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.

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32 thoughts on “Jane Austen, philosophical psychologist

  1. Thank you for this.  I find Austen to be an excellent, entertaining and insightful writer, and the “virtue ethics” perspective gives me a new way to look at her books.  I’m with you on preferring older novels to the “modern” ones; pretty much all my favourite books are from at least half a century ago (Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, Austen’s books, Dracula, Frankenstein…).  People seem to have been more careful wordsmiths in the past; the same goes for the style of political debates, which seems to degenerate with each passing century.

    One thing which struck me from the post you were discussing was this:

    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 react to events, not on their capacity to cause them, and the happy endings, like the intermediate trials and tribulations, are always dei ex machinis.

    The latter note isn’t exactly true – Darcy and Elizabeth find happiness as a result of their own responses to Lady Catherine, for example, even if she is the catalyst.  But in a lot of ways it’s true that her characters are reactive rather than active, and that seems to fit with the situation of women in early-19th-century Britain: they didn’t have a lot of scope for action, and their opportunities to shape events would often have been limited to how they responded to others.

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  2. Rose – two things.  First, great post, and I agree with your point about ethics/psychology.

    Second, I have to ask… Is it just me, or is Austen kind of a mirror image of Norman Mailer?  By which I mean, I know a lot of women who appreciate that Mailer can write, but I don’t know any women that actually read him – the only Mailer fans I know are all men.  Is Austen the same with sex reversed?  If so, why is that do you think?  Way off topic, to be sure, but since we’re discussing both Austen and psychology…

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    • Tod, totally great questions! Although I have to admit I haven’t read Normal Mailer is, like, a zillion years – because he’s so unappealingly *masculine*.

      I think with Austen it might be different. It’s worth noting that her introduction into the literary canon partially came at the hands of men. Sir Walter Scott touted her in her lifetime, and R.W. Chapman devoted a scholarly attention to her work. To this day, I do know plenty of male Austen fans (although certainly more female).

      I also think, for whatever reason (love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this), males have a lot more trouble getting into books and movies with female protagonists than females do with male protagonists (with movies, it’s a bit easier, because you can just make the female protagonist a hottie). I think men who can get over that resistance enjoy Austen in a way that women rarely enjoy Mailer. Austen does not focus only on female virtues and I don’t think she’s particularly focused on revealing What Women Want. I think she almost never depicts male characters alone because she has no direct experience of them, and above all wants to be as accurate as possible. Her work is about females, but is not particularly feminine.

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      • I’d say that these days, for a lot of dudes, you have to really want to specifically read Austen if you are going to do it, because it’s almost impossible not to satisfy your hankering for these tales through general contact with the popular media.  My experience may be atypical, but I’ve found that spending much time at all with college educated women assures a person a pretty good chance of becoming familiar with a number of these stories through various screen adaptations.  And, again, my experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found that men don’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming into watching them – they’re very entertaining.  But then afterwards, a person has to have leftover appetite for them to decide to devote further time, including significant portions of scarce lesure reading time, to them.  Generally, I think men’s appetites are whetted after viewing the screen versions. I find the same dynamic at play with Harry Potter – given the quality of the films, I am more than satisfied with their being the totality of my window into the non-Muggle world.  Obviously, the rewards to going on to reading Austen as opposed to just seeing pale imitations done on screen is not comparable to the relatively tiny rewards of going on to reading Rowling.  Nevertheless, after seeing the adaptations, if one hasn’t read the novels, noe is faced with the choice of whether to invest still more time in Austen’s world, or to move on to authors into whose works the only way is through their own written word. This is obviously not an aesthetic argument for the merits of whatever other authors those might turn out to be over Austen’s, but merely an observation about the value (or in any case, effect) of substitute goods in maximizing utility in the context of resource scarcity.

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        • Ah, this is painful for me, as I’m sure you might predict I would say. I do love me some Austen adaptations, but her genius lies in language and the very subtle ways people deceive themselves and manipulate others. And a good chunk of her humor is always lost. Virginia Woolf once called her something like the artist most difficult to catch in the act of being great. Too true – she’s so subtle.

          That said, who doesn’t love Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle? And that’s how I get my husband to experience Austen.

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          • I’ve read small parts of the novels, and I definitely agree with you about the language.  They’re on my “Read Them Because They’re Good For You (And You’ll Actually Probably Enjoy Them Anyway!)” list; it’s just that, again, lots of other books are too, and those tend to be ones where the screen options are a lot more limited (your Moby Dicks and Anna Kareninas, etc.).

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      • First I think one has to distinguish what type of reader is being discussed.  If we’re focusing on the average reader, someone who consumes mostly genre fiction and bestsellers, then yes, Austen’s romance-novelish plots are much more likely to be read by the demographic that likes to read romance novels.  If we’re talking about sophisticated readers (basically, those who read for more than just the plot), then I suspect the gender disparity declines rapidly (but probably doesn’t disappear entirely).  My impressions are based on a wide and representative data set of about 10 people, so you know they’re reliable.

