Ben Chambers, Cross—disciplinary Honors in English and Philosophy

Truth and Sharable Meaning: A Comparison of Critical and Philosophical Responses to Issues of Human Freedom. Humanity has long debated issues surrounding free will and determinism. Such issues include the existence of and the nature of human freedom, the causes of human actions, and the nature of choice. Both Analytic Philosophy and Literary Criticism are methods of analysis, but each discipline’s analysis is directed by implicit assumptions and goals. The philosophical interest in free will aims at saying something true about the way the world is by exploring the quality of the reasons for a range of positions and selecting the view with the highest quality reasons from that range. The critic’s interest in free will, on the other hand, stems from the opportunity that free will and related concepts afford to use literature to discover and explore potential meanings that a text might generate or support as a bridge to learning something new about the human condition. While a philosopher is ultimately interested in coming to some conclusion about the best answer based on the arguments available, the critic specifically does not want to declare a right answer or even a tentatively right answer. Obviously, there is conflict between the way Literary Criticism and Analytic Philosophy treat the issue of free will.

Where there is only difference, however, there can be no communication and still less can there be any education. It would be impossible to learn or to teach unless there is a common denominator present. Analytic Philosophy and Literature do merge, particularly, among other places, in literature about explicitly philosophical topics. Such works are evidence that philosophy and literature do correspond to one another in illuminating, though imperfect, ways. It is in search of such illumination that I begin this paper by examining a novel, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, that seems to blur the lines between literature and philosophy by unapologetically examining a deep philosophical conflict over issues revolving around free will in the context of a man’s life. Such a novel allows the critic to ask, what does this novel, through both its form and content, reveal to the audience about the human condition, and how does interpreting the text, by examining specific passages and applying certain concepts, reveal whatever that is? The Red Badge of Courage also serves as a springboard for the philosopher to ask, what ought the character believe about free will and which arguments support whatever that belief is?

To answer the critic’s question, I will do a close reading of certain passages from Crane using Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the polyphonic novel as well as a distinction that James Phelan makes between two kinds of recalcitrance, which he calls the difficult and the stubborn, that a reader might encounter during the act of reading. When combined and applied to The Red Badge of Courage, Bakhtin and Phelan’s concepts highlight, explore, and ultimately embrace the conflict a person experiences when considering issues related to free will and the implications of those considerations without resolving the conflict.