pierre laszlo

Action and Reaction. The Life and Adventures of a Couple

by Jean Starobinski, translated by Sophie Hawkes
2003, New York, NY, Zone Books, 468 pp., £22.50, ISBN 1 890951 20 X

To focus on semantics, for well chosen terms, provides one with a red thread to follow across intellectual history. This book traces the evolutionary history of two closely related words, ‘action’ and ‘reaction’. It was quite a few years in the making: the text originated in a presidential address to the Modern Language Association (Modern Language Review, 1975, 70, xxi–xxxi), and in his preface, Starobinski recollects how his research on the action/reaction pair started life in meetings of the History of Ideas Club during his three years at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.


There are seven chapters. Chapter one traces the word ‘reaction’ to physics. Prior to the seventeenth century, the antonym of the word ‘action’ was ‘passion’. With the advent of the new science of Galileo and Newton, ‘passion’ became outmoded and henceforth used only in matters of the soul. ‘Reaction’ came to replace it for natural phenomena.


Chapter two is devoted to the intervention of Diderot and the chemists. Diderot was fond of the word ‘reaction’: to him, the play of action and reaction, irrespective of scale, was a constituent feature of any phenomenon in the world of nature or in human society, whenever there was reciprocity or internal conflict. The action/reaction couple in D’Alembert’s Dream is the deus ex machina, the spring from which all flows, whether for molecules or for aggregates of any size. Gabriel Venel’s justly famous entry for chemistry in the Encyclopédie gave it a footing independent of physics, and of its underlying Newtonian concepts.

Chapter three traces the fate of the action/reaction couple in physiology, starting with Hobbes and his seventeenth century contemporaries, for whom to live is to react. In the eighteenth century, ‘the opposition between the physical and the moral, the material and the spiritual principle would provide a wonderfully suitable field of application for the explanatory schema of action and reaction.’ Charles Bonnet wrote, for instance, of the ‘reaction of the moral upon the physical’. There is a whole lineage of French physicians in the nineteenth century, including Bichat and Claude Bernard, thriving on the duality of action and reaction, as they understood it. For Bichat, the response of the living body to external aggression is the ‘reaction of the system’. But it remained for Claude Bernard to make the reaction of bodies upon one another a general principle of his ‘physical vitalism’. The notion of ‘reflex actions’ ensued. As Starobinski writes, ‘it quickly proved too indeterminate and too general’.

Chapter four, on ‘reactive pathologies’, turns the story to psychoanalysis. By the time Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919), whose ideas Sigmund Freud was intimately acquainted with, defined ‘reaction’, he stripped the word of the vitalistic connotations given to it by the Montpellier School. To him, the ‘hysteric is a subject who exaggerates certain psychodynamic reactions and translates them into crises’. Breuer and Freud resorted to the novel terms ‘catharsis’ and ‘abreaction’, which gave psychoanalysis a point of departure. Abreaction denoted containment of emotion, with the attendant pathogenic consequences. As Starobinski points out, ‘“reaction” and “abreaction” are ambiguous and thus highly valuable terms: they can be applied both to a mechanism and to a voluntary act.’ In the psychological sphere as in others, the word ‘reaction’ gradually lost its edge. Through overuse, its meanings became blunted and smoothed out, as with an old coin; until, in the twentieth century, the word had become so general as to become useless.

Chapter five is pivotal: Starobinski got the idea for his study from a sentence in Balzac’s novel Louis Lambert: ‘What a fine book might be written of the life and adventures of a word! … But is it not so with every root-word? They are all stamped with a living power that comes from the soul, and which they restore to the soul through the mysterious and wonderful action and reaction between thought and speech.’ Accordingly, the author seeks in two others of Balzac’s novels, The Wild Ass’s Skin and Search for the Absolute, for the intended meanings of the action/reaction couple: Balzac, indeed, had the demiurgic ambition to devise a philosophical system based on these complementary terms, of which scientific notions would be a mere subset.

Chapter six deals with Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Novalis, and Keats. Starobinski here chooses to follow the metaphor of the heart pulsing through its succession of systoles and diastoles. Among the progeny of Romanticism, he thus studies the image of the tell tale heart. He singles out Edgar Allan Poe for his masterpiece of cosmological thinking, Eureka. Then, in some of the most valuable and insightful pages of the volume, Starobinski delineates the heritage and the echo of Eureka in French literature, through Mallarmé, Claudel, and Valéry.

Chapter seven is political: how did the word ‘reaction’ come to denote the obstacles to social progress and emancipation? Benjamin Constant is a key thinker in this respect. His youthful pamphlet, Des réactions politiques (1797), referred neutrally to the reaction against the excesses of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. But gradually the word ‘reaction’ became pejorative to people of the Left. Accordingly, The Communist Manifesto posed a clear cut alternative between the proletarian revolution and reaction, the latter to Marx an antihistorical attitude on the part of those who have not recognised and accepted the reign of the bourgeoisie. The book ends, after an examination of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, with a reference to the discussion between François Furet and Ernst Nolte on twentieth century tyrannies.

