Eva Dadlez, Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)
I began to write Mirrors to One Another when I realized that I had insights about commonalities between David Hume and Jane Austen that were too long-winded to squeeze into a single article, or two, or three. I should admit at the outset that I was repeatedly advised, in the kindest possible way, not to write the book. It was madness, I was told, to proceed when I had drummed up no interest among publishers, who either didn’t write back at all or told me that my idea was too thin for expansion to a book-length project. But I am fairly bad at drumming up interest (and at taking well-intentioned advice) and rather good at writing books, so I ignored these people, got a sabbatical from my university, and wrote the book anyway. I had a draft in a year. I found that publishers were much more willing to succumb to my blandishments once I had a draft in hand. Soon afterward, I was fortunate enough to receive some excellent advice from Wiley-Blackwell reviewers about my draft, advice which was directly responsible for my composing three additional chapters during the following few months. And I have to say that every chapter got a dry run at ASA or Hume Society meetings, something that helped me to acquire suggestions and muster defenses against objections in a way I could not otherwise have done. They usually got a dry run in my classes as well, whenever I could find an excuse to squeeze them in.
I teach a senior seminar on philosophy and fiction. While we have no graduate program in philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma, I can do graduate-level independent study work in philosophy with students pursuing graduate degrees in English and political science. Both departments are happy to incorporate coursework from me into their graduate programs. These are the kinds of students to whom my book has been most accessible. The seminar usually features a graduate contingent working with a different syllabus and elevating the level of discourse for all concerned. I assign fiction in all my senior seminars, very much in line with one of the central arguments in my book about fiction being a way of doing philosophy. I found, however, that I was better off with graduate students where Austen was concerned. The undergraduates did not respond with uniform enthusiasm to Jane Austen. I don’t know whether it was the absence of car chases and dismemberments at Pemberley that had a soporific effect, or whether it was some internet-use-related attention deficit. I’ve read the novels for pleasure so many times myself that I just couldn’t understand it.
According to my students, the problem with Austen novels was that nothing happened (conversations apparently do not count as events in the undergraduate ontology). Perhaps a little desperate, I tried to point out that there were illicit sexual affairs in every novel: Lydia and Wickham, Colonel Brandon’s unfortunate ward Eliza and Willoughby, Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot, Harriet’s mystery parentage, Maria Bertram’s displacement activities. There isn’t an Austen novel where sex remains within the confines of the married state. I eventually resorted to Lady Susan, which, for those who haven’t read it, is Dangerous Liaisons Lite. More to the purpose, I involved the graduate half of the class in teasing a Humean conception of the moral life from the precincts of Longbourne and Hartfield. In at least some cases, the resistance to Austen the author (as opposed to the emotionally incontinent simulacrum projected by recent films) was a resistance to Enlightenment thinking. A lot of my students preferred the romantic, soft focus movie versions of Austen to the acerbic clarity and directness of the original stories. These students also tended to prefer the continental philosophers of later centuries. I found that I had to introduce Humean conceptions of sympathy and taste first and then backtrack to the way such phenomena arose or were addressed in Austen’s novels. Despite having made a partially successful attempt to render Austen accessible, I nonetheless came away with the conviction that undergraduates would always be more responsive to Quentin Tarantino (who, I am convinced, would make a splendid director for film renditions of some of Austen’s more outrageous juvenilia) than to Masterpiece Classic, just on the ground of entertainment value.
There are novels which lend themselves to less sophisticated philosophical reasoning that are more readily accessible to undergraduates. Michel Faber’s Under the Skin presents an animal rights argument in which humanity is factory farmed on a small scale. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic fiction that explores a takeover of the U.S. by the fundamentalist right. Published ten years before the 1996 Taliban takeover, it is eerily prescient. Indeed, teaching a novel about such a theocracy in Oklahoma, where Senator Tom Coburn advocates the execution of abortionists, lends a whole extra dimension to the ways in which we can consider that our attitudes toward fiction and reality conjoin. Novels by Nick Hornby and Mil Millington and Elizabeth Hand permit in-depth explorations of particular points of view, especially self-destructive, unreflective ones. These kinds of books are always easier to teach than Austen because the arguments are accessible on the surface, rather than being built into the very style with which the material is presented. Writers construct a convincing analogy or concoct a compelling example from which generalizations can be drawn, and much of the philosophy stops there. Although I like all of these writers very much (especially Mil Millington, who I think is possibly the funniest person now living) they do not provide us with the kind of perspective that draws and focuses our attention in a way that can be cultivated for exercise in life. That is, they may change opinions or add to one’s arsenal of arguments or lead one to recognize unwelcome traits in oneself, but they do not usually change the way one pays attention to the world. Reading novels like Austen’s sometimes can, and can lend insights into Hume that might have been unobtainable by other means. Such prospects provide a motive for putting up with undergraduate resistance.
