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Response and Rejoinder DOES PHILOSOPHY NEED LITERATURE? a critical response by Hugh Mercer Curtler In the second issue of this journal,1 Jesse Kalin argues most provocatively that "philosophy needs literature" because the latter is capable of "rehearsing and exhibiting," as philosophy is not, "the moral construction of one's own life, namely that part of it in which concern and value" are involved (p. 182). Two of John Barth's novels— The Floating Opera and The End of The Road—are used as examples and, according to Kalin, provide evidence for his thesis that philosophical novels present a certain kind of philosophical material in the only way it can be presented. More specifically, Kalin claims that these two novels (1) are both about nihilism, (2) advance the philosophical argument that nihilism is false, and (3) present this argument in a way it could not otherwise be presented. In Kalin's words, "the philosophical argument of these two novels cannot be presented in the normal non-literary mode exemplified by the essay and journal article" (p. 178). I shall examine each of these claims in turn. To say that Barth's novels are "about" moral nihilism is either trivially true or wrong-headed. If Kalin means that the novels "have to do with" moral nihilism, this is^ certainly true but not very significant. We might also say The End of The Road is about illegal abortion, the delights of teaching in a community college, or the trials and tribulations of a bachelor in a small town in Maryland. It appears, then, that Kalin has something more in mind; namely, that the point of the novel is an examination of moral nihilism. That this is indeed Kalin's intention would seem apparent from the second claim listed above: that Barth's novels argue that moral nihilism is "false." I shall examine the question ofwhether these novels "argue" the falsity of moral nihilism in a moment, but first I must raise an objection to the prior claim that such is the point of the novel. A novel does not make a point; it makes a great many points, it 110 Hugh Mercer Curtler111 provokes thought and raises questions, it suggests possibilities, it states truths (plural), and above all else it presents dramatically. That is to say, insofar as the novel is a work of art it does these things, and it is primarily a work of art. In terms of the contents of the novel, what we find is a host of images, thought fragments, figures, suggestions, hints, bits and pieces, and —if the novelist is a good one, like Barth—some valuable insights. If the novelist is a great one, then the insights are profound and worthy of repeated examination and reflection, although we may not always be able to make out precisely what the novelist has said; the novelist is a master of disguises and sleight of hand. The way of saying things is for him quite often more important than what is said. It is clear I share with Kalin very few assumptions about the nature of literature, or poetry, and its relationship to philosophy. With regard to his central claim that the "argument" of Barth's novels is (1) philosophical and (2) incapable of being presented in another form, I shall argue that because (2) is true (1) must be false. To prepare the way, I shall begin with a brief examination of the nature of "argument" as it applies in our present context. Kalin states that the argument presented by Barth in the novels is a "literarily advanced exhibitionary argument" (p. 180). What does it mean, though, to say the novel "argues" at all? Kalin surely does not contend that Barth is arguing philosophically in the manner of, say, Gilbert RyIe or even Kalin himself, hence his characterization of the argument as "exhibitionary." Barth's "argument," we must assume, seeks to persuade rather than to prove in any narrow logical sense of that term. Persuasion, in turn, is intuitive rather than reasoned, as suggested by Kalin's insistance that the argument cannot be separated from its literary form. As Kalin would have it, the novelist creates a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 110-116
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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