Jane Austen, philosophical psychologist

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. Notably, half of the titles of her finished works are names of virtues and vices (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice). 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).

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’s characters 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 an 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 psychologically 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.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Rose, do you have a link to a basic statement of the main thesis virtue ethics that defends it against some of the more obvious arguments against it, so that I could get a bit more up to speed on the school and save us the drudgery of re-walking such multiply-trod discursive paths here? Should I just Stanford-Encylopedia it?

    • The SEP article is quite good. If anything, it downplays the major objection to virtue, which is its questionbeggingness. How do you figure out virtues and vices without reference to right actions or maximizing good consequences? Or introducing something metaphysically undesirable. It’s a serious objection.

      Others object that it’s too situational. I think that’s a feature, not a bug.

      • Right on, I’ll start there. (Since I already have it up! ;-D) Thx!

  2. “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.”

    Yup, me too. I know nothing about literary theory, but is that even true, the claim about characters driving the plot as a requirement of modern literary novels? Aren’t there are plenty of novels about people reacting to events, people brought low by events outside their control and so on? On the other hand, maybe the stuff I’m reading is not actually literature, heh.

    • I think that contemporary literary standards have much to be said. Craft improves over time, it does not rot and decay. True, fads come and go — but save me from another 40 page dissertation on Parisian architecture of 200 years previously. Particularly when it’s not terribly well motivated!

  3. Didn’t mean to suggest that modern literature is decayed. Just that between those two authors, I’ll pick Austen. That said, I don’t think art forms necessarily improve, either.

    I have two problems with his statement. One is that it’s not true (plenty of Jane Austen (and 19th cent) characters initiate actions, plenty of modern novel characters react to events). The other is that it assumes that characters initiating actions is necessarily better aesthetically. I really resist the idea that there are necessary conditions on aesthetic goodness in novels. Which is not to say there is no fact of the matter which novel is better – just that’s not determined by a novel’s meeting some formal condition or other.

    • … an odd thought: a generality is not a fact.
      we decide what is best through persuasion /and/or universal consensus. We’re generalizing experience.
      That’s not fact — it is statistics!

      • Kimmi – do you mean in terms of the aesthetic goodness of a novel? That’s Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, which in this context would be: Is Pride and Prejudice a great novel because people like it? Or do people like it because it’s a great novel?

        I side with the latter horn for reasons I already posted about, but I still don’t think there are nec. and suff conditions.

        But are you saying that there are reasons, and it has to do with consensus? That’s sort of Hume’s view, which one of these days I’ll blog about.

        • People read it because it’s a great novel; people like it because it’s a good novel.

  4. Thank you for this excellent critical analysis of my post! You are right that virtue ethics depends on psychology, and perhaps I could have brought out Austen’s psychological insight more clearly.

    Nevertheless, in terms of pyschological realism I still think Austen doesn’t write like (most) modern authors i.e. in the tradition which sees the novel as comprising ‘events in the mind of an imaginary person’. Her central characters are complex, yes, but they seem to me morally complex rather than psychologically complex.

    With respect to ‘realism’, I would say one should distinguish between truth and realisticness. Austen’s characters certainly embody true moral psychological insights. As you say, there is the identification of character types whom we can recognise from real life, and the dead-on analysis of non-conscious motivations. And there is also the description of internal struggles to identify and do the right thing and be a good person (which I would say would also stretch to examining our non-conscious motivations). But that is not the same as providing a realistic account of their psychological make-up as people, rather than as characters fulfilling their roles in what I take to be a morality play.

  5. Thanks for writing n two of my favorite things — Jane Austen and philosophy — and for taking the time to respond.

    I definitely agree that Jane Austen set out to write morality tales in which characters represented one virtue or vice or another. What is interesting to me is how she failed. As I said (and I suppose you disagree), much of the time her devotion to truthful renderings of people wins out over the moral trait. Take how Marianne is reaping what she sowed with Willoughby due to her sensibility in London. The descriptions of her waiting for his letters, refusing to go out just in case he comes, grieving at getting dumped are all far more psychologically vivid and sympathetic than a mere don’t-be-like-this finger-wagging.

    I also think her later books spend more time on simple psychological description. When Fanny goes back to her parents house, little details about Emma (such as that she carefully cultivated a list of books to read and then went on to read none of them).

    Another bit of evidence that she is psychologically focused are the distinctions between her main characters. I can’t think of another author who has made each protagonist feel like such a completely different person from one another, yet your sympathy is so engaged (well, maybe not for Fanny Price). And I don’t think it’s just because they represent different virtues and vices. How much of Elizabeth Bennet’s character not attributable to “prejudice”? I think a lot!

    Btw, as a side issue, I’ve always found really interesting how the Crawfords each find virtue extremely sexually attractive, but not at all internally motivating. I’m not sure I’ve seen that theme dealt with ,uch elsewhere.

  6. An excellent essay by you, rebutting Mr. Rodham’s failure to grasp the extraordinarily insightful psychological underpinnings of Jane Austen’s writing–he is working by the conventional wisdom about Jane Austen’s writing that once was universal, and still is widely held in Janeite circles, which is that she was a firm supporter of the status quo in England-when actually, her novels are meant to be read ironically, and she was actually a covert but radical feminist who hated the sexist status quo.

    In any event, your comments about Austen’s depictions of the unconscious were spot-on, in fact she went much further than your examples would suggest. Read these blog posts of mine as a sampler:




    Let me know what you think!

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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