By knowledge possessed: Darwin, nature, and Victorian narrative.
In a literal and flat sense, then, I am interested here in objectivity. But I am not tracing its history or subjecting it to philosophical scrutiny. Rather, I want to focus on the ways it manifests itself in language distinctly not flat or literal, and upon the consequences of that language. Nature, in this tradition, becomes truly accessible only when it is alienated from human feeling and desire. The romantic critique of science is inherent in this felt alienation; as the metaphor inescapably implies, the knower must be dead to the world, and the known must hold still, must also be dead. Throughout the nineteenth century, the epistemological and moral implications dramatized by this metaphorical tradition became matters of deep concern, and they have remained a focus of attention in recent critiques of science, particularly but not exclusively from feminist perspectives, which have been creatively engaged with the problems of "objectivity" for more than a decade.
My primary example will be Darwin, a true lover of nature in the romantic tradition, whose theory of natural selection breaks with the romantic ideal of consonance between the human and the natural to embody in nature the alienating methods of scientific inquiry: that is, natural selection operates by means of "observation" and "experiment," and it works without personal interest, intention, or consciousness -- a kind of death in life, whose successes depend on death. If knowing is dying and killing, as it surprisingly becomes in much nineteenth-century narrative, culminating, perhaps, in the novels of Thomas Hardy, epistemology is in crisis. I will be assuming throughout that the conditions I describe have particular relevance to Victorian narratives, although there is little space here for more than an allusion or two.(1)
What I want to suggest is that the ideal of objectivity to which science professed allegiance parallels in fiction the persisting story of self-abnegation for the sake of truth, often at the expense of both knower and known, protagonist and lover, who frequently must die either literally or figuratively for their efforts -- Dickens's novels are full of such patterns, as are Elizabeth Gaskell's and George Eliot's. In Hardy, this preoccupation with knowledge and alienation becomes almost obsessional, and his "nature" presides deterministically over his heroes and heroines. Determinism and a kind of oppressive fatality are aspects of Victorian fiction that belong centrally to the epistemological/metaphorical tradition with which I am concerned here. But I will address the problem of narrative directly only in a concluding look at George Eliot's most direct confrontation with the crisis, in her last completed novel, Daniel Deronda.
My emphasis is not on the old story of the Faustian overreacher, or the almost equally old - but currently fashionable - story that knowledge is power. The focus in recent discussion has been on the panopticon - knowledge as oppression, the objects of "knowledge" its imprisoned victims (Foucault does, however, point out that the panopticon is "a machine in which everyone is caught, those who exercise power just as much as those over whom it is exercised").(2) I do not want to ignore the ways in which "objectivity" has been mystified and become an instrument of power, or the way, from seventeenth-century beginnings, science was enlisted explicitly in the project of dominating nature. But the story is more complicated than that, and the mystification of interest-free knowledge dependent on other less obviously power-oriented dispositions. I want, therefore, to follow out the implications of the metaphor that equates knowledge with the absence of all the qualities normally associated with life, and to look at things from the oppressor's point of view - to shift emphasis from the victimization of the observed to the self-effacement of the observer.
Milton's epic parable about the dangers of knowledge was, ironically, the book that accompanied the young Darwin everywhere he went during his years with the Beagle and was part of his very experience of nature, as Gillian Beer has shown.(3) He engaged passionately and romantically with natural beauty, which echoed and confirmed his reading of Alexander von Humboldt and Wordsworth, and that passion grew into a disciplined quest for knowledge about nature.(4) Natural knowledge built upon, and perhaps ultimately displaced, the satisfactions that derived from romantic contemplation of nature (or from a sense of a divine "designer" behind it). Darwin's pleasures came to be, in fact, in fact," in the observations that made sense of the entanglements and sublimities to which he was emotionally drawn. His prose, sprinkled always with references to how "wonderful" particular natural phenomena are,(5) testifies to the pleasures of finding out, of thinking through observations into causal sequences.
The Miltonic myth requires of Adam and Eve restraint from personal ambition-knowledge in a prelapsarian world is legitimate for Milton so long as it is consonant with God's glory. And from Bacon to Locke to Herschel, the movement to displace transcendental considerations in the world of secondary causes that was the province of science was not to imply any disharmony with God. The world was too manifestly designed, too full of the marks of a creative intelligence, and, significantly for Darwin's theory and for my own, too much directed at the well-being of humanity, it's crowning achievement. Mortality enters when Adam and Eve give themselves over to Satanic ambitions - the intent of man, as Bacon put it, "to give law to himself, and depend no more upon God."" As God withdraws from the field of natural knowledge, the terms and values implicit in the Edenic myth undergo an earth change. Beyond God's garden, nature requires "explanation" - and it did not inevitably point toward the well-being of humanity. Knowledge becomes perplexed, unstable, mazelike, and a new epistemology becomes necessary: one that might resist instability by reproducing some of the authority lost in God's withdrawal, and one that confesses the ultimate inadequacy of the personal. In all its paradoxical qualities, this is the epistemology of empiricism, which, directed at a new anti-authoritarian certainty, opened the way to radical skepticism of the sort worked out by David Hume but implicit already in Locke.
On the one hand, empiricism asserts that all knowledge derives from experience through the senses; on the other, it establishes from the start a radical distrust of the senses and rejects as false any knowledge that is associated with the personal. When Bacon began his great campaign for the new knowledge, he agreed on the importance of experience, the true and only source of knowledge. But he sought a new approach to experience - "if a man of mature age, unprejudiced senses and clear mind, would betake himself anew [my italics] to experience and particulars, we might hope much more from such a one."(7) The senses are both necessary and untrustworthy, being allied always to a single - human - perspective. For the nineteenth century, this position was admirably summarized by John Herschel in Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which first announces that the source of all knowledge is "EXPERIENCE" and then identifies two kinds of inevitable human distortions of experience, prejudices of sense and prejudices of opinion.(8)
The ideal resistance to those prejudices is constructed from a Baconian distrust of the personal, even in the very language of science. Before the professionalization of science had led to a self-conscious depersonalizing of prose, scientific documents would often bear traces of the personality of the writer. But the "self" is always an uneasy presence. Darwin's voice is charmingly clear in The Origin Of Species, but it argues rigorously and almost overloads with details, and, most strikingly, it is marked by humility and even self-deprecation. Part of the ironic attractiveness of his writing is its very personal rejection of the personal. The self, which is the condition of all knowledge, as Darwin surely felt and as empiricist thought seemed to affirm, is recognized in his prose to be a potential obstacle to knowledge. To know nature required scrupulously objective observation, impersonality, transcendence of the personal, refusal of speculation or of the invocation of supernatural explanation, and verification. Knowledge can be knowledge only if it is generalized and shareable.
Darwin's self-deprecation is not an aberration. The true empiricist has to be somewhat skeptical about the possibility of any real knowledge at all, so that the appropriate stance of the observer is a Darwinian modesty, a rejection of all claims to total authority. Locke's manner anticipates Darwin's own, being very much that of the modest gentleman.(9) Empiricism begins its assault on traditional forms of intellectual authority by insisting on limits. The greatest strength of the mind, Locke suggests, is its power to suspend desire, to resist immediate claims for satisfaction; knowledge depends on the suspension of "the execution and satisfaction of any of its desires, and so all, one after another."(10)
I want to emphasize here the proximity of epistemology to religion, for this surely is a version of the Christian ideal: one must lose oneself in order to find oneself; one can know only by surrendering the personal desire to know; one can transform experience into knowledge only by denying one's personal relation to experience. Empiricism, which seems part of a reaction against the dominance of religion, derives much of its special authority from the appropriation of religious ideals, and from the parallel ideals of art and morality. All these have also traditionally insisted on the rejection of the self: the great artist speaks not personally but universally, not with his or her own voice but with the inspiration of a muse. Morality specifically rejects demands for the self, requires that we imagine ourselves as others. Christianity requires the imitation of God, and the self-annihilating scientist is a good imitator.
