Ends of Enlightenment
By JOHN BENDER
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Novel Knowledge Judgment, Experience, Experiment
I begin with Émile Zola's manifesto "Le roman expérimental" of 1880, although my own essay is concerned with the novel of the first half of the eighteenth century, and specifically with the place of the new novel of that time in the Scientific Revolution. Inspired by the writings of the physician Claude Bernard about contemporary medical research, Zola set forth a program for the novel, emphasizing its power to define the workings of the human machine in society. "What constitutes the experimental novel," Zola says, is "to possess a knowledge of the mechanism of the phenomena inherent in man, to show the machinery of his intellectual and sensory manifestations, under the influences of heredity and environment, such as physiology shall give them to us, and then finally to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation." Paraphrasing Bernard, Zola declares that "experiment is but provoked observation." He goes on to insist that "all experimental reasoning is based on doubt, for the experimentalist should have no preconceived idea, in the face of nature, and should always retain his liberty of thought. He simply accepts the phenomena that are produced, when they are proved." Zola's novelist was heir to Sir Francis Bacon's skeptical natural philosopher.
It is something of a reach from Zola back to a Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, or Samuel Richardson. But the line of skeptical, experimental inquiry bridges across time from the earlier period to its later and exaggerated form in the positivist program of naturalist fiction—a program underpinned by Zola's insistence upon empirical observation governed by doubt. The long strand of invasive, fact-obsessed, even indecent realism was more obvious to the nineteenth-century American Oliver Wendell Holmes than it may be for us today. His critique of Henry David Thoreau linked Robinson Crusoe to Walden, and both in turn to Zola—that master "scavenger" with a "slop-pail"—as a "story of Nature in undress as only one who had hidden in her bedroom could have told it." Holmes explicitly understood the link of realism to scientific inquiry: "Happy were it for the world if M. Zola and his tribe would stop even there; but when they cross the borders of science into its infected districts, leaving behind them the reserve and delicacy which the genuine scientific observer never forgets to carry with him, they disgust even those to whom the worst scenes they describe are too wretchedly familiar." Holmes traced the realist lineage from Robinson Crusoe, to Walden, to the poems of Walt Whitman, to the novels of Zola. The connection of Thoreau to scientific inquiry may seem surprising, yet he does reject received knowledge and insists from the early pages of Walden on the validity of experience based in experiment. "How could youths better learn to live," he says, "than by at once trying the experiment of living." In Holmes's frame of reference, a statement like this participated in the dangerous social values he associated with extreme realism.
In a reversal of the usual scientistic expectations, Zola insisted that the novel is equal or superior to medical science. Like the physician, the novelist can engage in structured observation and description. But above all, the novelist can employ the experimental method to reveal the inner workings of living beings interacting in society, whereas analytic medicine has to deal with individuals, and largely with dead ones at that. Zola insists that the element of imagination no longer should find a place in the novelist's profession. In doing so, he merges novelistic fiction with the natural sciences and philosophy. He shares this proximity with earlier novelists and continues their ambition to communicate complex findings to their audiences. William Godwin in Caleb Williams, for instance, aimed to bring his own "refined and abstract" rationalist analysis to "persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach." The original title Things as They Are lets readers know that he wants to teach "a valuable lesson, without subtracting from ... interest and passion." Here, as with Fielding's insistence in Tom Jones upon the "probable" as the proper realm of action for the novel, the explicit purpose is to open wider experience to a large public by, as Fielding says, "showing many persons and things which may possibly have never fallen within the knowledge of great part of his readers." Early critics often suggested that readers might best remain free of enlightenment.
My beginning with Zola throws into relief likenesses and differences between knowledge systems, including the novel, that are separated by two hundred years and more. The novel of the first half of the eighteenth century was indeed a novel of experiment, but not precisely in Zola's sense or with his explicitly programmatic demands. For Zola, doubt was a tool of inquiry. In the earlier period doubt more often had remained an implicit epistemological stance. Yet, as I consider here, the earlier novel did also participate in the aspirations and uncertainties about knowledge, experience, and experiment pervasive during the Scientific Revolution of which it was a part.
