Caleb's Unreasonable Doubt

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This essay considers the doubt and its relation to desire as explored in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). It argues that the novel’s interest in doubt, and particularly its interest in how doubt organizes legal inquiry, should be read in dialogue with a form of legal doubt adopted within eighteenth-century legal epistemology as a response to problem of legal judgment under uncertainty and now crystallized in the “beyond reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard that continues to organize legal proof in Anglophone law. The essay considers how the novel’s insistence on the ways desire conditions doubt subverts the claims to “disinterestedness” and “reasonableness” that recommend “reasonable doubt” as legitimate and adequate response to the risks posed by judgment under uncertainty. The novel’s ironic treatment of “reasonable doubt” exposes how reasonable doubt is itself conditioned by an “unreasonable” desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment despite these risks and how this unreasonable, conservative desire ultimately compromises its ability to assess and respond to uncertainty. Through Caleb’s “unreasonable doubt” and the reader’s “doubt-as-suspense,” the novel pursues doubt as raw, affective excess -- doubt as it exists “before” it is disciplined or conditioned by skepticism -- in an attempt to expose the basis of doubt in unreasonable, inaccessible desire and, thus, to call into question its legitimacy as a ground for legal judgment. The essay’s coda considers how the doubt “before skepticism” pursued by Caleb Williams might be generalized as a form of “Romantic doubt” and, further, how this “Romantic doubt” allows us to reimagine the relation of Romanticism and skepticism.

Caleb’s Unreasonable Doubt

Adam Sneed
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

1.         In this essay I want to consider doubt and its relation to desire as explored in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), by which I mean not only how doubt could be said to produce or be attended by different forms of desire (for instance, the desire to resolve doubt into certainty), but also how different forms of desire condition different forms of doubt, and, even more strikingly, how doubt itself constitutes a form of desire in the novel. Since the novel’s exploration of doubt also focuses on how doubt organizes legal inquiry (for example, into Tyrrel’s murder or Falkland’s guilt), I also want to consider how the novel’s treatment of doubt is in conversation with a form of legal doubt that, by the late eighteenth century, had emerged as a central strategy within legal epistemology for addressing the problem of legal judgment in the face of imperfect evidence. Indeed, that rational, procedural form of doubt remains crystallized in the familiar “beyond reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard, which first emerged in common law practice in the late eighteenth-century and which continues to organize legal proof in American criminal law. Much has already been written about the novel’s explicit thematization of legal judgment as well as its incorporation of various legal frameworks—for instance, the frameworks of testimony and trial—within its narrative form. [1]  Given the central role of doubt in the legal theory of the period, the novel’s emphasis on the role of doubt in assessing Falkland’s case could be regarded as part and parcel of its appropriation of this broader legal framework. However, in this essay I intend to concentrate on how the novel’s insistence on the relation of doubt and desire ultimately works to subvert this form of legal doubt by exposing the desires that condition it and thus upending assumptions regarding its disinterested and reasonable character.

2.        To begin to develop these claims, we might turn to Godwin’s suggestive remark in his 1831 advertisement to St. Leon that it was, in part, “the state of doubt in which the reader might for a time be as to the truth of [Caleb’s] charges” against Falkland that made Caleb Williams “a narrative of no uncommon interest” (St. Leon v). It is a remark that testifies as much to the centrality of the trial framework to the novel’s form as it does to the centrality of procedural doubt within that legal framework. And yet Godwin does not assume the reader’s state of doubt to reflect the kind of disinterestedness we might expect or even demand from a judge or jury member reviewing Falkland’s case. Rather, it is a sign of the reader’s “uncommon”—that is, extraordinary or even excessive—interest in Falkland’s case. This is doubt as suspense, not suspension. It heats up rather than cools down judgment. In this sense, the character of the reader’s doubt could be said to have a closer affinity with Caleb’s doubts and suspicions about Falkland; it reproduces Caleb’s doubt-as-suspense. [2]  At the same time, however, the reader’s doubt also appears to constitute a negative recoil from Caleb’s suspicions. Here again Godwin’s retrospective remark is suggestive since Godwin assumes the reader’s doubt to center on the “truth of [the] charges” put forward by Caleb rather than directly on the facts of Falkland’s case—or, in Godwin’s terms from the same advertisement, not on Falkland’s “atrocious crime” itself but on the “annoyance [Falkland] suffers from the immeasurable and ever-wakeful curiosity of a raw youth” (v). In other words, it is a question of the merit or grounds of Caleb’s suspicion, a question that includes but also exceeds the question of Falkland’s actual guilt. Although Godwin seems to assume that the reader’s doubts only exist “for a time” (presumably until Falkland confesses), the novel’s ethical difficulty and sophistication would seem to hinge on the fact that the reader’s doubts about the “truth” of Caleb’s charges – again, in this sense of their warrant, of the legitimacy of Caleb’s grounds for making them – remain long after the factual certainty of Falkland’s guilt is established. The reader’s doubt does not ultimately register a dispute about the facts of Falkland’s case but rather a dissatisfaction with the moral ambivalence of Caleb’s doubt. On one hand, it seems evident that Caleb’s doubt about Falkland’s innocence is hardly grounded in a disinterested desire for legal justice. Instead, his doubt seems grounded in an excessive, indeterminate form of desire. On the other hand, Caleb’s doubt, however compromised by desire, somehow succeeds in discovering Falkland’s guilt where the supposedly disinterested procedural doubt of the legal system fails. In this sense, the reader’s dissatisfaction with Caleb’s doubt is compounded by an equal dissatisfaction with the legal system, whose form of legal doubt appears no less compromised. To complicate matters even further, the affinities between the reader’s and Caleb’s doubt make it so that any dissatisfaction the reader may have with Caleb’s doubt also amounts to a negative recoil from her own doubt-as-suspense, a recognition of how this affective excess similarly compromises any claim the reader has to disinterested judgment. This compounding dissatisfaction should be seen as an emergent effect and instrument of the novel’s negativity, one which turns doubt upon itself to interrogate a certain faith in doubt’s reliability as a disinterested ground for judgment under uncertainty.

