“Saint David,” his friends in Scotland and England called David Hume. And in France, where he spent some years as secretary in the British Embassy during the reign of Louis XV, he was called “le bon David.” It is easy to understand why. When Jean Jacques Rousseau alienated friends and critics alike with bizarre behavior that today would probably be diagnosed as paranoia, Hume invited Rousseau to come live with him in England. It took almost a year before Rousseau became unbearable even to saint David, and thus the attempt to provide his colleague sanctuary from bitterly failed friendships in Paris and Geneva—such as those with Diderot and the Baron von Grimm—came to naught. But the invitation and hospitality were magnanimous and earned Hume considerable repute among the philosophers.
“Tender-hearted” is the phrase from William James that comes to mind in describing Hume’s benevolence. Yet when we move from his practical ethics to his radical empiricism, “tender-hearted” must give way to its Jamesian contrary: “tough-minded.” For it is hardly an overstatement to claim that philosophy has never recovered from Hume’s tough-minded uprooting of metaphysics from its preeminent place in the traditional philosophical landscape. Indeed, après moi le déluge could have been as aptly applied to him as it was to Louis XV, his almost exact contemporary. Recall the devastating last paragraph from his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics . . . let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Kant, who credited Hume with awakening him from his dogmatic slumbers, tried to snatch any future metaphysics from the bonfire that Hume ignited, though with only limited success; and Hegel, contra Kant, rammed through a metaphysics that eventually collapsed under the weight of its own Prussian improbabilities.
But when the smoke finally cleared, Hume emerged the Pyrrhic victor, for it is his heirs who have called most of the shots in what is left of philosophy in our time. To metaphysical questions like “Does God exist?” or “Is the will free?” or “Is the soul immortal?” many of the greatest modern philosophers have answered with Wittgensteinian improvisations on Hume: “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.” Or, more mysteriously, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” An honest appraisal, some would say, of the limitations of human reason, but hardly a celebration of philosophical achievement. Oddly enough, while many analytical philosophers in our day hesitate, in homage to Hume, to construct even the simplest proposition for fear of falling into self-inflicted traps of metaphysical “nonsense,” their physicist colleagues, less fussy about the theoretical limits of human knowledge, peer through their Hubble telescope at infinity.
At the risk of reducing the complexity and humanity of Hume’s thought, especially his later essays and his six-volume History of England, to what a maverick such as Mortimer Adler called a “philosophical mistake,” I intend, first, to revisit what seems to be the problematic first principle upon which Hume’s radical empiricism depends, and then to enlist among the animadverters that most unlikely of respondents, Jane Austen.
Early in the Enquiry, Hume makes the startling epistemological claim, over and over, that “the most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation” because “all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.” And again: “All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure,” whereas “all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid.” To test the validity of an idea, therefore, “we need but enquire from what impression is that supposed idea derived” (emphasis added). This Humean elevation of impression, or sensation, to primacy of epistemological place—and his correlative humbling of idea to “feeble” impression—undercuts the classical Aristotelian and Scholastic commonplace that what distinguishes human from animal knowledge is its power to universalize ideas from their source in sense impressions. True, Aristotle and Aquinas would have agreed with Hume that there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses (there are no innate ideas in their epistemological quivers either), but they would have taken ardent issue with his notion that in transforming impression into idea the epistemological enterprise was becoming “enfeebled.” On the contrary, the primacy of idea over sense impression, central also to Platonic thought, though not arrived at transempirically, is what had made possible any kind of truth claim about the human capacity to know itself, to know the world, or to know that which transcends the self and the world.
Moreover, if the qualitative distinction between idea and impression is reversed, no truth-claim—not even the self-evident one about cause and effect—remains tenable. The consequence is a debilitating nominalism which subverts the ancient maxim that the proper object of the intellect is the idea, the universal, freed from its unknowability in the senses, and then proceeds to credit that very unknowability as the criterion, or the boundary (to use Locke’s term), of knowledge itself.
