In the introduction to this lively book, Wendy Jones writes that, "Austen's characters provide imaginary case histories that illustrate the workings of the social mind-brain" (xviii). Though Jones identifies herself as a student of "the mind-brain sciences" rather than as a literary critic, she aims to bridge the gap between these two forms of enquiry. She hopes that "viewing knowledge about the mind and the brain within the very human context of Austen's characters will yield new insights about your own feelings, relationships, and choices" (xix).
So what does Jones's book reveal about the relation between literature and neuroscientific research? While investigating what literature can offer those working in the fields of moral philosophy and moral psychology, philosophers have distinguished between a "thin" and a "thick" approach to a literary text. Garry L. Hagberg explains: "Where the thin use hardly affects the concerns and priorities of moral philosophical thinking (i.e., where literature is used as illustrations or examples of ethical issues that are fully formed prior to those examples), the thick use has a kind of content sufficient to contribute to the very formation of those ethical issues, and the power to change our understanding of them" (Fictional Characters, Real Problems , 2, emphasis added). That close readings of specific works of literature can generate new perspectives on the aligned discipline is manifest, for example, in the sophisticated analyses to be found in Chris Danta and Helen Groth's Mindful Aesthetics (2014). Here interpretations grounded in the specific details of a particular literary text challenge and reshape ideas about the relationship between literature and cognitive science.
Jones's approach to Austen's narratives is largely "thin," for many of her scenarios exemplify or illustrate the discoveries of neuroscience. But both forms of enquiry seem mutually illuminating in this book. According to Jones, for instance, the reason Willoughby gives to Elinor Dashwood for his decision not to marry Marianne confirms Antonio Damasio's research and "gets at the truth of how we make decisions" (73, emphasis added). Jones admits, however, that Austen does not "follow" Willoughby "in the throes of his decision making" (71), presumably because her main interest lies elsewhere. Jones cites an array of theories as well as her own experiences, but their connections to Austen's fiction can sometimes appear tenuous, as when she writes: "So whether Emma relies on simulation theory, theory-theory, or a combination of the two, she eventually replicates Miss Bates's feelings in her own mind-brain" (284). Jones also uses a technique that I will call the "hook approach," treating Austen's fiction as a hook on which to hang a theory, or turning it into a launching pad. Analyzing Pride and Prejudice, for instance, Jones propels herself into Darcy's childhood, which she fabricates ex novo, thus constructing the causes and effects of certain modes of attachment. On this subject Jones provides many insights, but she subordinates Austen's narratives to the theories she propounds.
Jones's synthesis of neuroscience and literary criticism is asymmetrical. Though she invariably cites neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists by name, she rarely mentions the literary scholars whose work has informed her readings of Austen's fiction. This bias leaves a gap in her argument. She cites the discoveries of the neurosciences in order to demonstrate "Austen's accuracy in portraying human nature" (xviii). But Austen's portrayal of human nature amounts to Jones's interpretations of her fiction, and alternative interpretations go unrecorded.
Jones's attempt to align Austen's moral psychology with neuroscentific research raises other questions. To what extent are these different modes of enquiry comparable to each other and to real life challenges? Clearly, novels can represent kinds of experience different from those people face in laboratories. In the laboratory, the human subject of an experiment is aware of the options from which he/she must choose (Damasio, Descartes Error  42-9). But Austen can free her characters from the immediate pressure of other minds, giving them the opportunity to achieve that "liberty" of mind that Locke considered the mark of an "intellectual being" (Essay concerning Human Understanding 2:21:52). Or she can subject her heroines to the insidious power of fascinating or agreeable males, leaving them to perceive the workings of this influence--if they can. (While Elinor Dashwood will understand it, Emma will not. ) Further, how do we measure the duration of a mental process? What if a problem takes days and not hours to resolve--as many predicaments will? When Willoughby anxiously asks to speak to Elinor, she reacts to a situation that is both complex and emotionally fraught, and only after days of reflecting have passed does she put her mind at rest and finally manage her "recital."
Though this heroine has a lot of thinking to do, Jones persistently argues that "emotional lessons win over cognitive every time" (118). According to Jones, both neuroscientific research and Jane Austen's fiction privilege the operations of empathy while slighting the potential achievements of reason, which Jones often calls "pure reason." We have good grounds to adopt a different perspective. Writing about Willoughby's experiences, Jones states that "[t]hey're really conflicts between one kind of feeling and another," and this evidence provides "another check to pure reason"(72). But in the context of Austen's fiction, both this antithesis and Jones's conception of reason are problematic. Given the ubiquity of the term "understanding" in Austen's fiction, she is indisputably interested in the quality or state of her characters' understanding, as when she credits Elinor Dashwood from the very start for her "strength of understanding and coolness of judgment." In his Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke likewise links "understanding" to the active "powers" of reasoning and judging. Central to a Lockean conception of reason is "a complex set of capacities" involving a variety of cognitive operations that may promote greater clarity with respect to values and interests (Antonia LoLordo, Locke's Moral Man , 103-7). Like Locke, Austen does not fault reason; she faults the act of reasoning badly or judging "amiss."
