Empirical Ethics: Sense and Sensibility and Female Philosophy
This chapter argues that Austen redirects female intellectual life in the post-Wollstonecraft era by focusing on the ethical ramifications of two female philosophers’ approaches to epistemology. Through Marianne’s more deductive tendencies, Austen shows that the interpretation of experience through recourse to pre-existing theory causes social crises and the mistreatment of others. In contrast, through Elinor’s largely empirical practice Austen suggests that an attention to experiential detail might allow women to successfully navigate the many social dangers of a morally compromised world. It is through a minute attention to the details of experience that Elinor, the true female philosopher, develops the knowledge that increases her concern for others, and out of this process she is revealed to be the most genuinely feeling and truly ethical of the novel’s characters. In this way, Austen positions ethics as the end-point of the empirical practice of learning to feel for others by learning to know them, and thereby uses the true female philosopher to lay out a socially-committed, psychologically-based process that provides a solid basis for morality.