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psychological determinism

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Psychological Determinism

by Chris Herb




Psychological determinism may have existed before modernism came to America, but it had a profound impact on all facets of existence in America’s modern era and may have been the philosophical basis of Sigmund Freud's work with psychoanalysis.


A theory of psychology opposed to the notion of “free will,” psychological determinism suggests that humans are disposed to behavior, and that what appear to be decisions are actually determined by psychological constitution which is assumed to be some combination of genetics and environment.



 A simple chart illustrating the relationship between

personal traits, environment, and behavior in psychological determinism


Psychological determinism comes in two forms: oretic and rational. The theory of oretic psychological determinism is that humans always act according to their strongest desire. Rational determinism suggests that actions are determined by the strongest reason. Additionally, there are varying degrees of determinism. “Soft” determinism suggests that actions are predetermined, but not rigidly constrained, allowing for compulsory actions. Hard determinism, on the other hand, suggests that all actions are predetermined, even if they seem compulsory.


A challenging but necessary part of defining determinism comes out of defining its apparent opposite—free will. One possible definition is that “free will” refers to behavior that does not have a cause. It has also been said that the definition may not be randomness, but “special causation." This special causation may be internal or external. External causation is the result of conditioning and environmental factors. Internal determinism is that in which actions are based on a driving force behind one’s character or “essence."



Postmodern criticism of psychological determinism suggests that the effort on the part of modernists to create binaries like “free will v. determinism” was a product of the desire to separate ideas into analyzable binaries. The modernist understanding of science as means to find objective truth may miss the more complex parts of this issue, because anything that could not be analyzed scientifically was thought not to be worth examination. The result is an either/or finalization of the issue, and a reduction of a largely philosophical issue to scientific terms, according to postmodern criticism. By modernist understanding, either actions are determined or they are decided. Postmodernism has adopted the notion that both factors may be important to the way actions are performed and decisions are made.



One facet of American life that found itself particularly influenced by the concept of psychological determinism was literature. "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost may be the best example of the impact of psychological determinism on Modern American Literature. Frost raises the question of whether this traveler's choice to take the path that "was grassy and wanted wear" was really his choice at all, or an action predetermined beforehand and over which he exerts no control. The traveler obviously thinks that "the difference" taking the road he took has made in his life is the result of his contemplation, reasoning, and ultimate decsion making. He does not, however, appear to have had a strong reason that compelled him to choose the path he chose. He says both were "just as fair," and one was "less traveled by," though really they were worn "about the same."


On a wider scale, psychological determinism shaped the major literary movements of the modern era. A particular emphasis was placed on determinism by place. Many literary movements of the time were born out of a search for place. The Harlem Renaissance came out of the Great Migration of African Americans away from Southern rural life to Northern city life. The writers of the Harlem Rennaissance understood their actions to be simultaneously determined white or rural conditioning, and moved according to a collective oretic determinism of the will for identity, and many writers foresaw a trend that would carry the black race to equality, much as the will of the white majority would attempt to thwart it. Claude McKay addresses this problem in "The Harlem Dancer," where the narrator sees an African American dancer who seems to put on a show for a white audience even with the feeling that she is not acting as herself.


Southern movements were equally impacted by the idea of psychological determinism. Southern Agrarianism was a movement born out of the impact of industrial capitalism and urbanism on the South. While the Agrarians were acting out of a will against these forces, it is clear that their will was born out of their specific situation, and this is evidenced by their use of Southern tradition in texts.


William Faulkner’s work also raises some issues of determinism vs. free will. In “As I Lay Dying,” there is a dichotomy between the characters’ thoughts and their ability to carry out their psychological decisions, or to express their real thoughts. Cora Tull, for example, talks to Kate about her problem selling cakes to a rich woman in town. Cora thinks things like “I could have used the money real well” or “They turned out real well”, but some part of her psychology or environment forces her to write the cakes off as unimportant in talking to Kate.


The novel obviously presents an oretic determinism, particularly with respect to Darl. When Darl burns the barn, it is not an act of the strongest reason, but of the strongest will. Reason would have told him to complete the journey with his family instead of sabotaging the journey. Anse also exemplifies oretic determinism, ironically, through his will to bury his wife. It is mentioned that his aversion to work is more related to stopping and starting, and presumably his will carries him through.


There is also a lot of Calvinistic determinism present in the book. Many of the events of the book are thought to be “God’s will” by most of the characters, including their own behavior. This is particularly true when the family is unable to cross the river, due to inacessability of the bridges. This tendency for characters to look to God as an explanation for events is environmental—a part of the Southern culture that formed them—and it has thus become a part of their psychological makeup, and determines actions.




Bader, Daniel. The Lyceum. July 29, 2005. http://peripatus.blogspot.com/2005/07/psychological-determinism.html

"Sigmund Freud." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stephen P. Thornton. 2006. http://www.iep.utm.edu/f/freud.htm


Byrd, Steven. "Literature." Modern America 1914-Present. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/1914-/lit/index.htm


The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. 6. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.


Slife, Brent D. and Amy M. Fisher. "Modern and Postmodern Approaches to the Free Will/Determinism Dillemma in Psychotherapy." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 40 No. 1, Winter 2000. pp. 80-107.


Valentine, Elizabeth R. Conceptual Issues In Psychology.  Oxford:  Routlege.  1992


Back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature


Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 10:36 am on Apr 2, 2007

I think you could define your terms a little more fully here, and I think oretic determinism is by far the most important to the modernist writers. I think you should be careful about doing too much explication of a single writer or poem. Maybe the Frost stuff would work better if it were situated in broader commentary on this phenomena in modern literature. Think of the way this works in Eliot's Waste Land. In Sherwood Anderson's short stories. In Faulkner's characters--someone like Darl, especially. You could illustrate psychological determinism more thoroughly by noting how it works out in the development of these works or individual characters within these works.

Anonymous said

at 8:18 am on Apr 25, 2007

Question Number One: Whose page is this. The page lacks some of the basic features I asked for, like name! The basic text seems in the right direction. I would encourage a greater use of internal links to external sources.

Anonymous said

at 8:20 am on Apr 25, 2007

One other note. Conventions of Encylcopedias would suggest a little bit less use of direct reference to sources and direct quotations. The clumping together of several citations in a row gets to be a little distracting. Weave this together in your own language, then point people to sources you've used at the end of your piece.

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