Paradigms of knowledge and narratives of human flourishing in Victorian realism.


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This study examines the diverse conceptions of human flourishing in four Victorian realist novels. I argue that in John Henry Newman's Loss and Gain (1848), George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72), Mary August Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888), and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), there is a two-way path of influence between the protagonists' conceptions of flourishing and what I call their paradigms of knowledge. In each, the protagonists experience an initial conflict between what we might call their inchoate conceptions of flourishing and their inherited, or non-reflective, paradigms of knowledge. As these protagonists pursue coherence between the two, aspects of their conceptions of flourishing rule out certain features of their paradigms of knowledge, and the paradigms of knowledge they come to embrace give rise to new conceptions of flourishing. The novels in this study each reckon with the complex legacies of the Enlightenment and the Reformation, movements which brought about fundamental shifts in understandings of the relationship between epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical inquiries and led to an increased pressure on the individual as a knowing, adjudicating subject. The protagonists in these novels take very seriously their epistemological responsibility and strive to discover what kinds of metaphysical truth claims it is reasonable and responsible for humans to make. If we assert what we do not or cannot know, these protagonists agree, we risk causing grievous harm. We may hinder flourishing, even as we mean to pursue it. The characters in these novels seek metaphysical truth as a basis for flourishing, but, as heirs of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, they consider that they must reckon with epistemological questions before they can proceed to metaphysical ones. What are our epistemological limitations? How much detail about the nature of reality can we, as humans, reasonably and responsibly aspire to know? What methods and what forms of evidence are appropriate for our inquiries? And how do the answers to these questions bear on what it means to live well? These are the questions that drive the novels in this study. Their answers are far more diverse and nuanced than is often recognized.



Victorian. Ethics. Epistemology. Metaphysics. Eudaimonia. Flourishing. Nineteenth century. Realism. Novel. George Eliot. John Henry Newman. Thomas Hardy. Mary Augusta Ward. Religion. Literature. Theology. Roman Catholicism. Francis Bacon. David Hume. Immanuel Kant. David Friedrich Strauss. Arthur Schopenhauer.