Constructive Skepticism and Reasonable Doubt

3.        While the novel’s pursuit of doubt as desire engages most directly with the legal form of “reasonable doubt” I have described above, it should also be seen as engaging with and commenting on a more widespread embrace of rational skeptical procedures as a viable response to the problem of judgment under uncertainty in the period. As Barbara Shapiro notes in her discussion of eighteenth-century legal theory, because legal theorists assumed a fundamental similarity between legal and everyday reasoning, eighteenth-century legal epistemology should not be understood as distinct from the general epistemology of the period. Rather it should be viewed largely as an attempt to apply the most current epistemological theory to specific legal problems (Shapiro, Beyond Reasonable Doubt 19, 38). As Shapiro observes, long before the phrase “reasonable doubt” emerged in the common law court, it formed the cornerstone of a broad epistemological program that united philosophers and divines of various stripes around the premise that, despite epistemological uncertainty, “reasonable men, employing their senses and rational faculties, could derive truths that they would have no reason to doubt” (Beyond Reasonable Doubt 7). In this essay I will refer to this broader philosophical program as “constructive skepticism” following Henry van Leeuwen and Jamie Ferreira who have examined its origins in the probabilistic epistemologies of the late-seventeenth century philosophers John Tillotson, John Wilkins, and to some extent, John Locke. [3]  The program is “skeptical” in the sense that it acknowledges the fact of epistemological uncertainty and “constructive” in the sense that it rejects that this basic fact should have any radical implications regarding our ability to arrive at degrees of “moral certainty” sufficient to justify practical action and judgment (Ferreira 2–4). Put another way, while constructive skepticism accepts the skeptical premise that we are unable to attain certain knowledge about matters of fact, it also accepts that the careful application of skeptical and rational procedures constitutes a sufficient response to the problem of uncertainty and, further, a viable method for “constructing” actionable, if still uncertain, knowledge about the world. In this sense, constructive skepticism can be further glossed as a “therapeutic” and “conservative” form of skepticism since it retains a fundamental faith in the ability of a procedural, rational skepticism to address and alleviate, if not resolve entirely, the epistemic problem of uncertainty that skepticism in general identifies.

4.        It is specifically this conservative character of constructive skepticism and how it conditions the character of legal doubt adopted within eighteenth-century legal theory that I want to examine in this section as a necessary philosophical background for understanding the novel’s approach to doubt. This conservatism is inscribed in the demand that legal doubt must be “reasonable” doubt. It is a qualification that reflects constructive skepticism’s organizing assumption regarding the qualified value of rational skepticism as a response to judgment under uncertainty. On one hand, the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard reflects the recognition that an actively skeptical posture helps reduce the risks of factual error and wrongful conviction in legal judgment. On the other hand, the standard reflects the recognition that, since legal facts are always subject to some degree of uncertainty, at a certain point doubt must lose its instrumental value and become an impediment to legal judgment. Allowing some doubt helps reduce the risk of wrongful conviction; allowing any doubt makes it impossible to convict at all. As such, the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard attempts to strike a balance between, on the one hand, a desire to reduce the risks of uncertainty and, on the other, a desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment despite the risks that inevitably attend uncertainty. It achieves this balance by positing a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of doubt, between “reasonable” doubts that are recognized within the legal process and “unreasonable” doubts that, for various reasons, fail to qualify. The distinction aims to separate “plausible” from “merely possible” doubt, “reasonable” doubt from “any doubt at all,” and, most importantly for our purposes, “private” or “interested” forms of doubt from “public” or “disinterested” forms of doubt.

5.        Though these distinctions appear largely normative in retrospect, they were regarded as descriptive in the period and, along with constructive skeptical arguments for the sufficiency for “moral certainty,” depended more fundamentally on a descriptive epistemological distinction between two kinds of knowledge, “probable” and “demonstrative.” “Demonstrative knowledge” entailed propositions that could be proved by logical demonstration and, thus, produced an “absolute” or “demonstrative” certainty that necessitated assent. Since probable knowledge could never admit of this level of demonstrative certainty, the evidentiary standards for proof in probable knowledge had to be adjusted to reflect the intuition that one could gain sufficient, if incomplete, degrees of certainty to justify practical action by ascending a graduated scale of belief based on degrees of “moral evidence.” In this sense, degrees of evidence could be correlated to relative degrees of belief ranging from absolute doubt or disbelief up to opinion and, finally, to full confidence and conviction. “Moral certainty” existed at the top of this evidentiary hierarchy and was assumed to provide a functional equivalent to demonstrative certainty in the realm of contingent fact. It was reserved for propositions that would be “unreasonable” to doubt despite any theoretical level of uncertainty.

6.         Intuitions about the sufficiency of moral certainty were developed with reference to widely-observed and fairly uncontroversial natural regularities (e.g., the rising and setting of the sun or the ebb and flow of the tides) or to widely attested historical or geographical facts (e.g., that there was a historical figure named Julius Caesar or that a city called Rome existed). But the eighteenth-century legal theorist had little reservations about applying the label of moral certainty to less regular, more controversial legal facts. Eighteenth-century legal treatises readily adopted the basic epistemological distinction between moral and demonstrative knowledge to develop a normative account of evidentiary standards. Treatise writers approached the epistemological distinctions as if addressing an audience that would be either unfamiliar with the nature of moral evidence or somehow reluctant to accept the sufficiency of moral certainty relative to demonstrative certainty. Similarly, treatise writers tended to treat orientations towards uncertainty that challenged the sufficiency of moral certainty as irrational and pathological. Such orientations reflected an excessive and unreasonable desire for certainty that failed to grasp the very nature of probable knowledge, much less the exigency and necessity of practical action under uncertainty. They fixated on doubts that were theoretical instead of practical, scrupulous instead of significant, matters of private rather than public concern.

7.        To enjoin readers to accept the sufficiency of moral certainty, treatise writers could depict the relation between demonstrative and moral certainty in various ways and to various effects. In Essay Upon the Law of Evidence (1789), for instance, the jurist John Morgan stresses the functional equivalence of moral and demonstrative certainty to the point of identity, asking readers to accept the truth of legal testimony under oath with the same confidence as if it had been demonstratively proven. For Morgan, even though “human testimony, i.e. evidence given by one man to another, can never produce certainty,” nonetheless, in matters where a witness is under oath “[a mind] must acquiesce [to a witness’s testimony] therein as from a knowledge by demonstration, because, according to the nature of things, it ought not any longer to doubt, but to be nearly, if not as perfectly well satisfied, as if we of ourselves knew the fact” (5). Treatise writers could also stress the categorical difference of demonstrative and moral certainty in an effort to reinforce the concept of sufficient though incomplete evidence. This latter strategy generally necessitated pathologizing the inability to perceive this difference as unreasonable and irrational. Although not a legal treatise in itself, James Gambier’s popular textbook on moral evidence, Introduction to the Study of Moral Evidence(1806), provides a clear and representative account of how the epistemological distinction between moral and demonstrative knowledge was effectively wielded to justify the normative distinction between reasonable and unreasonable doubt within legal epistemology and more broadly.

