“The scar of knowledge”: Skepticism as affliction in the 20 th century American *South
Finnegan, Elizabeth Hope
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This dissertation proposes that since the 1920s, the dominant literary community of the American South has constructed a discrete Southern identity specifically in response to the threat of Cartesian skepticism. I investigate the relation of skepticism to what William Faulkner insists is the peculiarly Southern “need to talk, to tell” from the perspective of the ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, and J. L. Austin. Specifically, I examine a group of Southern writers (the Nashville Agrarians, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy) for whom the problem of the South, problems of telling, and problems of knowledge are inseparable. I propose that in waging epistemological battles within specifically Southern contexts and conflicts, these writers are doing a kind of “Southern” philosophy that demands attention as philosophy—and as Southern. I emphasize how these writers do or do not “mean what they say” with regard to Southern identity, history, and language by examining their work within Wittgenstein’s notion of the language-game, the specific context in which the meaning of a word is understood as its use and intelligibility within that context. Wittgenstein’s insistence that language is internal to, not external to, experience foregrounds an ethical intersubjectivity; he posits a community of language-users who, in the act of speaking, acknowledge one another’s humanity through and in language rather than knowledge. I contend that these Southern writers fixate on problems of knowledge for several reasons: to recover their lost world, to avoid the acknowledgment of others (especially African American others) or to repudiate their own self-knowledge. I conclude that these writers are engaged in an ontological and epistemological quest to establish either a transcendent order of knowledge (the Agrarians and Flannery O’Connor) or to definitively deny knowledge altogether (Faulkner) and that this drama enacts, in the arena of epistemology, the same dynamic of failure and defeat that defines the Southern Lost Cause. In Cormac McCarthy, the drama is resolved through Cavell’s notion of acknowledgment. By casting these questions in terms of skepticism, I confront the anxiety in these Southern writers over problems of knowledge and link them to the ethical stakes of human intersubjectivity.