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    • Jane Austen has a particular place in my heart in terms of writers. Only Patrick O’Brian occupies as exalted a place in my pantheon of writers in the particular beauty of their turn of phrase. Which is hardly surprising, perhaps, since O’Brian was clearly influenced by Austen in many ways,

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      • The Aubrey-Maturin books? I love those. Although I will admit to reading them in the beginning for a shallow reason – I saw Master and Commander and was really, umm, let’s use the word ‘struck’ by Bettany’s Maturin and wanted to find out what else happened to him.

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        • Those books are my canon. I read them religiously. In fact, I know whole passages by heart. And yet somehow, each time I read them I’m continually struck by new insights, or witticisms that make me laugh at loud…

          And I loved the casting for the movie…though I’m more inclined to say it’s the supporting cast that was great. Killick, Davis, Bonden, Pullings, Mowett…were all fantastic.

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    • My enduring image of this was Jane Eyre, a piece we had to read for high school. My teacher asked us to rate how good of a book it was…

      The boys rated it as poor(2) or awful(1), with maybe two guys saying it was fair(3).

      I think I came down on fair(3), but a supermajority of the girls were calling it good(4) or excellent(5).

      This may have had something to do with it being high school, required reading — but I don’t think people loathed many books other than that one (and, actually, Old Man and the Sea — my personal “nothing is happening!” book.) This may actually have something to do with gendering of the novel — but I think it has more to do with “lovey dovey” being perceived as boring. I remember fewer people complaining about Wuthering Heights (which the non-advanced kids had to read) — and definitely not romeo and juliet.

      Then again, this teacher was kinda infamous for choosing “what she liked” rather than “what would appeal to teenagers…”

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      • Jane Austen is a terrible read for teenagers. All they see are people going to dances and wanting to get married. Subtle irony, virtue development, and micro social interactions are not what teens are best at. Jane Eyre could work kind of better, especially for a certain kind of dramatic type. Or Dickens!

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  3. Haven’t read Austen… yet; haven’t read much 19C British fiction at all, for that matter.  But the the few 18C novels I remember deal with characters (Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones) who can be seen as victims coping with adverse circumstances (with success based on their virtues) rather than building their fates from scratch.  Don’t know, of course, if this was a going theme.

    And for what it’s worth, my mother was a huge Mailer fan.

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  4. Rose, do philosophers take any post enlightenment novelists seriously as philosophers? The reason I’m asking is that few novels are going to present actual arguments in favour of their position and post enlightenment, fairly explicit aguments seem to be necessary on order to be taken seriously as a philosopher. (The standard is much more lax when evaluatin ancient philosophers from anitquity.)

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    • I teach philosophy through literature sometimes, which is often difficult for the reasons you mention. Iris Murdoch was of course also a real philosopher, and I think she comes closest to an acceptable philosopher. In The Bell, for example, we have characters making the cases for deontology and virtue respectively, and the novel as a whole sets out to demonstrate her version of virtue. In aesthetics, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is taken as a starting off point for contextualism. Michael Frayn in a few of his works. Dostoevsky, sometimes.

      I think that fiction is usually not the best place to make your philosophical arguments. Virtue ethics is, however, particularly amenable to it. Character traits plus situations – bingo!

      But, contra the author of the other post, I don’t at all wonder why she isn’t accepted as a philosopher. I dont think it’s because she’s a woman. Her arguments are implicit, not explicit. She doesn’t consider counterarguments, etc. But what she has done is create works of philosophical value and presented important philosophical ideas. Her books assume the truth of virtue ethics (usually -there’s a bit of deontology thrown in sometimes). And the explore it at legnth and in a variety of situation and with remarkable subtlety. One could easily turn her thoughts into a paper, one far more sophisticated than the vast majority of novels, even the philosophical ones.

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    • There is Sartre, of course, and in come circles, Bataille. I suspect that the Bataille circles are slightly different from the ones Rose runs in (which is not a dig at either Rose or the Bataille folks). And Camus of course, because even if he’s not considered much of a philosopher, his essay on Sisyphus is something everyone reads.

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      • Yes, I forgot about the existentialists! And that is because we run in different crowds :). They wouldn’t meet the standards for a philosophical paper in anglophone analytic department. But I do wonder if we could take some inspiration from the existentialists. I think we could stand to loosen a bit what we are willing to take seriously as philosophy (short of existentialism!), especially if someone is willing to “translate” it.

        Rebecca Goldstein is a current philosopher and novelist, but I haven’t read her stuff. I don’t know if she actually presents arguments narratively.

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  5. My 24 year old son and 21 year old daughter have read the Austen books.  I asked my son one time why he enjoys these books and I was surprised by his answer.  ” People had more common sense back in those days”.

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