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The Importance of Probability

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
Probability and Literary Form: Philosophic Theory and Literary Practice in the Augustan Age. By Douglas Lane Patey. Cambridge.$44.50.

Among his many other achievements, Michel Foucault may be credited with having changed concepts of periodization from an idle speculation for undergraduates into a serious consideration for historians and for anyone in a discipline based upon history. Foucault argued that among the dramatic changes that occurred during the middle of the 17th century was a shift in the nature of language. Words were suddenly transformed from magical signatures of things to arbitrary signs intended to convey “evident and distinct perception” in a neutral fashion. Within this new scheme of knowing, probability rather than certainty became the goal of speculation in a variety of disciplines. Ian Hacking has traced how this shift in the attitude toward probability influenced statistics and mathematics, and Barbara Shapiro has demonstrated how important it was for theology, history, and the law. But when Shapiro comes to discuss probability in literature, she merely points to the plausible fictions of Defoe as an example. How important probability truly was for literature and literary criticism during this period has now been demonstrated by Douglas Patey in a learned and penetrating study.

Professor Patey attempts to show how the shift to a world in which humans were supposed to depend on their perception of signs transformed the ways in which we perceive and think and with that, the entire system of literature and literary criticism during the 18th century. The change from “classic to romantic” has been studied before through analyses of historical forces, new theories of art, shifts in philosophic outlook, and through modifications in poetic imagery, but by examining attitudes toward probability, Professor Patey has written what is, in many ways, the most impressive account of how these transmutations occurred. What makes it so convincing is his attempt to show that behind many of these changes lay new ideas of how the mind absorbed the materials of perception. Words were often regarded as relatively untrustworthy signs. To the extent that humans were capable of reading the impressions of passion in facial expression and in gesture to that extent were they capable of reading the probable signs of character, and a careful attention to circumstances might lead to a proper decision in a court of law and to proper determinations about life.

After a thorough scholarly examination of the development of probabilistic thinking during the 17th century—an examination which leads to a partial refutation of Foucault’s and Hacking’s insistence upon a sudden break with earlier theories of probability—Professor Patey proceeds to his task: the examination of the effect of such thinking in literary criticism, the application of such principles to 18th-century narrative, and finally his defense of historical scholarship accompanied by a polemic against various modern critical systems which have distorted our reading of the past. Whereas Foucault’s “story” of this period tends to make it into a seamless fabric, Professor Patey sees four distinct stages of development. In the Restoration and early 18th century, emphasis is placed on unity of action. The great figures in this period were René Le Bossu and John Dennis, both of whom are treated with considerable respect. Le Bossu argued that the action of an epic poem was not essentially different from that of one of Aesop’s fables; first the poet selected his moral and then decided how his narrative might be “amplified by probable circumstances.” But everything was to form a unity. Episodes were to be connected in such a manner as to be necessary to the central action. Narratives that violated the rule of unity might be regarded not only as bad art but as bad morality as well, and any type of improbability might be viewed as a kind of impiety—a slander upon the order of God’s creation. Under these circumstances, it is easy enough to understand how a rigid “rules” critic such as Thomas Rymer could express his outrage at Shakespeare’s Othello. He regarded Shakespeare’s tragedy as a “false sign” of the kind of order that prevailed in God’s universe. And this was why, even among his most ardent admirers, Shakespeare could hardly achieve a status above that of a great but still barbaric genius during this period.

Professor Patey identifies the earliest deviation from this “hierarchic” model in 1738 with Henry Pemberton’s Observations on Poetry. What replaces it is an emphasis upon character within narrative and a stress upon particularity. Probability is now looked upon as applicable to consistency in character with a considerable allowance for the marvelous on the grounds that even a fantastic character might be considered probable if it was consistent with itself. Dryden’s praise of Shakespeare’s Caliban was often made the point of departure here, for Dryden suggested that as fantastic as the monster of The Tempest might have been, he was believable as the offspring of the witch, Sycorax. Similarly events were considered probable if the reader experienced them in a manner that awakened his feelings and imagination.

After 1760, considerations about probability entered a third phase under the influence of Thomas Reid and the Scottish Commonsense School of philosophy. Professor Patey lists a number of developments at about this time. There is a shift away from Locke’s insistence that all our knowledge is the result of experience to an emphasis on innate mental categories and in addition to accepting unconscious processes of thought, allowance was made for a special faculty of the mind that was capable of reading probable signs. In a work such as John Ogilvie’s Philosophical and Critical Observations (1774), “discernment,” a quality which includes both feeling and judgment, replaces “sagacity” as the ruling faculty. And instead of teaching the reader to make judgments, the new, sentimental novel had as its end the furthering of “community by teaching the art of passionate communion with others.” This is seen as the goal of novelists such as Sterne and Mackenzie, both of whom frustrate all notions of probability. At the end of the century, critics such as Alison reject the attention that was demanded in the early 18th century and insist upon a kind of reverie that permits the imagination to prevail. The lyric now becomes the highest form, characters are depicted as recalling the past, and digressions, once the bane of the critic, become the very essence of literature.

Professor Patey finds the essential change to romantic literature in the “fusion” of external and internal perception. Objects seem to melt together in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. But to his credit, he perceives much of Coleridge’s criticism not so much as a revolutionary development as an attempt to solve the problems raised by the Augustan critics within the framework created by those critics. Coleridge is given his due as a critic, but he hardly receives more praise than Dennis or Ogilvie.

