Thesis ID: CBB001560658

The Content of Instinct: Fiction, Liberalism, and the Sciences of Sexuality, 1870--1900 (2008)


Frederickson, Kathleen (Author)

University of Chicago
Helsinger, Elizabeth
Hadley, Elaine

Publication Date: 2008
Edition Details: Advisor: Helsinger, Elizabeth; Hadley, Elaine
Physical Details: 213 pp.
Language: English

This dissertation examines late-Victorian fiction, ethnology, science, and political theory in order to understand how the concept of instinct was mobilized to sustain liberal ideologies. Instinct, I argue, steps in at liberalism's most fraught and incoherent moments in order, first, to allow a means of distinguishing the agency of self-determining, intentional subjects from that of others deemed unworthy of the label; and, second, to act as a an explanatory stopgap when narratives about the psychological mechanisms of key liberal terms such as a reason, will, and desire seem contradictory or unfounded. Instinct was integral to working through such questions because it was thought to confer a knowledge-equivalent independent of either empirical experience or the formal rules of ratiocination. I make this argument by bringing late-century novels such as Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, George Gissing's The Nether World, and Mona Caird's The Daughters of Danaüs into conversation with non-literary materials such as legal and parliamentary papers about the regulation of obscenity, pornographic fiction ( My Secret Life ), ethnological monographs about indigenous Australia, treatises on political economy, as well as scientific texts in evolutionary theory, psychology, sexology, and early psychoanalysis. Most nineteenth-century writers agreed that instinctive agents could, by definition, perform a felicitous action perfectly but could not know why the action was effective, or why they undertook the activity in the first place. Usually a retroactive projection from the category for which it substitutes, instinct appears during this period as mimicking the activity of terms such as reason, will, and desire but with the qualities of self-consciousness and hypostatised knowledge subtracted. I argue that substituting instinct in this way allows the late-Victorians to valorize a temporality consistent with liberal models of gradual progressive change. Because instinct in these models is both recalcitrant to instruction (being antithetical to individual experience) and liable to evolutionary variation, it institutes a dual structure--these "savages" may not be teachable, but their kids might well be-- that maintains a perpetual justificatory horizon for liberal aspiration while simultaneously re-entrenching in immediate practical terms the distinctions between groups of people upon which such models are founded.


Description “Examines late-Victorian fiction, ethnology, science, and political theory in order to understand how the concept of instinct was mobilized to sustain liberal ideologies.” (from the abstract) Cited in Diss. Abstr. Int. A 69/04 (2008). Pub. no. AAT 3309035.

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Authors & Contributors
Henchman, Anna Alexandra
Scarry, Elaine
Fisher, Philip
Law, Jules
Lane, Christopher
Noon, David Hoogland
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Victorian Studies
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Harvard University
University of Massachusetts Press
Oxford University Press
University of Toronto
New York University
Science and literature
Science and gender
Hardy, Thomas
Eliot, George
Collins, Wilkie
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord
Tylor, Edward Burnett
Dickens, Charles
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
Great Britain

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