Monday, February 08, 2010

ethical art, artful living: discursive homemaking

E.M. Dadlez argues her book title that David Hume and Jane Austen are “Mirrors to One Another.” What a darling idea.

You think I’m some kind of Romantic, wanting to marry philosophical and literary value. But wanting a mirrorplay of sensibility figured in
an idealized venue of human Relationship is not itself Romantic.
Dadlez, in effect, proves that through her example.

Dadlez claims, according to Alice MacLachlan’s review of Dadlez’s book, that “Austen's Humean us more reason to think of her in the context of Enlightenment thinkers, and not the Romantics or Victorians...Austen's novels function as thought experiments, demon-strating and illustrating Hume's meta-ethical and normative claims; both her narrative content and her literary (clear, sparse, ironic) style make her novels ideal for this philosophical function in ways that few other works of fiction can boast.”


Tomorrow I’m receiving Slote’s reconceptualization of moral sentimentalism as an ethic of care based in empathy, inspired by Humean aspirations, yet in contemporary terms. But I’m not about to have an affair with Jane Austen’s novels. It’s just that the idea of the woman as philosophical fictionist is so delightful.

Consider their mirroring as a general thematic space bridging philosophy and fiction, albeit relative to 19thC life. Issues of human nature (epistemic), feeling (aesthetic), and virtue (ethical life) emerge through Austen from the estated world of English life she indirectly knew. Dadlez’s mirroring of Austen and Hume would be instructive inasmuch as the two—the mirroring—focuses “what is central to the vision of human psychology, ethics and society found in both” in terms of empathy (understood as “sympathy”—Slote wants us to understand sympathy as really in Hume what we know as empathy), “the moral importance of happiness and pleasure” (which contemporary moral inquiry might do well to better appreciate), “and the close connection between morality and emotion,” whose “and” is about valuation.

It’s not just that fiction provides a good venue for discovering philosophical themes (which is a common tactic in introductory courses), but that storiation can be a means of philosophical inquiry. We appreciate this with existential novels. But contemporary moral theory is sometimes culpable (maybe often) for the phony scenes relied on, for exemplifying moral problems (e.g., the tired trolly scenario). When I read Sobel and Copp’s extended critique of recent virtue ethics, I’m nearly appalled by the psychologically-contrived fiction they rely on to make “real” claims about ethical life. Contemporary philosophy is full of implausible scenarios used for points of principle. One might take the cliché of the ivory tower to have much credibility, given some of the unrealistic fictions that philosophers cherish. I want to say to them: Look at what you have to presume about the world to make your isolated scenarios serve your problematic (as if the problematic emerged from some general plight and the scenario simply exemplifies, rather than creates,
the problematic so exemplified). A backstage is suppressed in order to make a frontstage focus manageable. (This is generality, but you should see the fiction that Sobel and Copp’s endeavor of comprehensive coverage of recent virtue ethics relies on.)

Anyway, I’m glad to see that Dadlez takes issue with Martha Nussbaum, who is perhaps the leading voice on relations of philosophical ethics and literary art, though I have no reason to believe offhand that Dadlez’s critique of Nussbaum is valid.
Dadlez argues convincingly [according to MacLachlan], contra Nussbaum, that literature can provide morally sophisticated ‘Aha’ moments through clarity and simplicity, as in Austen, as well as through complexity
and obscurity, as in Henry James.
I’m glad to know of Dadlez’s endeavor, since I intend to make a big deal of Nussbaum’s work later.

Of course...
Austen is not, as it turns out, a moral philosopher of Hume's stature, but a coincidental combination of factors, “the enlightenment sensibility, the ironic detachment, the normative stances adopted,” nevertheless make her fiction the ideal location for Humean insight (214).
But the theme of mirroring is worth taking further. What can realistic narrative do to enact discursive inquiry and insight?
Many philosophers, most famously Gilbert Ryle and Alastair MacIntyre, have argued for an Aristotelian reading of Austen: in doing so, they draw on themes of moderation, the importance of habituation, the happiness that comes from practicing virtue with moderate resources, and the role granted to pleasure in the good life.
Nussbaum, too, would probably take an Aristotelian view of Austen (Nussbaum is quite overtly neo-Aristotelian). Austen’s exemplification could be enough to detail the point that philosophical significance is not the same as philosophical thematization. For example, a truly virtuous life is not especially one that claims its own virtue, i.e., talks about being virtuous or thematizes what one is doing. Indeed, to do otherwise
(to promote one’s virtue) would be contrary to a truly virtuous life. Philosophical insight isn’t always the same as insight into philosophical themes. A person might be a living aesthetic (a uniquely conceptualizable approach to life in aesthetic-theoretical terms) without having thought of herself in conceptual or theoretical terms.

I’m delighted to read that Austen is an “ethical cognitiv[ist],” as reviewer MacLachlen notes that “Dadlez moves relatively quickly to dismiss Austen's rather obvious ethical cognitivism....Austen...insists that her virtuous characters subsume their sentiments to reason....something closer to the practical wisdom of an Aristotelian phronimos” or principled prudentialist. But MacLachlan evidently doesn’t appreciate that “useful”ness ordinarily has a practical sense that is not utilitarian, when she writes critically that
It might seem that one obvious point of connection for Austen and Hume not shared by Aristotle is their character utilitarianism; both emphasize how “virtues are the traits that make people useful,” where the ‘useful’ is understood as the ability to produce happiness and avoid misery (105).
But there’s nothing cost-beneficial (utilitarian) about that; it’s standard in notions of human flourishing (neo-Aristotelian eudaemonia) to find practicality to be in service to happiness. Being “helpful,” may be an expression of overriding care for one’s life and others, that has no thought of comparative assessment or recognition of value, let alone price-able benefit. (Specifically-utilitarian attitudes include some kind of quantification of value.)

I’m glad to read that, all in all, MacLachlan finds much occasion in Dadlez’s book for “profound philosophical insight...[through] the individual comparisons and remarks scattered across the fourteen topics covered,” which “makes the book of particular value in interdisciplinary contexts,” which are often leading crucibles for new ideas.