Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jane Austen: Moral philosopher?

"Jane Austen, philosophical psychologist"


Rose Woodhouse

March 14th, 2012

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Here’s kind of an odd, but very interesting post, arguing that Jane Austen is a better moral philosopher than a writer, and she’s not a writer with much psychological insight. I think the contrast between good philosopher/bad writer-psychologist was originally meant to be more stark, but an update at the end of the post indicates the author was persuaded by others that she’s actually a pretty good writer. (Because, you know, she is. Like, the best.)

I agree with his general argument that Jane Austen is overlooked as virtue ethicist. Virtue ethics (a view to which I am sympathetic) is a moral view which suggests that the path to moral goodness lies in developing good character traits, such as sympathy, patience, courage, etc. This is opposed to other views about moral goodness which might stress performing right actions, or maximizing the amount of happiness in the world.

As Iris Murdoch, novelist and virtue ethicist, argued explicitly in her philosophy and implicitly in her novels, novels are an excellent way to explore virtue ethics. In order to understand moral rightness according to virtue ethics, you need to understand the vices and virtues of a particular person and the complexity of the situations in which she finds herself. And Jane Austen clearly availed herself of this to explore a sophisticated form of virtue ethics.

The post’s author writes:

Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class propriety, and this together with her use of narrative (and being a woman?), may explain Austen’s neglect by academic. moral philosophers. Success for Austen’s women depends on developing a moral character whose central virtues are bourgeois: prudence (planning one’s actions with respect to protecting and furthering one’s interests), amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due), propriety (understanding and acting on a sense of what virtue requires), and dignity (considering oneself as an independent autonomous person deserving of respect). Austen is particularly unusual (feminist?) among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, even though it is so obviously central to most people’s lives working, if not living, in close confinement with others with whom one must and should get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanit y and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks….To show us what true amiability should be, she shows us what it isn’t quite. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is so excessively amiable as to put her own dignity and interests at risk, so self-effacing that her true love almost doesn’t notice her (until events intervene). Mr Bingley’s amiability is perfect in pitch, but fails to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving (PP). Emma, meanwhile, is very discriminating, but she is a snob about it: she is rather too conscious of her social status and does not actually respect others as she should (which of course, gets her into trouble)

This is all true. She obviously argues for virtues, and just as obviously feels how certain virtues are in conflict with each other, such as open-heartedness and psychological perspicuity. One gets the sense she appreciates her own psychological insight and those of certain of her characters (e.g., Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse), but also deplores it because it necessarily lacks an admirable generosity had by other characters (e.g., Jane Bennet, Harriet Smith). In Mansfield Park, the emphasis on generosity as the more important virtue of these two opposing virtues is greater. Most of her vituperation is reserved for those characters who are all about psychological insight (the Crawfords). Indeed, half of the titles of her finished works are names of virtues and vices (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice).

Yet this post’s writer seems to think that Austen’s moral insight comes at the expense of psychological insight:

[S]he doesn’t meet contemporary literary standards. Consider her characters. Once considered so real, now in contrast to the subtle psychological realisticness of modern novelists like Ian McEwan, they look like what they are: complexes of particular moral dispositions rather than plausible human people whom one can take seriously in their own right. In a modern literary novel, the plot is driven forward by the characters, and this is how it should be because it is the characters-as-persons with whom the reader is actually concerned. The reader is provided with direct access to internal events in the minds of the characters and can understand the plot as unfolding naturally from these. Not so in Austen. Her focus is on how her characters reactto events, not on their capacity to cause them, and the happy endings, like the intermediate trials and tribulations, are always dei ex machinis.

But any advocate for virtue ethics is an advoate for deep psychological knowledge. One has to know what one’s vices are to eradicate them, and know one’s virtues to develop them. It’s a morality that is based on psychology. Self-deception is antithetical to the cultivation of virtues, and the majority of Austen character are engaged in more or less elaborate and all too plausible self-deceptions.

