Obligation Without Rule: Bartleby, Agamben, and the Second-Person Standpoint

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In Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, the narrator finds himself involved in a moral relation with the title character whose sense he finds difficult to articulate. I argue that we can make sense of this relation, up to a certain point, in terms of the influential account of obligation that Stephen Darwall advances in The Second-Person Standpoint. But I also argue that there is a dimension of moral sense in the relation that is not captured by Darwall’s account, or indeed by any of the accounts of obligation that have been most prominent in the history of western philosophy from the early modern period up to the present. More specifically, I argue that what is brought out in the relation between Bartleby and the narrator is the separation of the experience of moral necessitation from the rule that would give its content. I attempt to show that this obligation without rule is a genuine moral phenomenon and that we can begin to understand it in terms of the ideas of love, singularity, and potentiality as these are developed in the work of Giorgio Agamben.
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Archival date: 2019-11-03
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