Empiricist epistemology is not, of course, pure. Alison Jaggar has summarized a now familiar position forcefully: "The ideal of the dispassionate investigator," she says, "is a classist, racist, and especially masculinist myth."" The strength of this argument depends upon the apparent fact that the scientific ideal of self-abnegation is rather curiously allied to a view that women, those designated culturally as having the greatest capacity for self-denial, are incapable of self-denial, and by the association of scientific self-denial with rationality. Women are slaves to their bodies; men are free by virtue of their capacity for reason. In this respect, the scientific tradition has it both ways: it affirms the "woman's virtue" of self-denial but denies women the capacity for reason that, on its account, is a condition for self-denial. Sandra Harding puts it this way: "The androcentric ideology of contemporary science posits as necessary, and/or as facts, a set of dualisms - culture vs. nature; rational mind vs. prerational body and irrational emotions and values; objectivity vs. subjectivity; public vs. private - and then links men and masculinity to the former and women and femininity to the latter in each dichotomy."(12) The metaphorical insistence on the denial of self exposes the fact that there are at least two traditions at work in the development of the scientific ideal of objectivity as a primary cultural value - one is the supreme valuing of Christian self-denial, the other is secular valuing of rationality. Religion gives to "rationality" its moral sanction and empowers, in its implicit name, certain forms of domination, political, social, "natural."
The most interesting feminist criticism of science confronts in complex ways the problems implicit in this very critique of objectivity, the exposure of its potential violence. For it is not so easy to dismiss dispassion as a condition of valid investigation. Evelyn Keller suggests that the problem is "premature" anonymity. "Objectivist ideology," she says, in claiming disinterest and impersonality and "radically excluding the subject," "imposes a veil" on the day-to-day practices of science, which, like all other human activities, are impelled by emotional, social, and political commitments." The problem is in the "veil," in the "premature" excluding of the subject. And the project of thinkers like Keller, Harding, and Donna Haraway has been to imagine what Haraway calls "situated" knowledge.(14) For each of these writers, a tension develops between a surrender to epistemological relativism which would leave even its claims for gender equality unsupported, or a recognition that useful scientific activity requires something equivalent to the objectivity whose dangers they have powerfully exposed. In a sense, they seek a way to reinsert life into the quest for knowledge by coming to terms with the human quality of investigation, with the moral and emotional engagement of researchers, studying at historically particular times, from social and individual perspectives.
As these feminist critics have understood, epistemology has always been implicated in ethics. (15) Locke's famous essay is as much a political document as his more overt appeals for toleration. To learn how to know correctly was to learn how to be good - and politically correct. The hindrance to knowledge is, as Locke suggests in the introductory epistle to the Essay, vanity (7). The metaphor of "death" or self-destruction that figures so prominently in discourse about scientific investigation derives from - or, more properly, is an aspect of - the inextricable implication of a moral project in the epistemological one. To learn how to know, one must learn how to restrain oneself, to submit one's ego to the object, to the natural world, whose laws govern all possibility.
Among Victorian writers, for whom truth was perhaps the most important of virtues, it is often difficult to distinguish moral from intellectual virtue. For many, some under the influence of Auguste Comte, natural knowledge was a condition of the possibility of genuine morality. One thinks of George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, who falls because she was "unhappily quite without knowledge of the irreversible laws within and without her which, governing the habits, becomes morality, and, developing the feelings of submission and dependence, becomes religion."(16) Nineteenth-century prose is full of evidences of this entanglement of epistemology with morality. Although, for example, Thomas Carlyle was no empiricist, he was deeply infected by empiricist thought and the worship of "fact" - positive, irrefutable knowledge. And his extravagantly metaphorical aphorism, attributed to Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, works not only for morality but for epistemology: "the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.... Make thy claim of wages a zero, then; thou hast the world under thy feet."(17) Self-annihilation is the paradoxical condition of moral value and epistemological authority.
Or consider Keats's famous idea of negative capability, which actually echoes Locke's insistence on the power to suspend desire. In a letter, Keats wrote that "the poet has ... no identity"; "When I am in a room with People," he writes, "the identity of every one in the room begins to ... press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated."(18) Or, for a later example, take Matthew Arnold's more prosaic case of criticism and culture. For Arnold such extravagant language as Carlyle's, or even Keats's annihilation," would be itself a symptom of the emotional affirmation of self that true knowledge needs to negate. For him, criticism, "a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world,"(19) was only possible through a rejection of the practical and the personal. Any sort of partisan position interferes with the possibility of attaining the truth. Arnold believes in what he calls a "best self," but this self is defined as impersonal and is characterized by its universality. The self can make its claims within this schema (it is as much in Feuerbach as in Arnold) only insofar as it shares its desire with the species. Through the best self alone can one come to truth and an ultimate affirmation of transcendence. Here the parallel to Christian salvation becomes almost exact.
Nineteenth-century conceptions of selfhood articulate the fundamental alienation implicit in empiricism. The human is marked by self-consciousness," not merely the power to think but the power to be aware of one's own thinking. To be human, then, is to make oneself into two - the observer and the observed. To know is both to register experience on one's senses and to reject the validity of the senses. The positivist model of knowledge, an extension and refinement of empiricism, is like this rejection of self, programatically self-alienating. For Feuerbach, for example, the distinctively human begins with self-consciousness; and self-consciousness is self-fragmentation, the power of the self to make itself an object. The life of man, says Feuerbach, is "twofold," for the "inner life of man is the life which has relation to his species, to his general, as distinguished from his individual, nature."(20) While Feuerbach's project is to integrate the two, he argues that Christianity builds on the dual nature of the human to require its annihilation. So too does the ideal of natural knowledge. One might, following the model of Feuerbach, write an Essence of Empiricism as sequel to the Essence of Christianity, demonstrating how in the interests of the human, philosophers constructed a philosophy that is self-alienating, failing to recognize in its abstract construction of knowledge that the knowing human self has been mystified, and that the project of human salvation through natural knowledge actually entails the denial of all that is human. To know nature, one must make it alien, perceive it as fundamentally other, and deny one's own desire.
