By pursuing a working life in science, Cavendish made his life an experiment of another kind. In the laboratory he adapted nature to respond to his questions, and outside the laboratory he did not accept the life course that was his birthright but adapted it to his natural interest. To practice natural science was, as he said, to settle for “tolerable certainty.” To experiment with life’s possibilities was to follow a path that has not been completely charted.
By his choices Cavendish
In contemplating Cavendish, Wilson
Blagden spoke of the “temper & character of the philosophers of this country.”3 In the eighteenth century the English distinguished between character and temperament, as we do. We speak of “character” as one part of “personality,” a word they occasionally used, the other part being temperament; character is shaped by life experiences, temperament largely by inheritance.4 After a meeting, Blagden wrote in his diary, “talk about Mr. Cavendish, & explanation of character.”5 Unfortunately Blagden did not say what the explanation was, as it would have been the best informed of any we have. In this chapter, we consider the question.
We can speak confidently of Cavendish the man of science, but can we speak of Cavendish the complete man? In a course on chemistry given in 1855, the lecturer
Of the characterizations of Cavendish, Humphry Davy’s
“Greatness” implies superior abilities or accomplishments, usually both. With respect to what is great, a person is seen to hold advantages over most others. Because the judgment has a subjective element, consensus usually is not expected or attained,though there is a measure of agreement on Cavendish’s advantages (and disadvantages). Wilson, who approached his subject as a “student of chemistry,” said that Cavendish made no significant contribution to the apparatus or instruments of chemistry, in which regard he could not begin to compare with Hales
Let us consider some other merits of Cavendish’s. He had mathematical-theoretical and experimental skills of a high order, a rare combination
Cavendish’s early biographers were scientific men, who were naturally more interested in Davy’s
Two passages of Wilson’s have been frequently quoted, one having to do with Cavendish’s range of emotions, the other with the way his mind worked. Cavendish’s character “can be described only by a series of negations. He did not love; he did not hate; he did not hope; he did not fear; he did not worship as others do. He separated himself from his fellow men, and apparently from God. There was nothing earnest, enthusiastic, heroic, or chivalrous in his nature, and as little was there anything mean, groveling, or ignoble. He was almost passionless.”22 For all of its positive qualities, its fairness, truthfulness, and insightfulness, Wilson’s biography is a vivid portrait of Victorian negations, of a man deficient in piety, poetry, friends and family bonds, of a man estranged from humanity, who cared only for science. We recognize a foreshadowing of the portrait in the judgment on men who abuse science by Cavendish’s evangelical neighbor John Venn
Denied the everyday human qualities, Wilson’s Cavendish is allowed only those traits required for his scientific work: intelligence, good eyes, and skillful hands. His horizon was correspondingly constricted. “His Theory of the Universe seems to have been, that it consisted solely of a multitude of objects which could be weighed, numbered, and measured; and the vocation to which he considered himself called was, to weigh, number, and measure as many of those objects as his allotted three score years and ten would permit.”23 From the testimonies, Wilson decided that Cavendish’s brain “seems to have been but a calculating engine.”
Normality and Eccentricity
In this section and the next we consider two perspectives on Cavendish the “great Man with extraordinary singularities,” those of eccentricity and autism
There has been little scientific interest in eccentricity. To make a start, the psychologist David Weeks and his colleagues undertook a psychological study of about 1000 self-professed British eccentrics. They included in their study about 150 historical figures who were thought of as eccentric in their time. Cavendish, who is one of them, they characterized as shy and introverted “to a highly eccentric degree,” whose “selective avoidance of people probably amounted to a social phobia.”28
They single out five eccentric traits as most important, four of which apply to Cavendish: nonconformity, creativity, strongly motivating curiosity, and obsession with one or more hobbyhorses.29 The fifth trait is idealism, or the ambition to change the world. Cavendish no doubt favored improvements, but he showed no dissatisfaction with the society in which he was fortunately placed.
In the eighteenth century certain traits of character were seen as distinctively English for which there was a word, which entered dictionaries near the end of Cavendish’s life, “Englishness.” Earlier the expression “English national character” was used, meaning the same. “National character” has fallen out of favor for its suggestion of ethnic and racial personality traits, but in the eighteenth century it was thought to stand for a valid concept of social analysis.30 Observations of English national character at the time were often perceptive, but their generalization to all English was fanciful; although institutions and manners in England were distinctive, they did not come about through a particular collection of national personality traits. Given this admission, the concept of English national character still has a limited use for us as a contemporary benchmark for assessing Cavendish’s behavior. By informing us what was thought of as native behavior in Cavendish’s day,31 English national character helps us recognize what was seen as eccentric about him. In this section, “national character” means behaviors that English and foreign observers often regarded as distinctively, though not uniquely, English. We are dealing with subjective perceptions.
