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Emersonian Reading and Academic Reading

2013/07/10 5 comments

There is one sentence in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” that Ameri­can scholarship, and academic scholarship more generally, abhors above all oth­ers. Emerson writes therein: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Reading, as Emerson conceives it, is or ought to be a fundamentally creative act. For Emerson, there is this form of creative reading (what I will call Emersonian reading), and then there is a second, more scholastic form of reading, which I will call academic reading. This post constitutes my attempts to come to grip with these two distinct ways of reading from the perspective of someone who intends to enter the academy, and who can expect to do a great deal of academic reading over the remaining course of his life.

Emerson expands on his conception of reading as follows:

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s. (Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, p. 59)

In my post from earlier today, I discussed at some length the tension between conformity and creativity as Emerson handles it. Creativity for Emerson is grasping the divine nature of the world, which a person can do only singularly: there is no way methodically repeat the actions necessary to grasp it. Certainly I cannot imitate anyone else and hope to succeed—that is conformity. But even self-imitation is impossible. Say I manage one creative act. If I try to repeat it, I am simply copying myself, and that is no better than copying another. A creative, liberating act, when repeated, becomes stifling and imprisoning, no matter from whom it originated.

Emerson in the passage above is suggesting that in reading, say Plato or Shakespeare, we can be creative, can grasp the spiritual laws behind the material world. But he also says that we cannot work our to creativity from a basis of imitation. Creative reading cannot, then, be a reproduction in our minds of thoughts formulated in the mind of another. If, in reading Plato, I am to grasp the divine, then, as I read Plato’s words, I must have a thought that is in some sense my own and not Plato’s. Alternatively, they may be seen as the same thought, but grasped differently. Either way, the reading requires my own input: I am not passively receiving wisdom from the author.

My prior posts on Emerson have in part been explorations of the way that Emerson exemplifies his own ideal of creative reading. I have focused on the ways that Emerson takes the words of other authors—including himself!—and positions himself as agreeing with them while nevertheless using their words in distinctly Emersonian ways.

These same posts, which explore Emersonian reading in this sense, can also be seen as embodying the opposite trend of academic reading. In academic reading, one tries to get at the heart of what another says, to ascertain its true (if not necessarily univocal and unambiguous) meaning, and to assess its truth-value (where applicable). In my posts, whether or not I succeed, I have tried to stick closely to Emerson, to elucidate what he thinks and to uncover the subtle rhetorical tools he utilizes to make his points vivid. I am, in short, producing academic readings of examples of Emersonian readings. The fact that I am producing such readings should suffice to indicate that I do not doubt the value of academic reading. While I hope in this post to elevate Emersonian reading (even as I fret about its place in the world and in the academy), I do not thereby mean to devalue academic reading.

I also suspect that Deleuze’s work in the history of philosophy is an instance of Emersonian reading. In his “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, Deleuze states that in his readings he produces “monsters” (he describes the process in loving and smutty detail). He makes the thinkers with whom he engages come out as strange hybrids: Deleuze-Spinoza, Deleuze-Kant, etc. And yet, he insists, the process is not arbitrary: they must say everything he makes them say. While I have not directly engaged with Deleuze’s early historical works, his self-description of his works is a description of a sort of Emersonian reading. Deleuze dives into an author and finds Deleuze, but not through clear misreading. (Some might disagree on this last point; I am not competent to judge, obviously.)

As someone who is both fascinated by the prospects of Emersonian reading and who plans to enter the academy, I find myself frequently wondering what place there is in the academic world for Emersonian reading. As a general rule, I think it takes a fairly negative attitude toward this form of creative reading. This is seen in a variety of ways. One is the treatment of Emerson by academic philosophers, which doesn’t even rise to the level of hostility, but merely neglect. With Deleuze it is different: sometimes he is dismissed or ignored, but not systemically. But there is a striking incident that brings home the academic distrust of Emersonian reading. Deleuze changed his terminology from work to work, in part, I suspect, to stymy that form of reading. In an interview with John Protevi and another scholar (whose name escapes me), Deleuze scholar and philosopher of science Manuel Delanda comments on this tendency of Deleuze’s, saying that, as an analytic philosopher, he cannot tolerate such conceptual mayhem. In his (high quality) work on Deleuze, he imposes order by building a basic set of concepts that can span the whole of Deleuze’s work. In this way, he produces academic readings of Deleuze that are incredibly helpful in understanding how Deleuze treats science, but which can nonetheless feel like a form of betrayal. (Lest this seem like strong condemnation, I note that the Deleuze scholarship I’ve read that does not attempt such management of his conceptual apparatus is mostly dreadful.) I can add to the list the example of Nietzsche, who of course left the academy early in his career and was no doubt better for it. The case of Nietzsche is further interesting due to the ways he is sanitized when discussed in academic circles—even by those who protest his sanitization!

