Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


In a recently published paper, Martha Nussbaum addresses the question of the possibility of knowing other minds as this possibility is represented in "stream-of-consciousness" novels such as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. In this novel, that serves as Nussbaum's telling example, as in others of its genre, the characters (and the narrator) strive to satisfy a profound wish to know what is going on in the mind of other human beings. Although Nussbaum dedicates her paper to illustrating varieties of implementing this drive to know other minds, her paper proves to carry some further implications that pertain to the present discussion. Nussbaum's analysis reveals that despite a pronounced intention to attain knowledge of other minds, numerous obstacles interfere in fulfilling it and the mental object of representation remains essentially unknown. Interferences that prevent such knowledge include for instance the fact that little of what is considered inner activity of the mind is at all communicable, that there is a "tremendous gap between what we are in and to ourselves, and the part of the self that enters the interpersonal world,"1 that language, through which the mind is expressed, issues from a personal history and idiom which does not facilitate deciphering another person's meanings, that the act of bringing emotions to consciousness changes them, etc. Nussbaum's analysis hence raises the inevitable question of whether and how can the consciousness of the other be represented at all? Can it be identified and can it be known, even when we deal with literary texts that see the representation of minds as their main task? The difficulties in the way of knowing other minds put the subject in a position of the sceptic forced to doubt the very possibility of such knowledge. Following Stanley Cavell's argument about the position of the sceptic vis-a-vis the other's mind,2 Nussbaum acknowledges that the project of knowing another is tantamount to a desire to incorporate the other, to totally encroach the privacy of the other mind. Representation of the other as other is therefore impossible: the very logic that should enable epistemic access to the other's mind, turns this sought for knowledge into something different from what was initially intended. The possibility of knowledge and its frustration are embedded in the very same logic."having the other person's thoughts and feelings as oneself, in one's own body and mind, is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowledge of the other: not sufficient, because that would precisely be not to know the other, the separateness and externality of that life, those feelings; not necessary, because we can conceive of a knowledge that does not entail possession, that acknowledges, in fact, the impossibility of possession as a central fact about the lives of persons" (p.742-3). This formulation is intriguing first because it indicates that in order to assume knowledge of other minds, the subject has to enter an imaginary position of identifying his own inner identity with the other's. It hence relates to the impossibility of attaining the very type of knowledge to which everything is in fact tuned. But this formulation is curious also in view of typical ways in which literary theorists usually deal with the representation of minds: as a literary technique or an effect produced by specific techniques. That is, by merely questioning whether stream-of-consciousness novels can really enable us to know how the mind of another works, the tendency of literary critics to identify specific linguistic and discursive strategies with knowledge of the other's consciousness, is put in doubt.


1. Nussbaum, Martha C. (1995). "The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse." New Literary History, p.733. [RETURN]

2. Cavell Stanley (1976). "Knowing and Acknowledging," in: Must We Mean What We Say?, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, p.238-266. [RETURN]

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