Melville’s Moby-Dick contains a countless number of hidden arguments and statements; the argument I will attempt to interrogate here pertains to the topic of scientific knowledge versus poetic knowledge. Although it is not blatantly obvious, Melville is definitely asserting and/or advocating for a certain belief about the importance of poetic knowledge, while also addressing the profound importance that many place on scientific knowledge alone. I believe that Melville’s main argument is that scientific knowledge without poetic knowledge is incomplete, and vice versa. In order to obtain true knowledge, both scientific and poetic knowledge are essential. While Melville may touch on this topic throughout the entire novel, it is most clearly illustrated in the chapter “Cetology,” and the later chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” More specifically, we can use “Cetology” to illustrate a greater meaning to “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
Before infiltrating the two aforementioned chapters, I find it necessary to clearly describe what the difference between scientific and poetic knowledge actually is. Scientific knowledge can best be described as purely analytical and empirical. “The term science refers both to scientific knowledge and the process of acquiring such knowledge. It includes any systematic field of study that relates to observed phenomena (as opposed to mathematics) and that involves claims which can be tested empirically (as opposed to philosophy) . . . Basic knowledge structures that arise in science include observations, laws, and theories, and related activities include data collection, law formation, and theory construction”(Džeroski,1).
Poetic knowledge is vastly different from scientific knowledge; many even see poetic knowledge as the complete opposite of scientific knowledge. Whereas scientific knowledge often seems to offer a cold, empirical meaning to a subject or phenomena, poetic knowledge has the ability to provide feeling to accompany and expand this cold, empirical meaning. Poetic knowledge is often the first type of knowledge a person obtains about something. For example, many people are instinctively afraid of snakes. People often learn this fear of snakes before actually learning any scientific facts about them. When one encounters a snake, they will most often be more concerned with this fear than any scientific knowledge. As you can see, the feeling or emotion that poetic knowledge provides can be perceived as either good or bad to the person going through the experience. Why is this knowledge referred to as poetic? As Taylor explains, “. . . Poetic knowledge is not necessarily a knowledge of poetry but rather a poetic (a sensoryemotional) experience of reality” (Taylor, 5). “Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is non-analytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awefull), spontaneous, mysterious. It is true that poetic experience has that same surprise of metaphor found in poetry, but also found in common experience, when the mind, through the senses and emotions, sees in delight, or even in terror, the significance of what is really there” (Taylor, 6). Now that we see the differences between scientific and poetic knowledge, it is time to investigate how Melville makes an argument concerning this topic in Moby-Dick.
In the chapter titled “Cetology,” Ishmael puts forth his own attempt to classify and organize the different species of whales. He presents his organizational attempt in a very different way compared to the modern science of the time. Even back then, the Linnaean system was the standard for classifying organisms. Instead of following this route, Ishmael organizes the many different species of whales into three categories referred to as Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo. Although Ishmael goes into great detail in his attempt, he admits that it is not a perfect attempt by any means. One of the reasons given for this imperfection is that Ishmael finds it difficult to distinguish if whales are indeed fish; he decides to state that they are indeed fish, which flies in the face of the Linnaean concept. Ishmael also points out that there is no real definition of what a whale is exactly. In response, he devises his own definition defining a whale as, “a spouting fish with a horizontal tale” (Melville, 148). As one reads through Ishmael’s attempt of organization, imperfection rears its head once again in the fact that Ishmael is unable to finish his classification system.