It makes sense that the academy would distrust Emersonian reading. It is bad enough to have to sort out Kant, Strawson’s Kant, Wood’s Kant, and Korsgaard’s Kant, let alone throwing into the mix Deleuze’s Deleuze-Kant and Emerson’s Emerson-Kant. Where boundaries between thinkers blur, where, say, Deleuze and Spinoza enter a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase), academic progress can seem to stall. Clear boundaries streamline the finding of solutions to problems, or at least contribute to a general clarification of the terrain. Emersonian reading seems to go against these academic virtues, and can even seem like a threatening encroachment of relativism (a charge that has been leveled at Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze alike). (Of course, relativism itself, in its various forms, is not inherently threatening—what is dangerous is relativism without the highest of standards. Of course all three of these thinkers insisted on such high standards, regardless of whether the label ‘relativist’ fits them well.)

There is one way that such reading makes its way into academic philosophy, though it is a somewhat tepid one. In his classic chapter on explanation (in The Scientific Image), Bas van Fraassen includes a section titled, “A Biased History,” in which he tells a self-consciously biased version of the history of the philosophy of scientific explanation. His goal in this is, as he puts it, to make his views on explanation seem like an inevitable result toward which previous scholarship has been progressing. This sort of progressivist tale (which forms an interesting counterpart to the postlapsarian tales I discussed this morning) is not at all believable as an academic history, but instead functions as a means for van Fraassen to carve out a space for his own creative addition to the debate. Van Fraassen is self-conscious about this, but the practice is hardly unique to him. As he says, all philosophers’ histories of philosophy are like this, by and large. But this is rather safe, all things considered, for the real interest lies not in the history but in what it makes space for. In a full-blooded Emersonian reading, however, there is no distinction between the “biased” reading and the space that this reading creates.

It is a serious question, in light of this, whether there is any real place in academic philosophy for this non-tepid form of philosophizing that takes creative reading as its wellspring. Perhaps it has a place at the margins, requiring the sanitizing work of scholars such as Delanda to be integrated into the natural order. It is certainly dangerous: when it prompts imitations by people without the talent or the original vision of an Emerson, the results are, as I said, horrid. (It exemplifies the dangers of anything goes relativism, that bogeyman in which no one believes, but which some nevertheless practice.)

[This post was prompted by a stimulating discussion I had with a friend who is well-versed in philosophy, but does not wish to be an academic philosopher, who expressed well-motivated skepticism about Emersonian reading and philosophizing and who got me fretting about the issue once again. Many thanks are due to him for the provocation.]

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Constructive Empiricism and Interpretation

2013/02/12 1 comment

For thirty-some years now, the philosophy Bas van Fraassen has been defending a posi­tion in the philosophy of science known as constructive empiricism. It is a nuanced view, but it is characterized by a central theme: making empiricism plausible. Empiri­cism for van Fraassen is a “stance”—an attitude with no content itself (empirical or meta­physical), but which determines how one responds to particular bits of content. Con­trasting with empiricism is the stance van Fraassen calls materialism. Van Fraassen characterizes the two stances as follows (The Empirical Stance, 62-63):

Characteristic of materialism is a certain deference to the content of sci­ence. This deference takes two forms: the belief that the scientific descrip­tion of the world is true, in its entirety or near enough, at least a strong inclina­tion toward completeness claims for the content of certain sciences. …

Empiricism may also be approached through reflection on its positive atti­tude toward science. But this admiring attitude is not directed so much to the content of the sciences as to their forms and practices of inquiry. Sci­ence is a paradigm of rational inquiry. To take it as such is precisely to take up one of the most central attitudes in the empiricist stance. But one may take it so while showing little deference to the content of any science per se. …

For the materialist, science is what teaches us what to believe. For the empiri­cist, science is more nearly what teaches us how to give up our be­liefs. All our factual beliefs are to be given over as hostages to fortune, to the fortunes of future empirical evidence, and given up when they fail, with­out succumbing to despair, cynicism, or debilitating relativism.

