A schematic solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy
The problem of literary style in philosophy I understand as follows. Philosophy, as an endeavor, strives for clarity of thought. Why then should philosophers write in a style that seems to sacrifice clarity and perhaps other philosophical virtues to literary virtues? No doubt it will make the philosophy more interesting to read—if, at least, it is skillfully attempted—but it does so at the price of selling out, of trading a contextually proper virtue for a contextually improper virtue. The moral: philosophers should avoid literary stylistic maneuvers except insofar as they may be attempted without damaging the work’s philosophical merits.
As someone many of whose favorite philosophers are self-consciously literary in style—I am thinking primarily of Emerson and Nietzsche, but they are not alone—this problem recurs in my thought. Even as I read Emerson with delight, I find I cannot shake the niggling worry that I am being cheated—less, perhaps, by Emerson than by myself. Here, then, is another attempt to talk this worry out of my mind. I do not hold out much hope for permanent success; maybe I may silence it for a moment at least.
Emerson draws a distinction between thought that serves knowledge and thought that knowledge serves. I will call the former “reasoning” and the latter “thought”. So Emerson distinguishes between reasoning and thought. Reasoning is part of a collective human endeavor aimed at expanding our knowledge. It aims at truth that is impersonal, that could be discovered by anyone. The products, or results, of such reasoning, immediately become public property. Anyone may use them, and thus reasoning may be progressive. Moreover, while truth has a history of discovery, it is in a certain sense ahistorical: it was there all along. What is true in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is true regardless of how it came to be articulated in a particular country at a particular time by a particular person in a particular social and scientific setting. What matters is the results of reasoning, not the history of how those results were achieved—this may be seen in the (blamelessly) farcical histories of science presented in science classes. It is in this sense that reasoning serves knowledge: once the knowledge is attained, the reasoning drops away. Today, the sciences provide the paradigm examples of reasoning, but much of past and contemporary philosophy also consists of reasoning in this sense. This is, I suspect, the legitimate sense in which philosophy is “continuous” with the sciences.
Thought, by contrast, if it aims at anything, aims at something rather more like mental emancipation. We are trapped by conformity: to our society, to our past actions, to our past thoughts, and so forth. One philosophical task is to overcome these traps, i.e. to emancipate ourselves, and moreover to do so in a way that also spurs others to their own emancipation. Knowledge serves thought in that particular bits of knowledge (arrived at by reasoning) may play an integral role in the process of mental emancipation. But they are not its end. I take Emerson and Nietzsche to be engaged in thought, in this sense.
At almost every point, thought contrasts with reasoning. Reasoning is impersonal, but thought is intensely personal. What traps Emerson is not what traps Nietzsche. There is no public property with which to avail oneself, no penicillin for mental unfreedom. There is only the private struggle against one’s own captors. Because of this, where reasoning may be progressive, thought cannot be. That Emerson freed himself does not mean that I may start from a state of freedom—indeed, that Emerson freed himself yesterday does not mean that he may start from a state of freedom today: one of Emerson’s recurring themes is that we are continually finding ourselves trapped anew. The struggle is perpetual. As Emerson puts it, I believe in “History” (I paraphrase): “Every mind must go anew over the entire ground.” And because of this, history matters. My struggle for mental freedom carves out a particular path that is ineluctably shaped by my history, and no other struggle can be quite like it. Nothing universal or eternal is attained. Further, the results of thought are not public, not in the same way as the results of reasoning. Where anyone may believe the results of scientific inquiry as they stand (and, more epistemically riskily, also the results of much philosophical inquiry), there is nothing in Emerson that may be believed—or, at least, nothing that should be. For that would be only so much conformity. Emerson may only be taken up by an active process of appropriation, of making Emerson one’s own, thus of distorting Emerson into the shape of the reader. Finally, I take it to be clear today that truth, i.e. the fruits of reasoning, will not “set you free”—not intrinsically. Much additional work must be done to achieve emancipation using such knowledge. That work I take to be, not more reasoning, but the work of thought. And in that sense philosophy is not continuous with the sciences.
Here then is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. When one is engaged in reasoning, and turns to present the results of that reasoning, clarity and rigor of argument are the primary virtues. To sacrifice them to literary appeal would be a sort of hypocrisy, or at least a betrayal of the project. It would be to, in a sense, privatize what should be fundamentally public, in the sense of making the results, and the reasoning that supports them, most easily publicly accessible. By contrast, when one is engaged in thought, and turns to present that thought, clarity and rigor become tools, and not always the right tools. Emerson wishes to free himself, first, and to provoke others to free themselves, second. His writing is supposed to help accomplish both of these tasks. One aspect of Emerson’s conception of mental freedom is a suspicion of overly justifying oneself, for since one justifies oneself primarily to others, such self-justification threatens to lead one into conformity. (I take this thought to lie behind Nietzsche’s conception, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse, of a “Wille zur Dummheit.”) Emerson would be a hypocrite himself, would be abandoning the aims of his thought, were he to sacrifice style to transparency.
Examples may help. One of Emerson’s literary techniques is to take an image or a concept and circle around it, constantly leaving it and returning to it, as he does, for instance, in Nature. Another is his method of reversal, in which he apparently endorses an idea, only to reverse his position later on. These techniques are no friend of transparency: they leave Emerson’s notions without any definite, final formulation, and they make it more or less impossible to ascribe to him any quite definite position. Moreover, while both the posts above look at these techniques within an essay, both may be seen occurring across Emerson’s entire oeuvre (both his published works and his journals)—such is the fate of all of his core concepts: nature, idealism, self-reliance, scholarship, poetry, partiality… But if there is one thing that can be stated with certainty about Emerson’s views, it is that if Emerson were to hitch himself to a single, definitive statement of his thought, that would be, once more, conformity and unfreedom. So Emerson must write as he does.
There is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. It is necessary, where it is necessary, on pain of hypocrisy. I grant that this is as presented an unsatisfactory solution. It turns on a distinction between thought and reasoning that I have not made fully clear and moreover do not know how to make fully clear. It is a distinction, further, that, however desperately I cling to it, often seems to me something I grasp with my wishes much more than with my reason. My only apology is that I am not done thinking through this topic. The recurrence will not stop, and I must not hope for finality, but only report on a work in progress.
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[I confess this post’s debt to Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. A passage in chapter 3 on Emerson’s style gave me the idea for this post, and my distinction between thought and reasoning, though not phrased in those terms, is given expression in chapter 2 of that work. I already had some notion of the distinction, but Buell helped to sharpen it. Furthermore, it is to him that I owe the phrase “mental emancipation.” Buell also makes a useful distinction between emancipation of thought and emancipation from injustice, which, though I do not explicitly mention it above, has helped to clarify my thinking. I believe this covers my debts; I apologize to Buell for anything I may have inadvertently left out.]