April 05, 2012

Philosophers in Oliver Twist

Re-reading books you read as a child is a fascinating experience. I read Oliver Twist for the first time when I was about 11, when I read it I read it for the story. Re-reading it as an adult, the thing I notice more than anything else is Dickens's humour. Oliver Twist is not a melodrama merely: it is a comedy. It is laced with irony and sarcasm. Dickens is poking fun left, right and centre at visible targets within his own day- and (part of the reason the book works) our day. One such burst of humour considers those that Dickens regards as philosophers- Dickens mentions these figures a number of times in the first few chapters. I want to isolate some of these references- consider what Dickens aims at through them and then lastly why he uses the word 'philosophers' rather than another word to rebuke these men that he addresses. Ultimately I think Dickens chose that word deliberately.

So who are the Philosophers and what do they say? Dickens mentions 'philosophers' for the first time in Chapter 2 when describing Mrs Mann, she functions on a payment system whereby small children from the workhouse are transferred to her care and then she receives payment for their living allowance. She skims off money- and behaves in that sense Dickens argues like a philosopher. Dickens argues that she behaves in a philosophical way because she experiments to see how little a child may subsist upon: he compares her to a philosopher who experimented in detecting whether his horse would live if he did not feed it. Mocking this experiment, Dickens leaves us in no doubt that philosophical knowledge- whatever this is is worthless. Secondly Dickens establishes that the Board of the Workhouse themselves are philosophers- as they have discovered that the poor want to be in workhouses and therefore have cut the living allowance so 'that all poor people should have the alternative(for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house or by a quick one out of it' (Chapter 2). Dickens talks of philosophy again and again- but I think one last citation is neccessary for us to get a partial picture: in Chapter 8 when Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger rob Mr Brownlow, they flee the scene leaving Oliver standing in shock. Oliver's shocked reaction is testament to the fact that 'although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with that beautiful observation that self preservation is the first law of nature'. Note the irony in that 'beautiful'.

These three citations would not be enough for an essay or for a critic- but they are enough for me. What should we think of philosophers from this? I don't think Dickens wants us to like them- I think he wants to go further, he wants a picture to be built of the philosopher from these portraits. Firstly the philosopher sees society as an object to be experimented on and is not interested in the condition of the poor. Secondly the philosopher views people as machines to consume- and consume minimally at their highest efficiency. Thirdly he thinks that the philosopher believes that self preservation is the highest end and constructs a system on the basis of this. There is a hint of utilitarianism in this description- more than a hint- but there are also some other things here. Dickens is making a political point about the purpose of what he might describe as compassion: but he is also making a practical point. All of the philosophical insights above are wrong: not morally but empirically. The boys and the horse die, the poor don't want to be in workhouses and fear them and the choice is not real and lastly Oliver, the best character in the entire book, does not behave like a philosopher but like a moral human being- hence the aspiration to self preservation is not the most beautiful thing in human nature, its something that Sikes and Fagin share with Brownlow and Oliver, it is the base ingredient.

This leaves us with one important question- Dickens's use of the word 'philosopher'. I think Dickens here is making a point about the lack of realism associated with these ideas- they are theories or philosophies rather than points about the world. He is disputing the expertise of any expert who supports these- this is 'just' philosophy. I think also embedded in the use of the term is an irony itself: Dickens doesn't mean these ideas are proper philosophy. Ultimately looking back, they miss out any notion of ethics or morality itself: Dickens a believer in compassion sees these philosophical principles as incomplete. Ultimately the reason he uses the word is to bring out, ironically and manifestly, the contradition both theoretical and empirical in these insights. Oliver Twist is a funny novel, with a serious purpose.