The English had a problem with national character; for it implied uniformity, the opposite of individuality, a valued trait. Priestley
In a historical study of English national character, Paul Langford identifies six “supposed traits of Englishness“: eccentricity, decency, candor
Decency, a second presumed national trait, we recognize in Cavendish’s management of his farms; he restrained his steward from taking actions that could hurt delinquent tenants. Cavendish was known for his candor, or love of truth, a third presumed national trait. He had the “most amiable candor” and the “strictest integrity,”
Foreigners who were sensitive to English inconsistencies “made an exception for taciturnity, one constant characteristic of an Englishman,” a presumed fourth national trait. To a foreigner, English clubs seemed quiet, their members respecting one another’s silences.50 When dining at one of his dining clubs, Cavendish suddenly broke the silence. “I am told that you see the stars round, Dr. Herschel
English gentlemen were known for their reserve
English males were brought up to behave “with extreme caution where women were concerned,” and some never learned how to relate to them. With exceptions, Cavendish avoided women, whom we might think of as a variety of strangers, but this would overlook the intensity of his aversion, as Wilson described it. In his neighborhood, Cavendish was regarded as a woman hater,73 and at the Royal Society Club he gave the impression that he despised men who liked female company.74 A supposed instance of this occurred at a dinner of the Club, where members noticed a pretty girl watching them from a window across the street, and they gathered around their window to admire her. Thinking they were looking at the moon, Cavendish joined them at the window, but when he saw what they were about, he turned away in “intense disgust.”75 Misogyny
Relations between masters and servants in English homes were characterized by an absence of human warmth
Relations between masters and servants were a more rigorous instance of a general characteristic, coldness. “England is not the country of emotions,” a foreign visitor put it.82 One evening after Cavendish had left the company at the Monday Club, Blagden and Aubert talked about him, agreeing that he had “no affections, but always meant well.”83 Blagden
The final presumed trait of Englishness is energy
Of the six traits of Englishness, in the liberal interpretation given to them here, two of them, taciturnity and shyness, contain nearly all of Cavendish’s markedly eccentric behaviors. They relate to his silences, solitariness, wariness of strangers, aversion to women, and emotional coldness. As we have seen, his eccentricities were extensions of behaviors thought to be characteristically English; they were not original departures from them but confirmations of them. Other eccentric behaviors of his are not particularly English nor are they very eccentric; for example, the regularity of his daily activities and his old-fashioned dress.
Eccentric behavior can seem comical or absurd, as it should, since the judgment is made by normal people, whose normal behavior makes sense to them. Lest we leave Cavendish at the mercy of his eccentricities, we should be aware that there is another way of looking at them, which is thought to be quintessentially English. In the early nineteenth century, a genre of popular writing was invented, the eccentric biography, consisting of collections of brief biographies of persons famed for their eccentricities. An early English author of an eccentric biography John Timbs wrote in English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, “how often do we find eccentricity in the mind of persons of good understanding.” However “outlandish, odd, queer” the eccentric appears, he “may possess claims to our notice which the man who is ever studying the fitness of things would not so readily present.”91 Later in the century, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill welcomed eccentricity as an antidote to oppressive popular opinion, which he expressed as a mathematical observation: “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained.”92 In the next century, Edith Sitwell, author of English Eccentrics, and herself an eccentric, wrote an appreciation of eccentricity: “the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”93 In his history of aristocracy, the English baron Lord Montagu of Beaulieu writes that an aristocrat did not need to make a display of his wealth or observe flawless etiquette or restrict his social life to his own stratum: “individuality and eccentricity, the product of security, were class characteristics of the British aristocracy.”94 The psychologists of eccentricity Weeks and Kate Ward defend eccentrics: “in an era when human beings seem typecast by their culture or genes, eccentrics are a refreshing reminder of everyone’s intrinsic uniqueness. By heedlessly flouting norms of behavior that most of us never question, they remind us how much of our liberty we forfeit without thought, and how great our ability is, in fact, to forge our own identities and shape our own lives.”95 With the positive case for eccentricity in mind, we look at Cavendish again. Mills recognized eccentricity as “strength of character,” and Wilson recognized Cavendish’s “peculiarities” as “tokens of a strongly developed will.” If we bring their thoughts together with Langford’s on eccentricity as a trait of Englishness and Sitwell’s and Montagu’s on genius and aristocracy, we have our subject, Cavendish the willful investigator of nature and an eccentric example of the complete Englishman.
