Steve Wall, University of South Florida
Since its inception, philosophy has been characterized by the quest for and the critique of a measure or standard that transcends, informs, and judges human experience. Another perennial problem that has occupied philosophers from the Greeks to the present is the attempt to define literature’s role in conveying transcendental standards and the values of the culture. However, Kant’s critiques made metaphysical standards like Platonic Forms, formulations of God, essences, and truth less viable for more recent philosophers. So the task is how to assert a standard for the human good without also relying on transcendental entities that cannot be verified by human experience. Michael Weston addresses the development of these concerns since the period of Kant. The arguments of Kant, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche occupy the first chapter, while Weston devotes a chapter each to the positions held by George Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, Soren Kierkegaard, and D.Z. Phillips. He concludes by advancing his own solution and by presenting an incisive examination of the ethical dilemmas posed by Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.
As Weston presents the criticisms of traditional metaphysical claims, a paradox emerges: each thinker who seeks to undermine a conventional standard or measure ends up making their own claim to universality. Kant held that we must posit a transcendental realm and act as though it oversees our world. Schlegel and Nietzsche reject Kant’s metaphysical standard, but they construe life as an unending process of self-creation, a move that reifies “becoming,” “art,” and “creation” to a level of global truth. As Weston observes, one needs access to metaphysical concepts such as “truth,” “essence,” and “finality” in order to realize Schlegel and Nietzsche’s prescriptions for self- creation, and indeed Nietzsche’s Ubermensch paradoxically represents a metaphysical ideal even as he seeks to undermine all universally valid truths.
Other thinkers also find themselves mired in this paradoxicality that Weston has identified: Bataille’s notion of the “impossibility” of transcendental truth, Blanchot’s “madness of the day,” Derrida’s deconstruction, Rorty’s ironism, and Cavell’s skepticism all recognize the futility of acquiring a final truth or standard for life, but they all nonetheless remain firmly ensconced in the realm of metaphysical thought or language. That is, they all are connected in some way to the very metaphysics they attempt to vanquish.
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Nussbaum and Murdoch are also unsuccessful in their efforts to introduce a standard of the human good through the use of literature. Both philosophers value literature as playing a central role in showing what is involved in living according to different conceptions of the value of life. The problem for Weston is that there are different orientations for each which serve to undermine the hope of universal standard: Nussbaum is an Aristotelian and Murdoch is a Platonist, and while both hold out the possibility of a truth that is valid for all, their empirical searches arrive at contradictory conclusions.
Having considered the ideas of these writers, Weston advances his own theory of how to escape the abstraction and paradox that trapped these thinkers and that will allow him to make use of literature as a model for ethical life. First, he recalls Kierkegaard’s solution to the problem of abstract and impersonal theorizing: raise the individual against Hegelian and transcendental standards. Only individuals raise the question of the purpose of life; to say that a vision of life is true is to adopt it. Second, Weston turns to D.Z. Phillips’s readings of Edith Wharton’s novels and those by other authors to illustrate ethical decisions made by literary characters. These works show that what is “true” or valuable in life is not subject to an abstract and universal standard: “We see that ‘truth’ in its moral context is the truth of personal appropriation: to see certain values as ‘true’ is to take them as the measure of one’s life” (143). Third, Weston suggests that if we are willing to forego the views of Nussbaum and Murdoch regarding literature as part of a quest for truth and the human good, and instead interpret literature as a “historically situated exploration” into the possibilities of human nature and the good life, then much of what they claim for literature has merit. He agrees that literature can convey life’s possibilities as they are perceived from some perspective—the author, a character, the work itself. The reader is able to entertain life’s possibilities and significance not by following reasoned and abstract arguments, but by following the actions and experiences of individual characters. Their perspectives, not universally valid rules, influence the reasons for their actions.
Lord Jim, with its innumerable ethical possibilities and twists, is an excellent vehicle through which Weston illustrates his thesis. This work confronts the reader with a vast array of the possibilities of making sense of life by its use of multiple and inconsistent frames of reference. The reader is thus left to determine for himself whether a particular ethical issue was decided correctly. Conrad’s skillful use of both an omniscient narrator and Marlow as narrator layers the action and forces the reader to participate actively in the novel’s development. However, the reader also maintains enough distance from the story so that “[w]e are, in our capacities for moral assessment, shown to ourselves” (159).
Through Jim’s self-justifications for his act of cowardice and his subsequent obsession to redeem himself, the reader views a person attempting to live his life according to pre-conceived ethical notions which offer little assistance. The other characters’ codes are just as unsatisfactory:
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The French Lieutenant, Gentle Brown, and Stein, for example, lead equally illusory lives. Our reading of a character like Jim who is undertaking a “historically situated exploration” leads us to empathize with his ordeal, and to recognize “what it is to be human, ‘one of us’” (176).
Some critics might question the novelty of Weston’s thesis. His use of Kierkegaard is bound to recall the heyday of the atheistic Existentialism that Kierkegaard influenced and which held that humans are individually responsible for their actions without any hope for transcendental assistance. Weston’s thesis also has some similarities to Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics with its disapproval of preconceived regulatory principles (although Weston might respond that Fletcher makes the same paradoxical error earlier identified when he elevates love or agape to the level of a transcendent good). And readers who remain unconvinced about the ability of literature to replace philosophical argument as an ethical vehicle might point out that Lord Jim’s multiple narrators and perspectives are not always present in literary works, and so might wonder if his thesis holds up as well when applied to these less complex works. Further, in some literary works, authors rely on ethical standards that are as metaphysical as those of any philosopher; I think Edith Wharton, to whom Weston approvingly alludes, can be read as advocating certain universal ethical standards. In The House of Mirth, for example, she advocates traditional values as a bulwark against materialism, and she suggests some form of moral sustenance—art, literature, philosophy, religion, or “the house not made by hand.” One might consider these appeals “metaphysical.”
My view is that even if one decides that Weston’s thesis revisits previous ethical theories, and even if one finds that not every work of literature will offer up the sort of complexity found in Lord Jim, his conclusion is nonetheless secure: new and creative ways of envisioning life are “not dependent on philosophical views of language or history, nor does opposition to them rest on arguments binding on any disinterested party. We are none of us that. If it is difficult to remember this philosophically, literature continually reminds us” (xix).