The place of the novel in the crosscurrents of experimental natural philosophy is the chief concern of this essay. My title reflects the central terms and ideas that I will be exploring, "judgment," "experience," and "experiment." These terms link into a broad range of concerns about the relationship of novelistic fictions in the eighteenth century to hypothesis- and knowledge-making. Novels often were criticized in the eighteenth century because they were licentious or excessively absorptive: their fictional diversion of readers from work, education, or constructive social exchange appeared to be a threat. But perhaps novels were both attractive and criticized because they were sites of experiment issuing into surrogate experience. Perhaps they produced not too much knowledge about vice but too many thought experiments and, with them, too great an expansion of experience and, with it, a potentially dangerous capacity for independent judgment.
The clergyman who instructs the heroine Arabella toward the end of The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox enters on both sides of the debate when he says, on the one hand, that the "Power of Prognostication, may, by Reading and Conversation, be extended beyond our own Knowledge: And the great Use of Books, is that of participating without Labour or Hazard [in] the Experience of others." On the other hand, he narrows the range of valid fiction to that of the empiricist novel when he attacks the kind of romance that
disfigures the whole Appearance of the World, and represents every Thing in a Form different from that which Experience has shewn. It is the Fault of the best Fictions, that they teach young Minds to expect strange Adventures and sudden Vicissitudes, and therefore encourage them often to trust to Chance. A long life may be passed without a single Occurrence that can cause much Surprize, or produce any unexpected Consequence.... the Order of the World is so established, that all human Affairs proceed in a regular Method, and very little Opportunity is left for Sallies or Hazards, for Assault or Rescue; but the Brave and the Coward, the Sprightly and the Dull, suffer themselves to be carried alike down the Stream of Custom.
Given the close connection between experiment and experience in the thought of the time, novels seem to have been feared because their experiments produced a surplus of experience. This same chapter of The Female Quixote contains a ringing endorsement of the newly defined novel of experience: "Truth is not always injured by Fiction. An admirable Writer of our own Time, has found the Way to convey the most solid Instructions, the noblest Sentiments, and the most exalted Piety, in the pleasing Dress of a Novel." The reference to Richardson and a quotation from Samuel Johnson in the same paragraph solidly place Lennox in the latest line of thought about the new novel as a mode of fiction that dwells in the realm of fact.
At one level, this essay has to be an exercise in the history of concepts—Begriffsgeschichte—for research on this subject is served by understanding its central terms and the semantic fields they inhabit. These terms have meanings in English and French that resonate together in the context of thought about the novel. This is the level at which I began originally to project this inquiry.
English "judgment" and French jugement line up rather closely in senses like "to render judgment juridically" or "to form an opinion," and, after John Locke and David Hume, also "the human faculty that judges and compares ideas." French carries important additional senses that can shade over all but invisibly into English. I have in mind both Claude Adrien Helvétius's "To feel is to judge" ("Sentir est juger"), which appears in the context of his discussion of powerful imaginative or artistic imagery, and also, in parallel, the dictionary sense in French of "to understand in one's mind-to figure forth in the mind, to imagine." Here, the French meaning of jugement supplements English significantly with meanings that might be summed up with words like "apprehend" or even "conceive."
English "experience" and French expérience line up with one another but also explicitly diverge: for the French term expérience means "experiment" as well as "experience." Even in English, the words "experience" and "experiment" intertwine so richly, as in Hume's discussions of judgment and probability in his Treatise of Human Nature, that they become elements in one conceptual domain. For instance, "we consider, that tho' we are here suppos'd to have only one experiment of a particular effect, yet we have many millions to convince us of this principle; that like objects, plac'd in like circumstances, will always produce like effects.... The connexion of ideas is not habitual after one experiment; but this connexion is comprehended under another principle, that is habitual.... In all cases we transfer our experience to instances, of which we have no experience, either expressly or tacitly, either directly or indirectly." The domain is semantically continuous in French. It is divided in English but can flow easily with a contiguity approaching the continuous.
