Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Realism and idealism as medicine

Realism and idealism as medicine

Some of my current scholarly work (which generally does not make it on here) is focused on debates over scientific realism and anti-realism. I am interested not just in the arguments for and against scientific realism, but also in the role that realist and anti-realist attitudes play in various practices (of scientists, of governments, of funding committees, of the general public, etc.). This latter portion of my interest intensifies the more I study the arguments themselves, since I have yet to find any major argument that’s truly compelling. Hence my interest in the uses of realism and anti-realism, whether rhetorical, methodological, political, or otherwise.

Scientific realism is of course not the same as metaphysical realism (nor are their antitheses comparable). Nonetheless I suspect that the same questions might be fruitfully applied in the latter domain as I discussed for the former. Here I want to look at a way that Emerson uses metaphysical idealism and metaphysical realism as antidotes to certain illnesses: respectively, crass materialism and idle pedantry. I will focus on the essays “Nature” and “Literary Ethics”, relying on the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures. All page references are to that volume.

Perhaps Emerson’s most notorious quote comes from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (265) Much of this notoriety derives from irresponsible quoters who neglect the essential “foolish”, though even the more conscientious magpies still usually neglect to provide the equally crucial definition of ‘consistency’ given two paragraphs above: “a reverence for our past act or word.” I bring up this quote because, in “Literary Ethics”, Emerson praises realism, precisely that metaphysical view that he rejects in “Nature”, in which he defends idealism at length. I hope to show why the apparent inconsistency is in fact a mere rejection of a foolish consistency for the sake of a higher consistency. I want to emphasize the medicinal properties Emerson attributes to realism and to idealism.

In chapter VI of “Nature”, Emerson embarks on a defense of idealism, running through the ways in which “motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion, all tend to affect our convictions of the reality of the external world.” (38) But, having reached this conclusion, that all of culture points us to idealism, Emerson takes a step back. “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it.” The purpose of culture, in bringing us to idealism, is to make the mind “call that apparent, which it uses to call real, and that real, which it uses to call visionary.” Emerson raises this point as a prelude to his next thought, which concerns the value of idealism: “The advantage of the ideal theory over the popular faith, is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind. […] For, seen in the light of thought, the world always is phenomenal; and virtue subordinates it to the mind.” (39) The value of idealism is thus that it lets us see the world as malleable, lets us see ourselves as possessing the freedom to conform the world to virtue, which freedom lies at the basis of our dignity. It is on the basis of idealism that “the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet.”

We see idealism standing opposed to certain linked behavioral tendencies. Emerson has called idealism true, to be sure, but if the way he ends the chapter is any indication, he places more worth on the link between idealism and this behavior than on idealism as a well-wrought metaphysics. Idealism is an antidote to certain dangers: to the danger of immersing oneself in the means of the world and missing its ends, of building up a stockpile of knowledge and neglecting to develop the self-reliance to use it in dignified ways, and the danger of being trapped by the world, of seeing it not as malleable but as constraining. (I discussed this malleability somewhat in my post on the transparent eye-ball.)

In “Literary Ethics”, by contrast, we find Emerson promoting realism. The main body of the essay consists of three parts: (i) a discussion of the resources available to the scholar, (ii) a discussion of the subject of scholarship, and (iii) a discussion of the (ascetic) discipline of the scholar. Before this, however, Emerson warns of a particular danger the scholar risks falling into: pedantry. Emerson writes:

The scholar may lose himself in schools, in words, and become a pedant; but when he comprehends his duties, he above all men is a realist, and converses with things. For, the scholar is the student of the world, and of what worth the world is, and with what emphasis it accosts the soul of man, such is the worth, such is the call of the scholar. (96)

Pedantry is a specter hovering over scholarship. The scholar may lose all touch with the things themselves, getting lost in an endless exchange of words, words tumbling over words until, if meaning itself is not lost, at least any sense of a point seems to go missing. This is, in a way, the opposite flaw to the crass materialism discussed above: where that error sees no freedom, no possibility of the new, this error sees too much freedom. It becomes detached from the world, until it spins frictionlessly in a void (to borrow a beautiful phrase from John McDowell’s Mind and World). Realism is the antidote to this error, a return to the things themselves, to the world.

This illustrates an overarching tendency in Emerson’s thought. Emerson skillfully navigates the tension between freedom and necessity. On the one hand he sees human dignity as lying in his particular conception of human freedom as our ability to act creatively. On the other he thinks that creative acts all grasp the same universal truth, a truth that is eternal and not new. Freedom, for Emerson, has nothing in common with anarchy, with “anything goes”, but instead is yoked to the harshest necessity. Because of this—and this is another constant theme in Emerson—our freedom is unstable, constantly at risk of being lost. We may fall too far into necessity, into the crass materialism that denies any possibility of the new, or we may fall too far into freedom, into creation that makes no contact with the world and so is of no value. We walk a narrow ridge, with an abyss on either side. Realism and idealism are what pull us back when we start to fall. Their role in Emerson is medicinal.

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