Subjects of the World: Darwin's Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature


Being human while trying to scientifically study human nature confronts us with our most vexing problem. Efforts to explicate the human mind are thwarted by our cultural biases and entrenched infirmities; our first-person experiences as practical agents convince us that we have capacities beyond the reach of scientific explanation. What we need to move forward in our understanding of human agency, Paul Sheldon Davies argues, is a reform in the way we study ourselves and a long overdue break with traditional ...

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Subjects of the World: Darwin's Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature

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Being human while trying to scientifically study human nature confronts us with our most vexing problem. Efforts to explicate the human mind are thwarted by our cultural biases and entrenched infirmities; our first-person experiences as practical agents convince us that we have capacities beyond the reach of scientific explanation. What we need to move forward in our understanding of human agency, Paul Sheldon Davies argues, is a reform in the way we study ourselves and a long overdue break with traditional humanist thinking.

            Davies locates a model for change in the rhetorical strategies employed by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species. Darwin worked hard to anticipate and diminish the anxieties and biases that his radically historical view of life was bound to provoke. Likewise, Davies draws from the history of science and contemporary psychology and neuroscience to build a framework for the study of human agency that identifies and diminishes outdated and limiting biases. The result is a heady, philosophically wide-ranging argument in favor of recognizing that humans are, like everything else, subjects of the natural world—an acknowledgement that may free us to see the world the way it actually is.

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Editorial Reviews

William Bechtel

“This is a highly original and very provocative book. Davies puts forth a version of naturalism that is far more critical of our philosophical and intellectual heritage than past proponents have dared to be. Sharply and forcefully argued, it will be of interest to a substantial range of philosophers, biologists, cognitive scientists, and lay readers.”
Daniel M. Wegner

“As a psychologist working at the edges of philosophy, I found this work clear, penetrating, and deliciously relevant to the scientific study of the problem of conscious will. Topics of human agency and the experience of being an agent have confused more than one thinker, but there is no confusion here. This book builds a sturdy bridge between the naturalistic philosophy of mind and the science of psychology that many readers will want to cross.”

Jaak Panksepp

“Paul Davies takes us on a logically and rhetorically compelling modern search for human agency. This outstanding analysis, well informed by naturalistic views of our evolved affective nature, is the kind of philosophical work that is essential for a field to move forward when ever-increasing findings from modern science are inconsistent with traditional philosophical arguments. This book is for all who wish to immerse themselves in the modern search for free will. It is steeped in the rich liqueur of current scientific and philosophical perspectives and delusions.”

Quarterly Review of Biology

“In Davies’s bracing book, we get a resounding manifesto for naturalism, in particular as it pertains to our perceived free will (Davies argues that this concept is otiose). His is not the first naturalistic manifesto, but it is arguably one of the most trenchant. . . . The gauntlet has been cast and it deserves being picked up. The author reminds us that being a coherent naturalist is a serious and difficult philosophical project; as such, this stimulating book should be read by all philosophers interested in the implications of naturalism.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226137636
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/22/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Sheldon Davies is professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Norms of Nature

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Read an Excerpt

Subjects of the World

Darwin's Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-13762-9

Chapter One

The Vividness of Truth: Darwin's Romantic Rhetoric and the Evolutionary Framework

A worthy naturalist, Humboldt thought, left no means "unemployed by which an animated picture of a distant zone, untraversed by ourselves, may be presented to the mind with all the vividness of truth, enabling us even to enjoy some portion of the pleasure derived from the immediate contact with nature." ROBERT RICHARDS, THE ROMANTIC CONCEPTION OF LIFE

Darwin's Rhetoric

Charles Darwin was a shrewd rhetorician. The voice of On the Origin of Species has a conversational charm that is disarming and at times alluring. On occasion Darwin raises his pitch to sing the praises of living things in Romantically charged refrains. That too is rhetorically effective, for Darwin's defense of the theory of evolution by natural selection, while effectively strangling to death the argument from design, is expressed in tones that sometimes verge on reverence. The news that God is dead is put in the mouth not of a madman but of a man who retains at least some sensibilities of a traditional believer—a sensibility, above all, marked with an appreciation of the foibles and pretensions of human reason.

