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The Philosophy of Experiment

§1. The Philosophy of Experiment

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a philosopher in the grand tradition of care for oneself, and his work is much more about such care than it is about any particular doctrines. The form that Emerson’s care for the self takes is of a special sort: it is experimental. I spent yesterday evening in the vivifying presence of Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”, and came away more convinced than ever that Emerson cannot be understood if one does not place experiment at the heart of his philosophy. Experiment, it turns out, is crucial for the very articulation of the self on which one is supposed to rely. In characterizing Emerson’s philosophy of experiment, I shall enlist a pair of allies: Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze. (References and abbreviations are at the end of the post.)

Emerson’s philosophy of experiment is simple at its core. It is impossible to know your powers in advance, before you have exhibited them, so experiment on yourself in order to learn what they are, how they may be deployed. “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” (E&L 259) This, combined with Emerson’s belief that “Power is in nature the essential measure of right” (E&L 272) is enough to yield his valorization of practices of experiment on oneself.

The same idea may be found in Deleuze: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into compositions with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” (ATP 257) Affects are just that which augments or diminishes an individual’s power to act. How do we learn a body’s affects? “Make a rhizome. But you don’t know what you can make a rhizome with, you don’t know which subterranean stem is effectively going to make a rhizome, or enter a becoming, people your desert. So experiment.” (ATP 251) Not only do we not know, we have little basis to predict: “We can be thrown into a becoming by anything at all, by the most unexpected, most insignificant of things. You don’t deviate from the majority unless there is a little detail that starts to swell and carries you off.” (ATP 292)

And also in Nietzsche; I will let a single passage suffice: “Knowing one’s circumstances. – We can estimate our powers but not our power. Our circumstances do not only conceal and reveal it to us – no! they magnify and diminish it. One should regard oneself as a variable quantity whose capacity for achievement can under favorable circumstances perhaps equal the highest ever known: one should thus reflect on one’s circumstances and spare no effort in observing them.” (D §326)

So there is the idea. It is simple enough in outline, though there are complications I have not yet considered. But despite this theoretical simplicity, implementing such experimental techniques requires overcoming any number of opponents. A greater feel for what it is to experiment may be obtained by considering these dangers.

§2. The opposition to experiment

A. Morality and society. In a passage to which we shall later return, Emerson names the “one fact the world hates.” (E&L 271) And indeed it is the world—which here means society—that provides one of the dominant sources of opposition to experiment. What need is there for experiment if established customs have found the correct way already? The dictates of morality (which is nothing more than a particular form of custom), when they are external to the individual, are a burden, and are not noble. “Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances.” (E&L 263) Emerson, in contrast, imagines the person who never apologizes—never needs to apologize—and never regrets a past act. “Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.” (E&L 276)

There is thus a critique of morality inherent in Emerson’s experimental philosophy. Of course, he talks about a universal moral law all across his essays and journals, and he unquestionably means it. But it is not in any way this which society enforces. Society enforces morality as a custom, at the expense of the individual. Indeed, it is by experiment and self-reliance that we come to know this law, and not by deference to society. At the very start of “Self-Reliance”, Emerson defines genius, and his definition says all that is needed: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” (E&L 259)

Nietzsche carried this critique of morality much further than Emerson, and in a much more thorough fashion. More than that, however, I think Nietzsche diagnosed a fundamental opposition between moral and experimental thinking that Emerson, if he did not miss it altogether, at least did not express clearly (to my knowledge). In a passage I read recently and, to my immense frustration, cannot find at the moment, Nietzsche suggests an opposition between two ways of thinking about the results of one’s actions. On the one hand, one may see them as judgments: I suffer as punishment for my actions. On the other, one may see them as answers to questions: ah, so that is how I work. So that is what I am capable of accomplishing. The latter is the experimenter’s attitude. The former is a moral outlook, and it kills experiment. It kills experiment precisely by making “bad” results into a punishment, a negative consequence, rather than a knowledge-enhancing answer to the question posed by the action. It is not uncommon for a scientist to point out that experiments with unexpected or “wrong” results are often more worthwhile than experiments that go as planned—Nietzsche has simply transported this thought into the philosophy of experimental living, and in doing show captured what is most antithetical to experiment about morality and a moral outlook on the world.

