Caleb’s Unreasonable Doubt

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.