A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thoughtby Stephen Kern
This pioneering work is the first to trace how our understanding of the causes of human behavior has changed radically over the course of European and American cultural history since 1830. Focusing on the act of murder, as documented vividly by more than a hundred novels including Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, and Lolita,/i>/i>
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This pioneering work is the first to trace how our understanding of the causes of human behavior has changed radically over the course of European and American cultural history since 1830. Focusing on the act of murder, as documented vividly by more than a hundred novels including Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, and Lolita, Stephen Kern devotes each chapter of A Cultural History of Causality to examining a specific causal factor or motive for murder--ancestry, childhood, language, sexuality, emotion, mind, society, and ideology. In addition to drawing on particular novels, each chapter considers the sciences (genetics, endocrinology, physiology, neuroscience) and systems of thought (psychoanalysis, linguistics, sociology, forensic psychiatry, and existential philosophy) most germane to each causal factor or motive.
Kern identifies five shifts in thinking about causality, shifts toward increasing specificity, multiplicity, complexity, probability, and uncertainty. He argues that the more researchers learned about the causes of human behavior, the more they realized how much more there was to know and how little they knew about what they thought they knew. The book closes by considering the revolutionary impact of quantum theory, which, though it influenced novelists only marginally, shattered the model of causal understanding that had dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century.
Others have addressed changing ideas about causality in specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as does Stephen Kern in this engagingly written and lucidly argued book.
Richard A. Posner
Kern has mastered the novels, the critical literature, and the works by philosophers and sociologists bearing on his thesis. . . . [R]eaders familiar with the novels will see them in a new light.
"Thoughtful and carefully done, the fruit of considerable research."Richard A. Posner, Science
"Kern has mastered the novels, the critical literature, and the works by philosophers and sociologists bearing on his thesis. . . . [R]eaders familiar with the novels will see them in a new light."Jonathan Beard, Scientific American
"As a history of science and ideas, Kern's study succeeds brilliantly. Gathering the disparate knowledge systems of nearly two centuries into discrete categories, Kern produces a taxonomy of causality that is cogent and convincing. . . . From Enlightenment positivism to quantum discontinuity; from religion to existentialism, and phrenology to cybernetics; from Freud to Nietzsche to Foucault, and from Darwin to Durkheim to Derrida: Kern ranges comfortably (and profitably) among them all. Specialists and novice alike will find much hereto learn and admire."Peter Okun,American Historical Review
"Murder stories, Kern argues, are a sort of cultural repository of thoughts about causality, of how things fit together. From the pseudo-scientific deductions of Conan Doyle to the postmodern self-reflections of Don DeLillo, Philip Kerr and Robert Coover, detective stories demonstrate how we cope with the biggest contingency of all: conscious killing."Mark Kingwell, The Globe and Mail
"Causality, Stephen Kern concedes, is hard to define and even harder to prove. . . . [T]his book is highly recommended to everyone interested in smart and engaging interdisciplinary scholarship."Peter Okun,American Historical Review
"[An] impressive study of causality. . . . Kern offers some fascinating insights into the relationship between science and literature, as well as the history of our attempts to explain the why and wherefore."PD Smith, The Guardian
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A Cultural History of CausalityScience, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
By Stephen Kern
Princeton University PressPrinceton University Press
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IntroductionTHE QUESTION behind all other questions is the "why?" of human experience. The newborn's mind gropes for primordial understanding of the causal links between reaching out and human touch, crying and a mother's soothing voice, sucking and relief from hunger. Causal inquiry drives children's endless why questions as they try to make sense of life. While scientists try to limit themselves to the how of phenomena, an ultimate why lies behind all their observations and experiments. The concept of causality grounds physicists' study of subatomic events and astronomers' probing of the cosmos. Theologians look to God for ultimate first and final causes, while believers pray to God to modify miraculously the course of everyday causality. Psychiatrists struggle to discover why their patients become ill, just as historians investigate why wars break out and why civilizations rise and fall. Novelists build stories around motivation, which is the driving force for their characters' thoughts and actions. Causality is thus a centerpiece of the inquiring human mind, so fundamental to human understanding and so universal in its explanatory function that it would seem to transcend any historical development. This book ventures into such ahistory.
In the years since 1830, European and American thinkers transformed understanding of the causes of human behavior. These changes are evident in novels as well as in genetics, endocrinology, physiology, medicine, psychiatry, linguistics, sociology, economics, statistics, criminology, law, philosophy, and physics. Other researchers have studied changing ideas about causality in these specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as my book undertakes to do.
The thought of writing a history of causality first occurred to me in 1970, when I read an article by Henri Ellenberger on three types of mental illness that philosophically oriented psychiatrists interpreted in terms of defining causal modes. A causality of determinism dominates the depressed person, for whom everything seems to result from the pressure of circumstances over which he or she has no control. A causality of chance dominates the manic, for whom nothing happens according to any deterministic order and the future looms fraught with possibility-unpredictable and anxiety-provoking. A causality of intentionality dominates the paranoid, for whom nothing is the result of chance and everything is caused by menacing thoughts and deeds directed toward the patient.