The major victim of Hume’s radical empiricism, as historians of philosophy never tire of telling us, is the very knowability of the connection between cause and effect. Sense knowledge can tell us only that effect follows upon cause, because the mind, bounded by the senses, cannot legitimately infer any idea of causality from impressions of mere contiguity. Sequence, yes; causality no. As Hume writes,
Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and recollection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of objects, and one event following another; but he would not be able to discover any thing farther. He would not, at first, by any reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect, since the particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed, never appear to the senses; nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely because an event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual.
Recall the implications of this interdiction of cause and effect on the enterprise of philosophy itself. Before Hume, most philosophers would have agreed that “to know” meant the same as “to know the causes of things.” (Scientists to our own day naively continue to operate under this misconception.) Aristotle’s metaphysical doctrine of the four causes—material, formal, efficient, and final—ranged from physical knowledge of phenomena to the Unmoved Mover itself. Aquinas extrapolated from causality to Uncaused Cause and even enlisted this profound metaphysical idea as a preamble to Revelation: from ratio to fides, as it were. After Hume’s demolition of the idea of knowable causality, however, such Thomist preambles came to be considered quaint. Metaphysics had not only been severed from theology—the ancilla no longer in the queen’s employ—but even from quotidian thought.
It is quotidian thought, however, sustained by what some have called metaphysical realism, that has a way of circling back through the pantry window even when it has been denied epistemological entry through the front door. According to Emile Myerson, “man practices metaphysics just as he breathes, without thinking about it.” Gabriel Marcel agrees: “By the mere fact of our existing we are already up to our eyes in metaphysics.” John Searle has said it better: “Metaphysical realism is not a thesis or a theory; it is rather the condition of having theses or theories or even of denying theses or theories. This is not an epistemic point about how we come to know truth as opposed to falsehood; rather it is a point about the conditions of the possibility of communicating intelligibly. Falsehood stands as much in need of the real world as does truth.” To paraphrase Dostoevsky, without metaphysical realism, anything is permissible—even the trumping of ideas by sense impressions.
I have long thought that the best curative to Humean radical skepticism is the experiential witness of writers who often “know” better than professional philosophers themselves. (Paradoxically, even Hume seemed to “know” better when he was not writing epistemology and savaging metaphysics. As we can see from his later, more literary work, he did not let his empiricism blind him to human realities.) Jane Austen is such a writer who “knows” better, whose novels are admirable examples of metaphysical realism writ small—and exquisite. Like other writers disconcerted by reigning philosophical doctrines (Voltaire by Liebniz’s, Blake by Newton’s, Emerson by Locke’s, Melville by Emerson’s), Austen stands as a splendid corrective to the assumptions of radical empiricism.
Whether she intended to or not, for example, the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice controverts Hume’s proposition that what little we know of truth is entirely indentured to sense impressions and that, beyond those sense impressions, no acknowledgment of universal truth is warranted. By simply writing her novels and expecting them to be read and understood, Austen seems to be saying that, although truth has its ressourcement in sense impressions, its accessibility and transmissibility are made possible by a process of intellection that concedes the legitimacy of universal propositions.
