A Cultural History of Causality

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought

STEPHEN KERN
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t0qv
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  • Book Info
    A Cultural History of Causality
    Book Description:

    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 includingCrime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, andLolita, Stephen Kern devotes each chapter ofA Cultural History of Causalityto 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2623-0
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-26)

    The 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...

  5. 1 Ancestry
    (pp. 27-63)

    In the course of the nineteenth century, as industrialism and urbanism transformed life beyond recognition and beyond conventional explanations, new disciplines emerged that looked increasingly to the past for causal understanding of human origins and the meaning of life. Geologists and paleontologists found evidence of evolution in the earth’s strata and the fossil record; anthropologists and archaeologists dug information out of buried civilizations; philologists charted the emergence of modern languages from ancient ones; biologists looked for the origins of human anatomy in embryological development; and psychologists sought the origins of adult mental life in the mind of the child. The...

  6. 2 Childhood
    (pp. 64-107)

    InRed Dragon(1981) Thomas Harris introduced a character who became the most notorious serial killer in twentieth-century literature and cinema—Hannibal Lecter. At the beginning of the novel, Hannibal was already imprisoned for several brutal murders involving cannibalism. In Harris’s next novel,Silence of the Lambs(1988), Hannibal escaped and murdered two police officers in acts that were presented as those of a deranged monster. In the conclusion to these novels, Harris provided motives for the serial killers who are the main target of investigation, but not for Hannibal himself. Finally, inHannibal(1999), Harris made it clear that...

  7. 3 Language
    (pp. 108-146)

    From 1830 to the early twentieth century, most leading thinkers believed that language was a challenging but adequate instrument for communicating ideas.¹ Although they knew that specific vocabularies and grammars dictated how ideas were expressed, they did not seriously consider that those linguistic elements substantially shaped the substance of their ideas and, even less, the nature of the very experience that they used that language to describe. In that sense they believed that language communicated rather than generated experiences and ideas. Romantics had celebrated the creative (or, to use a modern term, “performative”) function of language following Kant’s theory of...

  8. 4 Sexuality
    (pp. 147-188)

    Sexual desire is the biological deep wiring of causal activation and a powerful force behind a range of behaviors from basic relatedness to complex love. Its immediate goal is release of sexual tension and a heightening of sexual pleasure, which may involve a sexual partner. Its long-term goal is the production of offspring, which requires a partner and usually involves relationships that begin long before offspring appear and continue after they are born. These protracted social relationships may lead to competition and thus aggression. In some people, mainly men, that mix of desire and aggression can become spiked by jealousy...

  9. 5 Emotion
    (pp. 189-225)

    InThe Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche probed two fundamental human spirits that were synthesized in Greek tragedy, where they generated ever more powerful art forms. The spirit of reason, symbolized by the god Apollo, was embodied in Socrates’ philosophy and was revered throughout Western culture. The spirit of emotion, symbolized by the god Dionysus, was embodied in festivals of music and dance and became suspect ever since. The Greeks depicted Dionysus as a satyr—part god, part goat. Nietzsche hoped to retrieve the bold spirit behind that ennobling of passion as at least partly godly. His philosophy was a call...

  10. 6 Mind
    (pp. 226-265)

    Among the many causal factors leading to murder, none is more complex than the mind. All the factors discussed in this book are rooted in the mind because its operation is necessary to their functioning. Hereditary endowment, childhood traumas, language, sexual desire, and emotions are mediated by the mind, as are social pressures and ideas—the focus of my remaining two chapters. The ubiquity of the mental aspects of experience might suggest that its function is also universal and transhistorical, but ideas about its causal role have a dynamic history. In historically distinctive ways, neuroscientists examined the brain to discover...

  11. 7 Society
    (pp. 266-303)

    The simplest causal analyses of human behavior distinguish between heredity and environment. While environment plays a role in most of my chapters, in this one it is central, subdivided into aspects that appear in murder novels asambient environmentandsocial pressure. The pivotal new social science is sociology, which emerged around the turn of the century along with studies of field theory and crowds. That investigative foundation was subsequently augmented with cybernetics, dynamic systems theory, and complexity theory, all of which involve feedback systems in which social and environmental forces play interactive causal roles. These theories were themselves influenced...

  12. 8 Ideas
    (pp. 304-358)

    To make murders intelligible, novelists sometimes present ideas as the mainspring for action. This chapter tracks the history of those ideas.

    Throughout the period of my study, the act of murder from literary classics to potboilers was consistently judged to be wrong. What does change is the explanatory role of moral and religious concepts based on Judeo-Christian ideals that motivated those acts. As I have noted in previous chapters, psychiatrists increasingly replaced the explanatory function of moral and religious judgments with medical and psychiatric diagnoses, while jurists replaced them with forensic and social analyses. This chapter focuses on how philosophers...

  13. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 359-376)

    I began this project by reading studies of the revolutionary thinking about causality that emerged from quantum theory.¹ The enormity of this theoretical development led to my identification of the five main elements of my argument. Particularly germane were my findings that as quantum physicists probed the atom ever more precisely, they discovered a complex world of subatomic particles that behaved in individually unpredictable ways while knowledge of the causes of such behavior became increasingly, indeed historically, uncertain. To give this study an interpretive focus I combined these five elements into the concept of a specificity-uncertainty dialectic. That formulation was...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 377-418)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 419-424)
  16. Index
    (pp. 425-437)