8.        Gambier considers how a matter of fact can be assumed to “rise so high as to exclude all reasonable doubt” while “fall[ing] short of absolute certainty” (5). While he concedes that “we are often apt to expect stronger evidence, than the nature of the thing [i.e. probable knowledge] admits; and, thence, to feel dissatisfied, though the point be fairly proved,” he urges that we should nonetheless “accustom ourselves to yield our assent” if “such evidence be produced in a sufficient degree to counterbalance all that can be fairly urged against it” (Gambier 93). He continues:

. . . [I]f in studying the evidence on any question of fact, we employ ourselves in examining whether there be not a possibility that it may be false, instead of considering whether there be not a sufficient probability that it is true, we shall certainly raise strong doubts in our minds. But, then, we should not study the subject rationally. Demonstration is the only species of reasoning, which, if even conducted correctly, can exclude the possibility of error. But facts do not admit of demonstration. They admit of moral evidence alone. The examining, therefore, into the possibility of error is inconsistent with the nature of the subject, and an absurd practice. (93–94)
Gambier’s assertion regarding the “irrationality,” “inconsistency,” and “absurdity” of fixating on the “possibility of error” with respect to moral evidence was a common refrain within eighteenth-century legal epistemology. The desire to attain degrees of certainty thought to exceed “reasonable doubt” was generally treated in this manner as an epistemic category error, a refusal to accept the basic epistemic conditions governing the evaluation of matters of fact—what Gambier refers to as the “nature of the thing”—rather than, say, a legitimate concern or anxiety about the limits of practical judgment established by uncertainty. Indeed, it would be possible to show that similar epistemological distinctions continue to organize the concept of “reasonable doubt” in legal theory. For instance, in the 1850 case Commonwealth v. Webster still regarded by many legal theorists as the most lucid attempt to define the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard, Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw characterizes reasonable doubt as “. . . not mere possible doubt; because every thing [sic] relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt” (qtd. in Shealy 234 n. 40).

9.        If Gambier’s account reflects a pathology of doubt developed in response to the threat posed to legal judgment within rational skepticism itself, then William Paley’s reflections on legal doubt in The Principles of Political and Moral Philosophy (1785) present an alternative skeptical pathology developed in response to a separate tradition of theological skepticism which perceived doubt as a sign of uneasy conscience and, as such, recommended withholding judgment in the face of any uncertainty. Unlike the rationalist pathology sketched above, which focuses on reasonable expectations of certainty as informed by epistemology, this alternative pathology focuses on how private concerns of conscience unreasonably interfere with public and civic duties to uphold and execute the law. This pathology was characterized as the “scrupulous conscience” which, as Shapiro explains, was regarded as “a troubled or diseased condition” of an individual “reluctant to act even after doubts had been resolved” (“Changing Language” 267). Thus, Paley laments the civil disservice performed by a jury member paralyzed by “an over-strained scrupulousness, or weak timidity” which “holds it the part of a safe conscience not to condemn any man, whilst there exists the minutest possibility of his innocence” (391). For Paley, such private reservations threatened the very efficacy of the legal system itself, where that efficacy was conceived largely in terms of its ability to root out and convict criminals despite uncertainty: “[W]hen certain rules of adjudication must be persued [sic], when certain degrees of credibility must be accepted, in order to reach the crimes with which the public are infested; courts of justice should not be deterred from the application of these rules, by every suspicion or danger, or by the mere possibility of confounding the innocent with the guilty” (393). Indeed, in his 2008 study of the origins of the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard, James Q. Whitman draws on this figure of the “scrupulous conscience” to support his revisionist argument that the standard was developed—at least at first—not to promote sound evidentiary proof practices but rather to provide “moral comfort” for jury members anxious about the eternal consequences of an error in uncertain, temporal judgment. For Whitman, the reasonable doubt standard was “originally a theological doctrine” which responded to “religiously motivated reluctance to convict” (4) by “reassur[ing] jurors that they could convict the defendant without risking their own salvation, so long as their doubts about guilt were not ‘reasonable’” (3). In this sense, Whitman argues, the standard was “not originally designed to make it more difficult for jurors to convict”—as we assume it to be today—but “to make conviction easier” (4).

10.         These alternative pathologies should sufficiently demonstrate how the concept of “reasonable doubt”—though ostensibly formulated as a means of alleviating the problems of uncertainty—is also informed more fundamentally by a conservative desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment under uncertainty against the threats posed by more radical forms of skepticism, whether those threats are perceived as coming from within the rational tradition itself or from outside that tradition in the form of theologically-inflected skepticism. These pathologies should also illustrate how the concept of “reasonable doubt” responds to this threat by normalizing a circumscribed form of “reasonable” doubt that reflects these conservative assumptions and, in turn, pathologizing other orientations towards uncertainty that do not reflect these conservative assumptions as excessive and illegitimate. With these observations, we are now in a position to consider how the novel’s exploration of doubt and desire—and, more precisely, doubt-as-desire –responds to this conservatism informing “reasonable doubt.”

Before Skepticism: Caleb Williams and Unreasonable Doubt

11.        The novel’s insistence on the relation of doubt and desire can be read as an attempt to expose how the desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment against uncertainty conditions the form of procedural, rational doubt adopted by the legal system and, ultimately, circumscribes the kinds of inquiry it can perform. The novel’s pessimistic depiction of the inability of the legal process to, if not convict Falkland for Tyrrel’s murder, at least save the Hawkinses from wrongful conviction seems constructed to raise doubts about the ability of procedural doubt to identify and assess risks associated with factual uncertainty or, more provocatively, to achieve anything more than preserve the appearance of the legitimacy of the legal process itself. In this sense, the novel asks whether legal doubt is grounded, as it professes, in a desire to assess and respond to the risks of uncertainty or, instead, grounded in a more basic desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment under uncertainty itself. Further, the novel seems particularly invested in exposing how the normative distinction between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” forms of doubt does not necessarily reflect a legitimate response to the risks of uncertainty but rather functions as a technique for rationalizing the legal status quo. It is as if the novel’s subversive treatment of the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” doubt aims to recast that distinction as one between “legitimating” and “delegitimating” forms of doubt. “Legitimate” doubts are “legitimating” in the sense that they operate within the legal system to strengthen and legitimize the claim that it is not only possible but reasonable to perform legal judgments despite uncertainty, whereas “illegitimate” doubts are “delegitimating” in that they threaten to undermine this claim. In this context, the desire of the legal system to represent such doubts as illegitimate “in themselves” rather than in relation to the organizing assumptions of the legal system becomes an essential strategy for preserving and reinforcing the authority of the legal system itself. The normative distinction between reasonable and unreasonable forms of doubt relies, primarily, on the assumption that “unreasonable” doubts threaten the legal system on account of their origins in illegitimate forms of desire. But while the distinction purports to preserve the legal process from the pernicious influence of desire, the novel explores the chilling possibility that this distinction not only effectively inscribes such unreasonable desires in the legal process but also surreptitiously obscures or conceals this fact by directing critical attention towards a specter of unreasonable doubt.

