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Gatens, Moira. The Art and Philosophy of George Eliot
2009, Philosophy and Literature 33(1): 73-90.
Added by: Alison Stone
Abstract: Much remains to be said about Eliot as a philosopher. 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.

Comment: An article that explains the philosophical standpoint underlying George Eliot's fiction and argues that her fiction and her philosophical thinking need to be regarded as a whole. Could be used in a course covering nineteenth-century philosophy, either as supplementary reading or as a primary reading perhaps paired with a piece of writing by Eliot.

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