Importantly, van Fraassen does not think that one stance is more rational than the other (though he thinks many actual materialists go astray and endorse what he consid­ers “inflationary metaphysics”—e.g. modal realism). The constructive empiricist be­lieves that successful scientific theories are empirically adequate (which means that they save all of the observable phenomena), but not that they are strictly true, which would require that they be true about the unobservable phenomena as well. For the construc­tive empiricist, all that is required for scientific inquiry is that, when one accepts a scien­tific theory, the only belief to which one is committed is that the theory is empirically adequate. Van Fraassen adds that one is also committed to further testing of the theory, and to giving it up if it should prove not to be empirically adequate. Importantly, how­ever, van Fraassen does not believe that it is irrational to believe that the best scientific theories are true; he simply believes it is not rationally compelled. Neither the empiricist nor the materialist can accuse the other of irrationality.

It is important to recognize that constructive empiricism does not involve any ontologi­cal claims about the unobservable. What is observable, for the constructive empiri­cist, is what is observable-for-humans, as our best current theories of perception delimit what we can observe. But it would be quite strange to believe that nothing that exists escapes detection by our perceptual systems. The constructive empiricist only ab­jures accepting any claims about what it is that so escapes our perceptual faculties.

How might one recognize an empiricist or a materialist? The materialist is more likely, for one thing, to think that ethical and aesthetic judgments amount to nothing more than opinion, for there is no hope of deriving e.g. an ethical philosophy from the content of scientific theories. The empiricist is more likely to think that ethics, interpreta­tion, aesthetics, etc., are matters of serious rational inquiry. Note that in the quote above, van Fraassen describes the empiricist as believing that science is a para­digm of rational inquiry, but certainly not the paradigm.

The dichotomy between these two stances is not exhaustive. Also possible are stances that do not think science is a paradigm of rational inquiry at all (though this is much more difficult to maintain sensibly these days), and, more pertinently to my case, stances in between materialism and empiricism. I am sympathetic to aspects of both views. The empiricist restriction of belief to beliefs about observable phenomena is not something I find particularly plausible. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to van Fraas­sen’s modal nominalism, and I certainly side with the empiricist in thinking that ra­tional inquiry extends well beyond the rather rigid confines of scientific inquiry. Take what David Foster Wallace once said in an interview:

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I think what David Foster Wallace is doing is setting out a task for a type of inquiry carried out by artists. This inquiry requires several steps: the artist must first locate what is “human and magical” in the world, and then she must apply CPR to these elements. The CPR metaphor is apt: the artist not only illuminates “the possibilities for being alive and human” at a particular time, the artist brings these possibilities back to life. The artist does this through some marriage of form and content. One need not think that there are determinate answers to the question “what are the possibilities for being alive and human in today’s world” in the way there is a determinate answer to the question, “what is the charge of an electron?” in order to think that this is a domain of inquiry that requires exacting rigor and the ability to give reasons that have more than a mere subjective validity. Does art discover these possibilities or create them? The question is really immaterial. Good art shows, on a rigorous and I would contend rational basis, what possibilities there are. (I should add that I do not intend to imply that this is the only task of art. But it is I think indubitably a task.)

But my topic here is neither science nor the creation of art, for I am neither a scientist nor an artist. What I engage in with this blog is a mixture of philosophy and interpretation, and in this case, philosophy of interpretation. However one feels about constructive empiricism as a philosophy of science, I think it is particularly useful in thinking about interpretation. I will try to elucidate this thought at an abstract level, providing examples where I can. Before I begin, let me be clear that I don’t know if I agree with the view I will sketch out. This is primarily an attempt to sketch out a position, with the hopes that being forced to formulate it explicitly will help me to evaluate it going forward. So my acceptance of what I say below is provisional. With that, onward.