B. The “divided and rebel mind.” Emerson isolates a second danger: “that divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose” (E&L 260)—in short, a too excessive realism. Emerson is an idealist in just about every sense in which idealism can be contrasted with realism, including the oft-pejorativized sense of one who remains committed to an ideal in the face of recalcitrant reality. Like a moral outlook, but in a slightly different way, a too great realism may kill experimentation. Here, the mind seeks foundations for action in advance. But it is central to experiment that the answers cannot be known in advance. Great scientific experiments are precisely those that have the possibility of yielding unexpected results that cannot be assimilated to current theories, and so too experiments on the self.—As an aside, perhaps the most incisive critique of the current institutions in which scientific research takes place is that they are structured in a way that penalizes the sort of research likely to yield unexpected results, what one might, on a Nietzschean day, call dangerous experiments. But this is not the place and I am not the person to explore that issue in any depth.—In short, experimentation, by its very nature, lacks foundations. Experimentation lacks and must lack foundations, because experimentation is above all else that which has the potential to call existing foundations into question.

This fear of the absence of foundations goes hand in hand with the problems of sociality and morality: we fear the judgment of others or of some god or gods if the results do not turn out as expected. So long as that is the case, we shall stick to safe experiments, or, to put it more bluntly, we shall not experiment at all. Even if we escape that trap, there is another difficulty: the inability to handle failure. Should one experiment fail, we may become discouraged. On this point, Emerson praises the values of Stoicism, which will allow the young experimenter to take a failure in stride and move on the next. “Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves.” (E&L 275)

C. Faith. Creeds, dogmas, articles of faith—these are the next opponent of the experimental intellect. “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother’s.” (E&L 276) To accept unquestioningly as true what is handed down is to abandon oneself, to put one’s trust in others. If the truth is received, there is no need to experiment. But such external trust involves a dilution and a half-possession, until the divine is lost altogether. Faith is even more insidious than this, however. For while dogmas represent themselves as eternal and infallible, in fact they are flexible and assimilative—and so they take in the results of experiments and make of them new dogmas. “Every mind is a new classification,” Emerson writes, “But in all unbalanced minds, the classification is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe.” (E&L 276-7) Even the experimenter may be seduced by this, as Nietzsche notices: “Whenever a great thinker wants to make of himself a binding institution for future mankind, one may be certain that he is past the peak of his powers and is very weary, very close to the setting of his sun.” (D §542)

Faith corrupts in another way. It prevents action, by reversing the order of events in the mind and body. Deeds come before faith. If we encourage only faith, that is, only certain beliefs, we shall never build up enough to amount to a deed. Any deed always stretches beyond faith. “Protestant teachers continue to propagate the fundamental error that all that matters is faith, and that out of faith works must necessarily proceed. This is simply not true… The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed… Works, first and foremost! That is to say, doing, doing, doing! The ‘faith’ that goes with it will soon put in an appearance – you can be sure of that!” (D §22) Faith is mere rationalization, after the fact. Act first, and it will follow. Once again, experiment precedes all foundation.

D. Language. The heading of language encompasses a vicious pack of dangers. Language first of all brings the possibility of being misunderstood, a possibility that is only exacerbated when one speaks in one’s own idiom and not in the common manner. For Emerson, this danger also results from abandonment of a cloistering consistency (see 2.F below)—if one is willing to contradict oneself, “’Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’” (E&L 265) While Emerson resolves this danger quickly for himself—“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” (E&L 265)—others do not take it so lightly. At repeated points in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari praise experimentation in direct opposition to interpretation, “experimentation against any kind of interpretation” (ATP 267), and they write in a style that makes interpretation very difficult and experimentation more accessible.

This danger of language is exacerbated by a feature of language that is both a danger and a blessing: its poverty. I have discussed before how all translations are evil—well, what is language but a form of translation? Emerson describes words as “the far-off remembering of the intuition” (E&L 271), that is, a distant echo of the direct perception of the divine. Words, at their best, are our attempt to translate such perception into a public language, but this can be done only imperfectly. No one can experience the divine through another, by adopting his language. Language, in its highest function, is a form of translation, and so is an evil. Likewise, we may invert Nietzsche, who speaks of the need to set in motion a “subtle, many-faceted mechanism… if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (D §22) Instead, we may wonder at the possibility of translating a deed, an experiment, into an idea, into something that may be spoken and transmitted—once again, we come upon the inherent evil and poverty of translation.

