Category Archives: Philosophical Manifesto

A Philosophical Manifesto (Contents)

In this series of articles I explain my own understanding of philosophy and why I think the writings of Jane Austen should be of interest to to anyone interested in modern morality and ethics.

  1. A Philosophical Manifesto
  2. Classical Philosophy
  3. George Berkeley
  4. The Enlightenment
  5. Immanuel Kant
  6. Joseph Butler
  7. David Hume and Jane Austen
  8. A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective
  9. The Romantics
  10. The Cynics
  11. Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    A few years I visited The National Portrait Gallery to view the portrait of Jane Austen by her sister. I walked all over the gallery in search of it, until someone pointed out that it was in ground-level display case, and sure enough, once I stopped craning my neck at the grand canvases there was Cassandra’s portrait in front of me.

    The Cynics

    To get a feel for the kind of problems that Austen presents for her critics, consider the Margaret Oliphant (1870) review, an article prompted by the publication of the Austen-Leigh (1870) memoir, triggering as it did the resurgence of interest in Austen that continues to the present.

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    The Romantics

    “I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”

    “Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

    “The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

    “But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

    “Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”

    Pride and Prejudice (9.15)

    It is difficult not to understand this interchange between Elizabeth and Darcy as an anticipation of the debate within Austen criticism as to whether the restriction of her range reflected a limitation of the novelist, and—more to the point—whether this limitation should be reflected in the novels’ status in the canon. This debate will no doubt run and run, but there can be little doubt that this was a choice of Austen’s, a reflection of the judgement that the middle-range rural domestic arena—the familiar and the universal—was the place to be. And it has provoked a reaction from the Romantics reminiscent of Mrs Bennet’s, Charlotte Brontë’s witty response to George Henry Lewes’s provocations speaking for many:

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    A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective

    David Hume was a great writer and a great philosopher but this doesn’t mean that he produced perfect philosophy. Two of the best assessments I have seen are one by William Russell (see What is Enlightenment?) and Gilbert Ryle.

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    David Hume and Jane Austen

    To have any prospect of succeeding in the study of ethics then we will have to look to authors that are read and discussed. David Hume’s works are widely discussed and read and admired, so by looking at what he did say we can learn a great deal about our modern ethic. His main move in the Treatise was to assert that the faculty of moral discernment was sentimental in nature, not rational.

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    Joseph Butler

    How could Kant’s system could possibly fulfil the function of any Practical Philosophy (i.e., ethics) if even the Kantian specialists’ mastery of it is questionable, unless it is an ethical system entirely for the use of a highly rarefied breed of academic philosopher.  Kant’s system grounded in duties, runs into predictable problems when different duties conflict, such as whether to lie in order to prevent someone from taking another’s life, and it is dead easy to construct these scenarios where the issues are straightforward, as when I decide to conceal an innocent party from some powerful people intent on immorally doing harm to them.  The issue is clear: I have decided to conceal, to mislead, to lie to a group of people in order to prevent them form carrying out a terrible crime.  Kant stuck to his guns and insisted that we must not lie, but if there was ever any doubt in the case, after what happened in Europe in the 1930s, it is manifestly clear that this is the wrong answer, which hasn’t prevented some highly intelligent people, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, from reaffirming it.

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