The contrast with Friedrich Nietzsche's rhetoric in The Gay Science is indeed stark. Nietzsche's messenger personifies the eminent collapse of our theological worldview. His derangement embodies the coming cultural crash; he is meant to disturb us by being so disturbed himself. Darwin's messenger aims at the opposite. He deliberately sets out to minimize for us the felt sense of agitation by adopting a tone that is mostly casual and sometimes pastoral. Usually Darwin is chatting with us or with other naturalists of his day, though occasionally he breaks into Romantic song. The rhetorical strategy is to adopt a tone and cadences that engender both calm and optimism—calm from the charm of conversation, optimism from the Romantic imagery and rhythms. The crucial assumption is that a poetically expressed appreciation of nature is likely to engender a felt sense of optimism, along with gratitude and even hope. The most urgent hope is that our love of nature and life—our love for what we formerly conceived as "God's creation"—can outlive our dying belief in God.

As a young naturalist, during his years aboard the HMS Beagle especially, Darwin was steeped in the works of Romantic naturalists, including Alexander von Humbolt. Far from proclaiming the death of our ancestral theological worldview, the German Romantics announce its transformation. God is no longer an external agent directing events from afar but is transmuted into something else, something suffusing all of reality. God is no longer outside the world; the world is now saturated with God. The font of life's fecundity, the wellspring of novelty and creative yearnings in nature, the mysterious inspiration of artistic souls—these are the embodiments of the Romantic God. For Humboldt, all of nature comprises a "harmoniously ordered whole"—he calls it the Cosmos—and the inspired soul not only grasps but becomes part of it. With echoes of Spinoza, Humboldt exclaims, "Everywhere the mind is penetrated by the same sense of grandeur and vast expanse of nature, revealing to the soul, by a mysterious inspiration, the existence of laws that regulate the forces of the universe." Precisely this is why, for Humboldt, the worthy naturalist, when describing some distant land or foreign species, is obliged to employ every available device to "animate" the scene for his reader. Such devices enable the reader to experience—to have one's mind "penetrated by"—and thus participate in the harmonious order of all things. It is the responsibility of the Romantic naturalist, according to Humboldt, to be an effective conduit of Spinoza's God, of "the universality and reciprocal limitation and unity of all the vital forces in nature."

And that is why, on the Romantic view, the imagery and the rhythms with which naturalists speak are as vital as the substance of their theories; rhetoric serves a communicative function every bit as important as the propositions uttered. What I wish to suggest then is that we begin to appreciate Darwin's rhetorical insights by considering the question, What happens if we discard the theology latent in the Romantic view but retain the rhetorical strategies? Might we succeed in convincing those with theological instincts that the right view of life is decidedly nontheological? Might we make the evolutionary view of life palatable? Might we invite acceptance where Nietzsche's madman provokes resistance?

Darwin's Insights

Darwin's skill as a rhetorician does not diminish his accomplishments as a scientist. To the contrary, it confirms them, for his rhetorical insights are motivated by the general perspective provided by his view of life. Scientific inquiry is, of course, a form of human intercourse subject to nonrational as well as rational powers of persuasion and, as everyone knows, rhetorical devices are sometimes coercive and not merely persuasive. But beyond this truism there is the distinctively Darwinian point that we are evolved animals, products of earthly processes operating through long stretches in the history of this planet. And one thing we know in light of our animal history is that, like our close primate cousins and our more remote mammalian cousins, we are well equipped to anticipate and navigate our environment in ways that never reach conscious awareness or ways that rise to consciousness only after the fact. The architecture of our affective and low-level cognitive capacities is far more elaborate and pervasive than the architecture of our consciously accessible cognitive capacities. This makes plausible the suggestion that we, by virtue of our affective and cognitive capacities, are nonconscious but nevertheless vigilant surveyors and anticipators of the world. We sense threats before we become conscious of them; we are attracted to certain things before any conscious recognition of our desires; and so on. No wonder, then, the wisdom of the rhetorician. No wonder the care that Darwin, in crafting his public presentation, lavished upon the implicit, affective reactions that his theory was bound to provoke.

