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Written by theologians, literary scholars, political theorists, classicists, and philosophers, the essays in Judgment and Action address the growing sense that certain key concepts in humanistic scholarship have become suspect, if not downright unintelligible, amid the current plethora of critical methods. These essays aim to reassert the normative force of judgment and action, two concepts at the very core of literary analysis, systematic theology, philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and other disciplines.

Interpretation is essential to every humanistic discipline, and every interpretation is an act of judgment. Yet the work of interpretation and judgment has been called into question by contemporary methods in the humanities, which incline either toward contextual determination of meaning or toward the suspension of judgment altogether. Action is closely related to judgment and interpretation and like them, it has been rendered questionable. An action is not simply the performance of a deed but requires the deed’s intelligibility, which can be secured only through interpretation and judgment.

Organized into four broad themes—interiority/contemplation, ethics, politics/community, and aesthetics/image—the aim of this broad-ranging and insightful collection is to illuminate the histories of judgment and action, identify critical sites from which rethinking them may begin, clarify how they came to be challenged, and relocate them within a broader intellectual-historical trajectory that renders them intelligible. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810136311
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2017
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

VIVASVAN SONI is an associate professor of English at Northwestern University.

THOMAS PFAU is Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and a professor of German at Duke University, as well as a professor in the Duke Divinity School.

Read an Excerpt


How to Hit Pause

Language, Transcendence, and the Capacity for Judgment in Shaftesbury's "Soliloquy; or, Advice to an Author"

Vivasvan Soni

Nothing is so improving, nothing so natural, so con-genial to the liberal Arts, as that reigning Liberty and high Spirit of a People, which from the Habit of judging in the highest Matters for themselves, makes 'em freely judg of other Subjects.

— Shaftesbury, "A Letter concerning the Art, or Science of Design"

Soliloquy is a dignified art. Arriving on the scene at times "of great pitch and moment," it pauses the headlong and nearly irresistible flow of dramatic action, allowing the protagonist a chance to muse, reflect, and resolve. Unlike its counterpart in science fiction films, in which time and motion are temporarily frozen as though we had hit pause on the DVD player while the protagonist mutely seeks to alter the course of physical motion in progress, soliloquy achieves its hiatus not through some unexplained technological ingenuity but rather through the simple capacity I have to engage myself in conversation: I pause by speaking. In watching a soliloquy, we are witness to a mind capable of going to work in the world, of intervening reflectively in it, not one that is simply victimized by it or reflexively reacting to it. It is not by accident that Shakespearean drama rises to its philosophical heights at moments of soliloquy, whether it be Hamlet wrestling with the most basic of existential questions or Edmund questioning the arbitrariness of social conventions ("Why bastard?"). Yet soliloquy is also the most palpably artificial of drama's artifices. A theatrical soliloquy is never quite a soliloquy, one alone speaking to herself; the spectators are the addressees of the speech. In the world beyond the theater, where is soliloquizing to be found? Who among us would admit to the practice, much less engage in it in public as theatrical protagonists do? If I see someone talking to themselves on the street, I assume they're talking on a cellphone, else I would worry about their mental health. Prayer is perhaps the everyday practice that comes closest to a form of soliloquizing, but it removes the taint of talking to myself by having a presumed addressee. There is something at once banal, grandiose, and unnerving in the practice of soliloquizing. Yet it is precisely in this peculiar practice that Shaftesbury means to locate a robust and primordial capacity for judgment, against empiricism's threat to render judgment obsolete. What is so remarkable about the ability to talk to myself "vivâ voce" (as Shaftesbury puts it), that it can serve as the practice which will attest to our capacity for judgment? After a brief detour through empiricism, in order to explain why judgment cannot be adequately theorized in that discourse, I will try to discern why Shaftesbury discovers so much promise in soliloquy as a locus for countering the crisis of judgment generated by empiricism.

