Home > Emerson R. W., Hadot P., Philosophy > Emerson as Bricoleur

Emerson as Bricoleur

Naturally, when I said that Henry Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice would be my final book be­fore classes started, I was lying—not because I intended to start a new book but because its falsehood was eminently predictable. I won’t finish it before classes start, but I have at least begun reading Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and already I have found something worth mentioning in relation to my recent series of posts on Emerson. (All page references are to the Hadot book.)

One of Hadot’s early tasks in the book is to clarify the way in which ancient Greek and Roman philosophical texts are to be read. Contemporary academic methods of reading tend to estrange the works from the contexts in which and purposes for which they were written, leading to certain methodological and stylistic aspects of the texts being systematically misunderstood or underappreciated. At the broadest level, the works are written not to convey doctrinal content, but to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress” (64). A fail­ure to understand this and the specific ways it manifests itself, or so Hadot argues, has led even “specialists in the field” to reproach ancient authors “for their bad writing, contradictions, and lack of rigor and coherence” (61).

I do not know whether Hadot’s reproach of the specialists is warranted—that is in any case not my interest. My interest lies rather in one specific ancient technique that Hadot identifies. Because so many works were commentaries on “authentic” authors the truth of whose work could not be disputed, one constraint on the commentators was the need to maintain a certain proximity to these authentic authors—albeit a proximity perhaps not recognizable as such by today’s standards, hence the specialists’ complaints. Hadot describes one way in which this closeness was maintained:

[…] this practice includes – and this is the most characteristic example – the literal use of formulae or words employed by the earlier tradition to which the author often gives a new meaning adapted to what he wants to say. […] What matters first of all is the prestige of the ancient and traditional formula, and not the exact meaning it originally had. The idea itself holds less interest than the prefabricated elements in which the writer believes he recognizes his own thought, elements that take on an unexpected meaning and purpose when they are integrated into a literary whole. This sometimes brilliant reuse of prefabricated elements gives an impression of “bricolage,” to take up a word currently in fashion, not only among anthropologists but among biologists. Thought evolves by incorporating prefabricated and pre-existing elements, which are given new meaning as they become integrated into a rational system. It is difficult to say what is most extraordinary about this process of integration: contingency, chance, irrationality, the very absurdity resulting from the elements used, or, on the contrary, the strange power of reason to integrate and systematize these disparate elements and to give them a new meaning. (65)

My suggestion here is that Emerson’s relationship to prior thinkers is much better understood as something very similar to this sort of bricolage, though not identical. I have gone some way toward making this suggestion in my posts on Emersonian and academic reading and on realism and idealism as medicine. I want to go a bit further here.

The first note to make is to draw attention to a superficial distinction between Emersonian bricolage and the bricolage Hadot discusses. Emerson at numerous points in his journals and essays disparages the institution of quoting. Quote Bacon, Emerson says, and Emerson will stop reading your work and go reread Bacon. Emerson does on occasion quote in his works, but it is a rarity. Thus, in general, he does not show the ancient reverence for established formulae. Nevertheless, he does show much the same irreverent reverence for doctrine, in a way that is likely to provoke the disdain of philosophers if they do not take care to understand what he is doing. That is what I want to explore here.

Again and again in his works, Emerson invokes the doctrines of names of past thinkers—Plato especially is a favorite. Bacon, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Swedenborg, and Montaigne are others who get frequent mention. What Emerson does with these philosophers, when he goes beyond namedropping, is to pick a doctrine of theirs and promote it, but with blasé disregard for the details of their position. From Plato, for instance, he takes the immortality of the soul, and from Kant the absolute moral law. From both, he takes his idealism in general (explored in one of the earlier posts linked above)—leaving aside that they espouse two quite different versions of idealism. But Emerson is neither Platonic nor Kantian. Emerson’s version of absolute moral law, for instance, is one that is compatible with his saying that, were he the devil’s child, he would act of the devil. And, in my experience, his use of the immortality of the soul is nothing more than a formula, rather than a worked out bit of doctrine. That is, Emerson brings it up at various points, always with a purpose in mind, but the purpose is served by the resonances of the formula itself, and does not require any defense of it as a doctrine. I have already argued, in my post on realism and idealism in Emerson, that he uses those doctrines in ways that specifically de-emphasize their status as doctrines and rhetorically position them so as to promote spiritual progress in his readers—indicating a commonality not just of method but of intent between Emerson and the ancients.