A couple of pages entitled ‘dialogue in the margins’ offer the reader a precious moment. He witnesses the author talking to himself. This is introspection at its critical best. An individual, very much reminiscent of Montaigne in the effort at self-analysis, articulate as befits a successor of Marcel Proust, questions psychological consciousness as reality or illusion. This is a precious moment indeed. It doubles up as a lesson in morals, but devoid of moralising. At the turn of the twenty-first century, a key thinker, a seminal artist of the word, takes stock and assumes courageously the mantle of the Stoic, in facing up to this existential responsibility: to live is not only to react, one can and one should make of one’s life a work of art.

Given the very broad scope of the book, encompassing the whole of Western intellectual history, Starobinski has had to limit himself to bringing selected thinkers under the beam of his searchlight. One of the areas he touches upon briefly, and which is worth further scrutiny, is chemistry, in which of course reactions play such a vital role. The material transformations which alchemists termed ‘metamorphoses’, chemists started to name ‘reactions’ during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The idea was to infer the nature of a substance, whether it should be categorised as an acid, a metal, etc., from its response to the operation of various chemicals applied to it, and termed ‘reagents’, since they were eliciting a reaction.

Reactions have remained central to chemistry. Semantic history has not left them by the wayside though. True, the analytical procedure which brought them into the vocabulary by and large is now obsolete. Chemicals are characterised nowadays by their response not to material stimuli, but to electromagnetic waves, from a wide diversity of spectroscopic techniques.

The reaction has become to chemists both a toolbox and an object of investigation. A toolbox: the synthetic chemist chooses from it whichever reaction allows a step forward in the direction of the intended target. An object of investigation: an important part of chemical science is devoted to finding out the explanations for chemical dynamics. For a given reaction, which rules does it obey? How can it be made to occur? Can it be accelerated, through recourse to a catalyst? Can it beat the competition, i.e., other reactions which otherwise might suck the sap out of it, so to speak?
Moreover, a major effort on the part of chemists is invested in the invention of new reactions. In like manner as a naturalist gains immortality by having a newly described plant or animal species bear his or her name, and likewise for an astronomer with stars, many a chemist has the ambition of devising a ‘name reaction’. His or her name would then become enshrined in the chemical pantheon. There are no more than several hundred such reactions, whereas the number of chemists currently active in academic work is of the order of half a million – as is well known, there are more scientists alive nowadays than ever lived. Thus, a conservative estimate for the probability of any given chemist coming up with a name reaction is about one in a thousand – too small to be worth pursuing in the eyes of many, but large enough to make it a worthwhile goal for a most significant minority of self-serving activists.

This book is a delight to read. The translation flows well, and it appears to me to be faithful to the original. The book thrives on two manifest qualities of its author, mastery and erudition on the one hand; and skill at delineating semantic evolutions on the other. Jean Starobinski, who turned eighty last year, is arguably the most distinguished intellectual historian alive. From his early expertise in nineteenth century medical thought and the Enlightenment, he has irradiated back to the Renaissance, and forward to issues in twentieth century science and culture. His scalpel, keen to elucidate connections and filiations among thinkers, dissects with admirable delicacy and with a subtlety which does nothing to preclude unfailing clarity.
Starobinski has a gift for mapping out a hydrography of thought. He makes us see at first new ideas as they spring up; as they turn first into small Alpine streams, and then into tranquil rivers; more often than not, these start running over dry ground, and vanish finally into it. Such a cartographic talent is the wont of a traditional, premodern humanist. The book under review is reminiscent of masterpieces such as, to quote only two writers, those of Marc Bloch and Erwin Panofsky. This is no small compliment! But it is both accurate and well deserved.

And what is the take home lesson? The action/reaction couple came from science, and it has become part of the vocabulary of existence. As the author notes, with lyrical if understated eloquence: ‘the Romantic treatment of “action” and “reaction” was an attempt to re-enchant the world through terms that had contributed to its disenchantment.’ And he even points to a seminal use of the concept, as a helpful moral rule to follow: ‘the reaction signals a beginning: a revolt, the composition of a book, the discovery of a style, a thought, a form of knowledge.’

This is indeed a delightful book, and I cannot resist commenting finally on its attractiveness as a physical object, most handsome. Printed on good, acid free, cream coloured paper, it makes use of a clear typeface with serifs. Each uncrowded page gives the reader a breathing space, a feeling of both harmony and leisure. Black endpapers bring distinction. The wraparound jacket reproduces duelling men from a photograph by Eadweard Muybridge. All in all, an attractive and unobtrusive design …