Pride propagates sorrows. Late in Jane Austen’s Emma the titular character, Emma Woodhouse, reflecting on the sorrowful mess she’s made for herself, complains to Mr. Knightley, a love interest, that she seems “to have been doomed to blindness.” Her blindness is born of a haughty egotism and it is her uppish inability to see things clearly that alienates her from her friends and isolates her from society. She’s lucky she’s written by Jane Austen and not, say, Fyodor Dostoevsky so she’ll probably end up well-married instead of in a Siberian prison camp eating cockroach and cabbage soup. We must take the wins we can get. Nevertheless, Emma’s story stands as a testament to the importance of living a life of epistemological modesty.
Epistemological modesty is the practical application of the understanding that there are severe limits to human knowledge and our ability to understand the complicated world we inhabit. An epistemologically modest person lives a humble life and remains open minded and aware that she is probably wrong about a great many things. Emma Woodhouse, on the other hand, is epistemologically arrogant. Early in the novel she believes she is the motivating agent behind the nuptials of her governess and a local widower. Quite naturally, then, she imagines herself a superior talent in the art of matchmaking blessed with unique insights into human nature and she proceeds, suffering from all manner of cognitive biases along the way, to ruin the marriage prospects of everyone in town, including her own. It wasn’t like she wasn't warned, either. Mr. Knightley, noting her exaggerated convictions, cautions her that “vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.”
What mischief indeed!
First she discourages her friend Harriet from accepting the marriage proposal of Mr. Martin, a well-to-do local farmer. Instead Emma counsels Harriet to pursue Mr. Elton. Emma pushes hard for this coupling and remains confident in its eventuality right up until the moment Mr. Elton, inexplicably, lays the moves on her instead. She can’t believe it. All the evidence pointed to a soon future where she’d lose a friend in Miss Harriet by gaining a friend in Mrs. Elton. In one of literary history’s great treatments of confirmation bias Austen writes of the situation: ”How she could have been so deceived! [Mr. Elton] protested that he had never thought seriously of Harriet—never! She looked back as well as she could; but it was all confusion. She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend to it. His manners, however, must have been so unmarked, wavering, dubious, or she could not have been so misled.”
The rest of the novel is a string of mishaps all tied together by the yarns of fancy Emma tells herself about her faculty in matchmaking. That faculty is all cognitive illusion, existing only in her mind. It’s only when Emma sheds her arrogance that her vision clears up. The final chapter of the novel is instructive on this point. Austen sums up her protagonist’s review of all the errors she has made by writing that, “The fact was, as Emma could now acknowledge, that Harriet had always liked Robert Martin; and that his continuing to love her had been irresistible. Beyond this, it must ever be unintelligible to Emma.” Most things in this world will ever be unintelligible to our feeble human intelligence. This is something those with epistemological modesty understand and they behave accordingly. To master this lesson it is necessary, like Emma, to heed Mr. Deasy’s advice that “to learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”
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