From that positive perspective, which admittedly ignores much else that can be said about Cavendish’s eccentricity, we see his shyness not so much as a handicap as a useful protection of his privacy, freeing him for what he knew was best for him, scientific work. Likewise we think of his shyness as the social expression of a native circumspection, which in the laboratory took the objective form of the “error of the observer” and “corrections” for the totality of extraneous factors influencing the experiment. We think of his solitariness and taciturnity not as social withdrawal but as an indication of self-sufficiency and maturity.96 When Cavendish did speak, Playfair
In our biography of Cavendish in 1996, we said that because of his strange behaviors he invites a psychological approach, but that it was not the approach we took, as we explained. At the end of the biography, we briefly mentioned possible psychological descriptions of his behavior such as social anxiety, shyness, and embarrassment, and we pointed out that he showed “autistic-like traits,” which we listed.101 As a source, we cited an earlier publication by Sacks, containing a moving account of the autistic scientist Temple Grandin.102
We published an improved version of our biography three years later, and we again briefly brought up psychological descriptions, though this time we left out any mention of autism, since we wanted the biography to be solid. Autism is a disorder that begins in childhood, and almost nothing is known about Cavendish’s childhood, and also certain criteria for autism seemed to us a questionable fit. Since then we find in recent writings on the subject a growing acceptance of a more inclusive understanding of autism together with a trend in clinical thinking that favors an autistic continuum approach. In this section, we consider Sacks’s diagnosis of Cavendish’s autism, which was written up in The New York Times, “A Disorder Far beyond Eccentricity.”103
Definitions and diagnostic criteria of autism are given in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, and in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published by the World Health Organization. A fifth edition of the DSM was published in 2012, with changes in the classification and diagnosis of autism, but since most of the recent literature on autism refers to the fourth edition, which is not contradicted by the new edition, we use the earlier edition here. “Classic” autism is a disorder with three areas of difficulties. The first is social interaction, which includes unresponsiveness to others, lack of friends, disinterest in sharing, and atypical eye contact, facial expressions, and responses to the emotions of other people. The second is verbal communication, which includes difficulty with language and conversation and atypical intonation, pitch, and emphasis in speech. The third is repetitive behaviors, which include preoccupation with narrow interests, insistence on fixed routines, and mannerisms such as hand flapping. Other difficulties commonly found in autistic persons include intellectual disability, heightened or diminished sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as sight and sound, and perceptual problems in making sense of sensory stimuli.104 Because of the range of autistic behaviors, it is meaningful to speak of an “autism spectrum disorder.” At one extreme of the spectrum are persons who are unable to speak and are otherwise severely handicapped. The autism we are interested in is at the other extreme, the normal- or high-IQ end, which in DSM and ICD (10th edition) enters as two separate and closely related categories: high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome.105
Ordinarily autism is diagnosed early, the average age falling between three and four; in the case of Asperger’s syndrome, it is often later, six or older.106 The one reference we have to Cavendish’s early years comes from Blagden
To make the case, it is not enough to check off the symptoms in the diagnostic criteria as laid out in the DSM or ICD. Agreement between the symptoms and the criteria is important in making a reliable diagnosis, but so are the severity of the symptoms and their effect on the disorder. The determination normally requires clinical training. In this section, we show that a good many of Cavendish’s personality traits are similar to ones commonly found in persons who are diagnosed with autism. The match is suggestive and perhaps significant, but on this basis alone we cannot conclude that Cavendish was autistic.
Autistic people “tend to be unconcerned about fashion or whether what they wear is contemporary.”108 They can differ from others in their way of moving, owing to poor balance and coordination.109 Walking with scarcely any arm motion is an autistic trait.110 Clumsiness is another, according to Gillberg’s criteria, an alternative to the DSM’s criteria, often preferred by clinical workers.111 Cavendish’s dress was always the same; he walked with one hand behind his back; he “bustled up to us in his odd way.”112
Withdrawal upon eye contact, involuntary vocalizations and repetitive patterns of speech are common autistic behaviors. DSM criteria for Asperger’s syndrome refer to “abnormalities in inflection,” “talking too much” or “too little.” Speech can be “unusually high-pitched” and have unusual “stress and rhythm.” Autistic persons speak in facts, and without wishing to, they are often tactless. They frequently fall silent for no clear reason.113 Cavendish’s speech was shrill and hesitant, and he repeated parts of speech. As we saw in the previous section, he was usually silent, but when he was seated near persons he liked, he frequently talked a “great deal.”114 Eye contact could bring an immediate end to conversation, and when approached by a stranger, he might abruptly turn away, perhaps with a cry.
Autistic persons lack the emotional relatedness we call “affections.” As a result, they learn social skills by conscious observation and study rather than acquiring them instinctively as other persons do. As we have seen, Cavendish’s colleagues agreed that he showed “no affections, but always meant well.” If he lacked affections, he learned compensating social skills, which translated as “always meant well.”
