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  • The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
  • Martha C. Nussbaum (bio)

How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were?” 1 Sitting close to Mrs. Ramsay, “close as she could get” (78), her arms around Mrs. Ramsay’s knees, loving her intensely, Lily Briscoe wonders how to get inside her to see the “sacred inscriptions” in her heart, “which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public” (79). She searches for a technique by which these internal tablets might be read: “What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers?” (79). The art eludes her, and yet she continues to long for it: “How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people” (79–80).

People are sealed hives full of bees that both attract other bees and keep them off. In her complex image Lily Briscoe indicates both that knowledge of the mind of another is a profound human wish—it feels as if to have that knowledge would be to be finally at home, in one’s own hive—and, at the same time, that this knowledge is unattainable. The hives are sealed. Their sweetness or sharpness lures us—and then all we can do is to hover round the outside, haunting the hive, listening to the [End Page 731] murmurs and stirrings that are the signs of vibrant life within. We can never see whether those murmurs and stirrings really come from other bees like ourselves, rather than, say some engine constructed to make bee-like noises. And even if we assume there are bees inside, we can never fully decode their messages, can never be certain of what they are thinking and feeling. And yet we pursue the goal obsessively. Knowledge is a project that draws us to one another, and we cannot bear to let that project go.

The first part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse depicts, repeatedly, both our epistemological insufficiency toward one another and our unquenchable epistemological longing. But the first part is also called “The Window.” The authorial image of the window stands in tension with Lily’s image of the sealed hive, suggesting that Lily is blind to a possibility. And Part I ends with a scene in which, or so it would seem, knowledge of another mind is attained. Mrs. Ramsay stands close to her husband, who looks at her as she looks out of the window. “And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. . . . She had not said it: yet he knew” (185–86).

Virginia Woolf tackles a venerable philosophical problem. I believe that she makes a contribution both to our understanding of the problem and to its resolution (or perhaps its nonresolution). She may well have discussed this issue with philosophers, and she may well have profited from her philosophical reading. It is not these connections, however, that I wish to investigate. I shall focus here on what is philosophical in the novel itself, both in what it says about the problem of other minds and in the way it says it—for I shall argue that the statement of both problem and “resolution” is made not only by overt statements inside the text, but also by the form of the text itself, in its manner of depicting both sealed life and communication.

Woolf’s approach to the problem is very different from that of many philosophers who have investigated it: for she suggests that the problem of other minds...

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pp. 731-753
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