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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 57-74

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An American Novelist in the Philosopher King's Court

Thomas P. Crocker


MORAL PHILOSOPHY has languished long within the confines of something like the following purported dilemma: either moral discourse is the discourse of principles and rules rationally grounded, or moral discourse is the discourse of passions and personal preferences, clothed in the garments of rational justification. Alasdair MacIntyre's disquieting suggestion—that our language of moral debate is nothing more than the "simulacra of morality"—provides a grim outlook for moral philosophy. 1 Indeed, when moral inquiry is conducted in terms of ethical theory, without independent grounds upon which competing arguments can meet, philosophical discourse, embedded in competing theories, seems to be only so much cacophonous clamor, rationally convincing no one except those who already accept the terms employed by their own theory. One way to avoid this philosophical effluvium produced by moral philosophy is to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein in rejecting the very terms upon which it is made (the distinction between the particular perspective and the universal standpoint), recognizing that moral inquiry begins from where we already are—the everyday world in which we find ourselves.

Towards the end of avoidance here, I wish to add to this simmering background of ethical discord Mark Twain's story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 2 Twain's controversial voice provides a place for moral thinking unavailable through strictly theoretical discourse. 3 And reading Huck and Jim's story through the philosophical avoidance of Wittgenstein's latent ethical thought provides the transformative possibility of seeing the domain of the ethical in a new light. 4 [End Page 57]

Although Twain boldly states at the beginning of his novel that "persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished," 5 he does show us without the need of theory or dogma how a change in one's way of seeing is intertwined with a change in one's way of living; this connection between ways of seeing and ways of living makes possible a kind of moral transformation that characterizes the change in Huck's perception of Jim, from that of a slave to that of a friend. This moral conversion is much like the perceptual transformations that Ludwig Wittgenstein considers in his discussions of "noticing an aspect," 6 in which a shift in what one sees is connected to the background against which the perceptual object is seen and to the ways in which one is prepared to respond to it. When confronting perceptual ambiguity, as in the case of Jastrow's ambiguous duck/rabbit figure, one looks to the context and background to clarify what one sees, just as one does with semantic ambiguity. In coming to see in one way or the other, nothing is explicitly stated, nothing is put into argumentative form. And in Twain's narrative, we are not given arguments for why we should see Jim as human, nor does the narrative recount Huck's confrontations with moral arguments; rather, through his interactions with Jim, Huck is shown Jim's humanity, his friendship, and we, the readers, are shown the possibility of a moral transformation that is not determined by or grounded in rules or philosophical arguments.

The moral realist might agree that such a transformation could be motivated in ways other than rational arguments, but to be legitimate, it must be possible to reconstruct the transformation according to rational considerations. The ability to "get behind" the transformation in some justificatory way is what I am denying here (as is Wittgenstein); for what one finds when one "gets behind" is another situated language game that is itself not open to question (though it could be if we direct our attention towards it). There is no final "getting behind" the things we do and the situations in which we do them, and hence there is no final justificatory argument one can give—as Wittgenstein famously says, "If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am...


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