The great virtue of empiricism is that it insists on explaining phenomena according to the logic of efficient causation. However, such explanations allow no place for judgment, and taken on their own terms, there is no reason they should. While these explanations are valuable for many purposes — indeed, they comprise the entire realm of scientific inquiry as we know it today — they fail to account adequately for the phenomena of human motivation, as Bacon had already recognized: "It is also not bad to distinguish four causes: Material, Formal, Efficient and Final. But of these the Final is a long way from being useful; in fact it actually distorts the sciences except in the case of human actions." In the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke significantly revises his own account of motivation in chapter 2.21 in order to explain it according to the logic of desire and efficient causation. But he also recognizes that this reductive account of motivation is inadequate for explaining crucial aspects of human behavior. He strives without success to develop a more robust space for the practice of judgment, conceiving it as the experientially evident but unaccountable capacity we have to suspend the prosecution of any and all desires (242). Nevertheless, along the way, his attentive phenomenology compels him to acknowledge that basic aspects of cognition, perception, and willing are impossible without judgment. In the absence of the discriminating and constitutive work of judgment, we would be unable to distinguish ideas from one another (chapter 2.11); unable to perceive three spatial dimensions (chapter 2.9); and, above all, unable to constitute the ends that motivate and guide our actions, thereby turning us into the victims of our own desires (chapter 2.21). Despite this acknowledgment of the indispensability of judgment for cognition, however, Locke recognizes that the anarchic fictioning power of judgment threatens to destabilize the empiricist project itself and, by the end of the Essay, he attempts to squeeze judgment to the margins of epistemology, the "twilight zone" of probabilistic knowledge (chapter 4.14). Locke at once created the conditions for a crisis of judgment and provided several openings by which the indispensable role of judgment might be reasserted.

Now, Locke's reductive account of motivation has three separate aspects: the explanation of behavior by desire and efficient causation; the elision of any space for judgment; the refusal to allow agency to ends-oriented thinking. In my story, aesthetic theory, a discourse that is distinctive to the eighteenth century, emerges precisely as a response to the nexus of problems engendered by the reductive account of motivation in empiricism. In particular, some notion of aesthetic disinterest serves as a counter to theories that suggest behavior should be explained only by desire and self-interest (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Kant); and the teleological purposiveness of aesthetic categories like the beautiful, the sublime, and the new serve as a surrogate for the self-constitution of ends (Addison and Steele, Hutcheson). However, the elision of the space of judgment goes largely unremedied in this broad discursive formation. Some notion of taste, sensory responsiveness or instinctive aesthetic perception, generally substitutes for the work of judgment. Even Kant, who is more attentive to the operation of judgment than nearly anyone else in the century, still conceives of aesthetic judgment as a suspension of judgment with respect to the object, and Schiller's Letters on Aesthetic Education continue rigorously in this tradition of evading judgment that gives birth to modern aesthetics. Perhaps only Shaftesbury, among theorists of the period, offers a rich and viable account of judgment as the key element for responding to empiricism's reductive account of motivation, in his "Soliloquy." Unlike Mandeville, who presses Locke's economistic model of mental functioning to its limit, Shaftesbury inhabits the countercurrents of Locke's thought, emphasizing aestheticizing moments such as wit and hesitation that mitigate the reductive empiricist account of desire and motivation. In this essay, I want to describe the remarkable way in which Shaftesbury asserts the absolute priority of judgment for the constitution of the self and for cognition in general, by way of the practice of soliloquy.

Shaftesbury is acutely aware of the crisis of judgment, and his thinking is formulated more or less directly as a response to it. He focuses his attention on the moral, political, and social dimensions of the crisis, largely ignoring the cognitive, epistemological, and perceptual aspects of the problem prominent in empiricism. Situating himself in the chink through which the possibility of judgment glimmers in chapter 2.21 of Locke's Essay — namely the capacity of the mind to hesitate, to suspend any and all desires in order to reflect on them and decide which to act on — Shaftesbury will attempt, in "Soliloquy," to pry open this space, to develop on its foundation a robust account of how and why the practice of judgment is necessary in the moral life. His method of soliloquy provides a model for how to cultivate a mental discipline of judgment (though perhaps running the risk of the solipsism and self-reflexivity of the cogito). In addition, Shaftesbury offers a fuller analysis of the crisis in his historico-political excurses, and he invents a number of other solutions to the problems generated by the crisis of judgment, solutions that will play an important role throughout the eighteenth century. For example, in "Sensus Communis" he attempts to find an objective, social replacement for the cognitive work of judgment by way of a dialectical, agonistic, market-based social theory that is typical of the later part of the century. He is also one of the earliest to enlist the assistance of the aesthetic, especially beauty, as a wayof responding to empiricism's reductive account of motivation. Toward the end of this essay, I will turn briefly to Shaftesbury's aesthetics to show why beauty is an inadequate solution to the crisis of judgment, but for most of the essay, I want to focus on his complex account of soliloquy as a foundation for the practice of judgment.

