Apr/May 2009

Breeding Is Fundamental

Jenny Davidson reflects on Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibility

Peter Gay


In the course of a long career, I have read many books and reviewed a sizable number of them, but I have never encountered a title quite so felicitous as that of Jenny Davidson’s Breeding. Its subtitle, A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century, is equally ambiguous: The word breeding embraces the work of nature as well as that of nurture in the making of humans; partial is synonymous, on the one hand, with partisan or one-sided and, on the other, with imperfect or incomplete. These are the two double meanings Davidson explores, only to conclude that during the eighteenth century, her special field, breeding meant both human qualities imposed by heredity and those added to original endowment by knowledge. As for inequality versus incompleteness, the author frankly confesses to having been confronted by both risks and opportunities. In short, she engages in what she calls a “nuance exercise.”

This activity involves a string of comments, on texts famous and overlooked, that readers are bound to welcome: a survey of important commonplaces and their fates. Expanding her canvas into the seventeenth century, Davidson finds space for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale before largely concentrating on the Age of Enlightenment and its critics. Why do children look like their fathers—or why was it generally supposed that they do? Was John Locke right to consider newborn infants blank slates on which experience inscribes its all-powerful markers? What, if anything, can we learn from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the character’s episodes in isolation? What are we to make of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notorious Second Discourse, that on inequality? How do we judge, after centuries of pedagogical experiments, the educational theories of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, William Godwin, Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet, and Thomas Jefferson, especially when we encounter racial mixing in the United States? Should we rethink our—shall we call them naively positive?—judgments on the Enlightenment?

These are serious and highly contentious questions that have not yet been answered, or rather have been answered in incompatible ways. In taking a quick look at present-day controversies first raised in the century of the Enlightenment, Davidson goes after Steven Pinker, a prolific author and a psychologist. What partly displeases Davidson is what she calls his “intellectual bullying,” for which she (quite rightly) confesses a “temperamental dislike.” Pinker, she argues—and documents—“seriously misrepresents Locke’s notion of the blank slate.” In rebuttal, she quotes Locke at some length from his fundamental treatise, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), and from one of his most influential books, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). It is true, she notes, that Locke is correctly quoted to the effect that the human mind starts out as “white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas,” and that whatever reason and knowledge an individual may accumulate are, “in one word, From Experience.” Yet Locke says often that “there is such a difference between Men, in respect of their Understandings, I think no body, who has had any Conversation with his Neighbours, will question: though he never was at Westminster-hall, or the Exchange on the one hand; nor at Alms-Houses, or Bedlam on the other.” Whatever the cause for such striking differences may be, “Only this is evident, that there is a difference of degrees in Men’s Understandings, Apprehensions, and Reasonings, to so great a latitude, that one may, without doing injury to Mankind, affirm, that there is a greater distance between some Men, and others, in this respect, than between some Men and some Beasts.” Breeding is not simply a polemic. Davidson drops in a few more writers, such as Swift and Smollett, notably when they prop up her argument, formally or informally. Then she has Pinker, her principal target, appear only twice more for dressing-downs, and that is all we will hear of him. (So much for Pinker, then.)

Davidson’s book is above all a personal account. It is strewn with private moments publicly discussed. “I will say only a few words,” she writes in one place. “It seems to me,” she writes in another, and again: “One thing that became disconcertingly clear to me over the course of writing this book.” Such deliberate interjections—and there are quite a few of them—work to establish a cordial relationship between author and audience. The large problem that remains is whether Davidson is a trustworthy guide to the variety of treasures she spreads out for the reader. To begin with, she quotes her sources often and at some length. What is more, she shows herself a careful student of the material. The most impressive evidence on her behalf emerges in her treatment of Rousseau, who has been casually misquoted for many decades. One of Davidson’s complaints about Pinker notes his “reductive invocations of the Blank Slate and Noble Savage.” On the issue of the blank slate, Rousseau has been, as she observes, “often lumped together” with Locke, and quite as mistakenly. As far as the noble savage is concerned, that phrase is from Dryden and does not appear in Rousseau’s writings. In the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up. In short, Davidson has written a dependable study of her chosen century.

Where, then, does this leave the Enlightenment? This is a crucial question and a subject I find implied in Davidson’s text as a whole. She rather skirts this issue until the end of the book—my one criticism of Breeding. (Though I am in some sense grateful that she does largely bypass it, because she refers to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment—to my mind the most mischievous distortion of the Enlightenment and its legacy ever written—as “influential,” even “iconic,” and so her treatment might have been problematic in its own charming way.)

For all her wit and determined informality, then, Davidson leaves this final question unresolved. She explicitly disclaims wanting to put the Enlightenment on trial, and that disclaimer can only be welcome. But this modesty does not seem to me sufficient. In an important essay from 1990, not as well known as it should be, the historian Thomas L. Haskell argued that “objectivity is not neutrality.” If the coolest, most disinterested evaluation of a person’s or a movement’s career yields mainly favorable or mainly unfavorable results, the thoroughly well-informed historian has a professional duty not to sacrifice his or her solidly grounded views to the mistaken ideal of neutrality. The most highly developed sense of fairness asks for opinions precisely from the expert who knows what he or she is talking about.

The same demand faces the student of the Enlightenment. For too long, some historians have made generalizations that careful investigation will show to be uninformed or on the whole unjustified. Take the philosophes’ presumed foolish, or at least naive, optimism, luxuriating in the prospect of perfection. The most principled optimist among the writers of the Enlightenment was no doubt Condorcet, with his carefully developed thesis that progress is inherent in human affairs. But he saw his present time—the early 1790s in France—as ridden with misery and deprivation. Progress was in the long run bound to win out, but as John Maynard Keynes well said less than a century ago, “In the long run we are all dead,” an observation Condorcet would have had no good reason to debate. He did not deny that suffering, so visible and present, would still be the lot of most humans for decades, probably centuries, to come. Moreover, Turgot was the only philosophe (and then only in a single essay) to join him in developing a metaphysical theory of progress. One does not find it in Voltaire or Hume, and while nearly all philosophes would have agreed that trust in science rather than in superstition (that is to say, religion) would be sure to bring progress, they would never have said it would guarantee perfection.

Similar sensible restrictions apply to other generalizations wished on the Enlightenment’s cardinal ideas. The philosophes were more mature and levelheaded than they have been credited as being, and their commitment to science and reason (pace Horkheimer and Adorno) does not make them ancestors of mass murderers. Had Davidson gone a bit further with her investigations, she would, I am persuaded, have joined my party in her elegant study.

Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (Norton, 2007).

Advertisement