Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul

This is a strange one. Subtitled Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy, this book comes as neither an inhabitant of a particular established field of study, nor as the cross-disciplinary generalizations of a well-known academic like Richard Rorty or Stanley Cavell. Its topic is how literature has something unique to contribute to metaphysical concerns, specifically something that cannot be obtained from philosophy. It’s very idiosyncratic, and while I’m not sure how anyone could agree with all or most of it, there should be more books like it.

The question considered, stated early on, is:

What does it mean to be a human person with our capacities and our fate? How could we answer such a question? Maybe with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the works of Aristotle, or Bach’s Mass in B Minor…Every answer to “What does it mean to be human?” is a restatement of another riddle. (20)

I take the question of meaning in human life to be metaphysical. There are extreme epistemological concerns that overlap with it, such as how such a meaning is communicated to others, how it is perceived, and our own sense of ourselves as humans to begin with. But where Wittgenstein (whose late work figures prominently in the book) would relegate these questions to a mystical status, Bourbon follows them in a comparatively concrete manner. When he says “meaning,” he constitutes it in a Heideggerian way: what does being human constitute that could not be constituted by a robot or a computer program? Here is how he describes this distinction:

To talk about seeing humans as machines, if by machine we mean as automata and thus as not human in the way that I am, or as machines in the same way that clocks and computers are, is not to see humans under some aspect or description. It is to understand human beings as not human. Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The question of “seeing” is epistemological, but the metaphysics underpinning this passage are quite aggressive. There is some bootstrapping going on in the book, as though to assume that the question of human meaning is paramount to Da-sein, and that the path to an answer can be found through literature, and specifically, through “The various ways sentences and phrases lose sense.” I am sympathetic to this approach, but Bourbon goes after it with such single-mindedness that he will lose many along the way who do not agree with the centrality of his concerns.

One of his final conclusions–

The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature. (259)

–is less shocking in context simply because it flows so easily from
the strong opinions that have preceded it.

The significance of these topics are as a way of saving/replacing the authoritative voice, and how to preserve a method of meaning (as a human) in the absence of a definitive religion or other authority. This is presented as an ethical question as much as an ontological one. Where oracles once spoke with a particular type of intentionality that provided a foundational basis for truth, we now cannot fall back on such myths:

Our ethical judgments and their particular intentional content and concern lack a foundation that would include an intrinsic relation to their normative form. (46)

In other words, it is necessary to build a foundation for ethics that stands aside from the scientific, objective world–perhaps even the propositional world described by Russell and early Wittgenstein. There is an echo here of Levinas’s project to save morality, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s endorsement of Aristotle’s ethics. The difference is that it is far more deductive than even Levinas; from literature and “human meaning” will flow a river that picks up ethics downstream.

To be continued…

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