From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 8.1 (1988): 109-14.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America

The Bounds of Reason:

Critical Response


AT THE BEGINNING of a recent study, entitled The Bounds of Reason: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert (Columbia University Press, 1986), I propose to “reformulate some of the questions conventionally associated with the novelistic representation of reality by viewing them as problems of skepticism and knowledge” (p. xi). Beginning with a study of Don Quixote and proceeding from there to an investigation of a series of nineteenth-century novels and philosophical texts, I seek to demonstrate the following seemingly antinomic fact: that the classical procedures of epistemology, conceived as a “science of knowledge,” prove insufficient to the questions of truth raised in Don Quixote and related works; but that this does not therefore lead us into radical skepticism. As the introduction goes on to explain: “in speaking of the ‘bounds of reason’ I mean to indicate the limits of traditional epistemology, its formulation of the problem of knowledge, and its manner of response to the threats of skepticism, and also the possibility of a range or region of knowledge which might be available where epistemology fails.” It might further be said that the notion of reason having bounds, or limits, is intended as an only partially veiled commentary on one of the classical texts of philosophy, namely the Critique of Pure Reason of Kant, and Kant's memorable deliberation on the question of reason and its tendency to break legitimate bounds: “Human reason has this peculiar fate” —writes Kant— “that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the


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very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (A vii).
     In this passage it is apparent how Kant's solution to the problems of knowledge differs from those which are found in the novelistic world. For Kant, the deepest problems about knowledge could be resolved only by enforcing a division of worlds, which he called the empirical and the transcendental; correspondingly, Kant was forced to see man as living as if divided between these worlds: in the one (the world of nature), he is determined, while in the other (the world of morality), he is free. Seen in this contrastive light, what I mean by “the novelistic representation of reality” becomes strikingly clear, for beginning with Don Quixote the novel resolutely throws back onto man himself, in his social and political nature, those questions of truth which for Kant (as for Cervantes's close contemporary, Descartes) could be resolved by recourse to the “transcendental.” Accordingly, where Kant regards man as living in two worlds, Cervantes is at pains in Don Quixote to legitimize the perfectly ordinary contexts in which reliable judgments are made. What I call “skepticism,” and what others have called Cervantes's “perspectivism,” is not resolved by the construction of a “transcendental ego,” as in Descartes or Kant; since there is no position of transcendence represented within the novel —no single voice which claims to speak for all— issues of truth and knowledge must be addressed according to what J. L. Austin called “ordinary procedures.” This is what I mean to indicate by reference to the “novelistic [as opposed to the epistemological] representation of reality,” and it constitutes one of the central themes of The Bounds of Reason; indeed, it is the thesis without which much of the rest of what I have to say about the nature and limits of our knowledge of others (in my discussion of the “Curioso Impertinente” and in my commentary on the friendship of Don Quixote and Sancho), the importance of the body as a medium of knowledge, and the moral grounding of personal identity, would be incomplete.
     That these issues require some clarification is nonetheless evident from Robert ter Horst's review of The Bounds of Reason in Cervantes, 7 (1987). For while the account that he gives of my book is thoughtful, if somewhat unrelated to the text, it is also mistaken on several of the literary and philosophical issues at stake. He begins his review with an evocative quotation from Richard Blackmur's edition of James's The Golden Bowl; apparently unaware of James's lifelong engagement with problems that begin with Don Quixote, ter Horst assimilates Blackmur's vision of the (Jamesian) novel as a “theoretic form for life,” in what he

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calls its “ghostliness,” to the anti-philosophy of Jacques Derrida. As a result, he is unable to see that James grapples with questions of truth and value in terms of expression and vision on a plane that is strikingly close to Cervantes. James's work, too, could be examined as an example of what I call the “novelistic representation of reality,” and it too would reveal further nuances of the principal theme of my book: the search, in the novel, for reliable terms of truth and value apart from those which philosophy provides; and I would reinforce that the novel leads us, through these, to a valorization of the ordinary world.
     Nonetheless, when I speak of the “ordinary world” and say that the problems of skepticism and criteria as seen in the Quixote are to be answered “by reference to our world alone,” ter Horst responds with the predictable objections of the epistemologist's alter-ego, the skeptic, asking “What is ‘our world’?,” and adding that the assumption of such a world is “simply impossible.” Ter Horst has captured none of the subtlety of J. L. Austin's philosophical method and none of the power of Austin's ordinary-language answers to the question “How do you know?” as discussed in The Bounds of Reason (pp. 24-25). Instead, he refers us to the physics of Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg, apparently confident in their abilities to answer questions about the nature of “our world.” Yet on my account, the Quixote reveals the limits of all attempts to assimilate the matter of knowledge to the methods of science and allows us to see in them a wish to transcend the plane of the human, or escape the conditions of the human, in addressing the issue of truth in the world. In the episodes I examine in detail (the case of the baciyelmo is one) and in an article on “Descartes and Cervantes on the Dream Argument” published in Cervantes, 4 (1984) I argue that Cervantes does not privilege the perspective of the transcendental subject over that of the ordinary self; certainly there is no evidence to suggest that such a perspective could tell us what we need to know about the nature of truth in “our world,” for in the final analysis that question would have to be framed in terms of our relationship to that world. However, beginning with Descartes, and most notably in Hume, such questions of value have proved inaccessible to determinations of fact (and vice-versa); in this they have failed to provide a coherent set of terms in which to address the question of existence in the world.
     The novelistic effort to respond to questions of truth and value in the world through what Austin calls “ordinary procedures” nonetheless has limits and explains why, after Austin, I would still think it