A craving for solitude can be a sign of autism. Solitude is a powerful “emotional restorative,” above all if the autistic person is occupied with an absorbing interest.115 Cavendish showed “a singular love for solitariness.”116 Except for the servants’ wing, Cavendish’s houses were places of solitude. His laboratory was such a place, where he pursued his interest, the investigation of the physical world, and his study was another, where he read and wrote about the physical world; if he was autistic, he experienced no impairment in either place. On his deathbed he had no parting words for anyone: consistent to the end, he banished his servant so that he could experience his last moments in the “tranquility of perfect solitude.”117
Autistic persons can acquire encyclopedic knowledge in their fields of special interest
Autistic persons have a strong desire for certainty and its companions, objectivity, perfection, accuracy, and truth. Early in life they are often drawn to mathematics with its logical truths, possibly developing a skill in it.122 Cavendish
Autism was unknown to the medical world of the eighteenth century, but there is little doubt that there were autistic persons then, who could have included a gifted natural philosopher. Simon Baron-Cohen, an authority on autism, explains how this could come about: “People with autism, whose minds differ from what we consider typical, frequently display both disability and exceptional aptitude. Genes that contribute to autism may overlap with genes for the uniquely human ability to understand how the world works in extraordinary detail—to see beauty in patterns inherent in nature, technology, music and math.” He suggests that genes associated with autism persist over generations because they are co-inherited with genes responsible for mathematical and technical talent, which society welcomes.126
Eccentricity, Autism, and Other Explanations
In the previous two sections, we looked at Cavendish’s life from the perspectives of eccentricity and autism. In this section we look at Sacks’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, and we also consider alternative diagnoses: shyness, introversion, and several medical disorders. We begin with the way Cavendish was seen by his contemporaries. His expression showed a “nervous irritation”;127 his manner was “nervous.”
From Cavendish’s time to the present, he has been regarded as eccentric. His prominent eccentricities, as we have seen, were exaggerations of generally admired traits of the English “national character“: his inordinate shyness and penchant for solitude, his coldness, possibly his special interest to the near exclusion of all other interests, and possibly some of his regularities. Just how extreme these traits appeared at the time is open to question.
Let us consider possible explanations of his eccentricity. Obvious ones are shyness and introversion, which although they do not rise to the level of disorders can be mental handicaps, often severe. We saw that among strangers, Cavendish showed embarrassment, self-consciousness, and tension; he avoided eye contact, fell silent, and on occasion fled. In the event that a stranger had interesting information, he showed a mix of avoidance and attraction typical of very shy people.133 In other ways, Cavendish was atypical of shy people: he probably did not have low self-esteem and did not spend time thinking about his feelings and actions and how they appeared to other persons, mental states associated with shy behavior.
Introversion and reserve have different motivations than shyness. People who are introverted or reserved voluntarily limit their contact with others, since they gain no reward from it; people who are shy avoid contact because they fear it, not because they are unsociable.134 Introverts, according to one study, are insistent on ethical standards, reliable, cautious, retiring, unemotional and have few close friends. According to another study, they are self-sufficient, serious, silent, skeptical, critical, precise, objective, rigid, and prone to sulk. They are rule-bound, limited in interests, hard workers, and retiring, especially with the opposite sex. They are drawn less to people than to impersonal objects such as mathematics, music, and science.135 Like shyness, introversion is largely inborn. Introversion describes Cavendish, but it leaves out what shyness includes, unease and awkwardness, which he showed, and its motivation does not fit very well; he gained reward from contact with others if they had knowledge that interested him.
We pass from handicap to disorder. For a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, the DSM requires the presence of several social and behavioral impairments.136 Under social, two or more of the following four criteria must be met:
Impairment of nonverbal behaviors; for example, eye to eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gestures.
Lack of relationships.
Lack of spontaneity in seeking out and responding to persons with shared interests.
Lack of social or emotional reciprocity.
Cavendish satisfied all four criteria. Under nonsocial behavioral criteria, at least one of the following must be met:
Interests restricted in subject and abnormal in intensity.
Adherence to nonfunctional routines.
Repetitive physical mannerisms.
Preoccupation with parts of objects.137
Cavendish satisfied the first of the four criteria. By DSM criteria, then, Cavendish showed Asperger behaviors. Gillberg’s twenty criteria for Asperger’s syndrome are divided into six categories. One of the six, “speech and language peculiarities,” contains five parts, at least three of which must be met: delay in the development of speech, superficial perfection in expressive language, pedantic language, impaired comprehension of language, and “odd prosody, peculiar voice characteristics.”
Being a professional, Sacks’s
1Striking literalness and directness of mind.
3Passion for calculation and quantitative exactitude.
5Stubbornly held ideas.
6Rigorously exact, rather than figurative, language.
