Moby-Dick, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Linguistics, Negation


This paper argues that the varied philosophical beliefs that are present in the discourse of Moby-Dick’s characters are met with discursive resistance at the level of the novel’s form. Though a range of metaphysical arguments are posited by the characters as they explore the unknown, Melville’s use of negative linguistic constructions refutes the entire range of metaphysical beliefs by displaying the paradoxical and impossible nature of the primary subject that metaphysicians ponder—the unknown. I propose that in trying to comprehend “the unknown” humans unavoidably create something out of nothing then deem it unknowable and therefore fail to grant it the status of potentially being nothing at all (knowing the unknown is impossible just as thinking of nothing is impossible). Ultimately, this paper explores the possibility that when we reduce absence to positive terms we may understand in order to posit metaphysical theories, we, like Ahab, create an evil, unknown phantom and chase it—that perhaps the metaphysical questions we ask are always-already positing the potentiality of their answers, leaving no possibility for true absence, or silence on behalf of the universe we interrogate. Though clearly concerned with a unique anti-metaphysical stance, this essay is not concerned with understanding Melville’s metaphysical beliefs. Rather, it focuses on Melville’s ability to present a multitude of ideas and encourage the reader to rest upon none of them.