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In 1804, poet Robert Southey said of Coleridge:

His mind is in a perpetual St. Vitus dance—eternal activity without action.

In The Inconvenience of Being Born, the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran mistakenly reported these words as said by Wordsworth, and added:

It seems to me that everything one does is pernicious and, at best, useless. Strictly speaking, I am only allowed to fidget not to act. Now I understand all too well Wordsworth's quip on Coleridge: "Eternal activity without action."

What is the difference between activity and action in this case?

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"Action", in this case, is used to mean activity which is "intentional under some description", to use Davidson's phrase. The SEP has a nice article that elaborates the key factors.

Contrarily, activity is simply motion. In the Southey quote, St. Vitus's Dance refers to a neurological disorder which results in bizarre and uncontrolled twitching; Southey is saying that Coleridge's mind is running around frantically without accomplishing anything intentional or meaningful.

  • So Cioran says that intention does not exist and we are always acted upon, even as we delusively think we act. – Giorgiomastrò May 10 '12 at 9:18
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    @Giorgiomastrò:_ That would appear to be the case. (I have not read this work of Cioran, so I don't know the context of the argument.) – Michael Dorfman May 10 '12 at 9:23
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    Cioran's work I cited above is made up of aphorisms. I cited one in full. (To be honest, I translated it from Italian.) So I think we hit the mark. Thank you. – Giorgiomastrò May 10 '12 at 9:37
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In this case, action implies outcome, probably a favorable one. If there is a lot of activity without action in one's mind, it means that there is a lot of unproductive thinking and restlessness and frenzy but the thought process has not resulted in any of the possible outcomes such as an articulated thought, a well-formed theory or opinion that influences one's actions or behavior, a tangible creative output such as a book or a poem or music or solution to a mathematical problem, or, peace of mind.

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