Jones presents a wealth of detailed information (with often whimsical drawings) which, she says, "can be helpful to understanding the neural processes that contribute to making us who we are" (50). Yet in reviewing Peter Bazalgette's, The Empathy Instinct in a recent issue of TLS, Andrew Scull advises caution: "Few will be surprised to learn that our changing thoughts and feelings are associated with physical changes to our brains. Note well however, that the observed patterns differ from individual to individual and from experimenter to experimenter...Correlations of this sort, even if they were more robust and replicable than many of them appear to be, prove nothing about the causal processes involved...More seriously still, we possess no way to translate 'heightened activity' [perceived in brain scans] into the contents of people's thoughts; nor do we have the prospect of making such translations" (TLS 10 April 2018).
Austen's account of Elinor's experiences may not "prove" anything either, but Austen's nuanced picture of the "contents" of a conflicted mind foregrounds the interplay and precise impact of a variety of key elements: dispositional, motivational, cognitive, and situational. Austen shows us how these elements play out as Elinor successfully makes up her mind. Elinor later reflects that Willoughby's "influence over her mind" springs from factors that "ought not in reason to have weight," and especially from that "open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess" (Sense and Sensibility [Oxford 2004] 252-3, emphasis added). Here as elsewhere in the novel, Elinor's regard for a person's "merit" or "deserts" calls into question Jones's claim that for Austen, empathy is "far more important than abstract principle" (306). "All of Elinor's behavior," writes Jones, involves "an understanding of how her actions will impact others emotionally" (66, emphasis added). Yet while Elinor's emotions--her "compassionate emotion" or pity (249), rather than empathy--can be powerful, she is equally motivated by her understanding of one's "desert[s]" or of what is "really due to [one's] character" (265). Here Austen agrees with philosopher Richard Price, who argues that this principle should govern our interactions with others; for reason, says Price, recommends that the other be "the proper object of our encouragement and reward." There are times, he writes, when our reactions will be rightly shaped by our judgment of what a person deserves, and thus will take into consideration "circumstances, natures, and characters" (Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals  128-35, 207).
To buttress her thesis about the salience of emotion in Austen's fiction, Jones quotes Hume's dictum that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions" (Treatise on Human Nature 2.3.3.). But besides ignoring E.M. Dadlez's nuanced and careful attempt --in Mirrors to one Another (2009) -- to determine "the degree of fit" between the thought of Hume and Austen, Jones slights the context of Hume's statement, which makes it problematic. As Julian Baggini writes of the statement, "Hume showed that this was not true by his reasoning beautifully a posteriori and inductively" (The Edge of Reason  161-62). According to Jones, "Hume believed that emotion, not reason, is the source of virtue... in short virtue depends on empathy" (66-7). But this is too quick; it skimps on argument and disregards philosophers who have analyzed Hume's account of the relations between the moral sentiments and virtue. Christine Swanton, for instance, argues that for Hume, "the sphere of virtue embraces all those good character traits that are of greater or lesser importance in all those areas characteristic of human life: for example, cooperation, sociability, meeting danger, leisure, parenting, friendship, and hygiene." Furthermore, Swanton explains, reason is necessary "for the moral sense to be authoritative" (Paul Russell ed. Oxford Handbook of Hume  474-83).
Austen's own moral psychology highlights both a person's disposition, or cluster of personality traits, and the extent of her "powers" in different situations. She agrees with Locke, who opined that even those whose understanding is not of the "mean" type are likely to encounter problems, for we cannot always be "masters enough of our own minds to consider thoroughly, and examine fairly" (Essay 2:21:53). Like Locke, Austen distinguishes crucially between what comes "naturally" (Essay 2:21:45), and what happens when individuals strive to achieve the "rational exertion" they are capable of--on some occasions. At one important moment in Emma's relations with Mr Knightley, she exemplifies what Locke means when he claims that we sometimes need to "stand still" and "suspend" "the prosecution" of "a most pressing desire," and so find a reason for a better one (Essay 2:21:47-52). Such "suspension" is a feature of rationality. In the words of LoLordo, "[i]t is part of our God-given cognitive endowment, intended to help us pursue our long-term best interests rather than satisfying strong momentary desires" (42). Austen portrays Emma as a woman who can mentally "stand still." In so doing, she finds a very good reason to reconsider her objective: "Emma could not bear to give him [Knightley] pain." Emma thus recognizes an objective fact about a subjective state. This is a cognitive gain, and one that Emma finds compelling: "Cost her what it would, she would listen" (Emma [Penguin 2003] 402 ).