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appropriate to discuss the novel in conjunction with a series of classical philosophical texts. The reason is that, in spite of its focus on what we may call the “ordinary world,” the novel does not wholly dispense with the wish to locate a vehicle of transcendence within that world; thus there are moments in all of the novels I examine when the role of transcendence is thrust by one inner-worldly agent onto another, in effect asking the other to assume the role of a god. Yet one would not surmise that these issues are at stake in my book from ter Horst's review, which cites only my initial claim (p. 6) that problems of truth and value in the novel are resolved in inner-worldly terms. The claim is accurate, and I stand by it as an indication of the secular context in which questions of epistemology in the novel are resolved, or fail to find resolution. Indeed, to reply to questions of truth by the guarantees of faith is to operate at cross purposes to those epistemologies with which the novel seriously competes (Kant's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, and Descartes's will to find proofs for the existence of God on the basis that reason supplies), or to make of the novel a wholly anachronistic genre. According to Lukacs, in The Theory of the Novel, “the first great novel of world literature stands at the beginning of the time when the Christian god began to forsake the world; when man became lonely and could find meaning and substance only in his own soul, whose home was nowhere; when the world, released from its paradoxical anchorage in a beyond that is truly present, was abandoned to its imminent meaninglessness” (p. 103). My work in The Bounds of Reason could be taken as a response to Lukacs insofar as I propose also to explain the temptations of recourse to God in a “disenchanted” world. Only on the narrowest of readings could this be taken as a project to rule out the issue of spiritual transcendence in the novel tout court. How could anyone writing about Dostoevsky's “Grand Inquisitor” deny it? How could ter Horst miss it when I devote long pages of The Bounds of Reason to a discussion of Myshkin's paradoxical “sainthood” in The Idiot (pp. 141ff), Kierkegaard's account of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling (pp. 94ff), the principles of Christian community in Crime and Punishment (pp. 123ff), and Dostoevsky's haunting evocation of Holbein's “Christ Taken Down From the Cross” (pp. 194ff)? I suspect that ter Horst's objection to what he takes as my “omission of God” from The Bounds of Reason is rather his own discomfort with the spiritual terms that the novel does in fact propose. All of the passages cited above evoke images of what it might mean to live in a world with belief in God, rather than in the novel's godless (which is also to

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say, human) world, but they are also part of that more embracing project to transpose the values of spirituality into human terms. Not surprisingly, it is a vision of Christ, the man-God, and of humanity as a form of godliness, that these novels compellingly urge.
     My concern in The Bounds of Reason, to reframe the problem of the novelistic representation of reality in terms of skepticism and epistemology, means that questions of ontology will not be accorded primary place. But they are not, as ter Horst claims, ruled out of bounds by the terms I invoke. How could this be so when, in relation to the Maese Pedro episode in Don Quixote, I argue that “the staged representation raises the question of the existence of things, apart from their identifications” (p. 23)? This is but one of a number of cases in which the Quixote confronts us with disguises, imitations, and fakes, and it could well be argued (as ter Horst suggests) that they are central to an understanding of Cervantes's mimetic intent. But there is a more immediate point regarding ontology which must be raised, because it reveals a serious misunderstanding of the philosophical issues broached directly in my book. Concluding a discussion of Maese Pedro's puppet show, I claim that questions of existence cannot be answered by recourse to criteria (an epistemological term): “If there are no criteria which will tell us about the existence of the world, this is because it is the existence of a world which enables criteria to operate in the first place” (p. 25). What this means is that I take ontology in the Quixote as itself the ground of epistemology, in some ways prior to it, rather than the other way around as has been the case in philosophy ever since Descartes elevated epistemology to the status of “first philosophy.” Ter Horst's claim that there is an elimination of ontology in my book is in one respect simply wrong, but it obscures a more important point concerning the difference between Cervantes and Descartes. As Heidegger so eloquently said in What is a Thing?, beginning with Descartes “A theory of knowledge had to be erected before a theory of the world” (p. 99). Who, in view of the project of knowledge collectively undertaken in the Quixote could think that there might be an epistemology independent of our existence in the world? And who could not, in view of such a question, relinquish doubts about the existence of the world? Persistent in his belief that epistemological questions must be accorded a primary place, Descartes proposes to follow the straight and narrow path which his method dictates: “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to apply it well. The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues; and those who

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proceed but very slowly can make much greater progress, if they always follow the right path, than those who hurry and stray from it” (Discourse on Method, I). What could be more antithetical to the errant behavior of Cervantes's knight?
     In the final instance, ter Horst proposes that what is at stake in the novel is not representation, but “misrepresentation.” This may well be so, and it might be intriguing to know the ramifications of such a term; they are not made clear in ter Horst's review. He chooses instead to take up the well-known view that Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin, and Emma Bovary are “ontological intoxicates —not skeptics— who rather parody absolute idea than question actuality.” As a result, he fails to see that while certain characters in the novel may initially take their bearings by the Absolute, the world of the novel is not theirs alone. To be sure, a character like Don Quixote cannot be understood without reference to the projects of chivalric and Christian idealism which he parodically pursues; but the achievement of the novel is not that of parody of the ideal. Rather, it involves finding and, in some instances, creating the social contexts and terms through which we can designate the human when faced with the inaccessibility of the Absolute. Phrased in other terms: beginning with the Quixote, the novel has sought to respond to the kind of question which Thoreau so thoughtfully asked and which on my reading is central to Ortega's Meditations on Cervantes's text, viz., “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” This is a question which it would not occur to the epistemologist to ask. His terms rule it out of bounds.

U. C. Berkeley

Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes