One Foot in the Finite

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Publication Date
December 2017
Page Count
224 pages
Trim Size
6 x 9

One Foot in the Finite

Melville's Realism Reclaimed
K. L. Evans

In One Foot in the Finite, K. L. Evans makes the case that Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick offers a chance to rethink literary realism. Distinguishing between realism as an attempt to hold up a mirror to the natural world and the more nuanced realism associated with the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Melville, Proust, Woolf, and Joyce, Evans suggests that even narratives like Moby-Dick that are highly stylized or include fantastical elements can depict life as it is actually lived and experienced by real people.

This spirited contribution to materialist critiques also includes a timely reexamination of concepts. Concepts (like “whale”) are puzzling because they are not part of the natural world, the world of physical objects and forces in which human beings are immersed, and yet they are not denizens of the subjective, essentially private inner world that philosophers since Descartes have associated with the world of ideas. Though the whale that figures centrally in Moby-Dick is otherworldly or nonsensible, a “phantom,” as Melville writes, it is not merely an idea or creation of the mind. For Evans, Melville is a realist because he shows how the concept “whale” is intersubjective—how it can be comprehensible to and rightly used by any number of persons.

The argument that our concepts (and their linguistic expressions) are not separated from the actual lives of humans has widespread literary and philosophical ramifications, for it overturns a view of language in which words pass at such remoteness from tangible things that all talk is idle and the meanings of our signs turn out to be capricious and arbitrary.
About the Author

K. L. EVANS is the author of Whale! and the editor, with Branka Arsic, of Melville's Philosophies.


“Crash! Now, you can hear it! Boom! What’s left of the old, ivy-covered walls dividing literary theory from analytical philosophy are, at long last, tumbling down. Kim Evans and her new book One Foot in the Finite are in charge of the demolition. Evans’s fluent expertise in all her subjects—including Melville studies and Wittgensteinian philosophy of language—runs deep and broad. Her writing is crystal clear, always incisive. Grab a copy of the book and watch the walls crumble! Stand back! Once those dreary walls are down, whole new disciplinary vistas open up.” —Charles McCarty, professor of philosophy, Indiana University 

“A beautiful study of Moby-Dick that opens up not only a new way of reading the novel but also a new way of linking Melville’s philosophy of language with that of Wittgenstein. This is an extraordinarily important work that brilliantly bridges the fields of literary criticism and philosophy.” —Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, Harvard University

"This slim yet ambitious volume offers an insightful and original reading of Moby-Dick, a reading directed toward students of both Melville and philosophy. Specialists will likely profit most from this brilliantly argued and carefully researched book, but its density of ideas may also please informed and intrepid readers outside the academy. Highly recommended." —Choice Reviews

"This is an important book, which goes far to rescue Melville from the charge of inconsistency of genre and feeling: of swinging between factual reportage and romantic fancy. It does so by making Melville’s dissatisfaction with both poles of nineteenth-century thought—Lockeian empiricism and Kantian idealism—central to his later work. It argues that Melville’s deeply American concern with the centrality of the practical in human life and consciousness allies him far more with such twentieth-century philosophers as Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, or Stanley Cavell, than with the thought of his own day." —Bernard Harrison, author of Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory

"Evans's book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville's great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein's thought for literary analysis." —Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Rather than dwelling on Melville’s doubts and ambivalences, as many literary critics do, Evans emphasizes his certainties. She contends that in Moby-Dick he is a literary realist in the classical—that is Platonic—sense, refusing the persistent dualism of mind and world in Western philosophy since Descartes and Locke. Melville shows how concepts are formed in human activity, and he verifies the ability of language, and especially of fiction, to connect the sensible with the ideal. In this bracing, consequential book, Evans alters our understanding of the relationships among literature, philosophy (especially Wittgenstein), and aesthetics." —Samuel Otter, professor of English, University of California, Berkeley

"I much admire how K.L Evans brings together philosophy and literary criticism in order to provide an exciting account of what Melville sought in realism. Learned, lucid, and passionate, this book claims that realism is a less a matter of accuracy and range of accurate sensuous detail than a way of realizing the force of how those facts and the discourses accompanying them give shape to imaginative spaces. Realism for the most ambitious writers makes vivid the conceptual frameworks cultures have produced around a concrete name—like the whale. Only Ahab, and the author emulating Ahab, fully see what the whale is by imagining its full implications for those who have tried to name it accurately. A thrilling account of Wittgenstein's Tractatus provides the conceptual substance for this view of naming by stressing how Wittgenstein's states of affairs are not descriptions but images for how language has developed stages for acknowledging what naming can involve." —Charles Altieri, professor of English, University of California, Berkeley