It is as if Darwin asked himself, "What are the most entrenched habits of thought and most entrenched cognitive and affective dispositions likely to inhibit a correct understanding of my theory?" As I shall construe them, the relevant habits of thought include the conceptual categories and other sorts of lore bequeathed to us by our cultural ancestors. They are the central ingredients of our conceptual scheme to which we are habituated by way of education and enculturation. We begin to appreciate the power of these habits as we acquire knowledge of our cultural history. And I shall construe the relevant cognitive and affective dispositions as those features of our psychology that inhibit or otherwise retard our best efforts at inquiry. These are capacities of our minds that sometimes interfere with capacities that motivate and guide our inquiring activities. We come to appreciate the depth and breadth of these infirmities as we make progress in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology.

Darwin knew that even his most educated peers would misunderstand him, so he sought to correct the habits or dispositions responsible for such errors. These are rhetorical strategies that add nothing of propositional content to the theory of evolution by natural selection; Darwin could have presented his view without them. But unless one's audience is responsive only to propositional contents—and that is not the kind of animal we are—a full and accurate presentation of one's theory must contain something more. It must include the resources to open up our affective and aesthetic sensibilities and the resources to bypass the biases of our psychological constitution. Darwin knew, after all, that he was offering a theory of life bound to disturb the worldview of nearly every educated person of his day. He knew he was offering theoretical dynamite to animals who, no matter the power of their intellect, are psychologically structured to detect and respond to threats even before they become consciously aware that they are being threatened.

It is here, in the study of our history and our constitution, in identifying the habits of thought and dispositions of mind that lead us astray, that Darwin's rhetorical insights have their greatest impact. Darwin's conversational charm and his occasional Romantic flourish are important, to be sure, but they are the relatively superficial devices with which he applied these insights. The more substantive application is evident in some of the explicit arguments he offers throughout his discussion. And in this book, I propose to let the more substantive applications of Darwin's rhetorical insights come to the fore. I shall do this by describing the ill effects of our history and our constitution on our attempts to study ourselves and by developing a variety of strategies for diminishing or reversing the retarding effects that these habits and dispositions sometimes have. My hope is that the strategies I offer are ones Darwin would have embraced if today's knowledge had been available to him.

If my account is compelling, we will have uncovered two important facts. First, the way that most contemporary theorists frame their intellectual tasks, especially those concerned with human nature, is in need of reform. It is a mistake to frame either our scientific or our philosophical inquiries in terms of conceptual categories that perpetuate habits of thought or dispositions of mind that conflict with the conclusions of our best sciences. And, as we will see, this point applies with considerable force to contemporary theorists who see themselves as robust naturalists; some of our very best naturalists are not naturalistic enough. Second, if my suggestions are on track, we will have discovered an orientation toward inquiry that helps us internalize the truth of evolutionary theory. It accomplishes this by integrating evolutionary theory into the very methods with which we frame our inquiries. In the introduction to his Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume expresses the intention of introducing the Newtonian methods of inquiry to the study of human nature. My intention is to do something analogous regarding Darwin's rhetorical insights. In good Humean fashion, we begin by trying to get a grip on the kind of inquirers we are—the historical and constitutional infirmities we bring to the table—and then formulating our intellectual tasks informed by that knowledge.

Nietzsche observed that important advances in human knowledge have been driven by advances in our methods of inquiry. On my reading of Darwin, his application of rhetoric illustrates Nietzsche's claim to great effect. It thus seems a good bet to try to develop further the devices Darwin employed so we may apply Nietzsche's insight to the intellectual problems of our own day.

Darwinian Strategies

It is easy enough to identify the crucial strategies employed by Darwin in the Origin. A few representative passages culled mainly from the first edition are all we need. Begin with the strategy Darwin employs in the course of trying to convince his readers that evolution occurs by means of artificial selection among domestic species. This is the central thesis of chapter 1, "Variation under Domestication." In later chapters, Darwin argues that evolution occurs in analogous fashion by means of selection in natural settings, but even here, in the context of artificial selection, he anticipates resistance from breeders to the hypothesis that current species descend from strikingly different ancestral species. His key insight is to anticipate that the intuitions and expectations of most plant and animal breeders are calibrated to the creationist hypothesis so widely accepted in his day. The key thought is that, since evolutionary theory undermines creationism, we must guard against the biasing effects that our creationist intuitions or expectations will no doubt generate:

