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Critical Discussions Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature , by Martha C. Nussbaum; 483 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, $42.50. Discussed by Wayne C. Booth Love's Knowledge seems to me by all odds the best modern discussion of the ways in which what we call philosophy and what we call literature interrelate. Its chief claim is that "literature," especially fictional narratives, can perform a philosophical role that eludes all discursive philosophy. What's more, the discourse we call philosophy will be best performed when it acknowledges its indebtedness, and in at least one dimension its subordination, to the ethical work of the "poets." Though philosophers like Nussbaum herself can assist in uncovering and appreciating the unique philosophical contribution of the poets, they can never hope to pursue human truth with full adequacy on their own. The poets, and especially those who create long, subde, moral tales, capture and embody truths that escape the coarse nets of all non-narrative thought. In a work that openly relies on Aristotle as its philosophical hero, Nussbaum comes close to going the Master one better by implying that poetry is not only more philosophical than history; it is more philosophical than philosophy. Poetry at its best, unlike too much philosophy, insists on the particularity and context-boundedness of moral deliberation ; it shows people making choices not according to highly general norms but instead according to nuanced perceptions of character and circumstance. As Aristotle says again and again, ethical norms are not established by abstract thinking but by reference to our experience of Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 302-310 Wayne C. Booth303 how a virtuous person would choose, always modulating general moral principles by reference to close perceptions of particular circumstances. Philosophy by its nature does not provide us with that experience. Only fine narratives can engage us in the detailed sharing of choices with morally alert characters, as they struggle not only with abstract principles but with and through "fine perceptions" that can both underline and challenge abstract principles. Consequendy only such narratives can educate us fully in sensitive moral choice and thus protect us from the misleading abstractions implicit in purely discursive reasoning. (Presumably prolonged, intimate discussion with loved ones in "real life" might rival fictions in complexity and precision. Nussbaum is mainly concerned with that other rival, philosophy. But I'm quite sure that she would consider even the most moral, most sensitive illiterate as comparatively handicapped—unless oral narrative had provided the antidote .) In her view, even such major philosophers as Plato and Kant, in their pursuit of universal standards, will inevitably mislead us, unless we counteract their elevation of abstract thought over emotion by submerging ourselves in the complexities of real moral choices. Though Aristotle, better than any other philosopher, can tell us how such choices work, they are made dramatically effective for us only in great poetry, and especially in the great longer fictions: epics and novels. Long narratives teach us best because in them we dwell intimately with human characters who face genuinely pressing, complex, and precise moral dilemmas. Only in them do we experience, albeit in vicarious form, the kinds of choices that real life presents: that is, choices among conflicting values that are in fact incommensurable. It isjust this reality of incommensurability, the raw painful fact that some genuine values cannot be harmonized or reduced under this or that hierarchical system, that is dramatized by the most sensitive creators of long fictions. Their heroes and heroines face conflicts ofgoods that are feltby the choosers— and thus by their readers—to be both conflicting and genuine. Choices among these goods cannot be made by deciding that one of them is not a good at all, or that it is simply a lesser good on a scale ordered by some supreme good. Nussbaum's repeated arguments for ultimate incommensurability are subtle and powerful, and they alone would be "worth the entry fee." She might, however, in future work, enrich her case not only by more detailed reference to the arguments of Hilary Putnam, whose work she glances at, but to Isaiah Berlin and Richard McKeon, who each spent 304Philosophy and Literature a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 302-310
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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