their “reoccupation,” one has to be mindful of how intricately that history is enmeshed with issues of translation. In the case of the will, translation holds particular significance because it is only by transposing and reconfiguring hekousionboulēsiseph’hemin, and prohairesis...
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Chapter 6: Rational Appetite and Good Sense: Will and Intellect in Aquinas

The intellectual dimension so prevalent in Aristotle’s account of “choice”— yet crucially fused with Augustine’s metaphysics of grace—was to find its consummate articulation in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, particularly in his discussion of the will in the so-called “Treatise on Man” and at the beginning of the Prima Secundae. Unlike in Aristotle’s ethics, the will now presents itself in the two distinct...
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Chapter 7: Rational Claims, Irrational Consequences: Ockham Disaggregates Will and Reason

If analogical predication is perceived to be an unacceptable constraint on human cognition by Aquinas’s successors, this is because they operate with a fundamentally weakened sense of obligation and responsibility that the knowledge bears to its objects of inquiry. Already in Duns Scotus’s mystical speculations about the “univocity of Being,” it is palpable how “talk of analogy … became marginal rather than...

Part III: Progressive Amnesia: Will and the Crisis of Reason

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Chapter 8: Impoverished Modernity: Will, Action, and Person in Hobbes’s Leviathan

At times a terror, Leviathan has always been an enigma on account of an innate tendency of instrumental reason to turn into its other, rather in the spirit of William Blake’s dictum that “Opposition is true friendship.” Embodying those very terrors of irrational strife that it had been designed to keep at bay, the Hobbesian state thus peremptorily seizes all possible venues from which it might be materially...
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Chapter 9: The Path toward Non-Cognitivism: Locke’sDesire and Shaftesbury’s Sentiment

Beginning with the early Enlightenment, particularly in the writings of Locke, Mandeville, and Montesquieu, and culminating in the hybridization of moral and economic theory in Francis Hutcheson, Smith, Ferguson, John Millar, and James Steuart, we can observe a strategic shift in social theory that promises, if not to remedy, then at least to contain the apparent irrationality of the Hobbesian will. As...
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Chapter 10: From Naturalism to Reductionism: Mandeville’s Passion and Hutcheson’s Moral Sense

Before exploring how Shaftesbury’s “moral sense” theory is consolidated by Francis Hutcheson and, eventually, critiqued in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, some consideration will have to be given to Mandeville’s revival of Locke’s anti-metaphysical conception of the will, viz., as a strictly empirical and unrelentingly hedonistic “passion.” First published in 1714, his Fable of the Bees greatly...
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Chapter 11: Mindless Desires and Contentless Minds: Hume’s Enigma of Reason

What Hutcheson is unable to do is to imagine how the self might advance from a strictly apperceptive relation to countless instances of affection to a reasoned and continuous sense of moral agency. To be sure, on Hutcheson’s account the self knows itself to be experiencing specific types of affect at specific moments in time, but it no longer appears to know anything else. The gap between the certitude of the...
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Chapter 12: Virtue without Agency: Sentiment, Behavior, and Habituation in A. Smith

Throughout the Theory of Moral Sentiments, there is a marked reversal of emphasis, away from the drama of volatile and non-cognitive passions and toward reaffirming the continuity of a different type of affect. The course correction here takes the form of retranslating the passions—not back into a metaphysics of the will, to be sure—but into a firmly empirical, at times seemingly actuarial understanding...
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Chapter 13: After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy

Two major problems now begin to emerge, both of acute concern for the Romantics and, uniquely so, for the later Coleridge. First, it is apparent that, far from being an ontology and “source” of meaning, reason by the late eighteenth century is separating from the interiorist framework that, since St. Augustine, had revolved around a rich pallet of human intentionality that includes notions of will, deliberation...

Part IV: Retrieving the Human: Coleridge on Will, Person, and Conscience

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Chapter 14: Good or Commodity?: Modern Knowledge and the Loss of Eudaimonia

The strain of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and philosophical narrative briefly indexed here reveals a metaphysical deficit intrinsic to modern liberalism—a deficit certainly unacknowledged, if not outright repressed, and hence steadily more pressing and crippling for the modern individual. The writings in question show the Enlightenment unable to grasp the challenge posed by...
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Chapter 15: The Persistence of Gnosis: Freedom and “Error” in Philosophical Modernity

Coleridge’s imaginative tabulation of the “costs of modernity,” already on display in some of his poetry but much more expansively in his prose writings beginning with The Friend (1808), marks the beginning of a turn, in both philosophy and poetics, away from instrumental and pragmatic models of rationality and toward the (mostly negative) knowledge of history as one all-pervading miscarriage....
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Chapter 16: Beyond Voluntarism and Deontology: Coleridge’s Notion of the Responsible Will

At this point, we can begin to delve into some of Coleridge’s late prose in order to draw out a number of related conceptual shifts for which the Mariner’s defining act of skepticism furnishes an early and vivid dramatization. Central to this discussion are the concepts of will, person, and conscience—all of them profoundly inter-related in Coleridge’s late writings. Beginning around 1804, Coleridge posits as...
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Chapter 17: Existence before Substance: The Idea of “Person” in Humanistic Inquiry

Few terms call more urgently for a deep-historical archeology and for patient “desynonymization” (to use Coleridge’s term of art) from “subject,” self,” or “individual” than that of “person.” To embark on tracing the term’s genesis and progressive clarification is to encounter a vivid example of what John Henry Newman would subsequently conceptualize as the “development” of an idea—a process of...
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Chapter 18: Existence as Reality and Act: Person, Relationality, and Incommunicability

If one searches back for the moment where rationality of this more-than-calculative kind first enters the definition of the human person, an early and seminal text turns out to be a tract by Boethius (A.D. 480–524), directed against the symmetrical fallacies of monophysitism and dophysitism.Against Eutyches and Nestorius did much to resolve the perplexities over the relation between person and nature that...
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Chapter 19: “Consciousness has the appearance of another”: On Relationality as Love

There are at least three discrete models that Samuel Taylor Coleridge develops by way of articulating the intrinsic relatedness of the human person. A first has to do with the love between human beings and the question of whether the insistence of (potentially unilateral) desire negates or is compatible with personhood. A notebook entry of October 1820 frames the question as follows: “Is true genuine...
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Chapter 20: “Faith is fidelity … to the conscience”: Coleridge’s Ontology

Like most of those who, since late antiquity, participated in the ongoing clarification of person as an ontological idea, Coleridge emphasizes that the reality of the human being depends on an act of “recognition.” Beginning with his sharply worded, though always carefully reasoned arguments against the practice of slavery, Coleridge had understood “recognition” not merely as some abstract metaphysical...

Works Cited


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About the Author, Praise

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and professor of German at Duke University, with a secondary appointment on the Duke Divinity School faculty. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840.

Minding the Modern

Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge

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