One circumstance has struck me much; namely, that all the breeders of the various domestic animals and the cultivators of plants, with whom I have ever conversed, or whose treatises I have read, are firmly convinced that the several breeds to which each has attended, are descended from so many aboriginally distinct species [distinct species presumably created by god]. Ask, as I have asked, a celebrated raiser of Hereford cattle, whether his cattle might not have descended from long-horns, and he will laugh you to scorn. I have never met a pigeon, or poultry, or duck, or rabbit fancier, who was not fully convinced that each main breed was descended from a distinct species. (darwin 1859, 28–29)

Having identified a ubiquitous form of resistance to the hypothesis of evolution, he immediately works to diffuse it by pointing to specific failures of imagination within the breeders' psychological fabric. Darwin does not ridicule breeders but points to the habits of thought or the affective and cognitive dispositions of mind that limit and color what they are inclined to see. And he explicitly extends the lesson to the context of natural selection:

The explanation, I think, is simple: from long-continued study they are strongly impressed with the differences between the several races; and though they well know that each race varies slightly, for they win their prizes by selecting such slight differences, yet they ignore all general arguments, and refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during many successive generations. May not those naturalists who, knowing far less of the laws of inheritance than does the breeder, and knowing no more than he does of the intermediate links in the long lines of descent, yet admit that many of our domestic races have descended from the same parents—may they not learn a lesson of caution, when they deride the idea of species in a state of nature being lineal descendents of other species? (darwin 1859, 34)

These may seem more or less pedestrian observations, but I think I can convince you otherwise. The suggestions that Darwin offers here and repeats in the concluding chapter of the Origin are, in my view, of considerable importance to a fruitful orientation toward inquiry. So let us have a closer look.

I think it is fair on interpretive grounds to say that here Darwin is offering two psychological speculations. I think it is also fair to read into both speculations an appeal to two basic elements, namely, biologically inherited dispositions of mind and culturally inherited habits of thought. The first speculation is that breeders are perceptually and affectively attuned to what is distinctive about their preferred breeds; and they feel that there is something unique to their own broods. This is a claim about the natural psychological dispositions of people who breed plants or animals. After all, you are hardly likely to engage in such activities without a prior love or at least curiosity for the organisms in your care. Something about these organisms—their potential for brightening your financial prospects, if nothing else—attracts and holds your interest and affections; if not, the requisite expenditures of time and money would surely drive you away. And, since something about the organisms predisposes you toward them, it is highly likely that these prior dispositions are reinforced through long hours of caregiving. Your ongoing cultivation only deepens your attachments, as gardeners and pet lovers will readily attest.

There is also a cultural element to this speculation, namely, that we are inclined to interpret our deeply felt attachments in culturally inherited terms, including some inherited concepts that conflict with evolutionary theory. We feel an attachment to Hereford, not to longhorns, and this fact engenders confidence that the difference cannot be one of degree. Yet part of the cause of our confidence is an antecedent sympathy toward the creationist view of the origins of life. Our feelings only serve to confirm what we are already inclined to believe, namely, that each species must have been uniquely crafted from above. Of course an atheist may, by temperament and years of caregiving, come to experience the same sense of uniqueness toward his preferred plants or animals, but a culturally sustained commitment to a creationist theology would surely accentuate the feeling. So both elements—the psychological dispositions and the habits of thought—help explain why breeders resist the suggestion that their preferred breeds are nothing more than well-marked varieties of some ancestral breed.


Excerpted from Subjects of the World by PAUL SHELDON DAVIES Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Part One
A Progressive Orientation: Naturalism as Exploration
1          The Vividness of Truth: Darwin’s Romantic Rhetoric and the Evolutionary Framework
2          Our Most Vexing Problem: Conceptual Conservatism and Conceptual Imperialism
3          Naturalism as Exploration: The Elements of Reform
Part Two
The Allure of Agency: ‘Purpose’ in Biology
4          The Real Heart of Darwinian Evolutionary Biology
5          A Formative Power of a Self-Propagating Kind: Natural Purposes and the Concept Location Project
6          A Persistent Mode of Understanding: The Psychological Power of ‘Purpose’
Part Three
The Illusions of Agency: ‘Free Will’ and ‘Moral Responsibility’
7          The Death of an Aphorism: The Psychology of Free Will
8          The Bare Possibility of Our Opinion: Libertarian Imperialism
9          Words Give Us a Special Ability: Compatibilist Conservatism
Appreciation and Acknowledgments

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