I am not the first to propose that Austen might well be enlisting Hume in the argument of her novel. A premier critic of Jane Austen, Tony Tanner, has opined that an intelligent woman like her, well read in the fiction of her time, could not but have read the reigning philosophers too, even though his own reading of Pride and Prejudice unaccountably enlists Hume as an epistemological ally of Austen rather than as a target. In any event, it seems that Hume’s nimbus was present in Austen’s choice of title before she settled on Pride and Prejudice. Tellingly, she originally called it First Impressions. What the novel teaches us is that impressions, however “strong and vivid,” are hardly superior to ideas, however “faint and obscure.” Strong and vivid—and immediate—are Elizabeth Bennet’s disdainful impressions of Darcy’s pride; equally so are Darcy’s of Elizabeth’s prejudice. But by the end of the novel they both sort out and think through those strong and vivid impressions, gradually discern their fallibility, fall deeply in love, and marry. In fact, despite Austen’s characterization of Elizabeth as the most intellectually alert and morally sympathetic person in the novel, she is betrayed by other first impressions as well. Not only is she wrong about Darcy, she is also wrong about Wickham, whose attention she initially welcomed. But before long, Wickham is revealed to be the would-be seducer of Georgiana, Darcy’s young sister, and the actual seducer of Lydia, Elizabeth’s feather-brained sibling, whereas Darcy turns out to be the champion who quietly rescues the Bennet family from the disgrace of Lydia’s mindless elopement. Darcy, of course, has his own fallible first impressions beyond his misapprehension of Elizabeth: he also errs in convincing his friend Bingley to break off relations with the splendid Jane, Elizabeth’s sister, because of his first impressions of the Bennet family.
If Austen’s original title of the lost first version of Pride and Prejudice can be read as a teasing animadversion against radical skepticism, its famous opening line—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”—ironically recapitulates and subverts the formulaic phraseology of Hume’s Enquiry itself. In Section V, for example, where he argues that rational indubitability is really the product of custom or habit, rather than of any justifiable inference of universals from particulars, Hume writes: “We only point out a principle of human nature, which is universally acknowledged and which is well known by its effects” (emphasis added). In Section VIII, “Of Liberty and Necessity,” while questioning the traditional claims of free will, he writes, “It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men . . . that human nature remains the same.” And again, a few paragraphs later: “ . . . readily and universally do we acknowledge a uniformity in human motives and actions as well as in the operations of body.” Still later, when Hume argues that the simple conjunction of events should not be misinterpreted to constitute cause and effect, he writes “that this regular conjunction has been universally acknowledged among mankind” as causality. I count four more instances in the Enquiry of similar phraseology. Of course, Hume is denying that universal acknowledgment constitutes any admission of universal truth (because universal truths are patently unknowable), whereas Austen has taken the universal idea to be a metaphysical given and has proceeded to write fiction that dramatizes its knowability.
If the errancy of first impressions is the theme of Pride and Prejudice, it is the very leitmotif of Austen’s later novel, Emma, judged by many to be her best. When a heroine of common sense like Elizabeth Bennet, simpatica both to her creator and to the audience for whom she was created, can for a time be victimized by first impressions, it is little wonder that Jane Austen would allow, nay encourage, some of her other heroines to follow suit. Wealthy, willful, and indulged by a doting and witless father, Emma’s seemingly harmless vocation is matchmaking, at which she can boast an early success by having arranged the marriage of her governess to a widower neighbor. However, her attempt to couple her attractive but impoverished protegée, Harriet Smith, with the eligible village rector, Mr. Elton, turns out to be a comic mismatch that dominates a good deal of the plot. Harriet has already revealed an interest in Robert Martin, a responsible local farmer, but his low-born state immediately disqualifies him in Emma’s eyes as a suitable partner for Harriet. In what turns out to be the first in a series of spectacularly errant first impressions, Emma totally misreads Martin’s character: “He is very plain, undoubtedly . . . but that is nothing compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility.”
Whereas in Austen’s earlier novel it took two characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, to dramatize the follies of pride and prejudice, in Emma they are fused into a single character. Because she is proud of her wealth and social station, Emma benignly intends to extend its privileges, as much as society will allow, to her friend—for whom marriage to a mere farmer is unthinkable. Hence her prejudice against Martin, who for her is worthy of no more serious consideration than mindless first impressions. Of course, Harriet is mortified by Emma’s hasty demolition of her intended, but she backs off and allows her affections to be redirected toward the unsuspecting Mr. Elton. Strangely, not only is Emma unaware of Elton’s indifference to Harriet, but she is also oblivious to the court that Elton is paying to herself. That Austen is indicting the perils of first impressions is evident in her description of Emma’s plan to scuttle Martin’s bid for Harriet’s hand in order to free her for Elton. Fearing that competing busybodies may already have considered the suitability of a match between Harriet and Elton, Emma comforts herself by thinking that no one else could have preceded her “in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hatfield.” A rush to judgment, Emma’s sagacious neighbor, Mr. Knightley, calls it, as he scolds her for “abusing the reason you have. . . . Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do,” adding that Emma is speaking “nonsense, errant nonsense, as ever was talked!” Knightley will become Emma’s husband by the end of the novel, of course, so this criticism of the woman he loves is reluctant and self-lacerating.