Ellenberger's speculation that a mental breakdown might be related to the way causality was experienced suggested the deep constitutive power of causal understanding. His notion that individuals experience causality in different ways suggested that historical eras might experience it and try to understand it in distinctive ways. A literary source base for a history of changing ideas about causality occurred to me when I realized that the novelists who did most to define literary modernism-James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf-rejected the plot-driven novel and created novels that instead concentrated on the inner life of characters. Their work diminished the role of external pressures and specific motives such as those that had structured the naturalist novels of Émile Zola and Thomas Hardy, in which characters are governed by social, biological, and psychological forces. That literary shift suggested a cultural pivot for a history of causality.
But causal factors and motives were too broad a focus, because there are so many of them for countless possible human actions. For more than fifteen years, while working on two other books, I searched for a way to deal with the many causal determinants for the myriad human behaviors that historical experience includes. I eventually realized that such a history would have to focus on a single act in order to document historically distinctive thinking about its causes. But what was that act?
I discovered it in Roy Jay Nelson's study of causality in the French novel, which briefly discussed a novel by André Gide, Lafcadio's Adventures (1914), about an unusually motivated murder. While reading that novel I realized that murder suited my analytical purposes because, compared with other acts, it is exceptionally vivid and important and in most cases sharply focused in time and space. Murder superbly illustrates the various characteristics that action theorists offer to explain human behavior, because it is strongly intentional, highly motivated, full of meaning, the result of a desire or a "trying," directed at a clear goal, and usually "done for a reason." By focusing on murder, an act that remains relatively consistent over time, I could focus on historically changing ideas about its causal factors. Murder further lends itself to historical analysis because in life and literature after 1830 it attracted increasing attention to its causal circumstances and motives among a number of new professionals: criminologists, sociologists, detectives, statisticians, and forensic psychiatrists, as well as writers of detective fiction (whodunits) and crime novels (whydunits). The history of ideas about the causality of murder over these years also includes a number of new explanatory concepts: monomania, moral insanity, diminished responsibility, irresistible impulse, born criminal, sadism, unconscious determination, and childhood sexual trauma.
In Gide's novel the hero attempts to break the conventional path to murder by intentionally killing without a motive, or at least without a conventional motive such as money or revenge. While sitting in a train, Lafcadio realizes that to kill the stranger who appears in his compartment, he has only to release the door latch and give a push and the man will plunge to his death. Inspired by the prospect of committing a "motiveless crime" (crime immotivé), Lafcadio flicks the latch and pushes the man to his death. In contrast to Zola's murderers, who kill because of an irresistible hereditary taint or overwhelming biological, psychological, or social forces, Gide's hero kills for the sole reason of killing without a reason. Gide further challenged Zola's explanatory technique through another character, the novelist Julius, who, in expressing his literary aim to Lafcadio, articulates Gide's own approach: "I used to demand logic and consistency from my characters, ... [but] it wasn't natural." People are neither logical nor consistent. With respect to murder, Julius specifies, "I don't want a motive for the crime-all I want is an explanation of the criminal. Yes! I mean to lead him into committing a crime gratuitously-into wanting to commit a crime without any motive at all." Here Julius overstates his case, because Lafcadio's murderous act is indeed motivated, but the motive is, as Gide subsequently explained, not subject to the sort of "ordinary psychological explanation" that occurs in naturalist novels.
Later Gide clarified misunderstanding about his notion of the "gratuitous act" and rejected the notion that it might explain a crime. "I personally do not believe in the gratuitous act, an act motivated by nothing. That is essentially inadmissible. There are no effects without causes. The words 'acte gratuit' are a provisional label [étiquette provisoire] that seems convenient to designate acts which escape ordinary psychological explanations, the gestures not determined by simple personal interest (and it is in this sense, in playing with words a little, that I can speak of disinterested acts)." Julius's explanatory excess highlights Gide's main goal, which was to dramatize the unpredictable nature of human action in contrast to the way the characters in naturalist novels behave when governed by external circumstances or driven by inner motives. Thus Lafcadio's odd murderous act was an event of enormous cultural historical significance, which became clearer as I explored its larger context in the work of Gide and beyond.
In addition to assailing the strong determinism of the naturalist novel with his literary efforts, Gide's life and thought challenged a spectrum of causal foundations of Western civilization: political, religious, sexual, familial, monetary, and legal. Born into a patriotic and pious French Protestant family, Gide abhorred imperialism and became an atheist. He defied sexual convention as the first prominent French intellectual to acknowledge his homosexuality in print. He married a cousin but never had sex with her and later intentionally sired a child out of wedlock. His novels questioned the privileges of patriarchal authority by mocking cold and menacing fathers. In The Counterfeiters (1925), he subverted conventional family values when he wrote that he preferred to see his characters as orphans, "unmarried, and childless." That novel also exposed the artifice of the gold standard by suggesting that the art of the novel is analogous to counterfeiting and that art, like money-even gold-has no real backing, no guaranteed frame of reference. His novels about crime challenged the French legal system that his father embodied as a professor of law at the Sorbonne. By presenting Lafcadio's murder as not determined by "simple personal interest" (or "disinterested"), Gide subverted the conventional narrative strategies of the naturalist novelists and underscored the open-ended nature of human action. These innovations from a man who grew up at the center of French high culture suggested a broad source of evidence for a history of causality. Perhaps, I thought, other murder novelists might have also challenged the received deterministic ideas relating to causality that Gide challenged in his novel and have offered new ways of rendering the causes and motives for human action. Perhaps a survey of murder novels might reveal some unifying logic to this history.