Locke had located the possibility of judgment in our capacity to hesitate, our ability to suspend any and all desires in order to reflect on them:

We have a power to suspend the prosecution of this or that desire, as everyone daily may experiment with himself. This seems to me the source of all liberty. ... During this suspension of any desire, before the will be determined to action, and the action (which follows that determination) done, we have opportunity to examine, view, and judge, of the good or evil of what we are going to do. (Essay, 242; see also 254)

But is it possible to hesitate? How would we do it? How would we know a hesitation if we saw it? If you have an economic model of the psyche, in which desires collide with one another until the force of one comes to dominate the others, then the notion of hesitation makes no sense. It is the one thing that is impossible, because it implies a temporary cessation of the system itself. The system of desires moves as one; the self is seamlessly integrated with its world, both material and social. Being itself is an undifferentiated unity of happening and force, in which the very notion of a differentiation of waves, fluxes, intensities is simply a convenient heuristic we impose to find sense where there is none. Even if we think we detect a pause or interruption in the system, it is simply conditioned by the state of the flux at a given moment. There may be pauses or cessations of motion produced by the movement of the system, but the system itself cannot be paused in its ineluctable flow. An equilibrium of forces is not a hesitation; it is simply the state of the system at a given point in time. It would be improper to speak of hesitation, a deliberate pause in order to reflect on and possibly even change the state of the system. On this reading, the notion of hesitation is elusive at best, the ghost in the machine or a vestige of humanist nostalgia lingering in Locke's empiricism.

But this economic model is only one model of the mind, which the mind gives to itself to account for its own functioning. In "Soliloquy," Shaftesbury offers us a different model — one that I will call "theatrical" for reasons that will quickly become apparent — a model in which hesitation is possible and takes on a material and visible form rather than being the abstract, fleeting, elusive, and nearly unidentifiable hiatus of the mind that it was for Locke. For Shaftesbury, the possibility for hesitation and judgment begins with division, because as long as the self is one with itself and its world, it is impossible to even conceive what hesitation might mean. I must be divided from myself at the very outset, not in order to produce a space of "disinterest" or "critical distance" (terms too dignified for this fundamental and archaic process), but in order simply that there might be some vantage from which it is possible to pause the machine, in order that something like hesitation and judgment might be possible at all. The division here is not between an already constituted self or subject and a world it transcends. It is a division that takes place within the "self" that is as yet indistinguishable from the world it inhabits:

I assert the contrary; and say, for instance, That we have each of us Our Selves to practise on. "Mere Quibble! (you'll say:) For who can thus multiply himself into two Persons, and be his own Subject? Who can properly laugh at himself, or find in his heart to be either merry or severe on such an occasion?" Go to the Poets, and they will present you with many Instances. Nothing is more common with them, than this sort of Soliloquy. A Person of profound Parts, or perhaps of ordinary Capacity, happens, on some occasion, to commit a Fault. He is concern'd for it. He comes alone upon the Stage; looks about him, to see if any body be near; then takes himself to task, without sparing himself in the least. You wou'd wonder to hear how close he pushes matters, and how thorowly he carrys on the business of Self-dissection. By virtue of this Soliloquy he becomes two distinct Persons. (1.99–100)