It did not take Feuerbach, however, to articulate this conception. The imagination of the absentminded thinker who, in effect, leaves his body to engage in thought is part of the inheritance of the Cartesian tradition. In his remarkable History of the Inductive Sciences, to choose a single example of the dramatization and metaphorization of this ideal of self-forgetting, William Whewell describes Newton in this way:
The habit to which Newton ... in some sense owed his discoveries, this constant attention to the rising thought, and development of its results in every direction, necessarily engaged and absorbed his spirit and made him inattentive and almost insensible to external impressions and common impulses. The stories which are told of his extreme absence of mind, probably refer to the two years during which he was composing his Principia. ... The magnificent and striking questions which, during this period, he must have had daily rising before him; the perpetual succession of difficult problems of which the solution was necessary to his great object; may well have entirely occupied and possessed him. "He existed only to calculate and to think." Often, lost in meditation, he knew not what he did, and his mind appeared to have quite forgotten its connexion with the body. His servant reported that, in rising in a morning, he frequently sat a large portion of the day, half-dressed, on the side of his bed; and that his meals waited on the table for hours before he came to take them. Even with his transcendent powers, to do what he did, was almost irreconcilable with the common conditions of human life; and required the utmost devotion of thought, energy of effort, and steadiness of will, - the strongest character, as well as the highest endowments, which belong to man.(21)
The achievement of scientific knowledge is incompatible with "the common conditions of human life." This imagination of Newton dramatizes the mind/body dualism implicit in Descartes's emptying out of himself to achieve the minimal, affirming cogito, and in Carlyle's mathematical metaphor. The individual becomes transcendent and universal by eliminating the body.(22)
The procedure of self-alienation became quite literally explicit in nineteenth-century positivism and in the work of Auguste Comte, who gave full impetus to the project of developing scientific study of humanity by humanity - "social physics." Comte's total rejection of psychology as a science results from a preliminary requirement, the disentangling of the self observing from the self observed: "there can be nothing like scientific observation of the passions, except from without, as the stir of the emotions disturbs the observing faculties more or less. It is yet more out of the question to make an intellectual observation of intellectual processes. The observing and observed organ are here the same, and its action cannot be pure and natural. In order to observe, your intellect must pause from activity; yet it is this very activity that you want to observe."(23) Here is the crisis of empiricist epistemology: it was quite explicitly the problem in the development of physiology and medicine as "sciences," and, of course, it remains a crisis for the social sciences. There is no more obvious point at which the ideal of knowledge demands the death of observer and observed; they must hold still in order to know and be known. Peter Dale has splendidly rethought Comte's position in the development of modern social and aesthetic thought, and he points out how positivism, leavened by evolutionism, "appears increasingly to dispense altogether with the agency of conscious choice."(24) The self disappears in the system and in the biological flow of feeling. Moreover, epistemology issues finally in Comte's positive religion, which embodies a systemic ideal of altruism at the price of what Comte calls "a true resignation," not a resignation with the end of some ultimate heavenly felicity, but "a permanent disposition to endure, steadily, and without hope of compensation, all inevitable evils."(25)
Positivism had far other intentions, of course. Comte's project was to affirm human power, not to destroy it; and the language inherited from the positivist ideal contains both this model of death and of ultimate self-affirmation or resurrection. Comte's positivism in effect codified the ideal of knowledge I have been discussing and rejected any intrusion of the subjective - which included any intrusion of that which could not be "experienced" universally, like such things, even, as "cause and effect." In his scientific study of humanity, the "human sciences," the paradoxes implicit in the ideal of knowledge are most exaggeratedly evident. The human sciences are precisely the knowledge of self-alienation, the transformation of self into object. If Comte himself remained a fringe figure to Victorian intellectuals, his ability to convince such important writers as John Stuart Mill, G. H. Lewes, and George Eliot that the project was a credible one had much to do with the consonance of epistemology, religion, morality, and art. Many Victorians more or less self-consciously came to accept the view that as the physical sciences were making the natural world comprehensible and bringing them under control, so the social sciences could make human experience comprehensible and bring that under control.
Of all the scientific work of the nineteenth century, however, Darwin's was certainly most significant in the transformation of the human subject into an object of scientific investigation - not, of course, by virtue of an overt theoretical commitment, of the sort one finds in Comte or in the Mills, father and son, but through his radical secularization of the material world. If explanation of the natural world required no recourse to divine intervention, secular and empiricist explanation could apply to humans as well. And thus Darwin concluded that human values and emotions could be explained in strictly natural/material terms. The human was, for Darwin, quite literally part of nature: but his method implied the radical doubling of consciousness described by Feuerbach: as scientist/observer he could explain human development in the same way he could explain the action of earthquakes or the development of species.
Under this sort of empiricist/materialist scrutiny, the individual human self-already denied agency and will as observer-gets lost in the material and inhuman natural system, as Comte's language has already suggested. This obliteration of selfhood reemerges in Huxley's deliberate provocations to the conventionally pious. The scientific laws of nature, extending to the human, insert the human into a system in which no volitional acts can effect material changes and only the illusion of agency can be sustained. The Huxleyan scientist turns out to be part of the panoptic machine Foucault describes, in which no single figure can dominate, not even the one who seems to be at the center watching. If Huxley argues for the primacy of scientific over all other forms of knowledge, he also insists on the cost to the scientist of that primacy. His rhetoric is rarely that of sacrifice, but even at its most dogmatically exuberant it affirms the delusiveness of our sense of ourselves as separate spirits. "We are," he says, "conscious automata, endowed with free will in the only intelligible sense of the much-abused term - inasmuch as in many respects we are able to do as we like-but none the less parts of the great series of causes and effects which, in unbroken continuity, composes that which is, and has been, and shall be - the sum of existence."(26) Our individual selves merely passively symbolize the material conditions of the brain and body; they do not change the material world in any way. The self becomes a fantasy of the brain, which is driven by the laws of nature, not by our own agency. The self in effect is no more a real existence and intentional agent than it is for poststructuralist theorists.
By the end of the century, the self as intentional agent had not returned to scientific epistemology. Karl Pearson's Grammar of Science, which in a way is a summa of the empiricist-positivist tradition of nineteenth-century science, continues the tradition, but explicitly affirms its political and social value. Much to my point, Pearson claims that "the scientific man has above all things to strive at self-elimination in his judgments, to provide an argument which is as true for each individual mind as for his own."(27) Scientific method, with its elimination of the willing, intentional self, produces a nature from which willing, intentional selves are absent. But for Pearson it also becomes a means toward - a model of - morality and social harmony. "I assert," says Pearson, "that the encouragement of scientific investigation and the spread of scientific knowledge by largely inculcating scientific habits of mind will lead to more efficient citizenship and so to increased social stability" (14).
Of scientific epistemologists, Pearson is only the most obviously vulnerable to the kinds of critiques of science and professionalism that have emerged from the Edinburgh strong program of the sociology of science or the rhetorical analyses of Bruno Latour or Foucauldian archaeologies and critiques of disciplines. Pearson's theory of science, committing itself fully to the implicit subjectivism of empiricism, might usefully be seen in conjunction with Walter Pater's impressionism as an attempt to recuperate the subjective and the personal in scientific discourse while maintaining as fully as possible the possibilities of transcendence of the merely personal that science has always needed. At this point, however, I would only want to suggest that the ideal of "self-elimination" in Pearson's argument reconfirms the motif I have located in Keats, in Carlyle, and in the main stream of the empiricist tradition - the paradoxical assertion of death as a condition of knowing.
The religious/moral implications of that tradition of self-annihilation continue to thrive in the practice of science and the language of the social sciences, and more surreptitiously, in the rather looser standards that govern argument and knowledge among ordinary people like us. It is the way many if not most of us think about knowing insofar as we are not thinking as professional academics - and it is endorsed by the way spokesmen for aspirin don white coats for television commercials, by our cynicism about self-interested claims in advertising, politics, or personal life, by our faith in the possibility of achieving knowledge without recourse to divine intervention or mere institutional authority. The empiricist attempt to replace that authority and to offer a pragmatic and unquestionably grounded mode of explanation of the natural and the human worlds that would answer the fundamental questions of the romantics and Carlyle - what is it possible to believe in a postrevolutionary world from which God has been largely banished?(28) - that effort still thrives. Science continues to offer both "rational" explanation and moral sanction.
The degree to which this myth has official sanction is implied in a recent study of scientific epistemology by a distinguished philosopher of science, Rom Harre:
Science is not just an epistemological but also a moral achievement. In defending the scientific community's just claims to knowledge I am also defending the moral superiority of that community relative to any other human association.