"Rationality," Baggini argues, "is in the business of providing objective reasons for belief." And further, he writes, "a good argument is one we feel we must accept" (Edge of Reason 181-82). For Elizabeth Bennet the normative force of a good argument has a psychological dimension; it depends on her belief that she can act like a "rational creature," one who speaks "truth from her heart" (Pride and Prejudice [Penguin 1972] 150). According to Jones, Darcy's letter to Elizabeth prompts her to change her mind by "a flash of insight"(116). But close textual analysis reveals that Elizabeth's change of mind derives from a lengthy, Lockean process of trying to find the truth by determining probabilites, which is necessary when (as is the case here) "testimonies contradict [our] experience." According to Locke, probability--a key word in Austen's text--supplies "the defect of our knowledge and [guides] us where that fails." The one thing needful in such circumstances, Locke writes, is "to examine all the grounds of Probability, so as to form a right judgment, and to proportion [one's] assent to the different evidence and probability of the thing" (Essay 4:15:1-5).
Despite her strong feelings of anger and indignation, Elizabeth engages in this laborious process. She "weighed every circumstance [in the accounts of Darcy and Wickham] with what she meant to be impartiality--deliberated on the probability of each statement" (P&P 234, emphasis added). "What upon full examination I find the most probable," Locke writes, "I cannot deny my assent to" (4:20:16). Austen agrees. After more reflecting and assessing, Elizabeth comes to realize that she had "driven reason away" (P&P 237), but still wanders "along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought; reconsidering events, determining probabilities..." (P&P 237).
If Jones understates the role of reason in the moral life of Austen's characters, so too does she overstate the importance of empathy. Experiments in neuroscience, she claims, show that empathy is the key to morality, so "[i]n placing empathy front and center, Austen knew what she was doing" (xvi). But in his recent study, Against Empathy (2017), Paul Bloom argues that we have good reason to be skeptical about the moral potential of empathy. While empathy can certainly help to harmonize human relations, it is not a reliable source of morality: it does not necessarily produce the best results. When Emma leaves Harriet with Robert Martin and his family and then returns to pick her up after a visit lasting only fourteen minutes, empathy is powerless to change Emma's conduct on this occasion, or her opposition to their marriage. Though Emma grasps the "pain" of all concerned (she experiences both cognitive and affective empathy), she sticks by her original decision. Austen's narrative thus confirms Bloom's argument: empathy "is modified by our beliefs, expectations, motivations and judgments." All too often "our reactions to others, including our empathic reactions, reflect prior bias, preference and judgment" (AE 68, 70). Emma will not reconsider: "Impossible!--She could not repent. They must be separated; but there was a great deal of pain in the process--so much to herself at this time, that she soon felt the necessity of a little consolation" (E 176, emphasis added). Suppressing empathy, Emma feels her own pain above all.
Discussing the implications of concentrating on the "mind-brain," Bloom argues that "you can do psychology without studying the brain even though the mind is the brain." And that is because the study of psychology does not reduce to understanding brain evolution or the patterning of neural reactions. For the psychologist, Bloom writes, "the fact that the mind is the brain just doesn't matter" (AE 218). In fact, the "conscious you" as distinct from the "genetic and neural you" does get to make choices. And this means that "the neural basis of mental life is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought--with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions" (221). Whether reason will prevail in tricky situations is another issue, and one that is central to Austen's novels.
Bloom raises the question of the "real-world relevance." Just because something has an effect in a controlled situation, he argues, doesn't mean that it is significant in real life (AE 224). And maybe what is truly significant in life cannot be captured in a laboratory situation, questionnaire, or examination of the brain's neural processes. As she seeks to make headway in a hostile world and meet the multiple demands that are made on her, Elinor Dashwood pursues a way of life that allows her to accommodate the deserving, while alleviating her pain in her endeavor to achieve peace of mind. Endowed with the strength of understanding prized by both John Locke and Richard Price, she is able to outwit the arrogant, mean-spirited, and devious, neutralizing the power of those who seek to humble her, and impose upon her a sense of victimhood or inferiority. This is highly satisfactory. There are very good reasons why we still read and appreciate Jane Austen.
Valerie Wainwright is the author of Ethics and the English Novel, from Austen to Forster (2007), and essays on Jane Austen that have appeared in Philosophy and Literature and in Garry L. Hagberg ed. Fictional Characters, Real Problems (2016). She has lectured on English Literature at the University of Florence.