The Harriet/Elton imbroglio is not the only one in the novel. Emma is wrong in thinking that Frank Churchill is romantically interested in her, wrong in thinking that Knightley is romantically interested in Jane Fairfax, wrong in surmising the identity of the gift-giver in the case of Jane’s pianoforte, wrong finally in thinking that Knightley is romantically interested in Harriet when in fact he is only interested in Emma herself. No other Austen heroine is so thoroughly victimized by her first impressions and the consequences thereof. The novel is a veritable comedy of errors but especially a comedy of failed first impressions, “strong and vivid” though they may be, that are contravened by Jane Austen’s metaphysical realism, “faint and obscure” as it allegedly is.
One can surmise why David Hume would have thought it necessary to mount such a devastating campaign against metaphysics (while elsewhere feeling quite comfortable making all kinds of phenomenological generalizations about a range of human experiences, events, thoughts, and feelings) or why Jane Austen, if I am reading her right, would have taken cryptic novelistic issue with his brand of radical empiricism. It was a de rigueur stance for the philosophes of the day, of course, beholden as they were to the empirical method of science, to vilify metaphysics and metaphysicians. Voltaire’s witty derision is typical: “Metaphysicians are like curious travelers who having entered the antechamber of the harem of the Grand Turk and having observed from a distance the comings and goings of a eunuch, would venture to guess how many times His Highness had caressed his odalisque that night.” Perhaps the rationalists from Descartes to Malebranche and Leibniz had so overstated their metaphysical claims that Voltairian sallies and Humean enquiries were inevitable. When Pangloss comes, can Martin the Manichee be far behind?
But these putative epistemological correctives, it seems to me, mask a not-so-hidden agenda among the radical empiricists. Peter Gay has described the character of the Enlightenment as neo-pagan, less in the sense of moral dereliction than in its fulminations against Christianity. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,” Swinburne could still lament a century later in the spirit of the Enlightenment, “the world has grown gray from thy breath.” Most Enlightenment intellectuals would have agreed that one solution to the ills of mankind was to écraser l’infâme, Voltaire’s injunction to crush the “infamous thing”—that is, Christianity. (They must have rejoiced to see half their wish granted when the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773.)
As for Hume’s motives, one suspects that his agnosticism was less the consequence of his radical empiricism than his radical empiricism was the consequence of his agnosticism. The latter seems more likely, especially as the targeted infâme was Catholicism, which Hume held in contempt. In the Enquiry he called Catholics “devotees of superstition” and Catholic liturgy “mummeries.” Moreover, because Catholicism had for centuries based its apologetics on a synthesis of faith and reason, one manner of contributing to the Enlightenment’s crushing of the infâme was to demolish its metaphysical supports. If God’s existence was putatively demonstrable by arguments from causality, then severing the epistemological connection between cause and effect would, higher up the great chain of being, unlink the idea of First Cause from the idea of God and do collateral violence to any attendant metaphysical speculation. Hence Hume writes: “We can never be allowed to mount up from the universe, the effect, to Jupiter, the cause; and then descend downwards, to infer any new effect from that cause.” But then, as if to distance himself from the implications of this dislocation, he implores philosophers to leave religion to the fideists: “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure.”
