Two Different Ethics: Philosophy and Literature

By Snow, James J. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1994 | Go to article overview

Two Different Ethics: Philosophy and Literature


Snow, James J., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Literature has long been a thorn in the side of philosophy, and the quarrel goes back at least to Plato. When he resolved to exclude the poets from the city that philosophers are to rule, two things are revealed: 1) the philosopher and the poet share a common vocation; 2) the philosopher views the poet as other, as a threat. As Martha Nussbaum says of the relationship between the two, "there was some roughly single goal...that they did share, some question to which they could be seen as offering competing answers" (23). This shared goal would not have worried Plato had he not recognized that the poets possess tremendous power. In the end, his solution to the perceived animosity was philosophical chauvinism: philosopher-kings shall rule and the poets shall be sent away. Literature poses sufficient threat to the rule of philosophy that it must be cast out of the city.

Recently, philosophers such as Nussbaum, Peter J. McCormick, Bernard Harrison, Richard Wollheim, and Richard Rorty have (re)turned to literature, especially the novel, with a more munificent attitude toward their traditional adversary. Without surrendering the throne, philosophers have welcomed the poets back into the city. Their doing so seems to stem from a recognition that in matters of practical concern, philosophy is in some way deficient, unable to tell the whole story. In the introduction to Love's Knowledge, for example, Nussbaum says that her "aim is to establish that certain literary texts (or texts similar to these in certain relevant ways) are indispensable to a philosophical inquiry in the ethical sphere: not by any means sufficient, but sources of insight without which the inquiry cannot be complete" (23-24). Peter J. McCormick and Bernard Harrison share Nussbaum's sentiment. McCormick extends the philosophical conception of knowledge to include true belief which in turn creates the necessary epistemological space for including novels as sources of knowledge. Similarly, Harrison evokes the notion of "dangerous knowledge" that is distinct from, but complementary to, the traditional philosophical paradigm of what counts as knowledge; again, room is created for the novel as a source of knowledge. It is clear, however, that philosophers sympathetic to literature want to give pride of place to philosophy. Much of Nussbaum's recent writing can be seen as an attempt to expand and reconstruct moral philosophy and in doing so, to show that "moral philosophy requires such literary texts for its completion" (27). The implication is clear: moral philosophy is preeminent but deficient; literature might serve as the handmaiden of philosophy.

I am, therefore, suspicious of the seeming benevolent hand that philosophy is extending to literature. I shall argue that despite their shared concerns and questions philosophy and literature are at loggerheads, and that we should be wary of philosophical attempts to appropriate literature. I shall focus specifically on moral philosophy though my remarks may well be germane to other areas of philosophy as well. My position is that literature is indispensable, not to moral philosophy--with which it is essentially at odds--but to life itself. Literature is perspectival, philosophy is not; in other words, whereas literature is dialogic, moral philosophy is dialectic.

To advance my position, I will first explore the way that in Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy deals with an issue that is at the center of current philosophical discussion and which long ago Aristotle raised in his Nicomachean Ethics: namely, the question of whether a good life is self-wrought or a matter of good fortune. Then, I will expand my discussion into a consideration of the way that the general dynamics of literature are at odds with the basic premises and procedures of philosophy.

At the conclusion of Jude the Obscure, as Jude lies dying he whispers the words of the biblical Job: "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. …

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