7Virtual incomprehension of social behaviors and human relationships.139
Sacks’s agreement with the DSM is not immediately obvious, since he uses different words than the manual, and he pays more attention to Cavendish’s way of thinking than to his social behavior. The evidence for the working of Cavendish’s
Before we agree that Cavendish was autistic, we should consider the adequacy of the evidence. At least five arguments call into question the diagnosis. Because the arguments have their own weaknesses, we consider counter-arguments as well. First, because the testimony about Cavendish came from people who knew him late in his life, the central developmental feature of autism goes unaddressed for lack of evidence. Second, Cavendish bore similarities to today’s scientists, who often are obsessive, follow routines, exhibit social anxieties, and in general show autistic-like traits. They behave this way to do their work, about which they have strong feelings; they are rarely autistic. Third, Cavendish met frequently with many colleagues in the city, an intensity of social activity unusual for an autistic person. A counter-argument is that his interaction was highly selective, consistent with his private ways and narrow interests, his social world being a direct extension of his special interest, the physical world. Fourth, Cavendish’s peculiarities did not seriously interfere with his chosen life and if anything supported it by sheltering him. By contrast, people with autism have a hard time managing their lives, requiring help with their work, daily affairs, and finances. A counter argument is that until Cavendish was past fifty, he lived at home where he could count on his father’s help, and when he left home he took on an associate; and he always had servants. Fifth, Cavendish made major changes in his life, and autistic persons tend to dislike major changes, and if they make them, they are unlikely to have initiated them. In 1782 he took a house in a suburb, Hampstead, which served temporarily as a country house. In 1784, he bought a house on Bedford Square. In 1785, he bought a permanent country house on Clapham Common. In 1782 he took on an associate, Blagden, and in three summers, 1785–87, he and Blagden made long journeys. The counter-argument is that the changes may have been integral to his scientific plans, and he may have found the journeys sufficiently interesting to distract him from the break in his routines. As a general point, it is not uncommon for gifted autistic persons to do things that are atypical of autistic persons.
Two more arguments against Cavendish’s autism have been raised by Fred Volkmar
If Cavendish had a disorder, autism is not the only conceivable one. Sacks’s
How Do We Decide?
Granted that Cavendish had autistic-like traits, were these traits the result of a neurodevelopmental disorder? If we answer yes, we agree that the evidence supports a diagnosis of a disorder, that the disorder was in all likelihood autism, and that the posthumous diagnosis of Cavendish’s autism is based on more than a superficial match of his behavior with autistic traits according to current texts on autism. We acknowledge at the same time that the dividing line between autism and normality is imprecise. If our answer to the above question is no, we have alternatives to fall back on. Either the evidence is insufficient to decide one way or the other, or the evidence is unfavorable. In either case, we can say that Cavendish showed eccentric behaviors
There are two strong arguments in favor of Cavendish’s autism. One is Oliver Sacks’s
Let us tentatively agree with Sacks that Cavendish was probably autistic, and let us also agree that any diagnosis of autism for a person living in the eighteenth century is subject to uncertainties. In light of the agreement, and given the ever unsettled state of medical definitions and diagnostic criteria of autism, it is reasonable to speak of Cavendish as having a cluster of traits rather than to make the essentialist claim that he was autistic, in the way we say a person was blind, for example. We would regard the cluster of traits known from Cavendish’s adult years as sufficient for us to talk about him as a person who very likely had autistic traits, not just autistic-like traits, at the same time acknowledging that the label “autism” is problematic. We would recognize that whatever wording we adopt and whatever weight we give to the historical evidence, we cannot alter a basic reservation: any autistic diagnosis of Cavendish has an irreducible speculative element. This approach is compatible with the scientific caution of Baron-Cohen, who writes: “there are clues that Cavendish may have had some degree of Asperger’s syndrome. He shows abnormalities in social relationships, communication, and some routine-bound repetitive behavior. We must assume that his scientific pursuits were strongly obsessional in nature. However, missing from the historical record are any details of his childhood.”149
There are “degrees of autism,” Baron-Cohen writes, and “you could have a little or a lot of it.”150 It is hard to know how much Cavendish may have had, since he was highly intelligent, and by the time we get to know him he had had a long while to learn how to adapt to or to conceal certain difficulties. If, as we tentatively assume here, the hypothesis of autism holds the advantage, Cavendish had a sufficient degree of autism that if he were to undergo a psychological evaluation today, he would probably be diagnosed with autism. This statement is hypothetical in another way too: he would not have sought help, since he was getting along fine with his life. A diagnosis of autism does not imply a need for treatment.
According to the official terminology of the DSM, Cavendish’s autism would have been either Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, both located at one end of the “autism spectrum disorder.”151 Baron-Cohen uses an alternative terminology because he considers it uncertain if the two high functioning classes should be called “disorders” in the first place. Persons diagnosed with “autism spectrum condition” would, by definition, have social difficulties, but they would often have above-average nonsocial skills. The term “condition” acknowledges that they have a disability arising from neurobiological factors, but it is not a “global disability, and may in some individuals result in talent.”152 Cavendish exercised his talent with little or no sign of disability. Baron-Cohen’s “condition” describes Cavendish’s behavior better than “disorder.”