I believe that the scientific community exhibits a model or ideal of rational co-operation set within a strict moral order, the whole having no parallel in any other human activity. And this despite the all-too-human characteristics of the actual members of that community seen as just another social order. Notoriously the rewards of place, power, and prestige are often not commensurate with the quality of individual scientific achievements when these are looked at from a historical perspective. Yet that very community enforces standards of honesty, trustworthiness and good work against which the moral quality of Christian civilization stands condemned.(29)
The displacement of religion by science is nowhere more strikingly affirmed. Note that this way of thinking includes - as do most serious reflections on science - a recognition of the fact that individual scientists do not always work within the ideals of the "community." But the community transcends the personal. Self-assertion and self-aggrandizement are precisely what the community - like God in relation to Adam and Eve - rejects and excludes.
Knowledge, then, in the tradition of Western positivism, becomes an odd process of alienation and possession. Observation, the first requisite of knowledge, the means by which it registers in "experience," entails both the creation of an "other" and possession of it. To observe oneself one must stand outside oneself, divide oneself in two. The act of knowing becomes an act of repossession. So to know is both to kill and to possess.(30) If you really want to know, you will have to die (although if you die you can't know), and along the way you will probably have to kill the thing you want to know. The final irony of this story, however, is that the obliteration of self required in positivist knowledge can easily - and often does - become a strong affirmation of the self.
It does not require profound knowledge of Darwin's theory to recognize that natural selection partakes of all of the qualities I have been describing as characteristic of empiricism. Darwin's career can be viewed as a working-out of the implications of these qualities and an application of that metaphor of death with which they are ultimately associated. Nineteenth-century observers often intuited something like this point. In his notorious "Belfast Address," John Tyndall, for example, takes Darwin as a model scientist. One of the conditions for Darwin's success, Tyndall argues, is his exclusion of personal emotion. "Mr. Darwin," says Tyndall, "shirks no difficulty" in his determination to get it right at any cost, and he seeks no mere dialectical victory. Rather, he wants "the establishment of a truth which he means to be everlasting." The most sustained and irritating attacks do not irritate him:
He treats every objection with a soberness and thoroughness which even Bishop Butler might be proud to imitate, surrounding each fact with its appropriate detail, placing it in its proper relations, and usually giving it a significance which, as long as it was kept isolated, failed to appear. This is done without a trace of ill-temper. He moves over the subject with the passionless strength of a glacier; and the grinding of rocks is not always without a counterpart in the logical pulverization of the objector. But though in handling this mighty theme all passion has been stilled, there is an emotion of the intellect, incident to the discernment of new truth, which often colours and warms the pages of Mr. Darwin.(31)
The comparison of Darwin to a glacier grinding rocks is, however, even less striking than Darwin's own description of himself, a description that continues the metaphor of "grinding" and certainly implies agreement with Tyndall's dehumanizing characterization but diminishes its association with power. "My mind," Darwin casually and notoriously states in his Autobiography, "seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts."(32) Darwin's intellectual development, his self-descriptions, his theory of natural selection - all suggest how fundamentally the Western myth of knowledge led him in the direction of negation of the feelings, denial of the humanity of the perceiving self.
In his Autobiography Darwin did Tyndall one better: "I have attempted," says Darwin, "to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing" (21). The shock and almost comic charm of this statement is in its characteristic Darwinian matter-of-factness, its refusal, in Tyndall's terms, to be "irritated." The sentence has more than personal resonance, however, for it embodies the extravagance of the ostensible common sense of empiricism by accepting as matter of fact an impossible condition - writing and observing as if one were dead. While it might seem that such a figure is peculiar to the Autobiography, it is not. Darwin's empiricist power to remove himself from his scientific work is suggested also by his "Observations on Children," a journal recording in detail his children's behavior and speech that provided materials he would use in such later work as The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.(33) As the editors of the extraordinary new edition of Darwin's correspondence put it, "Darwin possessed the ability to dissociate himself sufficiently from his own emotions to enable him to make use of the most readily available resources - in this case his own children - for information on emotional expression, just as he had earlier analyzed his own childhood memories" (in the "autobiographical fragments" of 1838).(34) There is of course irony in this, for the "observations" of his children, reportorial and without editorial commentary or registration of his own feelings - even allowing him to refer to his first, beloved child, William, as "it" - suggest a deep affection (as, I would argue, does his detailed observation of the tropical jungle of Brazil, or his taxonomic analyses of the "cirripedes"). I am determinedly not trying to argue that Darwin in his practice actually carried out the project towards which he consciously strove. My point is that his sense of himself, which included very largely his sense of himself as scientist, entailed a continuing purgation of self," and of the emotional debilities that come with loving, desiring, and suffering.
Watching little William, in his eighth day, Darwin notes: "In crying, frowns and contracts whole forehead & wrinkles skin about eyes, just like older child - opens its mouth wide, & utters crys in reiterating or sobbing manner. NB. I find bad crying chiefly connected with resperative function-convulsive movements of chest ?is sobbing abortive crying & shouting?. It is very singular movement of muscle of face which accompany real crying, coming before formation of tears" (OC 411). This reads like disinterested note-taking, not about the first Darwin baby but about instinctive physiological behavior. Yet the passage representatively implies one of the points I am trying to make about the self-annihilation scientific work seems to require - it almost invariably disguises, not necessarily intentionally or deviously, the living human sources of the inquiry itself. These observations, after all, belong to a father, and a loving father at that. Through all the remarkable self-abnegation so characteristic of Darwin's science, writing, and personal behavior, Darwin remained loving and lovable, very much a recognizable self.
That capacity to reduce the claims of the self to zero seems, indeed, part of Darwin's attractiveness to all who knew him. As a letter he wrote to William after the boy had first departed for boarding school shows, Darwin was fully aware of how effective self-abnegation was in attracting love. "You will find," Darwin writes, "that the greatest pleasure in life is in being beloved; & this depends almost more on pleasant manners, than on being kind with grave & gruff manners.... Depend upon it, that the only way to acquire pleasant manners is to try to please everybody you come near, your school-fellows, servants & everyone."(35)
Lovableness and empiricism come together in Darwin's life: through self-deprecation and gracious strategies of generosity and warm support, he managed to enlist a horde of scientific correspondents in his work. He was always willing to reciprocate with materials and critiques that certainly required of him a great sacrifice of time and energy, and he was unfailingly sweet and humble as he performed with precisely the "pleasant manners" he urged William to acquire. Yet throughout the correspondence there is a sense both of doggedness - sorry as he is to bother people for information, he never hesitates to do so - and firmness: he knows what he wants to know and he criticizes where he disagrees. Darwin's selflessness was a condition for the personal authority he developed and for his successful scientific practice.
But while the Darwin who writes as if he were dead is very much alive, he had in certain respects become, as Donald Fleming put it in a very suggestive essay thirty years ago, an anesthetic man.(36) The anesthesia was a moral and political condition, and Darwin's analysis, that his death of aesthetic feeling had been a consequence of his total engagement in science, is a reasonable one. To be sure, Darwin was far from "dead." But something had indeed happened to reduce his pleasure in art - certainly not his pleasure in nature, which remained marvelous to him down to his last days. Nevertheless, though he may well have overemphasized the deadening of his aesthetic nature, one can trace through his career a gradual movement from personal engagement to observational distancing and, metaphorically at least, death to this world. I allude not only, and obviously, to the maladies that beset him from the years of his greatest creativity, both as a father and as a scientist. The transformation from a vital, active, daring, and energetic young man into a valetudinarian at the age of thirty is paralleled in the development of his thought. As I suggested at the outset: beginning with wonder at the marvels of nature, Darwin goes on to take his pleasures from the explanations of it.
