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Emersonian Reading and Academic Reading

There is one sentence in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” that Ameri­can scholarship, and academic scholarship more generally, abhors above all oth­ers. Emerson writes therein: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Reading, as Emerson conceives it, is or ought to be a fundamentally creative act. For Emerson, there is this form of creative reading (what I will call Emersonian reading), and then there is a second, more scholastic form of reading, which I will call academic reading. This post constitutes my attempts to come to grip with these two distinct ways of reading from the perspective of someone who intends to enter the academy, and who can expect to do a great deal of academic reading over the remaining course of his life.

Emerson expands on his conception of reading as follows:

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s. (Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, p. 59)

In my post from earlier today, I discussed at some length the tension between conformity and creativity as Emerson handles it. Creativity for Emerson is grasping the divine nature of the world, which a person can do only singularly: there is no way methodically repeat the actions necessary to grasp it. Certainly I cannot imitate anyone else and hope to succeed—that is conformity. But even self-imitation is impossible. Say I manage one creative act. If I try to repeat it, I am simply copying myself, and that is no better than copying another. A creative, liberating act, when repeated, becomes stifling and imprisoning, no matter from whom it originated.

Emerson in the passage above is suggesting that in reading, say Plato or Shakespeare, we can be creative, can grasp the spiritual laws behind the material world. But he also says that we cannot work our to creativity from a basis of imitation. Creative reading cannot, then, be a reproduction in our minds of thoughts formulated in the mind of another. If, in reading Plato, I am to grasp the divine, then, as I read Plato’s words, I must have a thought that is in some sense my own and not Plato’s. Alternatively, they may be seen as the same thought, but grasped differently. Either way, the reading requires my own input: I am not passively receiving wisdom from the author.

My prior posts on Emerson have in part been explorations of the way that Emerson exemplifies his own ideal of creative reading. I have focused on the ways that Emerson takes the words of other authors—including himself!—and positions himself as agreeing with them while nevertheless using their words in distinctly Emersonian ways.

These same posts, which explore Emersonian reading in this sense, can also be seen as embodying the opposite trend of academic reading. In academic reading, one tries to get at the heart of what another says, to ascertain its true (if not necessarily univocal and unambiguous) meaning, and to assess its truth-value (where applicable). In my posts, whether or not I succeed, I have tried to stick closely to Emerson, to elucidate what he thinks and to uncover the subtle rhetorical tools he utilizes to make his points vivid. I am, in short, producing academic readings of examples of Emersonian readings. The fact that I am producing such readings should suffice to indicate that I do not doubt the value of academic reading. While I hope in this post to elevate Emersonian reading (even as I fret about its place in the world and in the academy), I do not thereby mean to devalue academic reading.

I also suspect that Deleuze’s work in the history of philosophy is an instance of Emersonian reading. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, Deleuze states that in his readings he produces “monsters” (he describes the process in loving and smutty detail). He makes the thinkers with whom he engages come out as strange hybrids: Deleuze-Spinoza, Deleuze-Kant, etc. And yet, he insists, the process is not arbitrary: they must say everything he makes them say. While I have not directly engaged with Deleuze’s early historical works, his self-description of his works is a description of a sort of Emersonian reading. Deleuze dives into an author and finds Deleuze, but not through clear misreading. (Some might disagree on this last point; I am not competent to judge, obviously.)

As someone who is both fascinated by the prospects of Emersonian reading and who plans to enter the academy, I find myself frequently wondering what place there is in the academic world for Emersonian reading. As a general rule, I think it takes a fairly negative attitude toward this form of creative reading. This is seen in a variety of ways. One is the treatment of Emerson by academic philosophers, which doesn’t even rise to the level of hostility, but merely neglect. With Deleuze it is different: sometimes he is dismissed or ignored, but not systemically. But there is a striking incident that brings home the academic distrust of Emersonian reading. Deleuze changed his terminology from work to work, in part, I suspect, to stymy that form of reading. In an interview with John Protevi and another scholar (whose name escapes me), Deleuze scholar and philosopher of science Manuel Delanda comments on this tendency of Deleuze’s, saying that, as an analytic philosopher, he cannot tolerate such conceptual mayhem. In his (high quality) work on Deleuze, he imposes order by building a basic set of concepts that can span the whole of Deleuze’s work. In this way, he produces academic readings of Deleuze that are incredibly helpful in understanding how Deleuze treats science, but which can nonetheless feel like a form of betrayal. (Lest this seem like strong condemnation, I note that the Deleuze scholarship I’ve read that does not attempt such management of his conceptual apparatus is mostly dreadful.) I can add to the list the example of Nietzsche, who of course left the academy early in his career and was no doubt better for it. The case of Nietzsche is further interesting due to the ways he is sanitized when discussed in academic circles—even by those who protest his sanitization!