The reason for making an attempt to get philosophy students to take a careful look at writers like Austen is one for which I argue and that I try to illustrate via thought experiments in my book. One can make philosophical points by means of fiction – related not just to ethics but aesthetics, metaphysics and epistemology. And one can sometimes make them more effectively by those means than by direct philosophical argument, though some fictions lend themselves to such a purpose better than others. Martha Nussbaum has said this already, as have Eileen John, Noel Carroll, Berys Gaut, Matthew Kieran, Bashshar Haydar, James Harold, Amy Mullin, Mary Devereaux, and a lot of other philosophers. I argue for such a position yet again in my book (alongside an invocation of Dennett’s ubiquitous intuition pump) and try to show how it might actually work out in practice even in contexts where fine awareness and rich responsibility are not the order of the day. Different literary styles can lend themselves to different ethical attunements, for instance, and reading Jane Austen can give rise to the acquisition of different habits of moral attention and different apprehensions of moral salience than may the kind of Jamesian moral microscopy of observation touted by Nussbaum as an adjunct to Aristotelian insights.
I argue that the approach to ethics and value taken by David Hume closely corresponds to the normative (and sometimes meta-ethical) points of view taken up in Jane Austen’s novels. I explore correlations between Hume and Austen, no one of which is unique but all of which, taken together, demonstrate a greater degree of similarity than may be found by drawing comparisons between Austen and some other philosopher. To investigate the aforementioned convergence may be to explore the way in which Austen’s works enable readers to see the world through the lens of a Humean perspective. Not only do such novels elicit characteristic Humean responses, but there are also passages in Austen that read very much like thought experiments which establish some of Hume’s assumptions and insights. If it can be demonstrated that there is a close correspondence between the various norms endorsed by Hume and Austen, that Austen’s novels can make us to some degree complicit in a Humean perspective on the world, and that Hume can help us to get more out of Austen, then I will have shown something both about the contemporary relevance of that perspective (given the degree of Austen’s contemporary appeal to all but some of my undergraduates) and about Austen’s affinity for the world view of the Enlightenment.
A great deal has been said by philosophers about the ability of literature to offer specifically moral insights. I contend that aesthetic norms can be treated in much the same way as moral norms. That is, I claim that the fiction of Jane Austen, in addition to evidencing the conscription of a Humean aesthetic, so engages us that we are led imaginatively to adopt certain aesthetic perspectives in the course of its contemplation – not just by being told what is aesthetically pleasing or commendable, but by being made to feel pleasure and to experience commendation; not just by being told what constitutes discriminating taste, but by being led to discriminate in a particular way. I also argue that the same case can be made for epistemic considerations that is made for moral or aesthetic norms. Recent discussions of intellectual virtue, many of which identify a connection between goodness and intelligence, draw our attention to similarities between the discourse of epistemology and that of ethics. Questions of justification, rationality or proper warrant are normative, carrying with them the notions of permissibility and of blameworthiness for errors. The effort here will center on an attempt to show similarities in the way David Hume and Jane Austen address questions of epistemic evaluation, in particular those that are linked to moral concerns and to the role which reason is permitted to play in moral judgment. It is also notable that each of Austen’s six novels chronicles the epistemic and intellectual evolution of its heroine, a form of development that it is easy to construe in distinctively Humean terms.
So I argue that Austen’s novels can function as a species of thought experiment that complements the Humean project by offering elaborations and sometimes demonstrations of Humean insights, by providing both illuminating illustrations and an opportunity for imaginative participation that is typically unavailable from philosophical prose. I also argue that Hume’s philosophy can enrich our understanding of Austen’s fiction by calling our attention to more of what is there than do alternative readings and interpretations. That is, I attempt to establish that Austen’s fiction can aid in the understanding of Hume’s philosophy, and that Hume’s philosophy can help us to get more out of Austen’s fiction.
© Eva Dadlez