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  • The Art and Philosophy of George Eliot
  • Moira Gatens

Marian Evans began to write novels under the pseudonym George Eliot toward the end of 1856. Several years before "George Eliot" was conceived, the thirty-year-old Evans was the clandestine editor of London's premier journal of ideas, The Westminster Review. She wrote many of its articles, including book reviews, opinion pieces on social and political themes, and reports on contemporary writing from Europe, especially Germany. She also translated David Strauss's The Life of Jesus in 1846, Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity in 1854, and Benedict Spinoza's Ethics in 1856. All three theorists were significant figures for the German higher criticism movement, and its influence on British thought owes much to her. This movement sought to reinterpret scripture as an historical record of the thoroughly human endeavor to make sense of life, death, suffering and the place of human being within nature. Strongly influenced by Feuerbach, Evans approached religion in terms of a natural history of the genesis and development of human values. Although she understood the phenomenon of religion to be a function of the imagination, she was a firm adherent to ethical values rooted in Christianity. For her, the question had become: how can we ground these values within nature and revere them in the absence of God? When she turned to writing novels, she sought to show that the values posited by religion as transcendent could be understood in naturalistic terms. She was among the first in Britain to theorize the ethical potential of the novel and to treat it as a serious medium for philosophical thought.1

In 1964 U. C. Knoepflmacher asserted that until we are able to appreciate George Eliot simultaneously as an artist and a philosopher we will fail "to do full justice to her work."2 His comment remains apposite today. [End Page 73] Eliot's critics rarely treat her literature and her philosophy as a genuinely integrated whole.3 Despite the existence of several excellent monographs about her intellectual milieu, much remains to be said about Eliot as a philosopher.4 I argue that her novels should be understood as attempts to practice philosophy in an alternative key. Her decision to write novels rather than conventional philosophy reflects her desire to actively engage the imaginative and affective, as well as the cognitive, powers of her readers. On her view the imagination grounds our disposition to feel sympathy for our fellow human beings. It is this disposition and its potential for refinement as moral knowledge that she sought to realize in her novels. An appreciation of her philosophical commitments is necessary in order to understand her efforts to construct an immanent ground for moral life. The parts played by the imagination, reason and emotion in the attainment of moral knowledge were of prime concern to both Spinoza and Feuerbach. Each philosopher offered an account of the relations between these capacities and argued for their reformation. This reformative task is one that Eliot attempted in her novels. The radical holism of Spinoza and Feuerbach resonates throughout her work. She had a deep suspicion of dualistic philosophies that separate reason and imagination. Like Spinoza and Feuerbach, she understood these ruptures within our capacities, indeed within our very being, to derive in large part from religion, especially Christianity. The reform of our habitual ways of understanding the world must therefore begin with critical reflection on religion.

It is important to clarify at the outset the scope of my interpretative claim about Eliot's philosophy and its expression through literature. I do not treat her novels as valuable raw materials that the discerning philosophical eye can convert into capital.5 My claim is that her novels are a new form of philosophical writing. Nor do I consider her novels to be instances of philosophical writing in the sense that they provide literary clothing for philosophical ideas.6 Eliot unequivocally rejected this description as inimical to the integrity of her writing practice. When a friend suggested that she write a novel that would illustrate the ideas of Auguste Comte and so increase the influence of positivism, she firmly declined stating that such a...