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  • Henry James—Aristotle's Ally, An Exclusive Pact?
  • Jane Singleton


Many claims are advanced for the importance of narrative art works in philosophy. This paper will concentrate on one specific thesis put forward by Martha Nussbaum about the relationship between certain works of literature and moral philosophy. Although Nussbaum explores many roles for narrative artworks in philosophy,1 I shall concentrate on those works where she argues for a close connection between the novels of Henry James and Aristotle's ethics. These are Love's Knowledge,2 where other authors other than James are also considered, and "Exactly and Responsibly: A Defense of Ethical Criticism," an article that formed part of a debate with Richard Posner and Wayne Booth in 1997 and 1998 in Philosophy and Literature.3 It is this latter work that provides the central thesis to be considered.

I argue that there are least four possible attributes or combinations of them that Nussbaum might be suggesting are present in James's novels when she claims that James is an ally of Aristotle. My claim will be that James can only be regarded as an ally of Aristotle with respect to some of these attributes. It is a second question to determine precisely how the legitimate attributes isolated in James's novels are to be used to provide an ally for Aristotle's ethics. I shall claim that in any sense in which it is legitimate to regard James as an ally of Aristotle, he could also be regarded as an ally of a generalist theory. This is an important point to emphasise since Nussbaum explicitly enlists James as an ally of Aristotle because of the normative primacy that he gives to the particular. I shall use Kant's theory as an example of a generalist theory. Henry [End Page 61] James, I argue, can be an ally of both Aristotle and Kant but both can adopt an isolationist policy.


The specific thesis put forward by Nussbaum in 1998 is as follows:

My claim is that in order to investigate this Aristotelian ethical view fully and fairly, we need to turn to texts in which the case for that sort of rationality is made out in a powerful and convincing way—and this cannot be done if we confine ourselves to works written in the abstract style characteristic of most contemporary theory . . . Aristotle's conception is much more dependent on "allies" who will make out the force of such obscure claims as the claim that "the discernment rests with perception," and that correct action "lies in a mean." Because Aristotle's conception leaves so much to particularized contextual judgment, one cannot well assess the conception without studying complex examples of such particularized judgment; and of course Aristotle's text does not supply such material. I claim that Henry James is a powerful ally of Aristotle, and one whom Aristotle badly needs if he is to convince us of his claims.

("ER," pp. 347–48)

It is the clarification and discussion of this that provides my point of departure. I shall then consider the four possible characteristics of James's novels that I have isolated. These are: exemplars of good choice, illustrations of the direction of thought to follow for the discernment of the particular, vehicles for developing imagination and sources that enable us to develop an understanding of and engagement of emotions. In each case I shall consider how, if at all, these characteristics enable James to be an ally of either Aristotle or Kant.


Nussbaum's thesis is limited to the late novels of James. "I assert that there is a distinctive type of ethical view . . . that requires literary works of a very specific type, primarily exemplified by the late novels of James, for its complete investigation" ("ER," p. 348). These include The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). I shall use examples from each of these although, as Posner notes, The Wings of The Dove, is one book that Nussbaum does not discuss in the article.4 [End Page 62]

What attributes or characteristics do these late novels of James possess? They all have in common...


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