Ibsen Studies Masters Dissertation Sample | Critical Essays

Ibsen Studies Masters Dissertation Sample

Part Dissertation – Masters Distinction – Ibsen Studies

1 – Excursus: Literary Ethics in the Age of Technology

‘The continuing shift in almost all colleges and universities away from the teaching of literature to the teaching of writings of various kinds signals a de facto change that manifests its direction clearly only in the very large number of universities where there are departments of communication but no departments of English or French literature.’

Alvin Kernan, The Death of Literature

‘Again, far from insisting that all literature must play some single, simple role in human life, the best ethical criticism, ancient and modern, has insisted on the complexity and variety revealed to us in literature, appealing to that complexity to cast doubt on reductive theories.’

Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge

Literature in the Age of Technology

Following the technological revolution of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, literary fear-mongers have pronounced this era as the era of crisis, with the literacy crisis feeding into the crisis of legitimacy faced by the humanities in general and literary criticism in particular. Literature, it appears, is not exempt to the crises of legitimacy confronted by philosophy, as opposed to the crises of explanation encountered by technology and the scientific disciplines (Williams 2000: 488). As the humanities struggles to give an account of itself in these periodical crises of legitimacy, eschatological notes have been sounded in the literary field, ranging from Leslie Fielder’s What Was Literature? and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature.

Against this backdrop of pessimism, my thesis about the ethics of early Ibsen seeks to affirm the continued importance of literature as a department of the university. The view of Williams about the nature of ethics, I take to be my own: advances in ethical understanding can only occur in ethical crises, which necessarily take ‘some form of confrontation with human experience itself’ (Williams 2003: 39). Literature has been particularly apt in its portrayal of crises and ethical dilemmas, and the dramatic function of literature enables individuals to return to the this-ness of each ethical moment in a way that philosophical arguments cannot. In the age of technology, the claim to legitimacy of literature will be insuperably bolstered by the legitimization of literary ethics.

Specialization in the various university departments today draws on the separation first made in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie between history (memory), philosophy (reason) and poetry (imagination). This movement of specialization and the separation of the disciplines finds its caricature in Ibsen’s Jørgen Tesman, whose scholarship revolves around the over-specialized topic of the domestic crafts of Brabant in the Middle Ages. Against this, I will advance the inter-disciplinary approach, demonstrating how the different branches of the knowledge tree – ethics and literature – are intimately related in the early plays of Ibsen. This interdisciplinary approach, tying literature and ethics, takes its cue from the search for moral value in literature. The intellectual lineage for literary ethics may be traced from the Horace’s insight in On the Art of Poetry that art should both delight and educate, through Schiller and Kant in the German Idealist tradition, to the present-day overtures of Roche in Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century. That literature, with its nuances and concreteness, might present ethical problems better than philosophical treatises with their abstract obfuscations, is an idea which has already been explored by Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge and Singer and Singer in The Moral of the Story. My thesis about the ethics of early Ibsen will build upon these claims with particular reference to the early plays of Ibsen.

Towards a Literary Basis for Ethics

The argument that literature and ethics should be kept separate recapitulates the ancient quarrel between the poets and the philosophers in Book 10 of Plato’s Republic. However, there can only be a quarrel because there is a single subject on which the poets and the philosophers disagree. This subject is ethical in nature, and concerns how one should live one’s life. Following the lead of Eide and Brynhildsvoll in their ethical readings of Ibsen, I will cite Nussbaum as a source of inspiration for my defence of literary ethics, which I will derive from the early plays of Ibsen. As Nussbaum points out in Love’s Knowledge, literature is nuanced, dense, subtle, concrete, and anti-reductive, and mimetic literature therefore offers the fullest and most fitting form for the representation of ethical life in all its complexities, as opposed to the abstract nature of philosophical treatises (Nussbaum 1990: 5, 46, 49). Singer and Singer offer the same arguments in a different form in The Moral of the Story:

discussions of ethical issues in fiction tend to be concrete, rather than abstract, and to give a rich context for the distinctive moral views or choices that are portrayed. Literature therefore often presents a more nuanced view of character and circumstances than is to be found in the works of philosophers

(Singer & Singer 2005: xi)