It makes sense that the academy would distrust Emersonian reading. It is bad enough to have to sort out Kant, Strawson’s Kant, Wood’s Kant, and Korsgaard’s Kant, let alone throwing into the mix Deleuze’s Deleuze-Kant and Emerson’s Emerson-Kant. Where boundaries between thinkers blur, where, say, Deleuze and Spinoza enter a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase), academic progress can seem to stall. Clear boundaries streamline the finding of solutions to problems, or at least contribute to a general clarification of the terrain. Emersonian reading seems to go against these academic virtues, and can even seem like a threatening encroachment of relativism (a charge that has been leveled at Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze alike). (Of course, relativism itself, in its various forms, is not inherently threatening—what is dangerous is relativism without the highest of standards. Of course all three of these thinkers insisted on such high standards, regardless of whether the label ‘relativist’ fits them well.)

There is one way that such reading makes its way into academic philosophy, though it is a somewhat tepid one. In his classic chapter on explanation (in The Scientific Image), Bas van Fraassen includes a section titled, “A Biased History,” in which he tells a self-consciously biased version of the history of the philosophy of scientific explanation. His goal in this is, as he puts it, to make his views on explanation seem like an inevitable result toward which previous scholarship has been progressing. This sort of progressivist tale (which forms an interesting counterpart to the postlapsarian tales I discussed this morning) is not at all believable as an academic history, but instead functions as a means for van Fraassen to carve out a space for his own creative addition to the debate. Van Fraassen is self-conscious about this, but the practice is hardly unique to him. As he says, all philosophers’ histories of philosophy are like this, by and large. But this is rather safe, all things considered, for the real interest lies not in the history but in what it makes space for. In a full-blooded Emersonian reading, however, there is no distinction between the “biased” reading and the space that this reading creates.

It is a serious question, in light of this, whether there is any real place in academic philosophy for this non-tepid form of philosophizing that takes creative reading as its wellspring. Perhaps it has a place at the margins, requiring the sanitizing work of scholars such as Delanda to be integrated into the natural order. It is certainly dangerous: when it prompts imitations by people without the talent or the original vision of an Emerson, the results are, as I said, horrid. (It exemplifies the dangers of anything goes relativism, that bogeyman in which no one believes, but which some nevertheless practice.)

[This post was prompted by a stimulating discussion I had with a friend who is well-versed in philosophy, but does not wish to be an academic philosopher, who expressed well-motivated skepticism about Emersonian reading and philosophizing and who got me fretting about the issue once again. Many thanks are due to him for the provocation.]

  1. 2013/07/12 at 09:52

    Great article, dyssebeia! There’s so many things I could say about it, from my position as a non-philosopher and non-academic reader, that I don’t know where to start.
    I just opened “Making sense of Nietzsche” by Richard Schacht and he says:
    “And there have long been and still are others, of the most diverse persuasions, who make a kind of sense of him by making nonsense of him, taking him to be oblivious to conventional philosophical standards of sense-making — in some cases with derision and in others with applause.”
    (Needless to say Schacht believes there are better ways to make sense of Nietzsche.)
    From reading your article, i would not be surprised if the exact same thing could be said of Emerson, unless people completely ignore him for the reason described here.