Shaftesbury talks as though the self already exists and then divides itself in two. But properly speaking, there is no self yet. Depending on how you look at it, there is only undifferentiated Being, or the self completely immersed in the frivolous and witty chatter of its social world, or an inchoate morass of desire that has not even achieved articulacy: "One wou'd think, there was nothing easier for us, than to know our own Minds, and understand what our main Scope was; ... But our Thoughts have generally such an obscure implicit Language, that 'tis the hardest thing in the world to make 'em speak out distinctly. For this reason, the right Method is to give 'em Voice and Accent" (1.107). It requires work to introduce the slightest gap or differentiation into the seamlessness of being, social-being or desiring-being, in order to make hesitation possible. Shaftesbury's profoundest insight is that this work is fictive work or the work of fictioning ("Go to the Poets ..."). If fictioning or poiein signify making, then the most fundamental making is this dividing into two (not of myself, since there is no self there yet), this making-two where there was only one before. Only through this act of fiction or division can any kind of interruption or difference be introduced into the unity of being, can anything like a "self" separate itself out from the world. It may sound as though Shaftesbury is invoking the concepts of "consciousness" and "self-reflection" here. He is certainly moving in their vicinity, and even invokes the metaphor of a "vocal Looking-Glass" to describe the act of soliloquy (1.108). But he means nothing so metaphysically freighted; he has in mind the very mundane observation that "I" have the ability to engage "myself" in conversation, not just in my head, but out loud as though I were talking to someone else: "We might peradventure be less noisy and more profitable in Company, if at convenient times we discharg'd some of our articulate Sound, and spoke to ourselves vivâ voce when alone" (1.100). Shaftesbury recognizes that there is something awkward and even a little uncanny about this practice, because it forces us to acknowledge that we are not quite ourselves when we engage in it, that we are only in the process of becoming selves, but that is perhaps why this discipline of talking to ourselves is necessary. In this ability to pause and engage ourselves in conversation, to pause by engaging ourselves in conversation, Shaftesbury wants to locate the concrete materiality of hesitation that forms the space of judgment in Locke.

In order to demonstrate the possibility of soliloquy and self-division, Shaftesbury turns to the fictions of dramatic "Poets," who exemplify the practice in its most robust and fully articulated form. The scene he describes is one in which the protagonist reflects on a deed already done, takes responsibility for it after the fact, and experiences remorse. Soliloquy is effectively a bodying forth of conscience. But in this retrospective evaluation, it would be difficult to speak of a hesitation, only a desire to retract the deed and wish it otherwise. However, there is a protagonist famed for hesitating upon the point of action, whose name has become nearly a byword for the practice of soliloquy, and he haunts this essay throughout: Hamlet. When Hamlet asks himself whether "to be or not to be," it is not a question of remorse but of resolve, a question of what course of action to determine on, or even the existential question about whether it is worth being at all. As Shaftesbury's later discussion of how we should organize our desires makes clear, at the heart of this essay is a meditation not merely on questions of conscience, remorse, and retrospective judgment, but on questions of how we resolve to act and how we make judgments that determine us to act.21 Only judgments concerning a future course of action allow us to appreciate the extent to which fictioning is an integral part of the work of judgment.


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Table of Contents

Introduction (Vivasvan Soni) ………………………………………………. 1
I. Interiority/Contemplation

  1. How to Hit Pause: Language, Transcendence and the Capacity for Judgment in Shaftesbury’s “Soliloquy; or, Advice to an Author” (Vivasvan Soni) ……… 24
  2. “Judge Not” and “Judge for Yourselves” (Oliver O’Donovan) ………………81
  3. Stoic Agency and its Reception (Gretchen Reydams-Schils) …………………105
II. Ethics
  1. How to Be an Agent: Why Character Matters (Stanley Hauerwas) ……………133
  2. Losing the Name of Action: Shakespeare, Macbeth, and Speech as Action (Sarah Beckwith) ……………………………………………………………………….160
  3. “The Eyes of Others”: Rousseau and Adam Smith on Judgment and Autonomy (Hina Nazar) ……………………………………………………………………………187
III. Politics/Community
  1. Action as Meaningful Behavior (John McGowan) ………………………………231
  2. The One and the Many in the Philosophy of Action (Christopher Yeomans) …...282
  3. Toward a Democratic Theory of Judgment (Linda M. G. Zerilli) ……………….306
IV. Aesthetics/Image
  1. Judging What Cannot Be Judged: The Aporia of Aesthetic Critique (Christoph Menke) ……………………………………………………………………………………..352
  2. To Make that Judgment: The Pragmatism of Gerhard Richter (Florian Klinger)…375
  3. Varieties of Non-Propositional Knowledge: Image - Attention - Action (Thomas Pfau) ……………………………………………………………………………………...417
A Broken Vessel, or What it Means to Be an Agent: Stanley Hauerwas on Theology and Practical Reason (James Wetzel) ………………………………………………………469

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