Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


To clarify this point we can look at one typical example: Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds, a classic in the tradition to which I make reference here.1 Cohn talks in her book about techniques such as psycho-narration, types of interior monologues, grammatical indicators, etc. These are devices that evolved with psychological realism to elicit an effect of actually transferring the reader to the inner world of a character. Although different critics diagnose the success of such techniques differently, and different writers developed diverse techniques to signal the depth and spontaneity of inner worlds, they all share the belief that these mimetic devices are employed "to record the random and apparently illogical flow of impressions passing through a character's mind".2 The point is, however, that throughout this tradition there is no account for why should these devices be correlated with the specific type of knowledge aimed at, knowledge of the human condition in its inner, rather than outer, dimension. Cohn herself admits (1978, 7) the paradoxical nature of representing consciousness and sometimes also admits a difficulty in correlating a mimetic effect with the nature of a given technique. An air of mental reality is produced by language patterns that signal mental activity although what they report is an unreal notion of the mind as transparent and communicable. Yet this paradoxical quality does not lead her to undermine the mimetic effect produced by such literary techniques; moreover, even if we were to name this effect "conventional," still it must be acknowledged that some literary devices and not others succeed in reproducing a picture of a character's mind for the reader.
In many ways Nussbaum follows this conception. Her conclusion is, however, that although a novel such as Woolf's is being wholly absorbed in representing the other's mind, and although this novel, in view of its pronounced aim, reflects a conviction that it is only literary texts that can bring the reader close to knowledge of other minds, it in fact shows that wanting to know the other mind grants no access to the content of the mind or to the internalism desired. In this sense, being sealed in or sealed out of another person's mind is a matter of ethics rather than, or more than, a matter of epistemology. Knowing another mind is actually knowing the boundaries that enclose the privacy of the other's inner world; hence familiarity and deep knowledge of the other is precisely the acceptance of not being able to know the content of the other's thoughts. Thus, although Nussbaum also refers to the paradox of striving to know the other's mind, she, just like Cohn, implicitly argues that a mimetic effect can be produced although the object of mimetism cannot be made present.
Although I chose to refer here to the literary practice of representing other minds, a similar case can be made for visual art. Ernest Gombrich has shown, for instance, how visual portraits that strive to catch the transcendent identity of a portrayed person are convincing without being objectively realistic. We can hence look at a portrait and "have the feeling that we really perceive what is constant behind the changing appearance..."3 This illusion of actually seeing the person or the face behind the painted portrait, however, cannot be explained by correlating the portrait, through likeness, with any definite, constant or mobile feature of the person portrayed. Personal identity, that is, can never be grasped although it can be realistically produced through numerous variations. As in the case of minds, without assuming that the person portrayed does possess a personal identity, a portrait (when painted within a realist tradition) would not be a portrait. Looking at a successful portrait we can tell whose identity it reproduces and yet remain unable to locate what is it in the picture (given the immobility of its images and the fact that a person is always disguised by a social mask) that reproduces for us the identity the painter set out to represent.


1. Cohn, Dorrit (1978). Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton University Press. [RETURN]

2. See A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, ed. Roger Fowler (Routledge, 1987). [RETURN]

3. Gombrich, Ernest (1972) "The Mask and the Face: the Perception of Physiognomic Likeness in Life and in Art." in: E.H.Gombrich, J.Hochberg and M.Black (eds.) Art, Perception and Reality. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, p.45. [RETURN]

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