Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Essays

Judge Knot

Is There a Good Way of Knowing Things?

Matthew Mutter

The Art Amateurs (detail), twentieth century, Raoul Dufy (1877–1953); private collection; Bridgeman Images, 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Judge Knot

How does someone judge which is his right and which his left hand? How do I know that my judgment will agree with someone else’s? How do I know that this colour is blue? If I don’t trust myself here, why should I trust anyone else’s judgment? Is there a why? Must I not begin to trust somewhere? That is to say: Somewhere I must begin with not-doubting; and that is not, so to speak, hasty but excusable: It is part of judging.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

For years, I played basketball with a humanities skeptic. He was an endowment manager at the Ivy League university from which he had graduated with a degree in economics. He knew I was a professor of literature, and one day he asked what I taught—and did I by any chance teach Moby-Dick? I nodded, and he said, “You don’t believe the hype, do you?” His proudest moment in college had come when, required to read the novel for a first-year class, he developed a firm belief that Moby-Dick’s reputation was explainable chiefly by its obscurity. The emperor had no clothes: The novel was taught because it was revered, and revered because it was taught. Baffled readers took their incomprehension as a sign of its elusive greatness. Teachers followed blind tradition and enjoyed the aura of solemn stupefaction.

“Now mystery had brushed them with her wing; they had heard the voice of authority”: So Virginia Woolf’s Londoners felt when they spotted a car, its windows curtained, transporting royalty. The intimations of majesty are pleasant, but there is a deeper pleasure in unmasking authority. The memory of pulling back the curtain still pleased my basketball partner fifteen years later. He was unwilling to suppose that the gap between his perceptions and the novel’s qualities might be explained in terms of the perceptions rather than the qualities. Yet this was a soft-spoken person and not particularly contrarian. Over a decade of weekly games, I never heard him grind another ideological ax.

Had I been his teacher, what would I have said? A persuasive argument has been made that the modern humanities were always a secularized version of belief in something sacred—a religion for those who had lost religious faith. If the humanities are now disenchanted, how can we explain the value of an old poem or painting to students to whom such materials may be unfamiliar? As Michael Clune, a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, writes in his new book, A Defense of Judgment, “A student who asks, ‘What is so great about this poem?’…is asking for a kind of knowledge that cannot be fully disclosed, or in some cases even partially disclosed, in advance of a sometimes lengthy educational process.” Clune’s effort to understand the practices by which such knowledge may be disclosed was prompted, he relates, by “a small rebellion” in his “spring seminar on American poetry.”

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