Somewhat less original but still workmanlike is Professor Patey’s application of these theories to 18th-century narrative. He selects Fielding, Smollett, and Austen as his examples, and his degree of success follows that order as well. The Fielding he writes about is as much a moral philosopher as a novelist, following Le Bossu’s injunctions about moralizing his fable and leading the reader to make the proper judgment from the probable circumstances placed before him. He shows how many of Fielding’s addresses to the reader are precisely in this vein, reminders that the reader must be attentive to the clues about a world which opens to him gradually as a miniature model of a real world and real experiences. What is most notable about Smollett is his use of facial signs which must be read rightly if a character is to prosper, and for those who are unfortunate enough to meet a Ferdinand Count Fathom, a villain cunning enough to counterfeit natural signs, disaster is almost inevitable. Professor Patey provides a statistical breakdown for the language of probability in Smollett and has an appendix analyzing a similar pattern in Jane Austen’s Emma. He argues that Austen is the last major novelist to depend on this system of probability, instancing Henry Tilney’s appeal to ordinary expectation in criticizing Catherine Morland’s heated Gothic imagination in Northanger Abbey and the meaningful glances that make up the most significant pages of Persuasion.

Professor Patey closes his work with a “Concluding Theoretical Postscript” in which he dismisses skeptics about history, the New Criticism that believed it could ignore history, and response theory which attempts to reduce all meaning to the interpretation of the reader. He argues that his book has achieved a view of the past as it really was (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”), and summarizes what he feels is his accomplishment: “This book has attempted to recapture some of the changing meanings for writers of the Augustan period of a various but interrelated vocabulary. . . . To understand these terms and the range of their implications is to understand not something about Augustan verbal usage or philosophic outlook merely, but the very concepts for the Augustans of what it is to be a literary work, how such a work is structured. . .of what and how works mean, and how they mean in relation to other kinds of works.” Patey has written such an excellent book that it might seem cruel to hold him to this manifesto, but since this attitude pervades the work, since the ideas of Foucault are reduced to a kind of fiction (“story”), I feel impelled to point to a few shortcomings in this book. As Mr. Knightley remarked to Emma, “Perfection should not have come quite so soon.”

Professor Patey’s major flaw is his tendency to read the entire age in terms of his view of Fielding. He notes that the reading of signs appears to play a smaller role in Richardson; and while Defoe was very much involved with perception and probability, Professor Patey gets everything wrong about Defoe, even confusing the opinions of Defoe’s fictional characters with Defoe’s beliefs. Svetlana Alpers has shown in The Art of Describing how much the Dutch painters were involved with creating a vivid picture of a real world for its own sake, and it would be a mistake to ignore that impulse in 18th-century fiction. Professor Patey argues that seemingly random events are to be regarded as signs of Providence in that they violated the laws of probability. But the random in Dutch art seems to have functioned simply as part of the technique of the realistic artist. Perhaps Fielding did intend the Pedlar to be a providential surrogate. The same, then, would have to be true of the postilion who helps Joseph, but I am not sure that Fielding tells us this is so.

His selection of writers is far from being representative of the entire “age.” Like Foucault, he is simply creating his own “story.” By ignoring Richard Steele and other writers of “sentimental comedy,” he manages to get his chronology skewed on matters of sensibility and feeling. Although he is excellent on Austen’s use of the vocabulary of probable signs, he seems to miss the degree to which Austen encloses her vocabulary in a system involving right and wrong angles of vision. If, as he argues, memory only emerges as an important force in narrative at the end of the 18th century, how is one to explain its importance in Defoe’s Roxana? He is correct to stress the moral end of much of the art during this period, but he neglects to indicate that Le Bossu’s concept of commencing composition with the moral had at least as many detractors as proponents in England. Finally, he has a lengthy footnote in which he attacks the New Criticism for finding irony in Defoe, and for other schools of criticism which made Sterne into a phenomenologist and Richardson a “student of the psychology of writing.” Now it was the historical scholars who argued for irony in Defoe and mostly those influenced by the New Criticism who argued against it. Alpers devoted a chapter of her book to the fascination with writing in Dutch painting. Just because Derrida has made us conscious of writing, just because it has become fashionable in critical discourse to comment on it, does not mean that it was not a matter of particular interest to the Restoration and 18th century in England. And who but Professor Patey would deny that the phenomenological school of criticism has enhanced our appreciation of Sterne?

Clio, the muse of history, often proves to be a less dependable mistress than she might at first appear; but if she is pursued with a touch of cynicism and the knowledge that we can never and should never abandon our view of her through modern eyes, she can provide her lover pleasure and some degree of fidelity. It may never be possible to separate out probable thinking as a systematic body of thought from its existence as part of the vocabulary of perception and experience during this period. Novels are not philosophical treatises, and to read them as such is an error. Comparisons with Don Quixote may tell us more about Abraham Adams’ inability to pay attention to ordinary existence than contemporary treatises on probability. But Professor Patey has shown us patterns of thought which unquestionably appear in 18th-century narrative. He has increased our understanding of these works and provided us with the knowledge to change the way we read them. And he has written more learnedly about 18th-century criticism than anyone since Ralph Cohen published The Art of Discrimination in 1964.


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