The word "experiment" also exists in French (expériment), of course, and with meanings that align with English. But French offers a fascinating extension of the word. For a person can be expérimenté, meaning "one who has benefited empirically from experience" in both of its French senses. I am suggesting here that novel readers in the eighteenth century became expérimenté. This is the condition that Thoreau defined in Walden when he ranged, like Crusoe, within the domain of experience governed by experiment.
At another level of concern, as I have tracked these terms through dictionaries, novels, and philosophical texts, it has become clear that they bear on the large question at the heart of this essay: what kind of knowledge did novels make? And for whom? Or, perhaps more precisely, one might ask this: in the context of eighteenth-century thought, how can one characterize the knowledge novels were thought to produce?
Let us pause to ask what "knowledge" meant during the period. The answer is that knowledge forms had undergone profound change during the seventeenth century and continued to be under exacting scrutiny across the eighteenth. Broadly speaking, knowledge, which had been shaped by Aristotelian ideas for centuries before, was no longer an armature of accepted generalizations from which classifications, observations, and understandings of particulars could be derived. Interestingly, these generalizations were earlier called "experience," which in that older frame was considered to be of a general and received character, not the historical, situational, or personally specific information we now assign to the word. In the new paradigm, by contrast, experience was profuse, anecdotal, and scattered. Knowledge increasingly was formed when general principles were determined through controlled analysis of particulars as they emerged from the planned and specialized form of experience called the experiment. Knowledge became contextual, specific, and historical.
I am relying here on Peter Dear's book Discipline and Experience, where he declares that "a new kind of experience had become available to European philosophers: the experiment." He continues,
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a scientific "experience" was not an "experiment" in the sense of a historically reported experiential event. Instead, it was a statement about the world that, although known to be true thanks to the senses, did not rest on a historically specifiable instance—it was a statement such as "Heavy bodies fall" or "The sun rises in the east." Singular, unusual events were of course noticed and reported, but they were not, by definition, revealing of how nature behaves.
Dear might be placing Bacon's ideas in context when he continues,
The new scientific experience of the seventeenth century was characterized by the singular historical event experiment, which acted as a surrogate for universal experience. The latter had routinely been regarded as the proper grounding for philosophically legitimate knowledge-statements about nature; the advent of event experiments was a practical response within the mixed mathematical science to a confrontation between such Aristotelian methodological demands and the practical exigencies of making knowledge that would be acceptable to all relevant judges.
Dear does not quote Bacon's words in The Advancement of Learning but might well have noted Bacon's early designation of experiment as planned experience:
There remains simple experience which, if taken as it comes, is called accident; if sought for, experiment. But this kind of experience is no better than a broom without its band, as the saying is—a mere groping, as of men in the dark, that feel all round them for the chance of finding their way, when they had much better wait for daylight, or light a candle, and then go. But the true method of experience, on the contrary, first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it educing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments; even as it was not without order and method that the divine word operated on the created mass.
Bacon expounded the institutional form of his ideal in the account of the methodical experiments conducted in Salomon's house in The New Atlantis, passages that often are taken to describe the basic ideals of the modern scientific method. That he turned to narrative fiction, albeit in a form traditional since Sir Thomas More's Utopia, signals the organic connection between his ideas and emergent new genres of storytelling.
This new approach to knowledge raised any number of issues, and while we may in retrospect imagine the Scientific Revolution as a focal point, experimentalists of the time explored a huge range of procedures and formations and raged with debates about method that presented internal and external challenges to the emergent epistemology. Indeed, I would insist that questions about method and the nature of knowledge are intrinsic to modernity as it takes form during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I am identifying the new novel of the eighteenth century as one of the strands in these debates and as one of the modes of experimentation. Indeed, in my view, the implicit ambitions of the new novel parallel those Hume voiced for a new human science in the introduction to A Treatise of Human Nature:
Moral philosophy has ... this peculiar disadvantage, which is not found in natural, that in collecting its experiments, it cannot make them purposely, with premeditation.... We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures. Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.
Tom Jones cannot but come to mind as a prime novelistic exhibit in this Humean frame of reference. Can the novel overcome the disadvantages of Hume's new science of the human?
Excerpted from Ends of Enlightenment by JOHN BENDER Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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