How do we decide between the interpretations, or can we? Did Cavendish show “extraordinary singularities” because he was autistic, in which case he had no choice? Or, making allowance for factors other than autism that affect behavior, did he have a choice? Was his personality one of countless possible personalities compatible with a normal brain? It seems to me that the sources on Cavendish’s life support both interpretations about equally well, and that the sources are too incomplete to decide between them with high confidence. Coming to psychology as an outsider, I am a part of the limitation. For my part, I think it is doubtful we can ever know the answer.
Many readers will surely agree with Sacks that the evidence for Cavendish’s autism is compelling. Those who do not agree on the grounds of evidence may still have a preference: based on what they know about Cavendish and about autism, and trusting to their intuition, they may decide that Cavendish was or was not autistic.
With any psychological evaluation of a historical figure, a red flag comes up. The path I take through a familiar minefield of objections to psychologizing the nonliving allows me to introduce scientific literature into the sources on Cavendish’s life without giving him a label, which constantly undergoes revision. From a psychological perspective, aspects of Cavendish’s life and work are brought together through a common explanation rather than through metaphor and analogy if at all. This is clear if our preference is for an autistic diagnosis, but if we find Cavendish to be an English eccentric of his time who lacked the biological basis of autism, still his traits of shyness or possibly introversion account for a range of his behaviors and correlate them. With the benefit of clinical observations, Cavendish appears less weird, and he joins the human race. The latter would be a truism if it were not for a popular characterization of him as robot. Far from disparaging Cavendish, a psychological view endows this truth-seeker with considerable humanity. His strangeness is seen as normal behavior for a minority of persons who share his disorder or eccentric personality traits. We have a different view of him and a different feeling about him, affecting our interpretation of him.
For all of his privileges and native gifts, Cavendish had a psychological liability, whatever its origin, over which he had little if any control. Its outward expression took the form of extraordinary shyness and embarrassment, which could be viewed as indications of unconfidence, however unfounded it was. From an objective standpoint, there is no question that he felt distress in some personal encounters. We have only to recall the image of Cavendish at Banks’s door, frozen in place until new arrivals forced him to enter. What is important for his scientific work is that he had got to Banks’s threshold, and that he did cross it to join the guests, some of whom were likely to be discomforting strangers. He did not allow his shyness to stand in the way of a public life and with it a successful activity in science. Day in and day out he arrived at the threshold, so to speak, and crossed it and made his entrances. Had he not been so determined, he might still have pursued science, but it would have been as a reclusive hobby. To contribute to science required him to come into society and assert his presence. He did what was necessary to achieve what he desired.
In Cavendish perhaps more than in any of his contemporaries, the traits of temperament and character reinforce the traits required of a scientific researcher. We see this in the value he placed on facts, in the objectivity
Consistent with his cautious nature, Cavendish was conservative
The historian Herbert Butterfield described the civilization that emerged from the Scientific Revolution as dissolving all traditions before it, “having eyes for nothing save a future of brave new worlds,” a civilization “exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as that of Nineveh and Babylon.”153 One of its bearers, Henry Cavendish appeared strange to his contemporaries. That may have had less to do with his eccentricities than with the intensity with which he lived a life of naural philosophy
John M. Cooper (2012b, 16; 2012a, 2–6).
Charles Blagden to Joseph Priestley, 11 June 1785, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale.
The English in the eighteenth century were likely to speak of “character” where we speak of “personality,” but we note that an eighteenth-century meaning of “personality” was a distinctive individual character, which is close to our meaning. Character and temperament have long been distinguished by psychologists: character is what people become intentionally; temperament is their inborn emotional predisposition. For the purposes of psychobiological research, the distinction is put differently, though not incompatibly. Character and temperament each have distinct brain systems and independent psychological dimensions. Temperament is the “dynamic organization of the psychobiological systems that regulate automatic responses to emotional stimuli,” and it is “moderately heritable and stable throughout life.” Character, by contrast, is “moderately influenced by family environment and only weakly heritable,” and it develops into adulthood. To temperament belong the “automatic associative responses to emotional stimuli that determine habits and moods”; to character belong “self-aware concepts that influence our voluntary intentions and attitudes.” C. Robert Cloninger (1994, 266–267).
14 July 1795, Charles Blagden Diary, Royal Society 3:65(back).
Introductory lecture to a course on chemistry at the National Medical College by Lewis H. Steiner (1855, 6).
Edward Thorpe to Joseph Larmor, 7 Feb. 1920, Larmor Papers, Royal Society Library, 1972.
W.R. Aykroyd (1935; 1970, 75–76, 78).
Blagden may be an exception, but he was paid by Cavendish.
John Walker to James Edward Smith, 16 Mar. 1810 in Lady Smith (1832, 170–171).