12.         We can draw out these interests in the novel by considering the brief and seemingly irrelevant appearance of a group of skeptics in the midst of Collins’s narrative:

. . . Hawkins and his son were tried, condemned, and afterwards executed. In the interval between the sentence and execution Hawkins confessed his guilt with many marks of compunction; though there are persons by whom this is denied; but I have taken some pains to enquire into the fact, and am persuaded that their disbelief is precipitate and groundless. (Godwin, Caleb Williams 174)
The passage is one of the few times Collins breaks from his task of narrating the events surrounding Tyrrel’s murder to perform the task of validating his narrative. It is significant that this task of validation takes the specific form of a procedural skeptical inquiry. Collins doubles back to review and confirm the evidence for Hawkins’s confession in the face of skeptical objections, in a manner that, though technically extralegal, seems intended to mirror and extend the careful legal procedures performed to absolve Falkland of any involvement in Tyrrel’s murder. Despite their minor presence, these skeptics function as an essential feature of Collins’s skeptical investigation. They enable Collins to demonstrate what Caleb calls the “uncommonly judicious” (166) nature of Collins’s investigation by situating his procedural application of reasonable doubt in productive contrast with a doubt that is marked, explicitly by Collins and implicitly in other respects, as unreasonable. The episode illustrates Collins’s willingness to entertain doubt as well as his willingness to assess and dismiss it on rational grounds: Collins does not dismiss the disbelievers reflexively but only after he has “taken some pains to enquire into the fact” and is “persuaded” that their doubts are “precipitate and groundless.” The figure capitalizes further on the suggestive contrast established between Collins’s dynamic performance of a procedural doubt and the skeptics’ static doubt and, likewise, between Collins’s singularity and the skeptics’ collectivity. It is not just Collins’s independent inquiry but his very independence of mind that is set in relief with the mob-like collective judgment of the skeptics. This is true even as Collins’s performance of intellectual autonomy manages to disable the reader’s own critical capacities by omitting any specific content that readers might use to perform their own assessments of these skeptical doubts. The skeptics, along with the nature of their reservations, remain unnamed (do they deny that Hawkins ever confessed or that he was ever guilty, or both?). They are a stage prop in Collins’s performance of reasonableness, a rhetorical aporia that allows Collins to acknowledge and then authoritatively dismiss any doubt about the legitimacy of Hawkins’s execution.

13.        The episode should sufficiently illustrate the novel’s explicit interest in what I will refer to as the “rhetoric of reasonableness” deployed by constructive skepticism. And, similarly, observing the interpretive instability of this episode as the novel progresses should illustrate how the novel wields irony to undermine the authority of this rhetoric. Of course, whatever authority the reader grants Collins will be largely undermined by his later revelation that his judgment of the case had been influenced by his fear of retribution from Falkland and, more to the point, his desire to preserve the moral distinctions that the uncertainties of the case threaten to disrupt. “If you could change all my ideas, and show me that there was no criterion by which vice might be prevented from being mistaken for virtue,” he asks Caleb, “what benefit would arise from that?” (Godwin, Caleb Williams16). The question could be taken as the novel’s most concentrated expression of the conservative impulse I have been examining, and it affords a suggestive glimpse into how the desire to preserve the possibility of legal judgment under uncertainty is suffused with an anxiety about the consequences of its impossibility. In this light, legal doubt emerges as a form of suspense that anxiously anticipates its ability not to account for uncertainty but to overcome it.

14.        But, Collins’s revelation aside, it is also true that his rhetorical deployment of the skeptics never quite behaves the way he intends. And the unruliness of the rhetorical figure itself suggests how, in the final analysis, the real instabilities and risks that attend uncertainty defy the efforts of constructive skepticism to contain them. Collins’s effort to validate his narrative raises suspicions about why it must be validated in the first place. Collins introduces the skeptics as a way of closing down the question of Hawkins’s confession, but they eventually mark the very rupture in Collins’s narrative Caleb will fixate on when formulating his own doubts about Hawkins’s guilt and Falkland’s innocence. Collins presumably omits the skeptics’ specific objections from his narrative because he believes they have no rational basis. Yet, in the light of Hawkins’s innocence, this omission seems to demand that readers acknowledge the ethical merit of the skeptics’ doubts prior to and even despite any consideration of their rational basis. Similarly, the skeptics’ plurality, which at first appeared to be a sign of their intellectual slavishness, becomes a sign of their intellectual and moral resolve—especially once we take into account that they are essentially the only collective body figured in the novel not under the absolute sway of some social superior. All told, by the novel’s end, the figure’s rhetorical function seems to shift from aporia to exempla, in what amounts to an ironic inversion of that religious genre’s tendency to introduce skeptics as counterexamples whose disbelief and its miserable consequences are meant to redouble the faith of both reader and author. In this inversion, “unreasonable” doubt as it is defined by constructive skepticism stands out as the only reasonable and ethical response to the risks of uncertainty.

15.        The critique I have developed from Collins’s episode with the skeptics should clarify the novel’s deep skepticism regarding the legal concept of reasonable doubt, the rhetoric of reasonableness it deploys, and the conservative desires that inform it. Yet, as much as Collins’s episode with the skeptics clarifies about the novel’s interest in “unreasonable” doubt as a negative response to “reasonable doubt,” it risks giving the false impression that this response can be neatly, clearly, or completely articulated by this critique. On the contrary, this critique seems to be only a side effect of a much more disruptive form of negativity pursued by the novel, one which ultimately muddies whatever critical or ethical clarity I have drawn from the ironies above. In fact, it is arguably even misleading to characterize the effects of the novel’s negativity as “critique,” since the procedure of rational critique we have inherited from the eighteenth century is animated by the very same spirit of constructive skepticism the novel calls into question. To see this, simply consider that Kant’s critical project, although typically framed as an idealist response to Hume’s skeptical empiricism, is no less a variety of skepticism itself, one that is distinctively conservative and therapeutic. [4] This is an observation I will return to at the essay’s conclusion when I consider how the negativity Caleb Williams pursues suggests a much different understanding of Romanticism’s relation to skepticism than the one proposed by Stanley Cavell in his well-known account of Romanticism as a “response” to Kant’s settlement with epistemological skepticism.

