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  • Aesthetics and Humean Aesthetic Norms in the Novels of Jane Austen
  • Eva M. Dadlez (bio)


The eighteenth century, Paul Oskar Kristeller tells us, in addition to crystallizing what we now call the fine arts, is also marked by an increased lay interest both in the arts and in criticism.1 Amateurs as well as philosophers ventured critical commentary on the arts. Talk concerning taste or beauty or the sublime was so much a part of general discourse that even novelists of that era incorporated such subjects in their work. Henry Fielding "was able to construct a novel on the true and false sublime in art," according to Samuel Monk, "and to draw an analogy between the sublime in art and the sublime in character."2 So we shouldn't find it surprising that perspectives on aesthetics are sometimes presented in the novels of Jane Austen.3 This subject matter ranges from descriptions of skill in the execution and sensitivity in the appreciation of particular arts to general observations about beauty and taste and what is requisite for the apprehension of the former and the possession of the latter.

Consider the following catalog of arts and beauties. Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey contain many references to the beauties of nature, both cultivated and wild. Taste in music is a topic in Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Lady Susan. A taste for poetry and literature is the lot of the heroines of Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. Taste and talent for drawing is exhibited by characters in Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. Both Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park contain discussions of the merits of effective reading, that is, reading well aloud. Mansfield Park even comments on [End Page 46] acting ability, albeit rather disapprovingly. More general reflections on taste and beauty, as well as their connection to morality, are equally typical.

It is possible to venture several different arguments about the philosophical perspective into which such observations best fit. Kantian analyses have already been ventured in the literature. Anne Crippen Ruderman calls our attention to the Kantian flavor of the connection Austen draws between a sensitivity to natural beauty and one's moral disposition, for instance, and David Kaufman compares Austen to Kant, though primarily in regard to ethics.4 Nonetheless, in this article I will argue that the strongest correlations and correspondences are in fact between Austen's and Hume's positions on aesthetics. Evidence in support of a Kantian analysis will first be canvassed and later compared with claims in favor of a Humean alternative.

I will establish that the positions on taste and beauty and delicacy that are explicitly stated in or can be inferred from Austen's novels fit a Humean model—and fit it with a fair degree of precision. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate a correspondence strong enough to serve as the staging area for the further speculations that constitute the second thesis of this article. A great deal has already been said by philosophers about the capacity of literature to elicit moral reactions from the reader. Fictions can present ethical endorsements and invite us to adopt ethical perspectives by making it true in the world of the work that some course of action is right or some character is laudable. They can do this not by telling us that an act is right or a person meritorious but by showing us the rightness of the action and the commendability of the individual—by asking us to imagine traits that call forth our own approval and commendation. I will contend that aesthetic norms can be treated in much the same way as moral norms. That is, I will claim that the fiction of Jane Austen, in addition to evidencing the conscription of a Humean aesthetic, so engages and educates us that we are led imaginatively to adopt certain aesthetic perspectives in the course of its contemplation: not just by being told what is aesthetically pleasing or commendable, but by being made to feel pleasure and to experience commendation; not just by being told what constitutes discriminating taste, but by being led...


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