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  • Hawthorne the Unreliabilist: His Epistemology in “The Custom-House” and Other Prefaces
  • Zachary Turpin (bio)

Jesus answered,‘ . . . For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth . . . ’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

(John 18:37–8)

In a letter dated 4 February 1850 and addressed to his friend Horatio Bridge, Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a brief explanation for the inclusion of a prefatory sketch, “The Custom-House,” in his latest novel, The Scarlet Letter. “There is an introduction to this book,” he writes, “giving a sketch of my custom-house life, with an imaginative touch here and there, which may, perhaps, be more widely attractive than the main narrative. The latter lacks sunshine, etc.”1 The novel’s gloominess is unquestionable, making it tempting to take Hawthorne entirely at his word (his remarks are made in a private communication, after all) and to assume that the sketch’s sole purpose is to enliven an otherwise dreary narrative. However, considered in light of the shifting epistemological ground of “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne’s brief allusion to “an imaginative touch here and there” gains a wry added significance.

The author of this sketch does, of course, play somewhat loosely with the facts of his tenure as a customs inspector. But, more generally, he expends a great deal of energy on both establishing and undercutting the “truth” of “The Custom-House.” I enclose the word truth in quotes because Hawthorne’s frequent insistence on verisimilitude gradually loses the ring of [End Page 487] sincerity, given his increasing reliance on imagination as a gap-filler. The “truths” of the “Custom-House”—that it recounts real events as experienced by the narrator; that it presents the contents of a discovered document; that it adheres as closely to historical fact as can be expected—become complicated by Hawthorne’s exploration of the interplay between truth and belief, history and memory, fact and imagination. Explorations of this type are today categorized within the term epistemology, with which discipline, I will argue, Hawthorne repeatedly flirts in “The Custom-House.” However, I will further suggest that Hawthorne writes his prefatory remarks less in the service of epistemological transparency than as a method of demonstrating that truth may be found even in the absence of clarity. Nineteenth-century epistemology had already covered a great deal of ground by the time Hawthorne had reached maturity, but I will suggest that in his prefaces, and particularly in “The Custom-House,” he effectively creates a new theory of knowledge. This novel epistemology is founded on the belief that all truth-justification processes are unreliable but that one may still derive meaning and value from human relationships.

The term epistemology derives from the Greek ἐπιστήμη (épistéme), meaning “knowledge,” hence the field’s older and still quite serviceable name, the theory of knowledge.2 Though the subject itself has been around for at least 2,500 years, the word “epistemology” first appeared just four years after the publication of The Scarlet Letter (1850), coined by Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier in his Institutes of Metaphysic.3 At its most basic, epistemology is a philosophical discipline dedicated to questioning how we know what we know. Common queries in epistemology include What is truth?, What can be known?, How do we know anything?, and What comprises knowledge? Pontius Pilate, quoted in this essay’s epigraph, thus qualifies as a rather sarcastic epistemologist. [End Page 488]

One of the first philosophers to address these preoccupations at length is Plato (ca. 428–347 BCE), whose answers to the problem of knowledge vary, like Hawthorne’s, and are at times incompatible. In his Phaedo, for example, Plato famously posits that we do not know the things of this world so much as we sense their purer counterparts, known as “Forms,” on the intangible plane of abstraction. However, he notes that only the true philosopher may view the Forms, via his higher intellect. But, if ideas exist on an inaccessible plane of abstraction, how could such a person possibly access them? This is perhaps the first epistemological stumper, and Plato’s answer is less than satisfactory: the knowledge of the Forms, he says...


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