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Jesse Kalin PHILOSOPHY NEEDS LITERATURE: JOHN BARTH AND MORAL NIHILISM Examples of philosophy in the novel range from the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky on the one hand to those of De Sade, Lewis Carroll, and Robert Pirsig on the other. Philosophers themselves have acknowledged such literary works as having a place in their enterprise and have taken them as examples for philosophical analysis, used them to illustrate and amplify philosophical positions, and have even excised portions of them to be treated as philosophical arguments in their own right. Still, philosophers have tended to regard such instances of philosophy, insofar as they are literature and are framed in a literary rather than merely discursive mode, as philosophically supplementary and dispensible. The standard view is that philosophy via literature makes certain matters more easily grasped, especially for beginners, and that it makes philosophy more entertaining and less unremittingly abstract, but nothing more. The philosophical content embodied in a novel in no way depends on the novel itself and can always be expressed without philosophical loss in the ordinary, non-literary manner of the essay or journal article. Literature, while frequently useful, is for the purposes of philosophy an inessential luxury. I shall argue that this view about the relation of literature to philosophy is mistaken and that philosophical content is dependent at least sometimes on the literary form in which it is expressed. Some novels, for instance, advance a philosophical argument that has a substance which cannot be conveyed by ordinary discursive means. This is the case with two ofJohnBarth's novels—TheFloatingOperaand The Endofthe Road—and it is through a discussion of them as instances of such argument that I will develop this thesis. Before beginning, however, it should be noted that for the purposes of this essay, "literature" and "literary form" are to be understood as necessarily involving the creation and extended development of characters and their interrelationships with one another. This is a restriction on the ordinary sense of these terms, but it has 170 Jesse Kalin171 the merit here of clearly distinguishing the literary from the non-literary, which is essential for the claim that some types of philosophical argument can be fully presented only in a special, non-discursive form. Both of Barth's novels are about moral nihilism. In the first, Todd Andrews, the narrator of The Floating Opera,1 provides an explicit argument to establish that one has no reason to continue living. On the basis of this argument, he decides to kill himself and the novel is his account of what happened and why he changed his mind. Andrews's grounds for his suicide are five propositions (pp. 238-243): 1.Nothing has intrinsic value. Things assume value only in terms of certain ends. 2.The reasons for which people attribute value to things are always ultimately arbitrary. That is, the ends in terms of which things assume value are themselves ultimately irrational. 3.There is, therefore, no ultimate "reason" for valuing anything, including life. 4.Living is action in some form. There is no reason for action in any form. 5.There is, then, no "reason" for living. Still, there is no suicide in the novel. The immediate cause of this is an accident. A workman enters the showboat's galley where Todd has gone and turns off the gas before it can take full effect. With this interruption of his plan, Todd experiences a strange paralysis of will which leads him to modify his nihilistic argument. "It was not that I decided not to speak, but that, aware in every part of me of the unjustifiable nature of action, and completely subject as I was then to the operation of my reasoning, I simply could not open my mouth" (p. 264). His original conclusion had been wrong, for if there really was "no ultimate reason for valuing anything," this lack of reason would apply to suicide as well. Proposition 5 should really read: 5'. There is, then, no "reason" for living (or for suicide), (p. 270) Moral nihilism, therefore, is the position that there is no reason to do anything, and its practical consequence is inertial inaction. Insofar as one is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 170-182
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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