Van Fraassen’s claim that acceptance of a scientific theory does not require acceptance of its claims about unobservable entities is notorious, but an analog of this claim in the case of interpretation seems to me like it at least ought to be uncontentious. Here goes: an interpretation of a work of art must be consistent with everything contained within the work (i.e. it must save the “observable phenomena” regarding the content of the work), but its claims about what is not part of the content of the text need not be literally true (of the work).

What does this mean? In a film, certain events are shown on the screen, but only rarely is a film so purely self-contained that everything that matters occurs onscreen. There are time gaps between scenes. There are times when characters wander in and out of frame in the middle of a scene. Interpretation of the film is probably nigh on impossible if the interpreter cannot give some account of what is going on in instances like these. What is observable in a film, however, is nothing more or less than what is seen and heard while the film is playing. Any interpretation must be consistent with what is seen or heard.

At this point there is a disanalogy between the constructive empiricist approach to interpretation and the constructive empiricist approach to science. Regarding, say, physics, the constructive empiricist is perfectly happy to admit that there might be electrons—she simply does not feel compelled to believe there are. But in the case of a film, the literally true answer to what happens off-screen is: nothing. It is perfectly appropriate to think of the film as creating a world that encompasses more than just what is seen and heard in watching the film, but it is a mistake to reify this world. What exists is nothing more or less than what is contained in the work of art. It is a strange ontology that limits what exists in our “physical” world to what we can perceive, but in a work of art this ontological restriction is exactly right. What exists is what is shown (film, painting), heard (film, music), or described (literature).

Nevertheless, in interpretation, it may be absolutely crucial to make claims about what happens that are not specified in the work itself. In order to “save the phenomena” of a work, it may be necessary to have an account that goes beyond these phenomena. And this will involve a sort of talking as if those events are every bit as real as what is contained within the work. There is a substantial gap in time between where Infinite Jest ends and where it begins, and any interpretation of the work must say something about what occurs to bridge this gap, but there can be no literally true answer. One cannot save the phenomena of Infinite Jest while remaining silent about this gap.

There is another important analogy between scientific and interpretive constructive empiricism at this point. In constructive empiricism about science, to save the phenomena is to be consistent with them in a logical sense. Any consistent theory will suffice as empirically adequate. Nevertheless, we want scientific theories to do more than be empirically adequate; in particular, we want them to explain. Van Fraassen devotes a chapter of The Scientific Image (his first book-length defense of constructive empiricism) to arguing that explanation is a pragmatic virtue of theories, and does not provide any indication to think that they are true. It is a valid reason for acceptance in the constructive empiricist sense, but explanatory power does not compel a realist attitude. This demand for explanatory power is at least one reason why science cannot consist of just an exhaustive list of patterns among the phenomena. Likewise, an interpretation of a work of art cannot just be a description of what occurs in the work: it must make these occurrences sensible. And just as this may require the positing of unobservable entities like electrons in the case of physical theory, so may interpretation of a work of art require positing “unobservable” events.

One final point. Nelson Goodman in Ways of Worldmaking suggests that ‘true’ and ‘false’ (conceived, I think, along the lines of van Fraassen’s “literally true” and “literally false”) are not exhaustive of the ways we may be right or wrong. To these limited notions Goodman would add notions of metaphorical truth and falsity, as well as a general purpose sense of rightness and wrongness that can be expanded to include anything appropriate—no doubt Goodman himself favors inclusiveness in fleshing out just how things may be right or wrong. A description of what happens in a text may be literally true or false, but interpretation goes well beyond description, and so is better evaluated as right or wrong. And so, even though claims about what happens off-screen or outside the text or beyond the picture frame may be literally false (because what is beyond the work of art literally does not exist), they are nonetheless subject to standards of right and wrong. If I posit that, during the time between the events that end Infinite Jest and those that begin it, Descartes’ evil demon freezes time, moves everybody five inches to their right, and then unfreezes time, I am wrong, despite my claim being no less literally false than any other that describes that time. And while interpretation may not generally be as clear-cut as that (indeed, no interesting interpretive claim will be), it is still subject to the need for rigorous reasoning.