Saturday, May 10, 2014

Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1

[A while ago, I ran across an interesting essay by the French anarchist-socialist Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” published in the New York Spanish-language anarchist newspaper El Despertar at the turn of the last century. It had caught my notice at the time because Hamon recognized crimes against nonhumans. Although I don’t agree with it in its entirety, I think the essay merits translation and dissemination, and I haven’t been able to find a version in English. “On the Definition of Crime” appeared in five segments from August 10 – November 20 of 1896, and my posts will be divided into the same segments. My translation skills are rusty, I’m afraid, and the essay might have originally been translated from French into Spanish for publication in the paper, adding more potential pitfalls; but I hope the meaning comes through. Following the translation, I’ll probably post my own critical analysis of the essay.]

“On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1 (August 10, 1896)

All criminological scholarship presupposes an exact definition of the word crime. If we didn’t have this, the different people who take up criminological study would come to understand the various aspects of their subject in a highly variable manner, and, consequently, the comparison of their theories and their works would be totally impossible, or at least fruitless, because the theories would begin from different bases and the works wouldn’t be comparable.

All science requires a precise terminology, with the goal of being able to speak about the phenomena observed and known by scholars. Thus in physics, in chemistry, in physiology, the technical terms used are perfectly defined, while in classical philosophy there’s a vague and ill-defined jumble that produces the greatest errors. When a physicist refers to Density, Gravity, Hydrostatics; when a chemist refers to oxygen, carbon, salts, all of the other physicists, all of the other chemists, know exactly what the writer is referring to. The same doesn’t happen in criminology, and when a criminalist speaks about crime, we don’t know what they mean by the term, or if we do know, their definition varies from those of other criminalists.

M. de Lombroso,* for example, writes about the criminal in all of his works, but refrains from defining crime, leaving to each reader the task of doing so according to their own viewpoint. The logical consequence is that each defines some people as criminals that others wouldn’t, and vice versa. This is a procedure that reveals a spirit as unmethodical as it is imprecise.

Other writers, undoubtedly more methodical, have recognized the problems with such an antiscientific mode of proceeding, which can only be described as the study of an indeterminate subject, and have attempted to define crime. Let’s see if they’ve been correct in their proposals.

The jurist calls a crime or an offense any infraction of the law. “Scientifically,” we’ve said elsewhere (1)**, “it’s impossible to have a discussion on this basis, because laws constantly modify and change; because the customs that give rise to these laws evolve rapidly, and because those of the most developed intelligence continually attack certain laws, demonstrating their absurdity and impotence.”

In defining crime, M. Garófalo*** (2) has employed the sentiments of piety and probity. Any offense against these sentiments is a crime. This definition, while preferable to the previous, isn’t acceptable either. In effect, infanticide and parricide offend the pious sentiments of civilized men, but they don’t absolutely offend those of some existing savages, nor did they offend those of Europeans themselves in previous epochs. It’s undeniable that sentiments vary, not only across space and time but among individuals in the same country and the same era. To determine crime on the basis of an offense against such variable sentiments is to give an unstable definition, and to render any serious study of the subject impossible.

M. Tarde**** has proposed another definition (3). “The idea of crime,” he says, “naturally and essentially implies a right or duty that is violated.” To explain this definition, it’s necessary to determine beforehand the meaning of the terms right and duty. To this end, M. Tarde has dedicated a multitude of pages of pure, rather confused metaphysics. “Right and duty,” he says, “are fixed preconceptions, determined in the same or similar way in all times and places,” which is completely false, because rights and duties have varied – as history and sociology demonstrate by various facts – according to epoch or country, and according to the social arrangements accepted by men. Parricide is a duty for certain savage peoples, and, as such, isn’t a crime by M. Tarde’s definition. Infanticide was a duty for the Greeks, therefore it wouldn’t be a crime either. Nevertheless, parricide and infanticide are horrible crimes for the civilized men of today. So it turns out that M. Tarde offers a definition of crime that varies across time and space, which provides too fragile a foundation on which to build the structure of criminological science.

* Cesare Lombroso.

** The notes and references suggested don’t appear in El Despertar.

*** Raffaele Garofalo.

**** Gabriel Tarde.

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