16.        If it is misleading to characterize the novel’s negativity as critique, it is similarly misleading to characterize it as a form of skepticism itself, even as the novel’s negativity takes doubt both as its central instrument and object of inquiry. This is because the force of novel’s negativity seems to originate in its exploration of doubt as it exists before it hardens or stabilizes into skepticism. Indeed, the novel seems to resist any conflation of skepticism and doubt in an effort to preserve the unruly aspects of doubt that get lost once doubt is disciplined by skepticism. That is, if skepticism can be characterized as a directed, instrumental application of doubt to specific intellectual or epistemic problems, then I would argue that the novel pursues a form of doubt that lacks this instrumentality or directedness: a form of doubt that is inchoate, marked by affective excess rather than intellectual restraint, hot rather than cold. [5]  In the episode above, Collins refers to the skeptics’ doubt as “groundless” in the sense of lacking rational grounds, but it is better to characterize the doubt I am describing as the affective ground from which skeptical doubt draws its critical energies, the raw doubt-as-desire that skepticism refines and harnesses. Here it should be clear that I have effectively described the character of Caleb’s doubt. It should also be evident that the destabilizing effects achieved by the novel will emanate from the unreasonableness of Caleb’s doubt-as-desire. In any case, these effects seem too ambivalent to constitute anything like a skeptical program. They faithfully reproduce the doubt and uncertainty from which they originate.

17.        These negative definitions of the novel’s negativity should provide a sense of just how far the novel must depart from our usual understanding of the forms negativity can take so that it may arrive in uncharted waters or, as Godwin famously declared, “launch [readers] upon a sea of moral and political inquiry” (Caleb Williams 451). However, we can begin to sketch out a positive account of the novel’s negativity by first identifying the ways that Caleb’s doubt does appear to accord with the critique of “reasonable doubt” I have developed from the passage above. Once we have pursued this accord to its limit, we can then consider how the unreasonableness of Caleb’s doubt necessarily points beyond this critique.

18.        In light of the legal epistemology I have sketched, we might argue that Caleb’s tendency to understand his doubt primarily as a form of curiosity—one that is excessive, unproductive, and idiosyncratic or, in Caleb’s terms, “ungoverned,” “infantine,” and “unreasonable” (Godwin, Caleb Williams 212, 224)—reflects the extent to which Caleb has internalized the normative distinction between reasonable and unreasonable doubt as means for assessing the ethical merit (or lack thereof) of his doubt. Indeed, Caleb consistently weighs his skeptical disposition against an internalized sense of what a reasonable person would or would not doubt. He continually seeks—and fails—to find what he would consider to be rational grounds to justify his dissatisfaction with Collins’s narrative. Caleb doubts Hawkins’s guilt even as Hawkins’s alleged confession makes him feel “there was no longer a possibility of doubting” (180); he pursues his suspicions about Falkland even as “could find nothing that [he] could consider as justifying [him] in persisting in the shadow of a doubt” (198) about Falkland’s innocence. In this way, Caleb anxiously observes the distance between his doubt as it is and his sense of what it should be.

19.        Moreover, Caleb’s internalization of these norms helps explain, to some extent, his inability to attribute any ethical value to his doubt, despite the many opportunities he has to reassess or qualify its value in light of new evidence. Falkland confesses his guilt, Collins reveals his narrative to have been compromised by political and practical concerns, but Caleb only grows more certain of the unethical and pathological nature of his own doubt. In his retrospective attempt to “divid[e] . . . the offensive [and] defensive” (212) parts of his actions, he ends up condemning all his behavior leading up to Falkland’s confession. By the novel’s conclusion, Caleb has even rejected this division and remains saddled with a sense of guilt many critics have found to be, like his curiosity, excessive and inexplicable. Yet, on this reading, any dissatisfaction a reader might have with Caleb’s inability to recover any ethical merit in his actions or with the excessive sense of guilt that results from this inability should ultimately resolve into a dissatisfaction with the normative assumptions that enable Caleb to misread his doubt in this way. Caleb’s conversations later in the novel with Collins and Laura—both of whom reinforce this misreading—seem designed in part to exacerbate this sense of dissatisfaction. And, in this way, the novel recovers the ethical potential of Caleb’s doubt while also sowing discontent with institutional efforts to obscure or discredit that ethical potential.

20.        Approaching Caleb’s doubt in this recuperative manner illustrates how the novel’s negativity carries forward the deconstructive project Godwin pursues against political institutions in An Enquiry to Political Justice (1793). In that work we find Godwin similarly invested in exposing the various techniques political institutions deploy to condition private acts of judgment so they reflect and reinforce the organizing assumptions of the institutions themselves. Caleb’s mistaken dismissal of his doubt as idiosyncratic and his consequent inability to perceive its ethical and political potential exemplifies the pernicious effects of what Godwin attacks in the Enquiry as the attempt to distinguish between public and private spheres of judgment, or, in Godwin’s terms, between “conduct in civil concerns” in which positive institutions “may properly interfere” and “matters of conscience” in which “positive institutions ought to leave me personally free” (Political Justice 75). For Godwin, while such distinctions might appear to establish an autonomous sphere where ethical considerations preside independently from political interests, their ultimate effect is to consolidate institutional power against the disruptive ethical and political potential of conscience. And it is notable that, for Godwin, the tension an individual feels between the responsibilities dictated by private judgment and those dictated by institutions often manifests as doubt: an individual’s desire to “believe what is dictated to them” by institutions is frustrated by the absence of “that in which belief consists, evidence and conviction” (368), resulting in “a perpetual dissatisfaction” (368) which speaks to the “execrable tyranny” (368) of any attempt to coerce private judgment. [6]  Caleb’s doubt thus has the effect of both exemplifying this dissatisfaction for and generating this dissatisfaction within the reader.

21.        Although the novel’s negative project aligns with the deconstructive project of the Enquiry in this general sense, the novel’s insistence that the procedural skepticism adopted within rational inquiry itself constitutes a form of institutionality that compromises private judgment illustrates how the novel manages to extend the Enquiry’s project beyond the limits imposed by its own commitment to rationalism. To be sure, throughout the Enquiry Godwin is concerned with preserving the autonomy of private judgment against the impositions of institutional norms. Yet Godwin also places great faith in the assumption that reason always functions in accord with individual conscience, as an instrument and not an impediment to the unbiased exercise of private judgment. It is a faith that originates in Godwin’s appreciation for the dynamic and progressive nature of rational inquiry, which he characteristically contrasts to the stagnancy of custom and dogma. “Refer [people] to reading, to conversation, to meditation,” Godwin writes, “but teach them neither creeds nor catechisms, either moral or political” (352). Indeed, it is in this spirit that Godwin deploys a rhetoric of reasonableness throughout the Enquiry to punctuate his own exercises in private, rational judgment. But this assumption regarding the natural alignment of reason and conscience also blinds the Enquiry to how a rhetoric of reasonableness might be deployed against conscience as it manifests in “private” doubt or how such a rhetoric might be wielded to close down, rather than open up, rational inquiry. Yet, this is precisely how Collins (or Paley) deploys such rhetoric. Likewise, these are the rhetorical and ideological effects that Caleb must resist to pursue his own unreasonable doubt. In this respect, Caleb Williams could be said to turn the Enquiry’s deconstructive project on the latent threat of dogmatism posed by the rhetoric of reasonableness that treatise employs.