    I think being able to read in an academic and in an Emersonian way is of great importance for someone in your position and as an outsider, I think it would be completely wrong to look at one way of reading as better than another. I would not be surprised if the current ‘academic’ way of reading was nothing more than a momentary culture (just compare it to the different approaches to reading literature in recent decades) and if people would really imagine themselves to be able to read in a completely academic, non-creative, impersonal way they might be mistaken. Apart from what you earlier described as bad reading habits, there is no wrong way to read in my view. But, perhaps your experience has taught you better. 😉

  2. 2013/07/12 at 10:12

    Well I’ve read enough tedious expositions to know that people certainly can read in completely non-creative ways. 😛 But I don’t mean to deny that academic reading in the sense that I’ve discussed it can be creative. Emersonian creativity isn’t the only form of creativity, though I do think it is a special and especially valuable sort, and in any case attempts at Emersonian readings can be completely uncreative, too.

    I would agree with Schacht that there are better ways of reading Nietzsche than to make nonsense of him. His relationship to conventional philosophical standards is much more interesting than that. I had a couple comments in this post about relativism and standards, and what makes forms of relativism threatening. Reading Nietzsche to make nonsense of him seems to me like the standards-less relativism, which is distinct from Nietzschean relativism, which involves the use of, if anything, much higher (but relative!) standards than most philosophers. You could do readings of Nietzsche similar to those I’ve been doing of Emerson, where you look at the way his rhetoric and style embody/accentuate the philosophical points he’s making.

    Ultimately I don’t think Emerson is read in that nonsense-making way. In part because he’s really, and tragically, mostly ignored, in my experience. But his style and rhetoric also don’t lend themselves to that sort of reading. The “post-moderns” (scare quotes because I don’t intend to cast aspersions on all post-modernism) who read Nietzsche in that way (who I assume are Schacht’s targets) have tended not to latch onto Emerson, so he hasn’t been subjected to that. But I should be clear that these are just my impressions, based on my limited experience, and I could be wrong.

    The nature of current scholarship is currently something specific to now and not a general condition of scholarship. A professor at my institution likes to gleefully insist that philosophy today is more scholastic than the scholastics (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”), and there’s a good serving of truth in that. (It goes for non-philosophical disciplines, too. The same friend who prompted this article aptly commented to me that even the sciences today can be very “burrowing.”)

    As for their being no wrong way to read, I agree and disagree. I’m happy to be relativist on this matter—but only if we insist on the highest standards! If you’re going to read in more Emersonian ways (which obviously I encourage), you’d better not take that a license to do whatever you want with a text, regardless of whether the text can support it. (This, I take it, is what Deleuze was getting at when he remarked that, in producing his monsters, he had to make sure the others actually said what he was making them say.) The text has to be something more than a prop, otherwise what you’re doing is not reading, though it might still be a legitimate use.

    Thanks as always for the stimulating comment.

    • 2013/07/12 at 14:24

      Thank you for your answer! I fully agree with your last remark: it might not be reading, but even that doesn’t make it an illegitimate use. Well put.
      I really think this introduction by Schacht goes into many aspects of reading Nietzsche, (I think he also mentions the way you describe in your above comment).
      He actually said how reading Nietzsche in his view “requires a rare but humanly possible kind of intellectual creativity as well, to be able to come up with alternatives to these ways of thinking and ways of expressing them”.
      In fact, I think Schacht means you should be a philosopher yourself, and a highly motivated and talented one, just to be able to make sense of Nietzsche. And he adds you should not be a Nietzsche scholar, but someone who is prepared to move ahead instead of interpreting. Maybe that takes the concept of ‘reading’ a step too far…

      Anyway, it was quite good to read your article and this introduction together. It has opened my eyes to the many things that (creative) reading could mean.

    • 2013/07/12 at 14:52

      Actually, I think what Schacht says about being someone prepared to move ahead rather than to interpret is similar to what I’ve been talking about: reading that is not beholden to mere interpretation, to mere “what is the other person trying to say.” It’s finding new and creative uses for a work. (Not all moving ahead would necessarily be Emersonian, but it’s at least a step in that direction.) So I don’t think it’s overstretching the concept of reading.

  1. 2013/08/23 at 23:28

Kindly perturb

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