Also, I just don’t see that her characters are particular moral dispositions rather than people. Part of that may be my taste – contemporary literary standards are not in improvement on the 19th century, to my way of thinking, and I’d rather read Austen than McEwan any day.

But one of the things that is so charming about, say, Sense and Sensibility is her tendency to let realism and character take over from the simple moral dispositions that the sisters are supposed to represent. Marianne, who is supposed to be criticized for representing the trait of sensibility, is a complex character with insight and intelligence and often and admirable forthrightness. Edward, who is clearly on the sense side of things, is nebulous and weak in some ways while hanging on to a sense of moral duty that seems almost like a port in a storm.

While Austen doesn’t often describe the interior goings on of someone’s head, her descriptions of their actions are pschologically revealing. This is partly how, to this day, people find her so funny – because it feels real. Take this scene in which Mrs. Elton (who is one of those annoying people who moves to a new place and always talks about where she has come from) has just met Mr. Weston’s son:

Mr. Weston was following; but Mrs. Elton detained him, to gratify him by her opinion of his son; and so briskly did she begin, that the young man himself, though by no means moving slowly, could hardly be out of hearing.

“A very fine young man indeed, Mr. Weston. You know I candidly told you I should form my own opinion; and I am happy to say that I am extremely pleased with him.–You may believe me. I never compliment. I think him a very handsome young man, and his manners are precisely what I like and approve–so truly the gentleman, without the least conceit or puppyism. You must know I have a vast dislike to puppies– quite a horror of them. They were never tolerated at Maple Grove. Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them; and we used sometimes to say very cutting things! Selina, who is mild almost to a fault, bore with them much better.”

While she talked of his son, Mr. Weston’s attention was chained; but when she got to Maple Grove, he could recollect that there were ladies just arriving to be attended to, and with happy smiles must hurry away.

Through only descriptions of behavior, and not of mental states, she paints a picture of how people manage to turn conversations to what they want to talk about (themselves) and how people only stick around for what they want to hear about (themselves). The post’s author suggests that it’s because she’s a woman novelist that people do not take her moral philosophy seriously. But I wonder if he does not take her psychological insight seriously because she relies on humor so often to convey it.

I could give endless examples of Austen’s psychological insight. But one most striking phenomenon is her ability to understand the idea of non-conscious motivations and even actions. You simply don’t see any of that in early 19th century novels. Or philosophy, for that matter, which really ignored the idea of the non-conscious mind. But she completely understood how many human actions are driven by buried motives. She also understood that people even perform non-conscious actions.

A few examples:

From Mansfield Park: “His mind, now disengaged from the cares which had pressed on him at first, was at leisure to find the Grants and their young inmates really worth visiting; and though infinitely above scheming or contriving for any the most advantageous matrimonial establishment that could be among the apparent possibilities of any one most dear to him, and disdaining even as a littleness the being quick-sighted on such points, he could not avoid perceiving, in a grand and careless way, that Mr Crawford was somewhat distinguishing his niece — nor perhaps refrain (though unconsciously) from giving a more willing assent to invitations on that account.”

From Emma: “The contrast between Mrs Churchill’s importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax’s, struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing — and she sat musing on the difference of woman’s destiny, and quite unconscious on what her eyes were fixed, till roused by Miss Bates’s saying…”

From Sense and Sensibility: “Marianne was spared from the troublesome feelings of contempt and resentment, on this impertinent examination of their features, and on the puppyism of his manner in deciding on all the different horrors of the different toothpick-cases presented to his inspection, by remaining unconscious of it all; for she was as well able to collect her thoughts within herself, and be as ignorant of what was passing around her, in Mr Gray’s shop, as in her own bedroom.”

I could go on. But in sum, you cannot be a good virtue ethicist without being a good psychologist. Austen’s characters are not simplistic, and we get her acute psychological insight without long-winded streams-of-consciousness of her characters.

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