Ibsen’s use of the sub-plot and minor characters mirrors the novelistic commitment to qualitative distinctions, encouraging the richness and plurality of qualitative thinking in the audience (Nussbaum 1990: 36). What the Ricoeur-inspired hermeneutics of suspicion takes to be Ibsen’s ‘Dobbeltblikket’ – the ethical readings of Kittang, Aarseth, Henriksen, and Helland are of this nature – I will take to be Ibsen’s literary respect for the nuances and complexity attending each ethical moment. Hillis Miller further contends in The Ethics of Reading that ethics and narration cannot be kept separate. Insofar as literature better presents the nuances of ethical problems than ethical philosophy can manage, and takes the form of narration in Ibsen’s drama, it appears almost unnatural not to consider literature in terms of ethics or – in what amounts to almost the same thing – to consider ethics in terms of literature.

Ethical philosophy may be sub-divided into two fields: analytic ethics and continental ethics. In analytic ethics, logic and language are the key terms through which ethical understanding is defined. Following the development of mathematical logic under Frege in the natural sciences, the early Wittgenstein of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Russell of ‘On Denoting’sought to apply logic to analytic philosophy. This logical turn culminated in the Vienna Circle and their espousal of logical positivism, in reaction to which ordinary language philosophy was advanced by the Oxford Circle. Both logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy, however, share a common precursor: Wittgenstein. The early Wittgenstein of Tractatus is to logical positivism as the late Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations is to ordinary language philosophy. This should not surprise us, since logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy share Wittgensteinian assumptions about language and the forms of life they describe. In Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language, language describes the world in which we find ourselves and our responsibilities. In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein explicitly defines the world as a totality of facts which may be expressed in propositions, and in the limiting case, he famously declares that what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. The key defect of analytic ethics is what Williams calls the error of ‘scientism’: philosophy, confronting its crises of legitimacy, misunderstands its relation to science, and assimilates itself to the aims and methodologies of the sciences (Williams 2000: 479). Ethics, however, cannot be reduced to a science.

In continental ethics, metaphysics is the key term through which ethical understanding is defined. In Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will be Able to Come Forward as a Science, what begins as Kant’s critique of metaphysics as a science becomes a defence of metaphysics as a natural disposition of reason. According to Kant, the thing-in-itself marks the bounds of pure reason, but at the same time reason seeks to get beyond the appearances. It would be fair to say that analytic and continental ethics proceed respectively by logical and metaphysical arguments. Cavell fairly captures this difference in his essay ‘Existentialism and Analytic Philosophy’: ‘The one wishes to recover Reason from superstition; the other wishes to recover the self from Reason’ (Cavell 1964: 947-8). In continental ethics, the ethical moment is re-defined in terms of metaphysical concepts; whether they occur in the form of the Nietzsche’s will to power or Derrida’s mysterium tremendum. These metaphysical concepts, while they come to over-determine the ethical moment, remain themselves in need of explanation. Furthermore, Moore’s argument against metaphysical ethics, employed in Chapter IV of his Principia Ethica, remains valid:

But though, if we are to define ‘metaphysics’ by the contribution which it has actually made to knowledge, we should have to say that it has emphasized the importance of objects which do not exist at all, metaphysicians themselves have not recognized this. (Moore 1993: 162)

Metaphysical concepts appeal to a supersensible reality, beyond what we touch, see, and feel, and they might not even exist. Ethics should not aspire toward a theology. Instead, it should remain grounded in the sensible, in this-ness of the ethical moment which literature has always been crafted to represent. The logical component in analytic ethics reduces ethics to a science, while the metaphysical component in continental ethics attempts to raise ethics to the level of a substitute theology. Against the Scylla and Charybdis of analytic and continental ethics, then, I will advance through my reading of the early plays of Ibsen a literary basis for ethics.


Cavell, Stanley. (1964) ‘Existentialism and Analytical Philosophy.’ Daedalus 93 (3). Population, Prediction, Conflict, Existentialism. MIT Press. pp 946-974

Moore, G. E. (1993)Principia Ethica. Thomas Baldwin (ed. & intro.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nussbaum, Martha. (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press

Singer & Singer. (2005) The Moral of the Story: an Anthology of Ethics Through Literature. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Williams, Bernard. (2000) ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline.’ Philosophy 75 (294). Cambridge University Press

(2003) ‘Fictions, Philosophy, and Truth’. Profession. Modern Language Association