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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.

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Realism and idealism as medicine

2013/07/17 6 comments

Some of my current scholarly work (which generally does not make it on here) is focused on debates over scientific realism and anti-realism. I am interested not just in the arguments for and against scientific realism, but also in the role that realist and anti-realist attitudes play in various practices (of scientists, of governments, of funding committees, of the general public, etc.). This latter portion of my interest intensifies the more I study the arguments themselves, since I have yet to find any major argument that’s truly compelling. Hence my interest in the uses of realism and anti-realism, whether rhetorical, methodological, political, or otherwise.

Scientific realism is of course not the same as metaphysical realism (nor are their antitheses comparable). Nonetheless I suspect that the same questions might be fruitfully applied in the latter domain as I discussed for the former. Here I want to look at a way that Emerson uses metaphysical idealism and metaphysical realism as antidotes to certain illnesses: respectively, crass materialism and idle pedantry. I will focus on the essays “Nature” and “Literary Ethics”, relying on the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures. All page references are to that volume.

Perhaps Emerson’s most notorious quote comes from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (265) Much of this notoriety derives from irresponsible quoters who neglect the essential “foolish”, though even the more conscientious magpies still usually neglect to provide the equally crucial definition of ‘consistency’ given two paragraphs above: “a reverence for our past act or word.” I bring up this quote because, in “Literary Ethics”, Emerson praises realism, precisely that metaphysical view that he rejects in “Nature”, in which he defends idealism at length. I hope to show why the apparent inconsistency is in fact a mere rejection of a foolish consistency for the sake of a higher consistency. I want to emphasize the medicinal properties Emerson attributes to realism and to idealism.

In chapter VI of “Nature”, Emerson embarks on a defense of idealism, running through the ways in which “motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion, all tend to affect our convictions of the reality of the external world.” (38) But, having reached this conclusion, that all of culture points us to idealism, Emerson takes a step back. “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it.” The purpose of culture, in bringing us to idealism, is to make the mind “call that apparent, which it uses to call real, and that real, which it uses to call visionary.” Emerson raises this point as a prelude to his next thought, which concerns the value of idealism: “The advantage of the ideal theory over the popular faith, is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind. […] For, seen in the light of thought, the world always is phenomenal; and virtue subordinates it to the mind.” (39) The value of idealism is thus that it lets us see the world as malleable, lets us see ourselves as possessing the freedom to conform the world to virtue, which freedom lies at the basis of our dignity. It is on the basis of idealism that “the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet.”

We see idealism standing opposed to certain linked behavioral tendencies. Emerson has called idealism true, to be sure, but if the way he ends the chapter is any indication, he places more worth on the link between idealism and this behavior than on idealism as a well-wrought metaphysics. Idealism is an antidote to certain dangers: to the danger of immersing oneself in the means of the world and missing its ends, of building up a stockpile of knowledge and neglecting to develop the self-reliance to use it in dignified ways, and the danger of being trapped by the world, of seeing it not as malleable but as constraining. (I discussed this malleability somewhat in my post on the transparent eye-ball.)

In “Literary Ethics”, by contrast, we find Emerson promoting realism. The main body of the essay consists of three parts: (i) a discussion of the resources available to the scholar, (ii) a discussion of the subject of scholarship, and (iii) a discussion of the (ascetic) discipline of the scholar. Before this, however, Emerson warns of a particular danger the scholar risks falling into: pedantry. Emerson writes:

The scholar may lose himself in schools, in words, and become a pedant; but when he comprehends his duties, he above all men is a realist, and converses with things. For, the scholar is the student of the world, and of what worth the world is, and with what emphasis it accosts the soul of man, such is the worth, such is the call of the scholar. (96)

Pedantry is a specter hovering over scholarship. The scholar may lose all touch with the things themselves, getting lost in an endless exchange of words, words tumbling over words until, if meaning itself is not lost, at least any sense of a point seems to go missing. This is, in a way, the opposite flaw to the crass materialism discussed above: where that error sees no freedom, no possibility of the new, this error sees too much freedom. It becomes detached from the world, until it spins frictionlessly in a void (to borrow a beautiful phrase from John McDowell’s Mind and World). Realism is the antidote to this error, a return to the things themselves, to the world.

This illustrates an overarching tendency in Emerson’s thought. Emerson skillfully navigates the tension between freedom and necessity. On the one hand he sees human dignity as lying in his particular conception of human freedom as our ability to act creatively. On the other he thinks that creative acts all grasp the same universal truth, a truth that is eternal and not new. Freedom, for Emerson, has nothing in common with anarchy, with “anything goes”, but instead is yoked to the harshest necessity. Because of this—and this is another constant theme in Emerson—our freedom is unstable, constantly at risk of being lost. We may fall too far into necessity, into the crass materialism that denies any possibility of the new, or we may fall too far into freedom, into creation that makes no contact with the world and so is of no value. We walk a narrow ridge, with an abyss on either side. Realism and idealism are what pull us back when we start to fall. Their role in Emerson is medicinal.