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Reviewed by:
  • Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume
  • Karen Stohr
E. M. Dadlez . Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009. Pp. i-xv + 234. ISBN 9781405193481, Cloth, $94.95.

Eva Dadlez's book aims to illuminate the connections between Hume's ethical thought and the novels of Jane Austen. As such, the project is both well-conceived and philosophically worthwhile. Although it falters in a few places, it will prove a rich and enjoyable read for the audience for whom it is intended. Let me begin by saying something about that audience. It is likely that this book will appeal first to enthusiasts of Austen and secondarily to enthusiasts of Hume. This is not because of shortcomings in Dadlez's treatment of Hume but because of the extensiveness of her use of Austen. The book presupposes a thorough familiarity with all of Austen's published novels and, in a few places, the film versions as well. Dadlez does an excellent job of providing context for the examples and quotes that she uses, and my guess is that readers unfamiliar with all of Austen's novels will still walk away with a deep appreciation for her characters. Even so, I suspect that only those philosophers who are also serious Austen fans (by which I mean people who have opinions on Fanny Price as a heroine) will be able to engage fully with this book.

The book has fourteen chapters and a short, but substantive preface. The first two chapters are devoted to setting up and defending Dadlez's interpretative framework. The third chapter argues against Kantian and, to a lesser extent, Aristotelian analyses of Austen. Each of the next ten chapters focuses on particular philosophical topics on which both Hume and Austen have something to say. The final chapter returns to the question of what we can learn about Hume from reading Austen and vice versa.

In the first two chapters, Dadlez argues that literature can serve as a kind of philosophical thought experiment, enhancing our cognitive and affective appreciation of ethical situations and serving as a catalyst for ethical reflection. She quite helpfully distinguishes her view from Martha Nussbaum's widely known work on literature and moral imagination, and makes a special plea for Austen's novels as particularly apt sources of rich philosophical content. These chapters are important for setting up Dadlez's project, but are unlikely to be controversial to what I have suggested is her likely audience. Still, these chapters showcase Dadlez's gift for making philosophical points with illustrative detail, as exemplified by her marvelous discussion of the insufferable Robert Ferrars and his toothpick case (27-28).

The third chapter is, in my view, the weakest of the book. Dadlez's goal in this chapter is to argue against Aristotelian and Kantian readings of Austen, [End Page 114] particularly the latter. The point is not about the actual philosophical influences on Austen, which are unclear, but rather about which normative ethical theory makes the most sense of Austen's central themes and perspectives. I do not myself think it terribly important to settle this question. The more significant problem, however, is that in attempting to show the inadequacies of Kantian and Aristotelian interpretations, Dadlez relies on comparatively shallow understandings of those theories. The effect is not altogether amiable, to use one of Austen's favorite terms.

The discussion of Kantian ethics is especially frustrating, relying as it does on what is now a largely outdated picture of Kant's ethical thought. The Kantian reading of Mansfield Park that she produces and rejects is narrowly focused on questions of promise-keeping and duty as a motive, neither of which is particularly important in the grand Kantian scheme of things. The discussion ignores the reams of recent work on Kant's Doctrine of Virtue. Similarly, the discussion of Aristotelian virtue feels old-fashioned, taking little note of newer versions of Aristotelian virtue ethics, many of which emphasize the role of practical wisdom. (Chapter 9 would have especially benefited from a look into Aristotelian accounts of moral judgment.) In my view, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 114-117
Launched on MUSE
2011-06-05
Open Access
No
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