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Love’s Knowledge

Abdelkader Aoudjit reviews a book of essays by Martha Nussbaum.

This book is a collection of fourteen essays Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Classics and philosophy at Cornell University, has written on philosophy and literature. These essays consist of commentaries on Henry James, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Dickens. They also include discussions of the place of feelings in morality and comparisons of the moral theories of Plato and Aristotle. The author has added to the collection an introduction which acquaints the reader with her main thesis and arguments.

Nussbaum’s primary concern, which unites these apparently heterogeneous articles, is to show that moral life is too complex and tragic to be forced into ready-made principles and theories. As a result, she calls for a mode of moral thinking that is more attentive to the nuances and the ambiguities of moral situations, more sensitive to the feelings of the persons involved, more imaginative, and less theoretical.

The targets of her critique are philosophers who reduce moral perplexities to purely intellectual questions. She includes Plato, Kant, the Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill, and most contemporary philosophers.

Nussbaum attributes the confidence of these philosophers in the power of reason to solve ethical problems to their oversimplification of the moral life and their distorted image of the ‘moral agent’ (one who performs a moral action). First, they reduce values that are basically dissimilar to a common denominator. Second, they impose abstract principles on situations that are unique and complex. Finally, they look at desires and emotions as irrelevant and possibly dangerous to morality, and therefore reduce the moral agent to a purely rational creature.

Nussbaum argues that “there is not only no single metric along which the claims of different good things can be meaningfully considered, there is not even a small plurality of such measures” (p.36). She further explains that “the emotions are essential and central in our effort to gain understanding on any important ethical matter” (p.21). She goes on to say that because principles are nothing but summaries of good judgements, and because particular situations are unique and may contain “new and unanticipated features” (p.38), principles are no more than rules of thumb and should always be subject to revision. She argues that moral decisions should not be made using logical arguments but on the basis on an intuitive vision of particular persons and situations in all their ambiguities and nuances as well as on the emotional commitments of all the people involved. She encourages the reader “to see and feel and judge,” “to miss less,” and “be responsible for more” (p.164).

Nussbaum suggests that Aristotle’s moral theory is closer than any other to the kind of moral thinking she advocates, but believes that moral life is so delicate that “it cannot be fully and adequately stated in the language of conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder - but only in a language and in forms themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars” (p.3). She believes that only novels like those of Henry James possess the emotive force, the subtlety, and imagination appropriate to moral life.

She illustrates her argument with a close reading of Dickens’s David Copperfield and James’s Golden Bowl. Moreover, she argues that “the novel is itself a moral achievement, and the well-lived life is a work of literary art” (p.148). The reader is supposed to be transformed by the trials and hopes and fears of Maggie Verver and the other characters of the novel.

These are what seems to me the most provocative claims of the book. Nussbaum’s book is a welcome contribution to the growing philosophical literature on the limits of moral reasoning. However, its distinctive contribution consists in drawing attention to the importance of literature for moral philosophy.

Nussbaum’s thesis is open to some serious critical comments. My main objection is that her view of the relationship between aesthetics and morality is ambiguous; my second objection is that she states a very controversial theory of literature without defending it adequately. We find little argument concerning her view of the role of the reader, the historical contexts of works of fiction, or their relationship to reality. There is no mention of theorists of literature such as Jonathan Culler and Roland Barthes, whose works bear directly on the issues she is addressing.

She interprets Maggie’s aesthetism before she knew about the adulterous relationship between her husband and her stepmother as a sign of moral immaturity. Nussbaum believes that to surround oneself with beautiful things and treat people as objects of art is a cowardly way to shield oneself from real life and avoid painful conflicts. She says that “If there are conflicts, face them squarely and with keen perception” (p.134). She adds that “to live with works of art is to live in a world enormously rich in value, without a deep risk of infidelity, disloyalty, or any conflict which may lead to these” (p.132). Later, Nussbaum uses the formal structures of art such as improvisation, creativity, equilibrium, and attention to particulars, to argue that Maggie is morally more mature. I agree, Maggie is more mature; she knows that life is full of risks. But what makes her moral, if she is moral at all, is neither her careful choice of words, nor her tone of voice, nor her subtle shifts of language (p.154). It can either be the fact she forgave her husband his infidelity or the fact that she restored the legitimate relationships between her father and his wife and between herself and her husband (when she convinced her father to return to the United States with his wife without making him feel guilty). In both cases she followed established moral rules. Her precaution not to offend anyone, her tact, and her obsession with the appearance of harmony may be perceived as hypocrisy and deception. James scholars have depicted Maggie both as an innocent and naive girl, and as a manipulative witch.

Nussbaum, on the other hand, assumes that there is only one correct way of reading literary works. She believes that novels present readers with the experiences of the authors in their fullness, and to understand a novel is a matter of reading it with the appropriate attention and finesse:

“…seeing something in a literary text (or for that matter, a painting) is unlike seeing shapes in the clouds, or in the fire. There the reader is free to see whatever his or her fancy dictates, and there are no limits on what she may see. In the reading of a literary text, there is a standard of correctness set by the author’s sense of life, as it finds itself into the work” (p.9).

This may be justifiable, but for anyone who is familiar with the recent theories of literature, it cannot simply be taken for granted. Even the most literal reading of a text involves some interpretation. The reader always understands a text according to his experiences, the problems he is struggling with in his personal life (as David Bleich says), as well as his cultural environment (according to Gadamer). In addition, literary works are historically conditioned and involve ideas about classes, gender, what is proper and what is not, that may not be relevant any longer. As a result, there is no guarantee that the experience of the reader and that of the writer overlap.

How should we then, conceive the relationship between morality and literature? Literature strengthens our imagination, makes us more sensitive to details, more tactful, more polished, but it cannot be a substitute for rules, principles, and ideas of what is good.

Finally, emotions and attention to particulars can serve properly in matters of intimate relationships. It is also true that to be congenial is in some circumstances enough to be moral. However, in order to avoid subjectivism and arbitrariness, a different jurisdiction is needed in matters of public life. These matters ought to be decided according to formal principles of justice and rights – not according to what is specific to the individuals involved in a moral conflict.

Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature by Martha Nussbaum is published by Oxford University Press at £14.95. (ISBN 0-19-507485-8)

© Dr. A. Aoudjit 1995

Abdelkader Aoudjit teaches philosophy at Marymount University in the good old U.S.A.

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