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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 final causes, while believers pray to God to modify miraculously the course of everyday causality. Psychiatrists struggle to discover why their patients become ill, just as historians investigate why wars break out and why civilizations rise and fall. Novelists build stories around motivation, which is the driving force for their characters’ thoughts and actions. Causality is thus a centerpiece of the inquiring human mind, so fundamental to human understanding and so universal in its explanatory function that it would seem to transcend any historical development. This book ventures into such a history.

In the years since 1830, European and American thinkers transformed understanding of the causes of human behavior. These changes are evident in novels as well as in genetics, endocrinology, physiology, medicine, psychiatry, linguistics, sociology, economics, statistics, criminology, law, philosophy, and physics. Other researchers have studied changing ideas about causality in these specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as my book undertakes to do.

The thought of writing a history of causality first occurred to me in 1970, when I read an article by Henri Ellenberger on three types of mental illness that philosophically oriented psychiatrists interpreted in terms of defining causal modes. a causality of determinism dominates the depressed person, for whom everything seems to result from the pressure of circumstances over which he or she has no control. a causality of chance dominates the manic, for whom nothing happens according to any deterministic order and the future looms fraught with possibility—unpredictable and anxiety-provoking. a causality of intentionality . . .

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