Thirteen Ways of Looking at a White Whale

Laura Nelson
13 min readJul 5, 2019
The Final Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)

1 — The Skeptical Problem

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is not a novel. Or, more precisely, it is not just a novel. In it, Melville tried to explode the characteristic form of the novel by importing the styles of many different genres (drama, glossaries, aphorism, natural history, philosophy, theology) into a novelistic shell, which in turn also explodes their characteristic forms. Like Queequeg’s tattooed body, it contains a panoply of signs — some decipherable, some not, all various and multiform — that together make up a world, one that can be known, but not completely, not exhaustively. Which raises the philosophical and human problem of skepticism.

In the history of Western Philosophy, skepticism generally divides into two broad categories: “veil-of-ideas” skepticism, epitomized by Descartes in the Discourse on Method and Meditations, and “Pyrrhonism”, which originated in the Greek Skeptics who took over Plato’s Academy, and which was resurrected, in different ways, by Hume in the Treatise on Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and by Montaigne in his Essais.

2 — A Livable Skepticism

Cartesian skepticism sets up a metaphysical screen between our ideas and the features in the external world that these ideas are said to represent. This kind of skepticism was dubbed “problematic skepticism” by Kant because it set up the doubtfulness of our representations as an epistemological problem that needs to be solved before any philosophical work could be done. It is not the kind of thing that can function as a way or a form of life. The whole point of “veil of ideas” skepticism is that it is not livable. It is an existential horror that needs to be dispensed with before one can move and breathe, never mind think. Fortunately we do think, argued Descartes, so skepticism is pulverized by the cogito and all that it entails.

This kind of skepticism isn’t an issue in Moby-Dick. Pyrrhonism is. This variant of skepticism is precisely offered up as a way of life. It holds that “knowledge” is actually a paltry thing, not much available to us anyway, and we are none the worse off for that. Pyrrhonism is introduced precisely because it is livable, a form of life that grants us solace. It is exemplified by Montaigne’s motto “Que sais-je?”, and Hume’s…

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Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.