I do not mean to describe a simple linear development: Darwin was simultaneously self-effacing and self-affirming, but always in different contexts. He always apologizes for allusions to himself and thinks that public writing should contain none or very few. Note a letter he writes to Adolf von Morlot: "with respect to passages in my letters, I feel almost certain that they contain nothing new or worth publishing; and they were written without care and with personal allusion to myself, which are not fit for any eye, but a correspondent's" (C III, 88). Darwin had his strong personal opinions and feelings, and would express them in letters to friends and notes to himself. But his public writing rather consistently moves from personal appreciation of nature to scientific explanation.
In the midst of those creative years when his theory was developing, Darwin wrote to a friend, "This is a marvelous world we live in, & I never cease marvelling at it" (C II, 125). If anything is permanent in Darwin's evolving world, it is this sense of the marvelous, which recurs in his last published book, on vegetable mold and earth worms. Its final paragraph is as charmingly engaged with the wonders of the natural world as his diary of the Beagle voyage. "It is a marvelous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms."(37) But the wonder is typically earned, confirming Howard Gruber's argument that one of Darwin's dominant thought forms is "the summing of small effects over many iterations to produce large, often surprising results."(38) The "marvelous" comes after Darwin has shown, through meticulous study, as minute and dispassionate as his record of his children's behavior, that the grounds for the factual assertion are irrefutable. Moreover, it emerges from an examination of the ostensibly not wonderful: the trivial, ordinary, unnoteworthy. Darwin reclaims wonder by virtue of the self-effacing move of examining tediously, dispassionately, exhaustively, objects that are more likely to evoke disgust than admiration. The nine years of work on cirripedes is the most extravagant example of this characteristic of Darwin's work. Hooker had suggested to him that he could not write about species unless he had direct experience of the study of species and the scientific activity of speciation. So Darwin postponed the writing of his great work for the sake of describing and classifying all the world's cirripedes, or what the dictionary calls "degraded marine crustaceans."
Wonder was the beginning and the end of Darwin's work and his occasional registration of it, even in the Origin, often surprises new readers. But the work itself both disguised and transformed the personal engagement. It is clear, for example, that Darwin's passion for tropical scenery predated his real scientific work and was probably a primary motive for his eagerness to undertake the Beagle voyage. The influence of Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative was as great as Darwin kept insisting, and his decision to make the voyage was partly inspired by his desire to see what Humboldt had described. Four months before he was offered the position as naturalist on the Beagle, Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline from Cambridge that, all the while he is writing, his "head is running about the Tropics: in the morning I go and gaze at Palm trees in the hot-house and come home and read Humboldt: my enthusiasm is so great that I can hardly sit still on my chair. ... I never will be easy till I see the peak of Teneriffe and the great Dragon tree; sandy, dazzling plains, and gloomy silent forest are alternately uppermost in my mind.... I have written myself into a Tropical glow" (C I, 122). The passion for the romantic landscape remains part of a very Wordsworthian sensibility and is evidenced in Darwin's letters home from the Beagle. Near the end of his journey, at a point when his letters show a deep longing to return home, Darwin writes that "I would not exchange the memory of the first six months, not for five times the length of the anticipated pleasures" of returning home (C I, 257). For Darwin, especially as he registers the experience in his diary, the beauty of the landscape is always informed by prior reading and by an anticipation of the memory of the landscape. That is, Darwin's sense of the beauties of nature and of sublimity depends like Wordsworth's on human associations, before and after the event; the voyage of the Beagle became a memory even during the experience of it.
James Paradis has valuably described Darwin's movement from "the aesthetic idealism of Romantic art" to "the system building traditions of geological and natural sciences" in the writings about the Beagle voyage, and he argues that "Darwin traced the historical path from poetic to scientific nature in his M transmutation Notebook in 1838."(39) Paradis's analysis is surely correct: an essentially poetic response to the natural gives way to - I would prefer to say, generates - a scientific one (and I am uneasy about the implicit chronology of this) - first poetry, then science. But the work does increasingly reject the unmodified attempt to describe, in language registering the personal pleasure of what is seen, for an attempt to describe in ways that transcend the personal by explaining the phenomenon in secular and systematic terms - "general laws" produced from large collections of facts.
Darwin's own experience of wonder is consistent with the sense of wonder that underlies natural theology, and that experience leads him to an attempt to demonstrate that the wonderful is the wormlike produce of the ordinary: Darwin wants to short-circuit the inference from wonder to the transcendent. Only our ignorance produces that movement. Darwin's references in his letters to Carlyle, that great prophet of wonder, suggest something of his double relationship to natural phenomena. At one point, in January 1839, he writes Emma that "To my mind Carlyle is the most worth listening to, of any man I know" (C II, 155). Nine months later he writes to his sister Caroline, recommending Carlyle's Miscellaneous Works, but noting that he has become "quite nauseated with [Carlyle's] mysticism, his intentional obscurity and affectation," and contrasting his own "common Englishman's" mind to Carlyle's (C II, 236). Carlyle invokes wonder to encourage a sense that the world is not ultimately intelligible to human rationality. The common Englishman, with his built-in, Lyellian, uninformitarian bias, develops strategies to demonstrate that the world is rationally and empirically intelligible on its own terms.
Frequently Darwin will engage his mind more energetically with the aberrant and the "wonderful" than with the typical. Many Darwinians have pointed out how important to his argument is his attention to the singular rather than the general, his capacity to get beyond the typological.(40) This strategy surely has temperamental as well as intellectual links with the romantic interest in the singular: the wonder comes, not from Aristotelian categories and abstractions, but from the extraordinary complexities of the individual grain of sand. At one point he writes to Fitzroy in 1846, "you would hardly believe it if you had seen me for the last half month daily hard at work in dissecting a little animal about the size of a pin's head from the Chonos Arch. & I could spend another month on it, & daily see some more beautiful structure" (C IV, 359). While it is surely death to the "little animal," Darwin's wonder is increased by dissection. Particulars continue to fascinate him, but his scientific project in relation to all of them - aberrant, minute, catastrophic - is to make the wonderful "common." This is the strategy at the center of his rejection of natural theology, which depended so much on the wonder to be felt at the precision of adaptation in the natural world.
The notebooks are full of entries that are clearly provoked by the determination to get beyond wonder - to transform the ostensibly miraculous into the ordinary. So in his A Notebooks, for example, he makes a point that he will develop more fully in the Origin, that "There is no more wonder in extinction of species than of individual."(41) A more complex entry in Notebook B is concerned with means of transporting seeds or eggs over great distances. Darwin asks if there are "any genera, mundine, which cannot transport easily. it would have been wonderful if the two Rheas had existed in different Continents. In plants I believe not" (N 196). The point here is that wonder depends on the humanly inexplicable happening, and the transportation of enormous rhea eggs across continents could not be explained as Darwin could explain the transportation of seeds. In both of these entries, the scientific issue is created in response to the capacity of wonder to intimate a nonsecular mechanism. Darwin's scientific response is to find ways to reduce the wonder. If we take the death of the individual as "natural," so we must take the death of species. And there is nothing wonderful about the fact that rheas do not exist on two different continents. Similarly, there is nothing wonderful about the fact that the same species of plant do exist on two continents.