It is a familiar argument with respect to religion: fides, si; ratio, no. Descartes used something like it in his Discourse on Method, but one senses that there was actually some faith left in Descartes’ fideism. A century later, however, despite Hume’s honorific description of Christianity as “our most holy religion,” the remnant of his faith was clearly gone; he spends the rest of the passage cryptically mocking Christianity’s most sacred beliefs, not only the miracles from the Old Testament but also the chief miracle from the New, the Resurrection itself.
Jane Austen, like Samuel Johnson before her, belonged to a different Enlightenment, one that did not seek to enlighten by extinguishing the Light. The daughter of an Anglican clergyman, she was well aware of the failures of Christianity and even took some delight in satirizing its less than holy ministers, like the Rev. Collins and Mr. Elton. But in any final analysis she was a believer whose faith, though not shouted from the housetops, nevertheless remained firm. The editors of the 1998 Norton critical edition of Mansfield Park saw fit, for example, to reprint one of her three prayers that have survived, probably via her sister, Cassandra. In it, she does not compromise those Christian doctrines embarrassing to so many Enlightenment intellectuals, as they were to Thomas Jefferson when he produced his miracle-free Bible, but confesses her faith openly and unambiguously: “ . . . we implore Thee to quicken our sense of Thy mercy in the redemption of the world, of the value of that holy religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation Thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.” In a letter to her niece worried about the evangelical tendencies of a suitor, she writes unfideistically: “And as to there being any objection from his Goodness, from the danger of his becoming even Evangelical, I cannot admit that. I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest and safest. . . . Don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others” (emphasis added).
The most visible defense of the Christian way of life in her novels is the long exchange in Mansfield Park between Edmund Bertrand and Mary Crawford, his intended, in which Miss Crawford expresses dismay that a man like Edmund could possibly consider taking holy orders. We recall that the estimable Edward Ferrars also took Anglican orders in Sense and Sensibility, but with the exception of his foppish brother, Robert, there was no character in that novel to belittle his intention to do so—and thus force a Christian riposte. Mary Crawford’s harsh judgments, by contrast, have the ring of the freethinker’s salon about them, like Voltaire’s Society of the Temple, or Franklin’s Junto, or Hume’s French coterie, and thus provoke an apologetic response from both hero and heroine of the novel.
A minister of the church, Mary Crawford complains to Edmund, prefers “an income ready made to the trouble of working for one, and [has] the best intentions of doing nothing all the rest of his days but eat, drink, and grow fat. . . . A clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.” And then, training her guns on Dr. Grant, her brother-in-law clergyman who is at that very moment affording her his hospitality, she complains that he is “an indolent selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in every thing, who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one, and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humor with his excellent wife.” Although this distemper is not equal to the sting of Voltaire’s ècrasez, it is clerical ridicule worthy of Diderot and his Encylopedia. But the theme of Mansfield Park, as Jane Austen herself identified it, is “ordination”—and Edmund’s defense of his taking holy orders is not adventitious to the plot.
Indeed, it is Mary Crawford’s unremitting anticlericalism that finally wears down Edmund’s infatuation with her and convinces him that such a person could never become his wife. Her withering denunciation of Anglican orders—“At this rate, you will soon reform every body at Mansfield . . . and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts”—is the final indignity. Edmund pulls back from the expected marriage proposal—and from his first-impression infatuation with Mary Crawford—and after a time recognizes that his wife must be one who, like Fanny Price (and her creator as well), can respect and admire his own sacerdotal commitment.
Thus does Jane Austen seem to controvert, at least in generic terms, the premier British representative of the Enlightenment both with respect to metaphysics and to religion itself. Unwilling to obey the Humean imperative that would commit volumes of divinity or metaphysics to the flames, she is closer to the Christian humanism of her older contemporary, Samuel Johnson, who when asked by James Boswell what he thought of the radical empiricists, answered with less than his characteristic charity: “Hume and other skeptical innovators are vain men and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity, so they have betaken themselves to error: Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.” Austen’s response is less Johnsonian but no less artful.
Rodney Delasanta is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.