Charles Blagden to B. Delessert, 20 Mar. 1810, draft, Blagden Letters, Royal Society, D.44g.
Georges Cuvier (1961, 236–238).
Ibid., 186. Quantity being the distinguishing mark of Cavendish’s work in Wilson’s view, he may have looked to the bible for a passage to give it proper emphasis, though he could have found it elsewhere: “Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.” (Wisdom 11:21).
Anon., “Mechanical Calculator” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mechanical_calculator). Anon., “Arithmometer” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/arithmometer). Computer History Museum, “The Babbage Engine” (http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/engines). Simon Schaffer (1994, 203).
The auction catalog of Cavendish’s instruments lists two calculating machines, but no description is given, item 69. Catalogue of Sundry Very Curious and Valuable Mathematical, Philosophical, and Optical Instruments.
Sophie Aymes-Stokes and Laurent Mellet (2012). Victoria Caroll (2008, 12–13). Anon, “Eccentricity (Behavior)” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eccentricity_(behavior)).
David Weeks and Jamie James (1995, 10–12, 42, 49–50, 107–108).
Ibid., 27–28, 32–33, 181–182. They regard eccentricity as a continuum of behaviors, which vary over time, place, and social level. Their empirical findings tell us about categories of eccentricity and about the personality traits that accompany them, but their method of selection of eccentric persons fails to identify some kinds of eccentrics. If Cavendish had been alive at the time of their studies, he would not have been included, for he would not have volunteered as a self-defined eccentric to undergo an interview with the researchers. An atypical eccentric in their sample, Cavendish was an introvert who held normal ideas, whereas most of their eccentrics were extroverts who held eccentric ideas.
Paul Langford (2000, 1–2, 7–8, 26).
Peter Mandler (2006, 2, 53, 57).
Before Priestley, the philosopher David Hume used almost the same words: because of the “great liberty and independency which every man enjoys,” the English “of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character.” Langford (2000, 22, 291–292, 300–303).
Thomas Young, (1816–1824, 444)
Wilson (1851, 167, 170).
Charles Blagden to William Cullen, 17 June 1784, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale.
Humphry Davy, quoted in Thorpe, ibid., 5–6.
Young (1816–1824, 436)
Henry Cavendish, “Plan of a Treatise on Mechanicks,” Cavendish Mss., VI(b), 45:17.
Charles Blagden to William Cullen, 7 June 1784, draft, Blagden Letterbook, Yale.
Langford (2000, 90–92).
Ibid., 96, 99.
Henry Cavendish to Charles Hatchett, 15 Oct. 1802; this letter was enclosed in a letter by Charles Hatchett to Joseph Banks, 24 Oct. 1802, BL Add Mss 38424, f. 160.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 24 and 26 Oct. 1784, BM(NH), DTC 3:83–86.
Henry Cavendish to Martin van Marum, published in Cavendish (1788b, 231–232).
Joseph Banks to William Hamilton, 30 Nov. 1794, BL, Edgerton 2641, 155–156.
Langford (2000, 107, 119–120).
Wilson (1851, 175–176).
Pepys, quoted ibid., 168.
[George Augustus Henry Cavendish and Charles Blagden], Gentleman’s Magazine (March, 1810, 292). Family obituary of Henry Cavendish.
Thomas Thomson (1830–1831, 1:337).
Langford (2000, 238, 249, 255).
Children, quoted, ibid., 169.
From K. Bruhn’s Life of Alexander von Humboldt, quoted in James Thorne (1876, 1:111).
A fellow of the Royal Society, quoted in Wilson (1851, 170). John Timbs regarded this anecdote as apocryphal, though he used it all the same. It may be apocryphal, but we have no way of knowing, and it is consistent with less colorful reports of Cavendish’s aversion to women. Timbs (1866, 1:143).
Brougham (1845, 258–259).
15 Sep. 1794, Charles Blagden Diary, Royal Society 3:16(back).
Quote from one of Willson’s informants, ibid., 173.
Charles Blagden to Richard Kirwan, 20 Mar. 1790, draft, Blagden Letters, Royal Society 7:322.
Henry Cavendish to Joseph Priestley, n.d. [after May 1784], draft; in Jungnickel and McCormmach (1999, 594).
Henry Cavendish to Joseph Priestley, 20 Dec. 1784, draft; ibid., 598–599, on 599.
Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 5 Apr. 1784, BM(NH), DTC 3:20–21.
Timbs (1866, 1:iii–iv).
Edward Douglas-Scott, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (1970, 142–143).
Philip G. Zimbardo (1977, 2, 16, 20). Anthony Storr (1988, 29). Susan Sontag (1969, 19–20, 26).
Oliver Sacks (2001a, 1347).
Oliver Sacks (2001b, 121).