22.         So far I have approached Caleb’s unreasonable doubt with the assumption that it aligns with and reinforces the critique of reasonable doubt I have teased out of the novel’s ironic treatment of Collins’s rhetoric of reasonableness. On this assumption, the novel would appear to stage a coordinated critique of the legal system that mobilizes doubt and irony to undermine the legitimacy of the circumscribed form of doubt that system normalizes in an effort to preserve its own legitimacy. From this perspective, the novel’s critique of reasonable doubt also appears to align with—and extend in striking and productive ways—the deconstructive project pursued in Godwin’s Enquiry. This is a satisfying and neat interpretation of the novel’s interest in unreasonable doubt. But it also helps clarify why Caleb’s doubt cannot be perceived as ethically viable and must instead be regarded as “unreasonable” in ways that exceed the ideological distortions created by the normative account of reasonable doubt. For, on this reading, Caleb’s doubt, although wrongly dismissed by the legal system and even by Caleb itself on the basis of its private and pathological nature, nonetheless appears to emerge as a viable ethical orientation to the problem of judgment under uncertainty. Yet, the novel’s interest in unreasonable doubt does not seem to be how unreasonable doubt might replace the circumscribed form of “reasonable doubt” adopted within legal theory as, say, a more adequate response to the risks of judgment under uncertainty. Rather, the novel’s interest lies in how Caleb’s unreasonable doubt reveals the fundamental interestedness of all doubt—that is, how all doubt is grounded in desire—in a way that calls into question the viability of doubt as a disinterested ground for legal judgment. This point is succinctly captured in a central ethical paradox that frustrates any recuperative reading of Caleb’s doubt: as readers, we have no way of knowing that Caleb’s doubts about Falkland are justified until he confirms this fact through evidently unjustifiable means. Any attempt to assert the ethical viability of Caleb’s doubt requires condoning the perverse psychological torture he performs on Falkland to confirm his suspicions. Caleb may not be as guilty as he believes, but he is hardly innocent. Further, this ambivalence gestures towards the insufficiency of the categories of guilt and innocence to capture Caleb’s moral predicament.

23.        While many critics have been puzzled by Caleb’s excessive sense of guilt at the novel’s end, there has been little debate that Caleb’s suspicions towards Falkland at the beginning of the novel are ethically problematic in ways that the reading of Caleb’s doubt I have pursued above cannot adequately address. For where I have read Caleb’s tendency to understand his doubt as curiosity to be, in some respect, an ideological mechanism that misrepresents an ethical response as a pathological one, other critics have persuasively interpreted Caleb’s curiosity to be a symptom of other inchoate forms of desire. Some critics, for instance, have argued that Caleb’s curiosity masks a political desire to wield the knowledge of Falkland’s secret crimes against him as a means to achieve political power and equality. [7]  Others have seen Caleb’s compulsive curiosity as a symptom of his unspeakable homosocial desire for Falkland. [8]  Caleb himself at one point proposes the compelling explanation that his excessive, suspicious reading of Falkland’s behavior amounts to a symptom of his early habit of reading romances, in what amounts to a suggestive gesture towards the relation between paranoia and the experience of plottedness that several critics have since explored in other contexts (Caleb Williams 60). [9]  On one hand, the viability and mutual compatibility of these different interpretations should attest to the overdetermined nature of Caleb’s doubt; this interpretative excess could be said to simply reproduce the affective excesses that condition Caleb’s doubt. On the other hand, although this interpretative excess appears to present several competing or complementary desires “motivating” Caleb’s doubt, it also attests more fundamentally to the indeterminate nature of Caleb’s doubt—that is, its lack of clear motive, interest, or aim. It is as if Caleb’s doubt radiates interestedness even as it does not display interestedness in any of its recognizable forms. The fact that no single interpretation of his curiosity feels any more viable than the other confirms this indeterminacy. And this observation lends some credence to Caleb’s tendency to characterize his curiosity as immature and inexplicable instead of sinister or malicious. Indeed, even as critics have perceived something much more sinister behind his treatment of Falkland than “curiosity” can address, they have rarely suggested that Caleb is conscious of or consciously concealing the desires that motivate his curiosity. Instead, it is much more common to read Caleb as a victim of his repressed desires or other ideological mechanisms. [10] 

24.        Rather than attempting to ascribe some specific motive or desire to Caleb’s doubt, it seems more productive to consider how the indeterminate nature of Caleb’s desire itself generates an irresistible but problematic urge in the reader to doubt his motivations even as Caleb’s desires remain inaccessible. Of course, as I have already suggested, this lingering dissatisfaction with Caleb’s doubt is important in itself for the way that it disrupts any moral or ethical certainties that might potentially be inferred from Caleb’s act of discovering Falkland’s guilt. Even though, against the background of the ineffective and compromised procedural doubt of the legal institution, Caleb’s doubt somehow emerges as a more ethical response to judgment under uncertainty, the reader’s sense that Caleb’s doubt is grounded in illegitimate desire—which remains even after Falkland confesses—makes it difficult to attribute any ethical or legal value to his discovery. The ethical dilemma manages to exceed the mutually exclusive logic of ethical judgment in a way that evacuates it of its meaning. In this context it seems possible to say that Caleb’s doubt is somehow unethical yet ethical, but to say this is to say nothing at all about Caleb’s doubt. Instead, it is to demonstrate the insufficiency of these categories themselves to respond to the complexity introduced by uncertainty. But it seems equally important that this dissatisfaction—that is, the reader’s conviction that Caleb’s doubt is somehow motivated by illegitimate desire—remains even as the reader has no means of resolving the indeterminacy surrounding Caleb’s doubt-as-desire, no means of confirming this suspicion. It reflects the extent to which the reader’s doubt is itself unreasonable, propelled but also compromised by the desire to judge Caleb’s actions finally as ethical or unethical, interested or disinterested. In this way, the novel embraces the ethical dilemma presented by Caleb’s doubt as a productive site of negativity and exploits it to sow a more fundamental doubt about the legitimacy of ethical judgments, one captured in Caleb’s own progressive dissatisfaction with his former belief that innocence and guilt were “things in the whole world most opposite to each other” (243) as he discovers that such a belief is “impossible . . . to hold” once one is “conversant with the passions and institutions of men” (404).

