Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Feeling Moral Obligation and Living in an Organic Unity: Virginia Woolf's Response to G. E. Moore

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Feeling Moral Obligation and Living in an Organic Unity: Virginia Woolf's Response to G. E. Moore

Article excerpt

Introduction - Climbing the Cathedral Spire

There is an abundance of scholarly work on the topic of Virginia Woolf's writings and philosophy. One popular trend uses the theoretical framework of continental philosophers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Nietzsche, and Montaigne, amongst others, and argues that Woolf's works are literary embodiments or instantiations of their concepts, methods, or even entire philosophies.1 Another trend repudiates any connection between Woolf's literature and philosophy altogether, denying that the latter can provide any insight into the former.2 This denial seems reasonable, for Woolf wrote in times when traditionally accepted answers to amaranthine philosophical questions were vehemently doubted. Lackey calls this phase in the intellectual history of European thought 'modernist anti-philosophicalism.'3 Modernist anti-philosophicalism can more appropriately be called modernist anti-metaphysicalism, for it was primarily a critique of the metaphysical dogma propounded throughout the history of Western philosophy - from Plato up to Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and Kant.4 Much of significance is the fact that British philosopher G.E. Moore, a contemporary of Woolf, was a pioneering proponent of anti-metaphysicalism,5 and interestingly, we know that Woolf engaged with his magnum opus - Principia Ethica (1903).6 Despite the proliferation of secondary literature on Woolf's writings and philosophy, an exposition of the precise influence of Moore's thought on Woolf's writing is curiously lacking. Indeed, reducing her writings to literary articulations of what other philosophers have said, as has been the popular trend, denies her any philosophical merit in her own right. When Woolf writes, 'I am climbing Moore like some industrious insect determined to build a nest on the top of a Cathedral spire,'7 it is up to the critic to explicate the precise nature of this climb, as I attempt to do in this paper.

I begin with a brief exposition of Moore's notion of 'the good' as experiencing moral obligation within an organic community. In doing so, I highlight a crucial loophole within his conceptual framework - he does not theorise the conditions for the possibility of experiencing moral obligation, and therefore renders 'the good' ultimately ineffective in taking moral decisions. In the second section, I read Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse (1927) as conceptualising precisely the conditions for the possibility of moral obligation missing in Moore's framework, in explicitly epistemological terms - the ability to experience what Martin Stelf calls 'states of heightened perceptive intensity.'8 Furthermore, I argue that Woolf partakes in the anti-metaphysicalist and anti-naturalist rebellion characteristic of Moore's ethical theory by articulating a 'new materialism.'9 Her crucial philosophical intervention lies in conceptualising this new materialism as at once logically continuous with Moore's realism and critical of the subject-object dichotomy he upholds.

G. E. Moore's Ethics - Moral Obligation and Moral Excess

In Principia Ethica, Moore regards 'the good' as the most fundamental ethical concept.10 He does not however use the good as an adjective or an attribute, as in good person or good car where the standard of evaluating 'goodness' is the object it is attributed of. It is precisely such an account of goodness essential to ethical naturalism that Moore is attempting to avoid in his own ethical theory.11 Ethical naturalism as James Rachels defines it is the idea that 'moral properties (such as goodness and rightness) are identical with "natural" properties, that is, properties that figure into scientific descriptions or explanations of things.'12 Moore's main criticism of ethical naturalism is that it involves commitment to the 'naturalistic fallacy' (PE 111) - a fallacy that he claims to have infected 'almost every book on ethics' (PE 62). Of particular interest is the crucial aspect of this fallacy, amongst others, of confusing a non-natural property (what Rachels calls moral properties) for a natural property (PE 91). …

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