More on Bernard and Zola

At a recent book reading/signing event, I was asked to expand on Bernard’s philosophy; and specifically his concept of experimental determinism that formed the basis of his scientific method. Determinism exists in many forms, and referring to its behavioural context, Bernard states:

          “Man is forced to be free for this reason alone; that he has a conscience and judgement. His liberty flows from this. He is free to do good or bad; but when he has done bad, remorse proves to him that he was indeed free, and that he could have done otherwise, had he so wished.” (Bernard, The Cahier Rouge, translated by Hoff, Guillemin and Guillemin).

….and so Bernard endorses the existence of ‘free will’ in human thought – and action. This is in contrast to the hard determinism of philosophers  Taine, Comte and Littré, who denied the existence of ‘free will’. They maintained that only heredity, environment and prevailing circumstance defined human destiny.

It is for his scientific (experimental) determinism that Bernard has become so well known. He committed himself to destroying the unhelpful concept of vitalisme. For centuries, scientists had used it to explain the apparent inconsistency of biological systems and experimental results. Bernard’s determinism implied an expectation of identical results from experiments performed under identical conditions. For him, any divergent results indicated that the conditions of two apparently similar experiments must indeed have been different. There was no virtue in attributing such divergence to vitalisme. The principle of experimental determinism is fully explained in Bernard’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine’ – still being used 150 years after its publication in courses on the philosophy of science.

I commented in a previous blog that after Bernard’s death, and courtesy of the intermediary Henry Céard (ex-medical student and now a budding writer) Emile Zola enthusiastically adopted Bernard’s experimental method. I believe that he quite inappropriately used it to explain the behaviour of the fictitious characters in the novels comprising his Rougon-Macquart cycle. Had Bernard still been alive at that time, I think that he would also have angrily disagreed with the way that Zola used his principles in his essay, ‘the Experimental Novel’. This was Zola’s guide-book for the budding naturaliste author, in which he honours Bernard for the inspiration it gave him. Novelists certainly use characters as ingredients or reagents in their plots. However, in contrast to scientists, the results of the interactions are pre-conceived by the author. This is not experimentation!

Zola heartily embraced determinism, but one must ask if he truly believed in the ‘scientific’ basis of his writing, or whether he simply used the concept to support an approach which he had already tried, tested and found to be successful in early novels such as Thérèse Raquin.


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