Monday, 6 August 2012

Austen and Kant ... Can I?

The following is an extract of an email I sent my lecturer regarding formulating a question for my 5000 word essay for my English honours unit, "Literary Pleasure".

Last year I had the great fortune of taking an elective closely reading Kant's 2nd critique, and wrote my final paper on "Freedom as the condition of the moral law in the Critique of Practical Reason". It's on the back of this work, that I approach Austen.

In surveying the available scholarship on Austen, there is a dearth of criticism deploying Kant. I found this quite remarkable and was almost put off thinking that there was something incongruous, misdirected, of perhaps precocious, but I believe I may have found an entry into a Kantian analysis of duty, as opposed to virtue, in the novel. In Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, Emsley dismisses Kantian deontological ethics in favour of the fairly literary standard Aristotelian virtue ethics position. She chooses the latter over the former, "as Austen's fiction stresses the moral education of character as preparation for ethical action" (4). This argument, Emsley says, is made on the basis that "Jane Austen writes from a firm foundation of Christian faith - thus for her virtuous characters there is a point to moral education".

In further defence of her approach, Emsley argues that "Austen's characters, however, experience morality as a positive, if difficult, choice, not as a sacrifice, for when even when they do choose to defer or renounce gratification…it is in the service of a greater good, a Christian good that sustains them, rather than in the service of irrevocable secular loss" (21). In the "Critique of Practical Reason", Kant notes that "[a]ctions…that are done with great sacrifice and for the sake of duty alone may indeed be praised by calling them noble and sublime deeds, but only insofar as there are traces suggesting they were done wholly from respect for duty and not from ebullitions of feeling" (5:85).

He also says that in appraising actions as to their morality you have to "attend with the utmost exactness to the subjective principle of all maxims, so that all morality of actions is placed in their necessity from duty and from respect for the [moral] law, not from love and liking for what the actions are to produce (5:81). In other words, as rational and moral beings, humans have an obligation to duty and adherence to the moral law, and this obligation is from duty alone and not love or other pathologically affected conditions.

So, does Elinor act out of love (virtue) or duty? It is quite obvious that she suffers, and I would argue against Emsley, that she suffers in the service of duty. For example, in regard to the secret between Elinor and Lucy, she suffers immensely in upholding her duty to keep the secret. Such silence ‘militates against her own happiness’, which forces her continually to bring to bear upon her unhappiness "the self command she had practised since her first knowledge of Edward's engagement" (160, 196). When she finally gets to share this knowledge with Marianne, who exclaims "Four months!…how have you been supported?", Elinor replies, "By feeling that I was doing my duty - My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret" (197).

In upholding the secret, Elinor is acting according to the moral law, such that her maxim for keeping the secret, could be willed so that it be applied universally to all rational beings. In other words, it fits Kant's categorical imperative, 'so act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle in a giving of universal law" (5:30). The secret is the moral law; if Elinor were to break the secret, she would be breaking the law. And if secrets can be broken, then what is the point of obligation to duty?

The question to ask is what is it that causes Elinor to act according to duty. The answer comes from Elinor herself, and Marianne also alludes to it, which is feeling, or in Kantian terms, "moral feeling". According to Kant, 'what is essential to any moral worth of action is that the moral law determine the will immediately’ (5:71). In this regard, there is a specifically 'moral feeling', which is the invariable incentive for dutiful action. This moral feeling 'arises as the result of pure practical reason overcoming, or at least opposing, our sensuous feelings and desires (Ward, 157). In other words, it is a 'feeling of constraint, in that it thwarts, wholly or partially, our self-love" (Ward, 158).

Marianne is cognisant of such a feeling when she says, "if there had been any impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such conviction I could have had no pleasure" (52). The irony, however, is that whilst Marianne is aware of some sort of moral feeling, she is blind to it. Kant would also say that compliance with the moral law brings about a 'satisfaction in consciousness of one's conformity with it and bitter remorse if one can reproach oneself with having transgressed it. Thus one cannot feel such satisfaction or mental unease prior to cognition of obligation and cannot make it the basis of the latter' (5:38).

So then, how to turn the above into a 5000 word essay which takes in two texts and the critical content of the course. The point of entry may be through Kant's 3rd critique. In the introduction by Walker, he outlines Kant's three faculties of the mind: the faculty of cognition in general, the faculty of feeling (of pleasure or its opposite), and the faculty of desire (or will). He says that in the 3rd critique, Kant 'wonders, as he had not in the first critique, whether this intermediate faculty of 'feeling' might not perform some kind of mediating role between the other two faculties and now asks whether there might not be a special a priori principle that governs this faculty in its own right and is common to all human beings as creatures that are rational and sensitive in character". It is this last point "as creatures that are rational and sensitive in character" which aligns with Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Interestingly, it is feeling, or ‘moral feeling’, in the 2nd critique, which mediate betweens the sensible and supersensible. I’ve only read “Analytic of the Beautiful”, so not sure how to turn the 3rd critique to our purpose here.

I also have a reply to Emsley’s point about “moral education of character as preparation for ethical action”, but will leave it for now, as I think I have made my point, and this explication has turned into an essay of its own accord.

Whilst I may appear to have a handle on Kant, my mind still spins when I read him and still consider myself a long way off from any rigorous understanding. It is said that reading Hegel is the intellectual equivalent of chewing gravel; I would have to say that reading Kant is the equivalent to staring into the abyss. The sublime IS reading Kant. He is awesome and terrible, but well worth the battle.

1 comment:

  1. Eat Gravel AND read Kant.. can I?
    Nice to see the return of your blog xx my friend in words!


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