At the same time, this fact about language is not an unwelcome danger. It makes Emerson’s entire philosophy of experiment possible. For the primary result of this fact about language is that it renders impossible any sort of received truth. In language, one may receive goads and prods—it is no accident that Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze all write in ways designed to stir one’s body and not just one’s mind—but never truth. To accept the dogma of another is, as noticed above, at best going to lead to mere half-possession, a pale shadow of the original—as it must, since language itself is a pale shadow of the original intuition. The impossibility of a definitive formulation of truth leads to the constant need to experiment, to find one’s own formulation. This feature of language is what preserves the very possibility of and need for self-reliance without imitation.

E. History. In all sorts of ways, the past, the history of human life, sets itself in opposition to experimentation in the present. Custom, discussed above, is but a means for the past. Nietzsche captures its true nature: “Morality makes stupid. – Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the creation of new and better customs: it makes stupid.” (D §19) Custom is just the petrification of the results of successful experiments: they cease to be valued for their success, and instead are valued for their age. Emerson speaks thus on this point: “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.” (E&L 261) And he himself shows how to use names, how to use the past. After saying that it is not so bad to be misunderstood, Emerson calls to mind some examples: “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.” (E&L 265) This is an almost totally indiscriminate lumping together of names as instances of a single phenomenon—but that is how names are to be used. They are to be called to mind when one needs them to leap over some hurdle, but they are not to be venerated. Indeed, they are to be dropped as soon as the moment of perception comes. “Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall.” (E&L 270) What Emerson is doing in his use of names is what Nietzsche describes as monumental history. From monumental history, “He learns… that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.” (UM 69) Monumental history is clumsy in the eyes of a slave to truth, to be sure, but that is no objection if it produces its “mighty effect”: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UM 69)

History combines with language to oppose experimentation—this occurs in the form of books. “Books,” Emerson once famously wrote, “are for the scholar’s idle hours”, and it is no accident that Emerson begins “Self-Reliance” by drawing a moral about reading. “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain.” (E&L 259) This last sentence, praising sentiment over thoughts, is at the crux of the experimental relationship to books. To read books for thoughts is just another way to read them for received truths, and the danger of interpreting too closely is that one ends up with only thoughts and not sentiments. A sentiment, by contrast, will not lead to imitation or conformity, but to new, original action, if only one follows the sentiment. Deleuze and Guattari, in another elaboration of the relation of experiment to interpretation, write, “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities.” (ATP 4) A book, or any writing, is to transmit intensities, not interpretable thoughts.

F. Biography. We have reached the final opponent of experimentation, and the most dangerous and inescapable. We act, perhaps we even experiment once, and suddenly this comes to burden us like a promise we did not expect to make. We are now expected to act consistently with our past actions. Even if the experiment failed (and we take this as an answer and not a judgment), it is binding on us. Even more so if the experiment succeeds. Ultimately it is our own past that claps upon us the tightest shackles. In part, this is due to society, for others form their expectations of our actions on the basis of our pasts—“the eyes of others have no data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” (E&L 265) Emerson, as in the case of misunderstanding (which in fact occurs in the same portion of the essay), waves away this worry quickly. “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?” (E&L 265) And then comes perhaps Emerson’s single most famous quote (and thus also his most often misquoted quote): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (E&L 265) Better to contradict what one said yesterday than to make oneself a slave.

When Emerson waves away a problem, you can expect that it is one that especially vexes Emerson—he is at his most emphatic and inspiring precisely where he doubts the most. And indeed this is the most difficult opponent to overcome. In some fashion, we are supposed to let the present bring the past into judgment. And Emerson is confident that, if we do so, we will find, beneath the surface inconsistency, a deeper consistency. “There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour.” (E&L 266) But Emerson’s confidence admits of skepticism at its margins.

§3. Untimeliness

What both of the last two opponents—which more or less encompass all of the others—share is a particular relationship to time, in particular the past. The proper relation to time for the experimenter is, instead, to be outside of it. Emerson praises the roses under his window, for they “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” (E&L 270) It is impossible for humans to be perfectly out of time—Nietzsche well understands why. His essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life begins with an image of cattle, unable to explain their own forgetfulness—because they always forget what they want to say. Against this, man “wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” (UM 61) Humans are historical animals, and that is why any human overcoming of the past—one’s own or the past of the entire species—will require something other than a mere forgetting or ignorance of it.

