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Judgment, Trust, and Common Sense in American Literature

Oliver, Jacob Skylar. Judgment, Trust, and Common Sense in American Literature. 2023. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation examines a number of aspects of the relation between ideas of ‘common sense’ and social / political processes, with specific focus on American Literature. The introductory chapters (Prologue and Introduction) juxtapose contemporary issues in which ‘common sense’ is invoked, followed by a selective discussion of philosophical and political history pertaining specifically to protracted debates of the role of ‘common sense’ in determining propositions and beliefs provisionally held to be ‘valid’ or ‘true’—consistently followed by intense controversies that persist to the present.

The three primary examples here are the impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, particularly in affecting popular opinion concerning the impending war of revolution against the British, and two major literary works, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Framing these two texts by way of philosophical arguments that antedate debates over deconstruction, post-modernism, and topical theories current in literary theory and the humanities—or more recent arguments that frequently have not registered significantly in the development of recent theory in literature and the humanities, offers a way to examine enduring philosophical issues of considerable interest and pertinence. As noted in John Guillory’s recent book, Professing Literature: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), many of persisting theoretical controversies appear to have arisen as from the circumstances his book documents, that “Literary study became a profession before it became a discipline.” (vii, italics in the original.)

Among other things, this position shifts attention to how the practices of literary study as a profession foreground debates over competing ‘readings’ of specific texts, usually supported by a more or less identifiable ideological position—in which a particular practical or moral point provides the key to argumentative strategy, or aligns a critic with a particular and politically inflected ‘approach.’ In this respect, the aim is to examine the grounds of reading as a discipline.

The two literary texts selected here are not presented for the purpose of developing a particular ‘reading,’ of either text. In recent decades, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from being one of the most frequently taught American works, has become a book for a variety of reasons that appears ‘too hot to handle’—on topics of language (notably the ‘N’ word and dialects), racism, religion, class—such that the novel Twain actually wrote has been edited, re-translated, or just not taught. The case of Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, is hardly identifiable as a ‘novel’ and only episodically as a ‘narrative’—and the professional challenge this has presented is that ‘readings’ tend to reductive conclusions (Hershel Parker, for example, that the Confidence Man simply is The Devil) or Bruce Franklin’s earlier annotated edition treats it as a compendium of world religion and mythology. The result is that The Confidence-Man, as the book Melville actually wrote, rarely gets read at all.

The main task of the dissertation is to frame the problem of reading itself as already informed by a philosophical history and political traditions that implicitly depend on commonplace notions of ‘common sense,’ on what may well be unfamiliar grounds.

The chapters of the dissertation, accordingly, situate debates over ‘common sense’—almost always politically charged—oriented to a view of thinking as a process, not reducible to truth claims as either exclusively true or false, but requiring reflective judgment as treated in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment. The dissertation examines questions surrounding the exercise of sound judgment and common sense, treated specifically as arising from reflective judgment. It opens with an exploration of the tensions between cultural norms and assumptions (collectively referred to as a community’s sensus communis) and individual critical reasoning, providing an overview of historical perspectives on sensus communis from the ancient Greeks through the Enlightenment era, demonstrating that common sense has traditionally been framed as shared societal knowledge based on common values and principles. However, no conception of common sense as mere communal knowledge passes scrutiny. The critical turning point is in Immanuel Kant’s articulation of the reflective or reflecting judgment as presented in his third Critique, which reorients the classical notion of judgment (the application of predetermined concepts to particular objects). Kant recognized this model failed to account for the contextual contingencies inherent to real-world judgments and did nothing to account for the origin of such concepts in the first place. Thus, he argues sound judgment involves assessing phenomena not just by static conceptual categories but also by their perceived purpose, conditions, and applicability to a given situation. This reflective orientation to judgment is key to exercising common sense. The second chapter emphasizes the aesthetic turn in reasoning, drawing on the pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce to argue that neither logic nor metaphysics alone can dictate practical ethics and values; our inherent desires and aesthetic inclinations shape what ends we judge to be good. Thus the crux of our reality is fundamentally aesthetic, involving our sense perceptions and conception of relative goodness. Ethics proceeds from these aesthetic foundations, setting standards for actions most likely to realize admirable ideals. Only then does logic come into play, providing tools to achieve best the ends delineated by aesthetics and ethics. But logical reasoning serves as an instrument for desired outcomes, not an end in itself. This re-ordered understanding grounds common sense in experiential aesthetics rather than conceptual absolutes.

The second half of the dissertation applies the insights from the first two chapters to the analysis of two 19th Century American novels: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, analyzed in chapter three, portrays an outsider questioning and rejecting the sensus communis (and its concomitant cruelties) embedded in the cultural assumptions of the antebellum American South. As an outsider to conventional Southern gentility, Huckleberry Finn has been spared the indoctrination of its cruelties disguised as ‘sivilized’ mores. Thus, he is able to view established social conventions with a critical, common-sense eye. As Huck’s relationship with Jim deepens, he increasingly recognizes Jim's full humanity despite societal commonplaces designed to prevent that very recognition. When confronted with a decision that would in part determine Jim’s fate, Huck finds that he is unable to conform to the sensus communis, even to the point of risking his life and as--he is not infrequently reminded--his very soul.

Where chapter three explores the fraught issues that surround learning to doubt the sensus communis of one’s own community, chapter four turns our attention to the more intricate decision-making process of learning how to decide what is, in fact, worthy of our trust. Chapter four analyzes the delicate balance between trust and skepticism portrayed in Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. Set aboard a crowded riverboat filled with grifters and deceivers, the narrative dramatizes the inherent challenges of accurately judging others' credibility and intentions when surrounded by strangers in a transient setting. Yet even as it highlights the fallibility of individual reasoning among multitudes, Melville's novel affirms the pragmatic necessity of basic confidence and good faith among fellow humans. Some degree of mutual trust enables the cooperative structures and commerce that allow society to function. Thus The Confidence-Man explores the complex dynamics and negotiations between trust and doubt required for civilization to cohere amidst a fluid population. Though strangers' sincerity can rarely be definitively proven, at some point, one must pragmatically satisfy the desire to believe in others' stated intentions in order to act at all. The novel thus resists absolutism in either naive credulity or blanket cynicism, but explores the extent to which each encounter tests the nature and role of trust.

This dissertation demonstrates literature's power to cultivate open-mindedness, empathy, and sound judgment by engaging with complex depictions of moral dilemmas and social dynamics. It argues that exercising common sense involves questioning assumptions, reasoning toward ethical ends, and finding a livable balance between skepticism and pragmatic trust. From a pedagogical standpoint, these skills are developed through collective interpretation and discussion of common texts. A common literary work furnishes a shared frame of reference that enables exploratory discourse unhindered by factual disputes. As interlocutors wrestle with the open questions posed by an imaginative text, they flex skills essential to common sense, recognizing diverse viewpoints, tracing motivations and consequences, and clarifying foundational principles. Such sincere dialogue around a common touchstone makes space to surface and scrutinize unspoken assumptions. It also underscores the limits of ideological purity when navigating nuanced human realities.

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