Darwin's arguments for the implication of humanity in his evolutionary scheme depends upon his capacity to diminish the official wonder at man's moral and intellectual nature. That is, he needs to show that all of the qualities taken as peculiar to the human species are in effect present in less exalted species in the natural world. So in his treatment of worms, he argues for their intelligence. And the M Notebook, in which Paradis finds the full transition from poetry to systematic science, is full of entries that bring the human and the nonhuman into contiguity. There is even an entry on the free will of dogs, and if dogs "then an oyster & polype (& a plant in some senses, perhaps, through from not having pain or pleasure actions unavoidable & only to be changed by habits)" (N 536). The discussion of "free will of oyster," which does not, I believe, make it into the Descent of Man, leads Darwin to consider the degree to which free will and change are related to biological "organization" (N 536).
The pattern of inquiry and answer here is again parallel to that of the empiricist project. That is, the phenomena are reduced to "sensible" ones, although what is required is a particularly expert "sensibility," which can see behind the experience of, say, the same plant on two continents, to other related experiences - the transportation of seed by birds or water, the state of mind of an oyster. Thus anything transcendent of experience is at least ostensibly excluded, as empiricism excludes the a priori. But what is most interesting here is that Darwin is attacking the subjective response - in one case to the fact of the extinction of species, in the other to the possibility that a species could have been placed in two distant continents, and in the final one, to the very roots of religious thought and feeling. Invoking human experience, he moves away from it at the same time, comfortably destroying the assumptions on which human well-being have been thought to depend.
As Paradis has shown, the Beagle Diary, which Nora Barlow edited and published in 1933, tends to descriptions that "are not the casual traveler's observations of attractive scenery: they are more an artist's account of his remarkable experience with sensation itself."(42) Paradis somewhat underestimates the degree to which Darwin carried over verbatim his Diary entries into his published Journal, The Voyage of the Beagle. The Journal still reveals a living, subjectively intense narrator, but Paradis's emphasis is certainly correct. The Journal is organized in order to provide relatively systematic information about the natural phenomena Darwin encountered on the voyage, and it is not strictly chronological; but the Diary is, of course, arranged as the events occurred. As a consequence, the newness of the experience registers more powerfully and Darwin's feelings appear to have much more to do with the way the narrative - or chronicle - unfolds. On the other hand, the prose of the Journal gathers its peculiar powers from Darwin's uncanny skills of observation, his tendency to attempt to account for every phenomenon. So the "brilliantly white colour" of St. Paul's Rocks is explained as coming partly from "the dung of a vast multitude of sea fowl"(43); in completing the account of terrestrial fauna on St. Jago, Darwin notes "a fly (Olfersia) living on the booby, and a tick which must have come here as a parasite on the birds; a small brown moth, belonging to a genus that feeds on feathers; a beetle (Quedius) and a woodlouse from beneath the dung; and lastly numerous spiders, which I suppose prey on these small attendants and scavengers of the waterfowl" (V 9). Note that this is not merely a list but an implicit explanation of how each organism got to the island. And to make the explanatory (and demystifying) process complete, Darwin concludes his paragraph in a way that should by now be familiar: "The often repeated description of the stately palm and other noble tropical plants, then birds, and lastly man, taking possession of the coral islands as soon as formed, in the Pacific, is probably not quite correct; I fear it destroys the poetry of this story, that feather and dirt-feeding and parasitic insects and spiders should be the first inhabitants of newly formed oceanic land" (V 11). It is easy to detect here Darwin's developing post-Beagle work on species. And for that reason, a passage like this is all the more useful. For the meticulous scientific registration of detail, eschewing in this case the wonderful and yet, in its insistence on minute detail, sustaining a strong romantic tradition, moves away from the humanly satisfying even while it remains a curiously attractive piece of writing. It establishes a tone that is characteristic both of the empiricist tradition I have been outlining and Darwin's later work. For the personal charm of this lies in the bold, direct way it asserts facts not satisfying to the human, and by the way it draws a conclusion explicitly destructive of "poetry." The previous "scientific" explanations are reduced to "poetry" because they have been distorted by the requirements of human aesthetic pleasure, and the sentence anticipates the precise form of Darwin's anesthesia. In the great tradition of positivist objectivity, Darwin here manifests a quality all the more essential in his theory of natural selection: the selfless affirmation of uncomfortable truth.
In natural selection, as I have suggested, these tendencies in Darwin culminate. Natural selection might be regarded as a machine for grinding life out of vast accumulations of death. It is an inhuman system that has strangely human powers - rather like those of the scientist. The suggestion that panoptic "natural selection" is very much like the ideal scientist of positivist imagination has been developed brilliantly by Phillip Barrish.(44) We need only note that its greatest powers are of observation, and it should be remembered that the only special power Darwin attributes to himself in his autobiography is the power of observation; through observation, natural selection conducts experiments and after much trial and error selects variations that will serve the ends of the species. It is crucial to Darwin and his theory that natural selection works - like the scientist - without self-interest. Its only concern is for the species on which it is operating, and nothing that it performs is, in other than accidental ways, for the sake of anything but the varying species. It is utterly rigorous, total, and without humanity. Like the observing scientist, it will kill and perform horrors for the sake of its experiments in life.
It was, Darwin surely believed, the antidote to natural theology, whose observant being was God himself; and God acted always with a special moral interest, always for the sake of His highest creature and, by inference, His own self-celebration through that creature. The problem with natural theology was not only that it disrupted science, as Darwin understood it, by making its appeal to a transcendent and intrusive force that could not be explained in terms of secondary causes, but that it was arrogant and self - interested. It was bad science because its point was to satisfy human desires and because it placed the human at the center of the natural world. For his part, Darwin always had trouble even with the question of what constituted "higher" and "lower" biological forms: "It appears to me that an unavoidable wish to compare all animals with men as supreme, causes some confusion; & I think that nothing besides some such vague comparison is intended, or perhaps is even possible, when the question is whether two kingdoms such as the articulata or mollusca are the highest" (C V, 197). He could not accept the idea that the natural world existed in the service of the human, and that all things in it pointed to the human. Real morality - in keeping with the objectivity required in empiricist epistemology - entailed the dropping of personal interest, the willingness to accept bad news from nature, the humility to accept secondariness and the evidence of experience, experiment, and accumulated fact. With natural selection, nature's narrative moves from stories that satisfy human wishes to stories that deny them.
That Darwin knew the pain and violence implicit in this openness and passivity is suggested in the well-known letter he wrote to Joseph Hooker announcing his belief in the mutation of species:
I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one. - I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact. which cd bear any way on what are species. - I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts - At least gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable ... I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends. You will now groan, & think to yourself "on what a man have I been wasting my time writing to." (C III, 2; my italics)
The epistemological assumptions implicit in the self-characterization here are directly to the point of my argument. Darwin is driven to the murder his theory perpetrates by the heap of facts. This is the morality of objectivity, for Darwin is morally and epistemologically committed to the idea that one must surrender to the requirement of fact even when that surrender feels like murder. He knows that the surrender will appear "presumptuous," but the presumption is to be understood as impersonal. Having begun with the conventional belief in the immutability of species, he is driven by the facts to the reverse conclusion. Darwin has in effect murdered through observation; the "simple way" he cryptically alludes to in the letter is, of course, natural selection, which is itself a murderer. One arrives at this violence not by choice but by the necessities of fact. And Darwin's "nature" takes on all the qualities of scientific methodology.
I have elsewhere pointed out how the Origin begins with Darwin describing how he was "struck" by a point and then "driven to conclude."(45) The locution is no accident but a stylistic choice representative of Darwin's scientific method, a method that entails the irrelevance of personal choice. Darwin is not responsible for the murder; nature is. The facts strike us. "When on board the H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist," the Origin begins, "I was much struck with certain facts."(46) Thus, even when Darwin is personally present in the prose, he is humanly absent from its conclusions. The accumulation of facts, which as a grinding machine he transforms into general laws, are responsible, he tells Hooker, for his loss of belief in immutability.
The problem with Darwin's antidote to natural theology was that although it was designed to eliminate mind from nature, and in this respect acted out substantively the implications of the dominant tradition of modern science since Bacon, he could only imagine it in terms that still sounded oddly human and intentional. The history of his various attempts to repress the personal suggests how central to his imagination and his scientific practice the personal was, how far he actually was from the passive, impersonal figure he imagined and probably wanted himself to be.
His earliest attempts to describe natural selection are contaminated by metaphors of personification: it was too highly developed a self, and one of Darwin's major tasks was to dehumanize natural selection as he had tried to dehumanize the scientific project. As the scientist must shuck off all normal feelings and desires, so natural selection had to be seen not as a "being" with intentions but as an inhuman force.
As many commentators have noted, especially since the important work of Dov Ospovat,(47) Darwin was much closer to natural theology than his antagonism to it would suggest. Even in the letter to Hooker, he talks of "exquisitely adapted" species. His closeness to that analogical tradition was intensified by his daring attempt to make his case for natural selection on the model of domestic selection. This he does at every stage of writing out his argument. In the 1842 draft of Origin, for example, he asks, "Who, seeing how plants vary in garden, what blind foolish man has done in a few years, will deny an all-seeing being in thousands of years could effect (if the Creator chose to do so) either by his own direct foresight or by any intermediate means."(48) More elaborately, in the 1844 draft, he is quite explicit: "Let us suppose a Being with penetration sufficient to perceive differences in the outer and innermost organization quite unperceptible to man" (66). The pronoun with which Darwin refers to this being is "he," and "he" is impressively characterized: with discrimination, forethought, steadiness of object, all "incomparably greater than those qualities in man." With time enough, Darwin says, "such a Being might rationally (without some law opposed him) aim at almost any result" (66).
There are obvious difficulties in this sort of personification for a scientist who is considering whether there "exists any secondary means in the economy of nature by which the process of selection could go on adapting, nicely and wonderfully, organisms, if in ever so small a degree plastic, to divers ends. I believe such secondary means do exist" (67). Fifteen years later, in the Origin, some recognition of the problem is evident, but the transformation does not significantly diminish the sense of a being at work. Now, however, the being is called "Natural Selection," or "Nature" itself; and now it is a she. Note that the traditional treatment of nature as feminine does not make natural selection any less the scientist: "As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends" (O 132). And then comes a passage that allies nature more fully with science itself, and makes it difficult to escape its personality: "It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life" (O 133). The language here is still deeply infected with the language of natural theology, and natural selection is made to seem a much nicer person than she is. But she is very much a scientist. What is necessary is the ultimate obliteration of personality, and the closest Darwin can come to this is when, aware of criticisms of his personification and the way this might threaten his antiteleological arguments, he faces up to his involvement with metaphors. And so in later editions he interrupts his discussion of what nature can do in order to depersonalize and dehumanize it: "if I may be allowed to personify the natural preservation or survival of the fittest.... It may metaphorically be said"' his revision goes, "that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations."(49)
In Darwin's career, then, there is a constant tension between the ideal of self-annihilation and what one might almost call an instinct for personal engagement. Both give access to nature, but the nature revealed by the objective, self-effacing scientist is itself murderous; the nature with which Darwin continues to engage movingly for his entire life is a nature full of unsystemic richness, variety, complexity, and wonder that is deeply and personally satisfying. Part of what continues to make Darwin attractive to nonscientific readers is the degree to which he allows himself, as personal presence, to affirm his feelings and his excitement. But natural selection and thus nature itself increasingly come to embody the scientific ideal - the capacity to explain and understand all phenomena; to that end, absolute powers of observation, relentlessly, doggedly employed; constant experimentation at the expense of organic life, but paradoxically in the interest of a more general good; separation of the being who desires from the scientist who creates; self-obliteration and a paradoxical moral and intellectual power that comes with it; death of the self and death of the objects observed. Natural selection becomes both scientist and God.
The separation of subject and object, desire and nature, produces, then, a world that is humanly satisfying apparently only in that it can be explained systematically by the working of causes now in operation. Such a world produces crises of its own, and its separation of meaning from value runs counter not only to the romantic project but to the central intellectual activity of the Victorians. Darwin's nature was only the most obvious symptom of this mortal separation - this fall, as it may reasonably be called; but it tends to be this aspect of Darwin that emerges from the dominant narratives of the last half of the century. It is, however, still possible to trace, particularly in Victorian narrative, attempts to overcome the cool hostility of nature to human feeling. To do that it was necessary to imagine a way of knowing that allowed the possibility of life, not death, of feeling, not machine-like grinding.
As epilogue, then, I will look briefly at one such narrative attempt, a passage from George Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda. I believe that in this book George Eliot partly anticipates the efforts of contemporary feminists to imagine a human and life-affirming epistemology, one that recognizes personal agency and local condition. Characteristically, for George Eliot, the entrance is through feeling.(50) Daniel Deronda seeks to affirm a mode of objectivity without, as it were, its deadly side effects.
Obviously there were many other projects being worked out in this novel, but the question of a new kind of knowledge is central to all of them. For George Eliot, knowledge was always an aspect of behavior. To act correctly one needed to know precisely, and her novels frequently chronicle both the resistance of characters to knowing and their refusal to allow what they know to alter what they do. Her novels are thus full of nemesis, the avenging force of repressed knowledge that will, inevitably, make itself known and will expose or provoke and end in catastrophe. Thus they are self-consciously positivistic, conflating moral selflessness with epistemological openness in just the ways those qualities have been implicit in the empiricist ideal from the start.
But in Daniel Deronda she explicitly challenges that ideal. In Daniel's questioning of Mordecai, the Jewish prophet seeking a disciple, we see the challenge:
Was such a temper of mind likely to accompany that wise estimate of consequences which is the only safeguard from fatal error, even to ennobling motive? But it remained to be seen whether that rare conjunction existed or not in Mordecai: perhaps his might be one of the natures where a wise estimate of consequences is fused in the fires of that passionate belief which determines the consequences it believes in. The inspirations of the world have come in that way too: even strictly measuring science could hardly have got on without that forecasting ardour which feels the agitations of discovery beforehand, and has a faith in its preconception that surmounts many failures of experiment. And in relation to human motives and actions, passionate belief has a fuller efficacy. Here enthusiasm may have the validity of proof, and, happening in one soul, give the type of what will one day be general.(51)
This passage suggests a truer reading of the way Darwin's theory actually developed than his own reading of it. That is, George Eliot emphasizes the passionate sources of "strictly measuring science," and in naming "that forecasting ardour which feels the agitation of discovery beforehand" she finds an explanation for those Notebooks full not of accumulations of fact but of guesses, speculations, and intuitions. Darwin knows before he knows. And in pushing that very human possibility into the mode of the prophet, George Eliot connects the scientific enterprise with human life and reaffirms the possibility of connection between knowledge and value. Here is her dream of a positivism beyond Positivism, a new epistemology that grants authority, at last, to passion and desire, to the human and the living, rather than to disinterest and objectivity, the transcendent and the dead.
