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Emerson as Bricoleur

2013/08/23 8 comments

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.