Jane Austen, Perspectivalism, & The Thinking Man

I am very disappointed that the Wall Street Journal has placed this article behind its pay wall, because I would very much like to read it.

I have a confession to make. Not the sort of confession one needs to feel ashamed of, but the kind of confession that simply lets others in on a little-known fact. In my briefcase I have one of those interior slots that is designed for things like laptop computer cables and that sort of thing. This little pocket is the perfect size for another possession of mine: my beautiful little cloth-bound edition of Jane Austen's Emma. Whenever I find myself with spare moments, most recently while taking a lunch break fishing on the Stillwater River, I pull out that little red volume and read it. I find myself amazed time and again at the profound insights I find.

Jane Austen was not a philosopher. She was the daughter of a country minister. She never traveled far, which is why her books always display the kind of life she knew: small, English country communities. In her books, the big metropolis of London usually seems some far-distant place. But this lack of broader exposure didn't harm her ability to penetrate into the inner sanctums of the human heart in the slightest. In my estimation, Emma is one of the finest novels ever written. It is not just a wonderful read, but a very profound piece of philosophy.

Our postmodern age in its typical hubris likes to think that we are the first to understand the "situatedness" of human knowledge, that nobody has a "birds-eye," objective view of things. We are first to break free from the shackles, we are told, of the "totalizing" visions of the Enlightenment and realize the epistemic limitations of the human condition. Yet here a humble, provincial woman in the late 18th century writes a novel that has as its principal subject all of these very issues. In fact, she puts on a veritable epistemological clinic.

Emma Woodhouse is utterly self-deceived. She thinks-nay, she is convinced-that she has everything figured out. Austen brilliantly places the reader inside Emma's skin; what Emma thinks she knows, the reader thinks he or she knows. Emma's omniscience and self-certainty is the reader's omniscience and self-certainty. Then Austen slowly chips away at Emma's supposedly "objective" perspective on things to reveal complete and total self-deception. She is blinded by self-reinforcing presuppositions and preconceptions.

There is much more to the book than this, of course. One could also view it as an extended commentary on the Proverbs 27:6: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses." For there is only one person in the book who loves Emma enough to tell her the truth about herself, and only in heeding these admonitions is happiness to be found.

But recently Chapter 18 deeply impressed me. It begins: "Mr. Frank Churchill did not come." The entirety of the chapter is a simple conversation between Emma and Mr. Knightley about the reasons for Mr. Churchill's absence from the Village of Highbury, and, more importantly, what conclusions one can and should draw about his character by his absence. For, surely, Mr. Churchill's presence in Highbury is required. On that everyone is agreed. You see, as a young boy Frank went to live with his Aunt after his mother's death. His father has recently remarried, and the now-young man has yet to visit to pay his respects to his new stepmother. In fact, he has promised to come many times, only to be detained at the last moment. These are not the actions of a proper gentleman.

Emma is extremely generous in her attitude, believing that the reason for his absence can be attributed solely to Frank's loathsome Aunt, and not to some defect in his character. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, lays the bulk of the blame directly on Frank: "The Churchills are very likely in fault. But I dare say he might come if he would."

What follows is a deeply informed, philosophically fascinating conversation about ethics, involving not merely the "Norm" of ethics (what should be done), but also the "Situation" involved (extenuating circumstances) and the person performing the action, or the "Existential" perspective. Mr. Knightley is hung up on just the Norm: if the young man should come, he ought to simply come. If he fails, this reveals a serious character defect: "If Frank Churchill had wanted to see his father, he would have contrived it between September and January. A man at his age-what is he?-three or four-and-twenty-cannot be without the means of doing as much as that. It is impossible." Emma, on the other hand, cannot get away from the Situational perspective: Frank's attachments and duties to his Aunt preclude his duty to his stepmother. Viewed in this light, it is not a character flaw, but to his credit that he performs his duty to his Aunt, the woman who raised him. She says, "It is very unfair to judge of anybody's conduct without an intimate knowledge of their situation." Both perspectives, the Normative and the Situational, affect what one concludes about the Existential: the character of Frank Churchill himself.

So profound is this little tri-perspectival ethical conversation that when Mr. Knightley emphatically insists that if he were to be in Frank's position, he would tell off his Aunt and come to Highbury straight away, whatever the consequences, Emma responds with this deft counter:

"I can imagine that if you, as you are, Mr. Knightley, were to be transported and placed all at once in Mr. Frank Churchill's situation, you would be able to say and do just what you have been recommending for him; and it might have a very good effect. The Churchills might not have a word to say in return; but then, you would have no habits of early obedience and long observance to break through. To him who has, it might not be so easy to burst forth at once into perfect independence, and set all their claims on his gratitude and regard at naught. He may have as strong a sense of what would be right, as you can have, without being so equal under particular circumstances to act up to it."

So much for Postmodernity being the first age to recognize the situational and existential character of ethics! Yes, Mr. Knightley could perform his recommended course of action; it is a different question altogether whether Frank Churchill, being the person he is, the upbringing he had, the familial habits he formed, could do likewise. Emma argues that Mr. Knightley's hyper-normative reading of things is a pure abstraction, divorced from reality.

Now this, of course, is pure irony on Ms. Austen's part, for Emma Woodhouse is the worst person in the world to be giving advice on refraining from preconceived notions and fully seeking to understand people and their situations in life. In fact, this passage comes just after Emma has just so profoundly failed to understand the character and situation of a certain Mr. Elton...

Oh, there is much to mine, and I suppose I'll have my little red book (way better than Mao's) in my briefcase pocket for years to come! When I want a great story, great characters, and great food for reflection and thought, I can always rely on Miss Austen. So even though I can read but only the title, allow me to add my three cheers to at least the title of the WSJ article. Jane Austen writes books for thinking men.