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?


"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. 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.) 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. May 10 '12 at 9:37

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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