These examples could be multiplied, but unfortunately I do not have a handy list of references for them and have to write this from memory, so I cannot go into more detail about specific instances. I will try to touch on this in future posts, but here I will turn to a brief attempt to understand why Emerson adopts such a method.

One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth—Emerson’s Kantian-only-not absolute moral law. But, though we grasp the same truth as others, we cannot grasp it by imitation—this is why Emerson’s philosophy is irreducible to doctrine (in the way Hadot argues that ancient philosophy is not fundamentally doctrinal) and inseparable from some notion of spiritual progress. This is also why Emerson makes such heavy use of the rhetorical devices I’ve explored in my posts on his work: they perhaps subvert any easy doctrinal coherence of his essays, but they do so in a way that improves the reader who is sensitive to them.

The reason why this truth cannot be grasped by imitation is that the truth does not lie in the new state achieved, but in the “shooting of the gap” between the old and the new state. Doctrine—which can be shared by any number of people—is thus, precisely in virtue of its stability of content, unstable as truth in this Emersonian sense: this stability means that it becomes imitation (self-imitation counts!) and thus a barrier to Emersonian self-overcoming—thus the disparagement of quoting discussed earlier.

Emerson’s adoption of Kantian and Platonic (and other) formulae, which at the same time shows reverence for their genius and irreverence for the details of their thought, exemplifies this aspect of his philosophy. That Emerson can adopt the same formulae as past giants shows the connection between their thought and fortifies his contention of their being a single truth that is grasped again and again by the most disparate of philosophers. That Emerson adopts these formulae with such “carelessness” (by the lights of current standards of exegesis) illustrates precisely the instability of doctrinal truth: Emersonian truth cannot be arrived at by imitation, and so Emersonian use of e.g. Kant’s moral law cannot simply be an imitation of Kant (or even an extension of Kant, an internal improvement to Kant’s system, for that still is not self-reliance). What justifies Emerson’s use of these formulae (by the lights of his own system) is precisely that they are caught up in his own radical movement of thought, his own overcoming of both the past and himself.

We can also understand in light of these considerations why Emerson’s method differs from the ancients, even though both are a sort of bricolage. For the ancient authors, certain authors were authentic. An authentic author “could neither be mistaken, or contradict himself, nor develop his arguments poorly, nor disagree with any other authentic author” (74—Hadot is here quoting a work from Charles Thurot). The goal of ancient texts was to explicate the truth contained in these works. In this context, “any potential meaning, as long as it was coherent with what was considered to be the master’s doctrine, was consequently held to be true” (73—this is Hadot himself speaking). In this way of going about things, the works of these authentic authors stand as permanent accomplishments and so they can be imitated, explicated, etc. This creates a context for the appropriation of formula down to the word: the formula itself is an accomplishment that may be taken on in a new context.

For Emerson, however, accomplishments are not stable, as we have seen. Emerson explicitly makes this point in connection to the great thinkers of the past in “Literary Ethics”:

The book of philosophy is only a fact, and no more inspiring fact than another, and no less; but a wise man will never esteem it anything final and transcending. Go and talk with a man of genius, and the first word he utters, sets all your so-called knowledge afloat and at large. Then Plato, Bacon, Kant, and the Eclectic Cousin, condescend instantly to be men and mere facts.

In the presence of new genius, the products of old genius cease to be accomplishments and instead are mere facts to be appropriated by the new genius. Moreover, among Emerson’s innumerable reflections on the value and proper method of reading, he specifically says that we read (or ought to read) others to find ourselves, and so should only pay attention to those parts that we find confirm our own thought. Here there is no pretense of faithfulness to the old doctrine: it is material for the free play of genius, which may appropriate however it sees fit. And, particularly, genius may appropriate it in a thoroughly piecemeal manner. Older texts do not contain truth that must be located and explicated; instead, they hint at the past occurrence of a grasping of truth and so may point toward a future grasping of truth in the reader, but one that cannot be achieved by imitation.

