Dialectical Envisioning: Daniel Deronda and British Ethical Idealism

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Abstract

Daniel Deronda often comes across as a more futuristic novel than the rest of George Eliot’s oeuvre. Its moral idealism tends to puzzle the reader for being too metaphysical and ethereal. So far, Eliot’s general idealism has been discussed in terms of her engagement with philosophers such as Feuerbach, Spinoza, Auguste Comte, J. S. Mill, and Herbert Spencer. In this article, the same issue is explored by way of historical significance rather than direct influence. By reading Daniel Deronda in the context of British ethical idealism, especially the writings of F. H. Bradley and T. H. Green, I argue that the novel contributed significantly to a major development of Victorian moral philosophy. In particular, the novel deploys a dialectical language of speculation that helped to shape a shift of interest to a more metaphysical approach to moral ideals. Addressing issues such as the fallibility of present judgment, the importance of integration rather than antithesis, and the heuristic value of a teleological future, Daniel Deronda self-consciously tests out the validity of a dialectical form of moral envisioning. To read Daniel Deronda this way can help define a crucial aspect of Eliot’s thinking that cannot be easily or sufficiently articulated in such terms as scientific positivism and German idealism, though both of which have been important in shaping Eliot’s other novels before Daniel Deronda. In creating independently an ethical idealism that is equally metaphysical but intellectually less restrictive than that of Bradley or Green, Daniel Deronda shows not only the convergence of literary and philosophical writings but also the importance of considering literary works for the study of Victorian moral philosophy.

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