In reading over a hundred murder novels, I found that nineteenth-century novelists typically crafted clear and strongly deterministic causal factors, either singly or in clusters. Some of their murderers are driven by a single dominant factor, frequently described with the new diagnostic category of monomania, which the French psychiatrist J.-E.-D. Esquirol identified early in the century and which one character in Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment (1866) used to explain Raskolnikov's act of murder. That tag suggesting a strong linear determinism was used by other novelists to explain a murderous impulse, as in Moby Dick (1851) where Melville repeatedly describes Ahab as a monomaniac, and Ahab himself explains that "the path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run" (147). Other nineteenth-century novelists explained murders as the result of interlocking deterministic causal factors such as poverty and revenge in Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) or heredity and sexual perversion in Zola's La bête humaine (1890).
In contrast, modernists complicated and subverted these causal factors in many ways. In Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad characterized the intentions behind Kurtz's acts of killing and head-hunting as "inscrutable" and "incomprehensible," and he repeatedly referred to the murderous imperialist venture itself as "absurd." In Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities (1933), the motives of the deranged murderer Moosbrugger are a chaotic mixture of self-defense, self-definition, and sexual panic. Jean-Paul Sartre questioned the motive underlying a political assassination when in Dirty Hands (1948), Hugo explains, "I killed him because I opened the door," and then wonders, "Where is my crime? Does it exist?"
While modernist detective stories are more concerned with who did it than why, they nevertheless also subvert conventional plotting, which in earlier detective stories was based on a clear motive trail of cause and effect leading ineluctably to the murderer as in the tidy concluding explanations of Sherlock Holmes. Thomas Bernhard's The Lime Works (1970) clouds any clear understanding of the motives for a murder by basing an entire murder investigation on unreliable hearsay accounts from characters whose senses are flawed and whose accounts are contradictory. In Carlo Emilio Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1957), about a grisly murder that never gets solved, the detective believes that crimes are never the consequence of single motives but are "like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed." He elaborates that investigative theory into a more general philosophical claim that we must "reform within ourselves the meaning of the category of cause" (5). Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Pledge, subtitled Requiem for the Criminal Novel (1958), is indeed just that, because it fatally ridicules the entire rational framework of such novels-coherent plots, clear motives, genius detectives, even causal reasoning itself-and in the end the murders are solved by nothing more than dumb luck.
Reading these novels revealed that from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century understanding of the causes of murder in them shifted in five interrelated ways. That multifaceted shift is the thesis of this book-namely, that causal understanding moved in the direction of increasing specificity, multiplicity, complexity, probability, and uncertainty.
The historical significance of these changes can be seen if they are viewed against the dominant thinking about causality in the preceding period, which I begin to trace in 1830, when August Comte published the first volume of his Course in Positive Philosophy, an influential statement of the positivistic epistemology and determinist philosophy of science that dominated Victorian thought. In that same year Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology, which demonstrated that geological phenomena are caused by gradual and uniform forces acting according to continuously operating laws. Soon thereafter, social researchers applied positivist methods to show that "moral facts" were subject to behavioral laws similar to physical laws. The first cited reference to determinism in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1846. Balzac underscored the deterministic philosophy that informed his novels. "In this world," he wrote, "every effect has a cause and every cause a principle, every principle is dependent upon a law. The principles which have created extraordinary men can be studied and known." In 1851 the novelist George Eliot expressed her confidence in a deterministic causal order of nature in terms of "undeviating law in the material and moral world," an "invariability of sequence," and an "inexorable law of consequences." A materialist-determinist causality dominated much scientific research, in accord with the view of the German physiologists Emil du Bois-Reymond and Ernst Brücke in 1842 "that in the organism no other forces are effective than the purely physical-chemical." Five years later they were joined by the biophysicists Hermann von Helmholtz and Carl Ludwig and collectively resolved to "constitute physiology on a chemico-physical foundation and give it equal scientific rank with physics."
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Arkady Plotnitsky, Professor of English and Director of Theory and Cultural Studies, Purdue University
Sander L. Gilman, author of "Making the Body Beautiful"
Robert Nye, Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History, Oregon State University
Laura Otis, Professor of English, Hofstra University, author of "Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics"
Meet the Author
Stephen Kern is Humanities Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio State University. He is the author of "The Culture of Time and Space, The Culture of Love", and "Eyes of Love".
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