It is not quite right to say that the ancients locate truth in particular texts, whereas Emerson locates truth in action. Indeed, it is part of Hadot’s very argument that ancient theory was inseparable from spiritual practice. But in ancient spiritual practice, there was a requirement of faithfulness to the text: explication of the text was itself a spiritual exercise. Emerson’s spiritual practice, by contrast, insofar as his essays exemplify it, does not impose this requirement: he thinks of texts in a fundamentally different way. But despite these differences, I believe we may see Emerson as a modern variant of the ancient bricoleur.

  1. Lee
    2014/07/16 at 23:00

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    A fascinating piece. I have been thinking lately about what it takes to be an original thinker rather than an exponent, explicator, or interpreter of the thought of others. And it seems to me that if one’s thought is to be original rather than entirely derivative, it is necessary to take the language of one’s predecessors and give it new meaning.

    Unfortunately, individuals are generally not at liberty to invent a pile of new vocabulary and syntax to expound new ideas. A few have tried it, but the result usually seems to be a group of highly clannish followers who can communicate effectively only with one another, because no one else speaks their language. Occasionally a newly coined term or phrase makes it out into the wider vocabulary, but only if it has exceptional power and currency for the wider culture.

    My guy Swedenborg was, I’m more and more convinced, an original thinker. Every time I read a piece purporting to show how he derived this or that idea from a previous thinker, my conclusion is that he really didn’t. He did, of course, refer to various ancient and modern (to him) philosophical and scientific ideas. But he rarely adopted them whole. Usually he was referring to them to provide some anchorage in known thought for some concept he wished to convey.

    The problem Swedenborg ran into was perhaps the same problem Emerson ran into: There are no other words or concepts other than the ones that exist in the already existing literature. So if one is to speak at all, one must use that language.

    Swedenborg occasionally waxes explicit about this, saying such things as (and this is a paraphrase not a direct quote), “These words do not fully or properly convey the meaning I am attempting to convey, but since there are no words that do, I’ll have to use these ones because they are the best available.” Due to this phenomenon, Swedenborg frequently presses into service philosophical, Christian, and even scientific words and phrases that represented particular ideas in their original context, but to which he gives new and different, if related, meanings.

    Perhaps some of Emerson’s “carelessness” with inherited turns of phrase was for a similar reason: He wanted to say something that was in his mind, and this was the only language available to say it.

    • 2014/07/16 at 23:31

      I think this is exactly right. My current interpretation of Emerson’s thoughts on originality (my interpretations of Emerson are never permanent, but this one seems to be holding up well so far) is that he doesn’t see originality as something that “just is.” Originality has a perspectival element. If you just look at what is, then there is nothing new. There is only rearrangement of what already exists. Writing is the rearrangement of existing words and themes (and if you avoid this by inventing new words, the joke’s on you: it’s still just an arrangement of existing letters and sounds). There are novel combinations but never novel elements. And from this viewpoint originality is a ruse, a sham. An Emerson scholar can trace Emerson back to Swedenborg, and Plato, and Kant, and whoever else. A Swedenborg scholar can trace Swedenborg back to ____ (you know what fills in the blank better than I do).

      But what Emerson says about genius (which he closely links to originality) is that it’s selective. When we read – I mean in those rare moments of reading where the thoughts of author and reader run together – then all this non-originality drops away. Influence looks trivial. In the thrall of thought, originality emerges. — But this is only a perspective, and it only lasts so long. Emerson thinks this is a good thing: it keeps us independent. Sometimes we need to free ourselves from a thinker, and then a return to the more “objective” perspective is useful, because it shows us that they were not so original after all, that their ideas have long chains of influence behind them that made them possible. They were free creations, ex nihilo.

      If you aren’t tired of my writing yet, I discuss this more in my reaction to Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare (one of his finest). Emerson develops a concept of “waste stock” to characterize how the original thinker treats the works of the past.