Why would Melville want to present an imperfect, incomplete, classification system of whales that completely flies in the face of popular science? The answer is simple; Melville is merely mocking the scientific knowledge of the time. He does this by flat-out defying one of the most fundamental concepts of biology. The fact that Melville has Ishmael create his own definition of what a whale is comes across as almost comical. If one can just simply create their own definition of a whale, what whales actually are comes down to a matter of opinion. It is my belief that Melville is trying to invalidate any attempts made to understand whales that solely rely on science. Most scientists likely see scientific knowledge as the only type of “real” knowledge that exists about whales; so much importance is placed on the value of scientific knowledge, that any attempts to incorporate the use of poetic knowledge may be brushed off as being Romantic. Melville is attempting to go against the common notion that poetic knowledge has no value when compared to scientific knowledge by demonstrating an example of scientific imperfection. To truly understand whales, one must make use of both scientific and poetic knowledge. Melville’s argument will seem much clearer when we relate “Cetology” to “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
“There are only two books in being which at all pretend to put the living sperm whale before you, and at the same time, in the remotest degree succeed in the attempt. Those books are Beale’s and Bennett’s; both in their time surgeons to English South-Sea whale-ships, and both exact and reliable men. The original matter touching the sperm whale to be found in their volumes is necessarily small; but so far as it goes, it is of excellent quality, though mostly confined to scientific description. As yet, however, the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life” (Melville, 146).
The preceding quote from “Cetology” emphasizes Ishmael’s viewpoint that thus far, science has not, nor will it ever, accurately portray the sperm whale in its true form. This quote about the imperfection of science foreshadows Ishmael’s own scientific imperfection that I described previously. In this quote, I believe that Melville is again scoffing at any attempt to truly appreciate the whale using science alone. Melville is trying to make the point that scientific knowledge needs poetic knowledge to achieve a true understanding of anything. The quote above also states that neither scientific or poetic attempts at understanding the whale are complete. Science only has the ability to offer empirical, surface knowledge about whales, whereas poetic knowledge lacks a real scientific basis. Melville’s use of this quote in “Cetology” further illustrates his argument, but this is not all we get from Melville on this subject. “The Whiteness of the Whale” provides a direct example Melville advocating for the importance of poetic knowledge.
The following quote is from “The Whiteness of the Whale.” “Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; an yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me” (Melville, 204).
In the preceding quote, Ishmael explains that the terrifying white color of the whale trumps all scientific facts when one witnesses the creature. It is this whiteness that scares Ishmael greatly, giving more meaning to the whale than any scientific fact ever could. In this chapter, Melville is providing an example to show the importance of poetic knowledge in true understanding by using the symbolism of the whiteness of the whale. He does this by showing that the feeling of fright that the whiteness evokes in Ishmael, has more significance in Ishmael’s mind than all the hard scientific facts. This relates back to the idea of the imperfection of science alone that is presented in “Cetology.” The scientific facts by themselves cannot account for most people’s understanding of the whale; they cannot alone account for the fear that the whale creates when one first witnesses it. “Cetology” helps us see the true meaning of Ishmael going on and on about the whiteness of the whale. The main purpose of this is to convey the point that often times scientific fact is trumped in importance by poetic knowledge in the minds of people. This chapter alludes to the fact that the main characteristic that is most often attributed to the whale is its frightening, ghastly appearance, not the empirical scientific facts that have been provided in an attempt to understand the whale. For one whom actually experiences an encounter with one of these organisms, scientific facts seem almost meaningless compared to the whale’s whiteness which can be nothing short of petrifying.
In conclusion, Melville offers an intriguing argument on the issue of scientific knowledge versus poetic knowledge in Moby-Dick. Specifically, the chapters “Cetology” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” attempt to validate the use of poetic knowledge in the quest for real meaning. “St. Augustine understood very well that we are first drawn to a contemplation of reality by a sense of wonder, pleasurable in some way, when we are motivated to know through our senses within the general appetite of love. Knowledge of a thing, for Augustine, requires possession of it, and he said we are not in possession of a thing until we love it” (Taylor, 28). The preceding quote that illustrates St. Augustine’s notion of knowledge also illustrates the meaning of Melville’s argument. That is, one cannot truly appreciate a thing based exclusively on scientific knowledge about it. After all, poetic knowledge is often the first, instinctual knowledge that humans possess about a thing. This has a much greater impact on our initial understanding of something than empirical knowledge does. It is my belief that Melville wants to convey that neither scientific or poetic knowledge are complete, but when combined, true meaning may be found.
Džeroski, Sašo, and Ljupčo Todorovski. Computational Discovery of Scientific Knowledge: Introduction, Techniques, and Applications in Environmental and Life Sciences. Berlin: Springer, 2007. Print.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
Taylor, James S. Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1998. Print.