Coda: Romantic Doubt

25.         While the striking deconstruction of eighteenth-century constructive skepticism Caleb Williams performs seems to be only a by-product of the novel’s more ambitious pursuit of the destabilizing excesses of negativity, the presence and precision of that critique suggest the potential for reading the form of doubt the novel recovers—what I have characterized as doubt “before skepticism”—as a specifically “Romantic” form of doubt that constitutes, to some extent, a Romantic reaction to the conservative and constructive character of eighteenth-century rational skepticism. By characterizing this Romantic doubt as a “reaction” to skepticism in this way, I expect readers to hear echoes of Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of Romanticism as a response to Kant’s “settlement” with skepticism. But, by recalling Cavell, my aim is also to demonstrate how this form of Romantic doubt offers a significant challenge to Cavell’s thesis and, further, reveals Cavell’s own conservative tendencies.

26.         To draw out this challenge, I want to focus on the way that Cavell constricts or limits the possible forms that any Romantic “reaction” to—and, particularly, against—Kant’s settlement with skepticism might take. Cavell imagines the Romantic response to Kant’s settlement to have two faces. One face, which Cavell calls “avoidance,” registers a fundamental dissatisfaction with the limits Kant places on our ability to access the thing-in-itself, while the other, which Cavell calls “acknowledgment,” accepts the validity of and stability afforded by Kant’s limits on knowledge. In one sense, Cavell sees these twin reactions as dynamically constructed and mutually reinforcing: the Romantic “simultaneously craves [the] comfort [of Kant’s idea of limitation] and crave[s] escape from its comfort . . . as if the one stance produced the wish for the other” (32). But, in another, Cavell sees them as a two-phase progression that amounts to a maturation. While Cavell empathizes with the Romantic response of “avoidance” (“You don’t—do you?—have to be a romantic to feel sometimes about that settlement: Thanks for nothing” [31]), it is evident that Cavell regards “acknowledgement” as the more productive, mature, and theoretically interesting response. For whereas the strategy of avoidance entails for Cavell pursuing the idle Romantic fantasies of animism and solitude, the strategy of acknowledgement sets to the responsible tasks of accepting and adjusting to the hard limits established by language as a social form and, further, of working within these confines to remake and contribute to (ordinary) language so that it reflects common interests and desires.

27.        Cavell’s preferred project of acknowledgement and adjustment continues to influence approaches to Romanticism in ways that testify to its critical sophistication and potential.  [11]  But one issue with Cavell’s interpretation is that, because he ultimately accepts the philosophical authority of Kant’s settlement—he refers to it as “the most stable philosophical settlement in the modern period” (31)—Cavell has a fairly limited conception of what rejecting Kant’s settlement might entail. And he assumes, ultimately, that Kant’s settlement sets the conditions for any response to it. Cavell’s strategy of avoidance may have the Romantic reject the terms of Kant’s settlement, but only after she has accepted Kant’s characterization of the problem of knowledge as valid and authoritative (if only to overcome it on his terms). Yet, the negativity I have explored in this essay points us to an alternative form the Romantic rejection of Kant’s settlement might take. In this form, the Romantic’s dissatisfaction with Kant lies not with the ways Kant’s limit cordons off certain knowledge or denies transcendence but in the way that Kant’s settlement misrepresents the nature or extent of the threat to judgment posed by uncertainty. Romantic doubt, as informed by negativity, does not reject Kant’s limits themselves but rather rejects the false comfort with uncertainty and false confidence in our ability to overcome its threat that those limits promote. Instead, Romantic doubt would cultivate a discomfort with the risks uncertainty poses and sow doubt about our ability to overcome or even know them. Romantic doubt is the “awful doubt” (Shelley 77) of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” that an unflinching view of Nature as mystery recommends: a sense of doubt that is informed by an awe of uncertainty, that stands in opposition to the mild “faith” in our ability to reconcile ourselves with uncertainty through positive means, and that “but for such faith” would achieve this (negative) reconciliation and likewise “. . . repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe” (80–81). The discontent with “moral certainty” Romantic doubt names clarifies the political and ethical charge of Keats’s formulation of negative capability as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (492). From the perspective of Romantic doubt, Keats’s negative capability does not recommend relinquishing our desire for absolute certainty or cultivating an ease with uncertainty. Rather, it cautions against the “irritable,” false comfort that follows from believing that we can conquer uncertainty through constructions of fact and reason. It is a reminder that even to reach for fact or reason is to underestimate the threat of uncertainty since our desire to overcome that threat always threatens to persuade us we already have.

Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. U of Chicago P, 1988.

Corber, Robert J. “Representing the ‘Unspeakable’: William Godwin and the Politics of Homophobia.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 1, no. 1, 1990, pp. 85–101. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Feb 2016.

Ferreira, M. Jamie. Scepticism and Reasonable Doubt: The British Naturalist Tradition in Wilkins, Hume, Reid and Newman. Clarendon P, 1986.

Gambier, James. An Introduction to the Study of Moral Evidence; or, of that Species of Reasoning Which Relates to Matters of Fact and Practice. London, C. & J. Rivington, 1824. Google Books. Accessed 13 August 2015.

Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Oxford UP, 2013.

---. St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century. London, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831. Google Books, Accessed 9 March 2016.

---. Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams. Broadview Literary Texts, 2000.

Gold, Alex, Jr. “It’s Only Love: The Politics of Passion in Godwin’s Caleb Williams.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 19, no. 2, 1977, pp.135–60.

Grossman, Jonathan H. The Art of Alibi: English Law Courts and the Novel. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Handwerk, Gary. "Of Caleb’s Guilt and Godwin’s Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams.” ELH, vol. 60, no. 4, 1993, pp. 939–960. Project Muse, Accessed 6 Nov 2015.

Hoeveler, Diane Long & James D. Jenkins. “Where the Evidence Leads: Gothic Narratives and Legal Technologies.” European Romantic Review, vol. 18, no. 3, 2007, pp. 317–337. Taylor and Francis Online, Accessed 10 Nov 2015.

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. Modern Library, 2001.

Marshall, Bridget M. The Transatlantic Gothic Novel and the Law, 1790–1860. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011.

