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  • Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit and the Modernist Literary CharacterRethinking the Subject through the Everyday
  • Federico Bellini

The last decade has seen a veritable resurgence of the theme of habit in philosophical and critical debates. While for decades the preference had been accorded to either the active forces of will and desire or the contingency and abruptness of the Event, thinkers have recently come back to habit from different paths and perspectives (Bennett et al.; Sparrow and Hutchinson; Carlisle). The polarization of attention around the theme of habit almost seems to mirror the veritable explosion of the discourse on habit which took place about two centuries ago. Even though the philosophical reflection on habit can be traced at least as far back as Aristotle it was at the end of the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century that the theme of habit, as asserted in the entry habitude of the Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle, became “a new philosophical challenge” as an effect of “the refusal of innate ideas; the sensualist project deriving the modes of understanding from experience (generally exterior experience); the refusal, finally, of Hume’s category of causality and its reduction to pure habit” (1108; my translation). In France, habit was an extremely popular theme among spiritualist or proto-spiritualist philosophers such as Maine de Biran and Ravaisson, who considered it the bridge between spirit and matter. In Germany, Hegel tackled the problem of habit in The Philosophy of Right, making it the basis of custom on which a true ethical life is grounded. In Italy, reprehensible antisocial habits fell under the magnifying glass of the Turin positivist school and became a pivotal part of Lombroso’s analysis of the criminal mind.

In the English speaking world, Samuel Butler (1835–1902) was probably the most original contributor to the debate on habit in the second part of the nineteenth century. He used the notion of habit to challenge Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, conceiving habit as the channel through which unconscious memory can be passed down from one generation to the next, preserved in the experience of the species and its determination to evolve into more complex forms (see Willey). Samuel Butler’s theories have been widely disregarded among professional philosophers, because of his idiosyncratic and counter-intuitive use of the notion [End Page 111] of habit and due to the fact that his arguments have often been seen as amateurish. Nonetheless, several leading twentieth-century thinkers, such as Gregory Bateson and Gilles Deleuze, have repeatedly extolled the visionary power of Butler’s ideas and admitted their debts towards them. Moreover, Butler’s theories of habit were influential among several modernist writers, such as H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Valery Larbaud, and E. M. Forster and they contributed both to these authors’ understanding of the crisis of modern subjectivity and to their attention for the representation of habitual behavior and the everyday.

In this paper I intend to demonstrate how Butler’s theory of habit—in particular as it is presented in his seminal work Life and Habit—once it is disentangled from the anti-Darwinian debates on the theory of evolution from which it first emerged, can offer a considerable contribution to the contemporary philosophical debate and allow a better understanding of the history of the idea of habit at the turn of the century. Moreover, I intend to show how the import of these ideas was promptly acknowledge by several modernist writers, who turned to Butler in an effort to investigate the habitual side of life through their characters. In doing so, they were moved by the belief that the modern ethos, as well as the modern idea of subjectivity, could find their proper mode of expression precisely in that previously neglected dimension of life.

Butler’s theory of habit stems from the heated late nineteenth-century debate concerning Darwinism and the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Willey 70 and ff.) had a pivotal influence on Butler’s life and thought, determining his abandonment of the Christian faith and his conversion to agnosticism. Butler sent his early works to Darwin, who responded kindly and admitted...