Stimulus and Response: Behaviorism, Tropisms, and Twentieth-Century French Thought and Literature

By Kemp, Simon | The Romanic Review, May-November 2014 | Go to article overview

Stimulus and Response: Behaviorism, Tropisms, and Twentieth-Century French Thought and Literature


Kemp, Simon, The Romanic Review


Literary criticism's model of choice for the understanding of fictional minds has been, at least until recent cognitive and evolutionary incursions, primarily psychoanalytic. While French literature itself has had many dealings with Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis over the last century, for instance, in the work of Andre Breton, Serge Doubrovsky, and Marie Cardinal, other conceptions of the mind emerging from science, philosophy, and religion have also made their mark on literary culture, and the individual characteristics of these alternatives are not always well served by interpretations using a psychoanalytic framework. One of the most influential and controversial of these other theories of human nature in the twentieth century was behaviorism, which dominated scientific psychology in the postwar decades. As a scientific theory, it was championed in France by the sociologist and intellectual Pierre Naville, who may have been instrumental in bringing it to the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in whose philosophy it is discussed in detail. As a cultural force, it was the critic Claude-Edmonde Magny who first drew awareness to its possible influence, along with cinema, on the "externalist" American novels of the 1940s, which were to have a major influence on French writers like Sartre and Albert Camus. Andre Gide makes reference to the scientific origins of the movement in his fiction, albeit dismissively, and Nathalie Sarraute not only discusses behaviorism and its cultural manifestations extensively in her essays but employs its foundational concept, the tropism, prominently throughout her fiction. Sarraute's relationship to behaviorism is one of the most interesting in the period, since it combines condemnation of what she sees as the "behaviorist novel" in American and French literature with adoption in her own writing of other psychological doctrines that might also be considered behaviorist. This article explores the impact of the behaviorist theory of mind on French literature and culture, and in doing so uncovers a significant mismatch between the "behaviorist novel" as it has been narrowly conceived and the broader theories of behaviorism as a movement within psychology. Understanding this disparity permits us to reconsider the validity of the label "behaviorist" with regard to mid-twentieth-century authors, and notably among European writers, Camus, Sartre, and Sarraute.

Behaviorism's rise to prominence spans three generations, and in those generations its doctrines were principally developed and disseminated by three notable scientists. Jacques Loeb (1859-1924) was the precursor, in whose work many of the movement's main ideas are already formulated; his student John B. Watson (1878-1958) is often referred to as the "father" of behaviorism for founding and naming the movement and setting out its central tenets; and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), inspired by Watson's work, became the radicalizer, popularizer, and leader of the discipline at the height of its midcentury fame. It is with Loeb that animal tropisms originate. The term tropism existed previously in botany, back-formed from more specific terms for responses to stimulus, such as heliotropism, the tendency of plants to grow toward a light source, and geotropism, the response to gravity in orienting the plant's structure. Loeb experimented with light sensitivity in caterpillars and other invertebrates, arguing that the tropistic process was identical to that observed in plants, from which he drew the conclusion that "heliotropic animals are therefore in reality photometric machines" (41). Through these findings, his research into artificial parthenogenesis, and his experiments on conditioned responses that mirrored in invertebrates the work simultaneously being carried out on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, Loeb hoped to banish mystical conceptions of elan vital from the understanding of animal life, and he was not cautious about speculating on the possible implications for humanity:

   Our wishes and hopes, disappointments and sufferings have their
   source in instincts which are comparable to the light instinct of
   the heliotropic animals. … 

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