(1) The questions of narrative and feminism with which I am concerned here come together suggestively in Gillian Beer's "Beyond Determinism: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf," in her Arguing with the Past (London, 1989), pp. 117-37. (2) Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon, tr. Colin Gordon et al. (New York, 1980), p. 156. (3) See Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionayy Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London, 1983), pp. 34-36. (4) For an excellent discussion of this movement of Darwin's thought on these matters, see James Paradis, "Darwin and Landscape," in Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives, ed. James Paradis and Thomas Postlethwaite (New York, 1981), pp. 85-110. (5) The Concordance to Darwin's "Origin of Species," ed. Paul H. Barrett, Donald J. Weinshank, and Timothy T. Gottleber (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), lists twenty-seven uses of "wonderful," in this way, seven of "wonderfully" and one of "wondrous." There are six uses of "wonder" in ways related to my discussion of that concept below. (6) Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, in The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organon, ed. John Devey (London, 1889), Bk. I, p. 30. (7) Francis Bacon, Novum Organon, in The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organon, Bk. 1, p. 429. (8) See John Herschel, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (Chicago, 1987), pp. 67-84. To be fair, there is a tradition of thought about scientific knowledge that has always included an idea of the human contribution to it. William Whewell, working with ideas he borrowed from Kant, builds his monumental History of the Inductive Sciences and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences on this idea. "True knowledge," Whewell says in his introduction to History, "requires both the interpreting mind, and nature for its subject" (William Whewell, William Whewell: Selected Writings on the History of Science, ed. Yehuda Elkana [Chicago, 1984], p. 6). While regarding science as primarily an "inductive" science, Whewell did not abjure hypotheses, and he emphasized the crucial importance of interpretation in scientific activity. The consequence of this emphasis is that the idea of objectivity does not entail radical alienation of mind from nature as it does in the dominant forms of the English empiricist tradition. (9) "Locke's modesty and simplicity, those qualities he assigns to his work and to himself, are in the service of a comprehensive polemic directed at virtually the entire intellectual world of his time" (John Richetti, Philosophical Writing: Locke, Berkeley, Hume [Cambridge, Mass., 1983], p. 53). (10) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Andrew S. Pringle-Pattison (Oxford, 1924), p. 126; hereafter cited in text. (11) Alison M. Jaggar, "Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology," in Gender/body/knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo (New Brunswick, N.J., 1989, p. 158. (12) Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1986), p. 136. (13) Evelyn Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, 1985), p. 12. (14) For major discussions of the limits of deconstructive critique and the necessity for a new epistemology that would disrupt conventional ways of thinking and knowing while both recognizing a real (or many reals) and denying universality, see Donna Haraway's two essays: "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's," Socialist Review, 15, no. 80 (Mar. 1985), 65-142; and "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), 575-99. (15) As John Richetti points out, Locke, in his critique of the old terminology of scholastic argument, suggests that "its main weakness is actually moral" (Philosophical Writing, p. 55). (16) George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, ed. Antonia S. Byatt (Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 381. (17) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, ed. Charles F. Harrold (New York, 1937), p. 191. (18) John Keats, Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 Oct. 1818, in Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston, 1959), pp. 279-80. (19) Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864), rpt. in Lectures and Essays in Criticism (Ann Arbor, 1962), vol. 3 of The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super, p. 283. (20) Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (New York, 1957), p. 2. (21) William Whewell, from History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Time, rpt. in William Whewell: Selected Writings on the History of Science, p. 63. (22) A characteristic of the way writers about science, from Bacon to Comte to Herschel to Huxley, write the history of scientific knowledge in the West is that they see a continuing movement away from the brute animality of mankind, imposing its desires on nature, toward an almost entirely spiritual condition in which the ape and tiger die and are replaced by pure thought. This narrative holds even for those who might be called "materialist," like Feuerbach. (23) Auguste Comte, Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings, ed. Gertrud Lenzer (New York, 1975), p. 80. (24) Peter Allan Dale, In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art, and Society in the Victorian Age (Madison, Wis., 1989), p. 19. (25) Comte, August Comte and Positivism, p. 213. (26) Thomas H. Huxley, "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History," in his Method and Results (London, 1893), p. 244. (27) Karl Pearson, A Grammar of Science (London, 1937), p. 11; hereafter cited in text. (28) For an extended discussion of positivism as an answer to romanticism in a quest for a total vision of nature, experience, and knowledge, see Dale, In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture, esp. pp. 5-12. (29) Rom Harre, Varieties of Realism: A Rationale for the Natural Sciences (Oxford, 1986), p. 1. (30) Of course, in the more strictly scientific formulations, the extreme demands of self-annihilation or self-alienation are not explicitly made. But notice how Herschel extends the Baconian proscription of "idols" in this way: "there is one preliminary step to make, which depends wholly on ourself: it is the absolute dismissal and clearing the mind of all prejudice, from whatever source arising, and the determination to stand and fall by the result of a direct appeal to facts in the first instance, and of strict logical deduction from them afterwards" (Herschel, Preliminary Discourse of the Study of Natural Philosophy, p. 81). (31) John Tyndall, Fragments of Science (New York, 1899), II, 179-80. (32) Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York, 1958), p. 139; hereafter cited in text. (33) See Charles Darwin, "Appendix III: Darwin's Observations on his Children," in vol. 4 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 410-33, hereafter cited in text as OC; see also his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872). (34) Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, Editor's Introduction to "Appendix III: Darwin's Observations on his Children," p. 410. (35) The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, 7 vols. (Cambridge, 1985- ), V, 63; hereafter cited in text by volume and page number as C. (36) See Donald Fleming, "Charles Darwin, the Anaesthetic Man," Victorian Studies, 4 (1961), 219-36. (37) Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits (London, 1883), p. 316. (38) Howard Gruber, "Going the Limit: Toward the Construction of Darwin's Theory (1832-1839)," in The Darwinian Heritage, ed. David Kohn (Princeton, 1985), p. 32. (39) Paradis, "Darwin and Landscape," pp. 85, 101. (40) For one of the most interesting and polemical studies of Darwin's thought in this respect, see Michael Ghiselin, The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (Chicago, 1969). Ghiselin also argues - correctly, I believe - that Darwin's "entire scientific accomplishment must be attributed not to the collection of facts, but to the development of theory" (p. 4). (41) Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844, ed. Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, David Kohn, Sydney Smith (Ithaca, N.Y., 1987), p. 63; hereafter cited in text as N. (42) Paradis, "Darwin and Landscape," p. 95. See Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, ed. Nora Barlow (Cambridge, 1933). (43) Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (New York, 1962), p. 9; hereafter cited in text as V. (44) See Phillip Barrish, "Accumulating Variation: Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory," Victorian Studies, 34 (1991), 431-54. (45) See George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), p. 214. (46) Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, ed. John R. Burrow (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 2; hereafter cited in text as O. (47) See Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838-1859 (Cambridge, 1981). (48) Charles Darwin, Foundation of the Origin of Species, ed. Francis Darwin (New York, 1986), p. 5; hereafter cited in text. (49) Darwin, Origin of Species, 6th ed. (1872; rpt. New York, 1958), p. 90. (50) The word feeling, for George Eliot, and the concept itself, had a larger than sentimental meaning. It was connected with the very foundations of knowledge, as George Henry Lewes articulated the point in his Problems of life and Mind (London, 1874-79). And it belonged, too, through Lewes and Comte, to a positivist tradition in which the ethical and epistemological frankly converge. (51) George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ed. Barbara Hardy (Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 571.
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|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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