Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Victorian Moral Philosophy and Our Mutual Friend

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Victorian Moral Philosophy and Our Mutual Friend

Article excerpt

A few decades ago it would have been widely thought that to associate Dickens with anything so rarefied and academic as professional moral philosophy would be doomed to failure. Recently we have become more inclined to see him as intellectually sophisticated. But is it just that Dickens had unconscious insight, knowing more than he knew that he knew, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer has recently argued, or is there also a level of what could meaningfully be called philosophy? And, if so, how does it relate to the explicit philosophies of the time?

I take my inspiration for this essay in part from Jane Nardin's book, Trollope and Victorian Moral Philosophy (1996), in which she argues that Trollope engaged directly and in a knowledgeable and pertinent way with serious philosophical issues in the latter part of his career, even if he did not necessarily read books by philosophers. And of course there are other Victorian novelists who were intellectually curious to a degree that necessarily embraced some of the philosophical debates of their time, George Eliot being the most conspicuous example.

The obvious text in which Dickens shows an awareness of philosophical arguments is Hard Times. A great deal has been written about Dickens's critique of utilitarianism in that novel, and about the limitations of that critique. More could be said about the way misgivings expressed in Hard Times about systems that rely on facts and numbers parallel concerns subsequently expressed by the leading later Utilitarian himself, John Stuart Mill, but I am not going to do that here. Nor am I going to attempt to supplement Kathleen Blake's persuasive recent argument that Dickens actually endorses some Benthamite principles and values in Hard Times, not least through the cultivation of pleasure at Sleary's circus (62-68). Instead, I am going to concentrate on another novel, Our Mutual Friend, on the principle that if Dickens ever did think his way through to a position of looking at things with real philosophical significance then this should be most apparent towards the end of his career. By then, if he were ever going to soak up any of the current philosophical debates surrounding him, he would have done so.

What was Victorian moral philosophy? The Classical philosophers, moral and otherwise, had been studied in Britain for centuries, alongside Classical literature and history. However, as a fully formed academic discipline, philosophy as such did not really get going until rather late in the nineteenth century, in fact after Dickens's time, with events such as the founding of the journal Mind in 1876 and T. H. Green's introduction of German Idealism to his students as White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Balliol at around the same time (Heyck 174-75). Nevertheless, even if it lacked a completely distinct identity, moral philosophy was in vogue earlier in the Victorian period, and throughout Dickens's career.

The most prominent category or school, really a fusion of philosophy with politics, economics and a range of other disciplines was, as already mentioned, Utilitarianism. The rational assessment of society with a view to calculating the best steps to be taken for the promotion of the greatest good and/or happiness of the greatest number, pioneered by Jeremy Bentham in the early decades of the nineteenth century, was taken up, refined and developed by a large group of thinkers, the most prominent of whom, Mill, is now the only Victorian philosopher who remains any kind of household name.

At the time, however, the Utilitarians did not have the field to themselves. Directly opposed to them, in many ways, were the Intuitionists, a loose alliance of thinkers who were generally both philosophers and theologians, and therefore of course worried about Utilitarianism's attempted elimination of religion (in Bentham) or downgrading of religion to the status of useful myth (which is approximately Mill's position). …

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