      As with Swedenborg, Emerson uses quiet allusions much more than quotes. (And when he does quote, he only rarely cites his source.) The one great flaw of the Library of America volumes of his works – otherwise the most beautiful books I own, considered physically – is that their notes are atrocious in this regard. They just don’t bother pointing out what it is he’s quoting.

  2. Lee
    2014/07/16 at 23:04

    Incidentally, like Emerson, Swedenborg rarely included a direct quote from any previous writer (other than the Bible) in his theological writings. We know he read extensively in ancient, medieval, and modern (to him) philosophy and science because we have his extensive notes from reading such authors. But when it came to writing his own material, he rarely did more than allude–sometimes quite elliptically–to other writers’ works. One of the tasks of producing a modern, annotated edition of Swedenborg’s works is to sleuth out for the modern reader these allusions. In Swedenborg’s day and age, any educated person was expected to know what thinker he was alluding to. Such is not the case today.

  3. Lee
    2014/07/16 at 23:45

    One other response:

    I find fascinating your quote from Hadot that ancient writers wrote their material not for doctrinal reasons, but to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress.”

    This dovetails nicely with one of Swedenborg’s most common critiques of later religions and writers compared to ancient ones.

    In ancient times, Swedenborg said, philosophy and religion were focused on life–meaning on how we live our lives. To Swedenborg, this included how we live our spiritual lives. By contrast, in later ages philosophy and religion focused more and more on faith, doctrine, and correct belief. The general shift, he said, was from a focus on the heart, on love, and on life, in which love and kindness ruled and truth served, to a focus on truth and faith, in which love and kindness are sidelined and the most important thing is correct belief.

    This, he said, is why ancient religious and philosophical writings were far superior to later religious and philosophical writing, and ancient religion was superior to contemporary religion.

    Applying the same idea to the Bible, which is the ancient sacred text of the dominant Western religion, it has become more and more clear to me that those who view the Bible as primarily a doctrinal work are badly mistaken in their reading and interpretation of it. Though there is some explicit doctrine in the Bible, most of it consists of myths, cultural history, poetry, prophecy, and story. These forms of writing cannot be easily reduced into doctrinal statements–nor were they ever intended to be. Rather, they were intended, to use Hadot’s words, to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress.”

    • 2014/07/16 at 23:52

      I feel bad making a recommendation after what I said earlier (my perpetual flaw: I am far better at giving than receiving recommendations), but if you want to follow up the thought, Hadot’s book is very good, as is Michel Foucault’s similar The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Both read ancient philosophy as intimately tied to spiritual exercises (Hadot) or care of the self (Foucault).

      We can find some sympathy on the subject of biblical interpretation – my reading therein has been scant, but I am easily exasperated when my fellow atheists think they can interpret it without regard to the genres in which it is written.

    • Lee
      2014/07/17 at 00:04

      Being realistic also, I probably will not follow up on these recommendations any time soon either, as excellent as I’m sure they are. But the seed has now been sown . . . .

      I haven’t spent a lot of time reading atheist interpretations of the Bible, but the ones I have read have been uniformly bad. It’s as if you took a fundamentalist Christian, ripped out the belief in God, and continued to read the Bible the same way as before . . . which, I think, is precisely what is happening in many cases.

      Fundamentalist Christian Bible interpretation is so literal, culturally blind, and ahistorical that it is largely useless for any real understanding of the Bible. My problem with most atheist critique of religion is that it’s aimed at the fundamentalist wing of religion, which is, if I may be a bit rude, the most brain-dead wing of religion.

      Most of the atheist critique of religion that I’ve read has little or nothing to do with what I believe, because it is all aimed at a form of religion that I have never believed. I therefore find most of it to be boring, irrelevant, and, if I may be a bit rude again, shallow, unintelligent, and uninformed. People should not presume to pontificate on subjects they have never studied seriously and in depth. It just makes them look foolish to those who have some real knowledge of the subject.

      Okay, that was a bit of a rant. 😉

  1. 2013/08/24 at 08:03
  2. 2014/08/15 at 09:50

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