Yet if humans cannot exist outside of time, untimeliness still remains possible. Emerson floats an intriguing theory about the human experience of time. For him, it is fundamentally constituted by two sorts of human action: “But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.” (E&L 270) Postponing and remembering—these two feeble acts create time for us, and insofar as we overcome them we stand outside of time, in the realm of the untimely. Nietzsche, somewhere in his essay on history, suggests that all great thinkers exist contemporaneously in the untimely sphere, and Deleuze, also somewhere whose location I cannot pinpoint, speaks of his early works on past philosophers as encounters in the untimely dimension, conversations occurring across time. But of the three, Emerson gives the idea the most beautiful expression, at the end of his book The Conduct of Life:

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones,—they alone with him alone. (E&L 1123-1124)

For all Emerson praises the individual and the present, he thinks it provides an avenue into the past, allows conversation with the past. Just as overcoming foolish consistency will lead to a deeper consistency, so will experimentation in the present lead to the rediscovery of old truths and virtues, truths and virtues that were lost when their formal expression became a rigid code or custom. “Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it to-day  because it is not of to-day. We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.” (E&L 266)

This should answer any worries about the right of this philosophy to be called experimental. For, in calling something experimental, we must recognize that we do so on analogy with scientific experiments, whose hallmark is replication—the ability to be replicated. But when Emerson praises experimentation, he seems to decry replication: do not imitate the experiments of others. He has a simple reason for this: your soul is different from another’s, you could not replicate their experiment if you tried, since you are lacking an essential material. But in fact, experimentation and self-reliance do lead to a form of replication. “Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.” (E&L 266) You will discover the same virtue and same truths as every other experimenter.

In this way, experimentation is opposed to progressivism. “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” (E&L 279) Probably the most honest progressivist, B.F. Skinner, wrote, somewhere in his truly abominable novel Walden Two, that people in the Walden Two community have better things to do than be geniuses. Experimentation praises accident, what cannot be planned in advance, and tolerates failure well. Skinner, by contrast, hates accident, plans as much as he can, and does not respond well to failure, wants as much as possible to eliminate it. Skinner wants progress, and to make things better. Emerson does not oppose amelioration, as he calls it, but his interest is in great individuals, and there, “There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were.” (E&L 280) For Emerson, there is nothing but replication, endless replication in every individual up to the task. In this way, Emerson achieves a philosophy of originality that can sit side by side with the truth captured in our phrase, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

§4. The becoming self

Emerson suggests that there is something godlike about the self-reliant: “And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!” (E&L 274) This notion of being yoked to a simple purpose as to iron necessity is crucial to Emerson’s thought. Emerson’s is, at root, a philosophy of human freedom. For Emerson, freedom is inseparable from necessity. The person who is self-reliant does not really have a choice, for the dictates of their self lie on them with all the force of necessity. The less strong this necessity, the less free the individual.

But at this point, we must ask just what this self on which we are to rely is. And Emerson tells us, quite explicitly: “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.” (E&L 271) This is the most fascinating element of Emerson’s experimental philosophy, and one that cannot be overlooked. The self is not something stable, not something pre-existing on which one can rely. The self is rather constructed in the process of self-reliance. Power lies in the moment of transition to a new state, but that new state by definition does not exist until after the transition takes place. Self-reliance thus runs up against the problem that there is no stable self on which to rely. And Emerson is aware of this: “Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.” (E&L 271-2) As Deleuze puts it somewhere in Negotiations (I found it again here): “It’s a strange business, speaking for yourself, in your own name, because it doesn’t at all come with seeing yourself as an ego or a person or a subject. Individuals find a real name for themselves, rather, only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them.”

The philosophy of experiment is, then, a sort of egoism. It can never escape this charge. But it is a very special sort of egoism, one that goes on in the absence of a stable self, an egoism of selflessness.


E&L: Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America
UM: Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, published by Cambridge
D: Nietzsche’s Daybreak, published by Cambridge
ATP: Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, published by University of Minnesota


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