Hugo Lidbetter writes that Jungnickel and McCormmach “got very close to suggesting” that Cavendish may have had Asperger’s syndrome by emphasizing his shyness. We got closer than that, we said it: “We observe in Cavendish a number of autistic-like traits: single-mindedness, apparent inability to feel certain emotions, secludedness, rigidities of behavior, odd gait, harsh voice, strange vocalizations, panic attacks, self-acknowledged social unfitness.” Jungnickel and McCormmach (1996, 368). The author’s purpose is to make a “systematic exploration” of Sacks’s claim that Cavendish had Asperger’s syndrome. His article consists of matching Cavendish’s behaviors with the Gillberg diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s syndrome. He says Cavendish had this disorder. “Henry Cavendish and Asperger’s syndrome: A New Understanding of the Scientist” (2009, 784).
Ilona Roth (2010, 3–4, 38–41).
“High-functioning autism” refers to autism with a normal or above-average IQ and with language delay; Asperger’s syndrome is without the delay. The distinction between high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome may depend on the circumstances of the individual, and in practice the terms are interchangeable. There are the other sub-types of autism. “Pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified” (P.D.D.N.O.S)—is the term used when autistic features are insufficiently pronounced for a definitive diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. “Atypical autism” is used when autistic features are only partly seen. The “autism spectrum” includes all these types. Simon Baron-Cohen (2008, 14, 21–26). Roth (2010, 42).
Blagen’s contribution to the family obituary of Henry Cavendish. Italics added.
Asperger Management (http://www.aspergermanagement.com/personal-appearance).
Christopher Gillberg’s diagnostic criteria are seen as closer to Hans Asperger’s original descriptions. Attwood (2007, 53).
Wilson (1851, 168, 170). In the sketch of him, his other hand is inside his coat. It is possible that the drawer invented the hand inside the coat, a common pose for formal portraits.
Uta Frith (2011, 128–129). Attwood (2007, 37, 206, 224, 266–267). Grandin, quoted in Ledgin (2001, xiii).
Wilson (1851, 167–168, 175). Barrow (1849, 144). Thomson (1830–1831, 2:337).
Attwood (2007, 55–56).
Wilson (1851, 182–184). Young, “Cavendish,” 445–446.
Attwood (2007, 179–180).
Playfair (1822, 1:lxxxiv).
Attwood (2007, 141, 238, 254, 295). Humphry Davy, quoted in John Davy (1836, 221). Joseph Priestley (1788, 327).
Simon Baron-Cohen (2012, 74–75).
Humphry Davy (1839–1840, 7:139); quoted in Wilson (1851, 167).
“Nervous,” Oxford Universal Dictionary, 3d ed., 1321.
Thomson (1830–1831, 2:337).
Young (1816–1824, 444).
Caroll E. Izard and Marion C. (1986, 151, 153). W. Ray Crozier (1990, 48); Crozier, “Summary of Conclusions,”54.
Anonym, ibid. “Extroversion and Introversion” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraversion_and_introversion). Anon. “Shyness” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shyness).
Anthony E. Kemp (1996, 36–39, 49). Lawrence A. Pervin (1993, 283).
In the new revision, DSM-V, Asperger’s syndrome is subsumed under “autism spectrum disorder” and the category “Asperger’s syndrome” does not appear.
Anonym, “Autism” (http://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism, 7).
Attwood (2007, 40–41).
Michael Fitzgerald (2004, 37–39). The relationship between autism and schizoid personality is given in Sula Wolff (1995). Anon., “Schizoid Personality Disorder” (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizoid-personality-disorder/home/ovc-20214901).
John R. Marshall (1995, xviii, 23–24, 56, 110). Anon., “Social Phobia” (http://www.behavenet.com/social-phobia). Anon., “Social Anxiety Disorder” (http://www.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_anxiety_disorder). Anon., “Social Anxiety Disorder” (https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/). A third to one half of persons who suffer from this disorder experience depression, and also frequently anxiety, panic, and embarrassment. Jeralyn Ross (1993, 5–7).
Lennard J. Davis (2008). Davis writes that science is itself an obsessive activity characterized by repetitive focusing on one subject. He develops this idea in many places in his book.
Fitzgerald (2004, 36–41). Rab Houston and Uta Frith (2000, 147).
Lidbetter would seem to have something like this in mind where he says that only by acknowledging that Cavendish was autistic “can we get anywhere near attempting to understand Cavendish ‘the complete man.’” (2009, 786).
Baron-Cohen, quoted in James (2006, 63). Consistent with the quotation, James says that his profiles “are not to be regarded as case studies,” 11. Cavendish’s profile is on 63–68.
In the new edition, DSM-V, autism has three levels of severity. The one requiring the least support applies to persons who have some difficulty initiating social interaction and responding to social overtures and may have little interest in social interactions. This, if any of the three, would apply to Cavendish.