Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life

Article excerpt

IT USED TO BE COMMONPLACE FOR AUSTEN SCHOLARS TO DESCRIBE HER AS A miniaturist devoted to the tiny canvas upon which she practiced her craft. (1) The implication was that Austen's mastery of language made it unnecessary for her to create more important plots, pay more attention to politics, or interact more profoundly with historical events. (2) These days, of course, Austen scholars no longer view her as an author primarily dedicated to the careful crafting of stylistic detail and the precise illustration of social minutia. Austen studies were dramatically reoriented in the years following Marilyn Butler's publication of Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, which placed Austen firmly within the context of the politically and ideologically turbulent 1790s. (3) For Butler at that time, Austen's sympathies seemed most closely aligned with the Anti-Jacobin reaction. Since then, Austen has been portrayed as both a liberal and a moderate, in addition to an Anti-Jacobin; she has been cast also as a feminist, an anti-feminist, and a Tory feminist. (4) Another branch of Austen scholarship has grown up in the past two decades or so that has, like the political approach, sought to demonstrate that her intellectual and philosophical interests went far beyond the boundaries implied by the metaphor of the tiny canvas. Indeed, although Austen is on record as having denied a familiarity with philosophy, quite a few scholars have found sufficient evidence within her novels to connect them not just to general philosophical issues, but also to some of the central philosophical concerns of the late Enlightenment. (5)

When historians of late eighteenth-century British philosophy paint a broad picture of the period, they generally call attention to the erosion of confidence in universal claims (both epistemological and ethical) caused by moral philosophers' appropriation of the techniques and methodologies of natural science. Alasdair MacIntyre locates the wholesale dismantling of a traditional, coherent system of ethics in the empirical methodologies of Enlightenment moral philosophers. (6) J. R. Milton, in discussing the history of induction, notes that the emphasis on particulars and on induction in the writing of key Enlightenment figures, such as Locke and Hume, created a sense of doubt about the possibility of universals. (7) Michael Prince sees the works of skeptics such as Mandeville and Hume as conscious attempts to use empiricism to attack and undermine metaphysical and transcendental views, and both he and Isabel Rivers have written about the rise in skepticism among British philosophers occasioned by Locke's publications. (8) By the time Austen began to write in the 1790s, the challenge for moral philosophers and novelists alike was, as Prince explains it, to reconstruct a system of ethics that would replace the transcendental standards that had been eroded through the relativizing effects of empiricism. (9)

Whether Austen finds these standards within the realm of human relations, as Prince and Peter Knox-Shaw argue, or whether she recuperates an Aristotelian or a Christian system of values, is the subject of some debate. (10) Many scholars agree, however, that ethics--consisting of right action, behaving well, and being responsive to others--are central to Austen's novels. To see exactly how ethics are generated, a return to the idea of the tiny canvas is useful, as it is through minutia that Austen constructs her system of values. If one important aim of an Austen novel is, as others have argued, to provide models for ethical development, then a primary pathway to that development is through the details of everyday experience--through an attentiveness to the empirical data presented to the self by the world. Austen, in effect, uses the epistemological approach modern historians have identified as the cause of the destruction of transcendental values to replace, on an everyday, social basis, the system that had been destroyed. …

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