Molesworth, Jesse. Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Realism, Probability, Magic. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Morgan, John. Essays Upon the Laws of Evidence. Dublin, Lynch et al, 1789. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Accessed 25 July 2015.

Nersessian, Anahid. Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. Harvard UP, 2015.

Paley, William. The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Liberty Fund, 2002. Online Library of Liberty, Accessed 15 Jan 2015.

Rajan, Tilottama. Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.

---. “Wollstonecraft and Godwin: Reading the Secrets of the Political Novel.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 27, no. 2, 1988, pp. 221–251. JStor, Accessed 9 Nov 2015.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia UP, 1985.

Shapiro, Barbara. “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” and “Probable Cause”: Historical Perspectives on the Anglo-American Law of Evidence. U of California P, 1991.

---. “Changing Language, Unchanging Standard: From ‘Satisfied Conscience’ to ‘Moral Certainty’ and ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt.’” Cardozo J. International & Company L, no. 17, 2009, pp. 261–279. Hein Online, Accessed 5 August 2015.

Shealy, Miller W., Jr. “A Reasonable Doubt About ‘Reasonable Doubt.’” Oklahoma Law Review, no. 65, 2013, pp. 225–302. Hein Online, Accessed 23 July 2015.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Mont Blanc (Version A)” in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works. Oxford UP, 2009, pp. 120–124.

Uphaus, Robert W. “Caleb Williams: Godwin’s Epoch of Mind.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 9, no. 3, 1977, pp. 279–296. JStor, Accessed 10 Nov 2015.

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Whitman, James Q. The Origins of Reasonable Doubt: Theological Roots of the Criminal Trial. Yale UP, 2008.


[1] AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Tilottama Rajan, Orrin Wang, Marjorie Levinson, Gregg Crane, and Julia Hansen for reading and responding to earlier versions of this essay. For recent treatments of Caleb Williams in relation to eighteenth-century legal theory and practice, see Marshall 27–64, Grossman 37–38, and Hoeveler and Jenkins 327. Although the following reading will concern itself more with the novel’s engagement with legal epistemology rather than common law practice, its argument has affinities with Marshall’s claim that the novel’s legal preoccupations can be “traced to contemporary anxieties about the nature of justice and to specific legal challenges in the evolving Common Law system” (Marshall 2). BACK

[2] Uphaus similarly observes that Caleb’s curiosity “excites” and “expresses the desires of the reader’s curiosity” (281) and functions as “a psychological attribute by which the reader is lured into reenacting Caleb’s processes of mind” (282). BACK

[3] See Van Leeuwen, The Problem of Certainty in English Thought, 1630–1690 and Ferreira, Scepticism and Reasonable Doubt. BACK

[4] After all, Kant’s aim is to reassure us that we can remain confident in our ability to employ our rational faculties to attain reliable knowledge about the phenomenal world of appearances as long as we accept our inability to know the world beyond appearances, in itself, as noumena. The formal parallels between Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena and the constructive skeptical distinction between moral and demonstrative certainty should be evident, as should be Kant’s parallel use of this distinction to justify judgment under uncertainty. Even the very tendency to contrast Kant’s critical project against Hume’s “radical” project reproduces precisely the same rhetoric I have identified with constructive skepticism above. And even though the exploratory and experimental nature of Hume’s skeptical philosophy affords many productive loose ends that may be pursued to more radical skeptical conclusions, Hume’s systematic project appears no less informed by constructive skepticism than Kant’s. Indeed, if we accept at face value Hume’s rejection of absolute or “academic” skepticism and his acceptance of a category of uncertain but indisputable knowledge (what Hume calls “proofs” as opposed to certain “demonstrations” or disputable “probabilities”), it seems plausible to suggest that no philosophical critique endemic to the eighteenth century remains untouched by the spirit of constructive skepticism. BACK

[5] Indeed, in his essayistic treatments of belief and doubt, Godwin does attempt to inject desire into rational skepticism, and briefly surveying the problems he encounters should illustrate how rational skepticism cannot accommodate the examination of doubt and desire the novel pursues. In “Essay of Skepticism,” for instance, Godwin works against the common assumption that skepticism must be “necessarily allied to coldness of character” and insists instead that skeptical inquiry must be imbued with an “ardour and animation” located between cold “indifference” and overheated “enthusiasm” (308). Even as the skeptic must be “careful not to suffer a predilection for one side of a question” (302) he is nonetheless “by no means inclined to hold himself in a state of equal indifference to all opinions” (304). Yet, Godwin seems well aware of problems of asserting the influence of interest or passion into rational skepticism in this way, a fact which comes through in his more downbeat essay, “On Belief.” There, the disinterested procedure posed as an ideal by skepticism seems to be inevitably thwarted by an insidious will to believe. For while Godwin insists that “we must be, at all times, and to the last hour of our existence, accessible to conviction built upon new evidence” (247) he also admits that when considering any consequential issue there appears to be “ever a secret influence urging me earnestly to desire to find one side of the question right and the other wrong” (249) and that “[t]hat which we wish to believe, we are already greatly in progress to embrace” (249). BACK

[6] Moreover, Godwin’s specific critique of legal institutions in the Enquiry involves recovering and elaborating the radical ethical implications of the “imperfection” or “uncertainty” of evidence (Godwin Political Justice 381, 401). For Godwin, since “[n]o principles of evidence have yet been laid down that are infallible” (78), the “veracity” and “competence” of witnesses as accurate and just observers must be subject to “continual doubt” (381). BACK

[7] See, for instance, Handwerk 951–53, which also persuasively argues that Caleb’s guilt reflects Caleb’s inability to recontextualize, and thus rationalize, his own actions within an ideological framework in the same way he can Falkland’s at the end of the published version of the novel. BACK

[8] See Gold, “It’s Only Love;” Corber, “Representing the ‘Unspeakable;’” and Sedgwick 116–17. BACK

[9] For instance, see Jesse Molesworth’s recent discussion in Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel of the novel as a “weapon against Enlightenment” that fosters the illogical and excessive expectations about the causal and teleological shape of everyday experience (Molesworth 6–7). BACK

[10] For instance, Gold and Handwerk pursue their ideological readings explicitly against the assumption that Caleb’s behavior can be attributed to personal idiosyncrasy or pathology. Even Uphaus, who objects to reading Caleb’s behavior in terms of the “corrupting influences of social and political institutions” (279), nonetheless mitigates Caleb’s agency by asserting that “Caleb’s curiosity is not entirely governed by conscious control: his instincts exceed his control and always drive him forward” (282). BACK

[11] For a recent study informed by Cavell’s project of acknowledgment and adjustment, see Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. BACK