Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

Narcissism and partiality

The alienation wrought by a science that at every turn divorces the world from human interests is as good a trope as any, should one wish to go troping. What makes Emerson interesting is not the custom with which he begins, but the spiraling heights to which he takes it.

Emerson begins with a narcissistic objection to science: it fails to interest us. This is a serious failing, for, as Emerson tells us later, “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.” (1109) It fails to interest us because it does not tell us “what effect passes into the man.” (1099) We humans are narcissists collectively: “No object really interests us but man.” (1101) The laws in nature we care for only insofar as they have some relation to us. If science insists on denying these relations, we will have done with it.

Moreover, failure to satisfy this narcissism marks a failure of self-confidence: “We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. […] A right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.” (1100)

Science alienates, and must be remade human – this is Emerson’s opening gambit, and while finely expressed, does not alone suffice. The turn comes when Emerson revisits the question of what interests us: “Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond.” (1104) Here there is somewhat of a rejection of the earlier narcissism: now what is beautiful stems only from necessity, and what “is done to be seen” is base. (1104) Beauty exists not for its own sake, but as the byproduct of some usefulness.

Applied to the dead objects of science, this usefulness is found in our ability to give them some aim, by which their necessity is revealed. They cease to be ornaments then. So too humans: without some aim, we too are ornamental, and may be done without. “The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression.” (1104-05)

But narcissism returns: “The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form.” (1107) Not only science is subordinate to the human; so too is art, and all of nature. It is no coincidence that Emerson calls such artistic and natural beauty “shadows” – one cannot help but recall Plato’s shadows. Why turn to the shadows of art and trees when the sun of humanity shines?

Now, however, this narcissism is cut with the realization that we are interested in what currently lies beyond us. “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.” (1107) This is as it must be, for though the human form is the paradigm of beauty, actual humans are all lacking. “Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly.” (1108)

This is a serious charge, for Emerson has noted the classic criterion of beauty: symmetry. That is what we lack. “Our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us.” (1108) Our bodies are out of proportion, not just physically, but in their distribution of talents and capabilities as well. How, then, can they be beautiful? How can we make them beautiful?

Emerson’s phrasing is crucial. He describes human faces as subjected to whim and folly – whim especially standing in opposition to necessity. “Beauty rests on necessities.” (1106) One might then think that whim is to be eliminated, that we ought to strive after perfect symmetry. This would be to ignore Emerson’s famous declaration of self-reliance, that he would write “Whim” on his doorpost. Emerson of course qualifies this – hopes it is better than whim in the end – but whim is still the starting point. The route to beauty is through whim, through the caricatured parts of us. That is why what is called for is self-reliance – reliance on just those biases and partialities that make us ourselves and not another.

Emerson’s thought moves in this direction from every angle: it is the supreme meeting point of his philosophy, where all the threads are tied together. The fundamental problem of human life is that we are partial, we are mixed: there is a material side of us, that wants bread, and usefulness, and power, and an ideal side of us, that wants art, and beauty, and morals. Self-reliance, an embrace of partiality, an acceptance of both aspects of the mixture (and a recognition that the material is not base, but foundation), is Emerson’s solution. This is what he means when he says, at various times, that nature always makes her agents headstrong in their strengths – this caricaturesque quality is what makes it possible for them to act at all. This is why, though he loves symmetry and the general, he does not love the perfect generalist, who has no tools for specific situations, and so is useless. This is why he rejects all forms of idealism that do not acknowledge their material origins: they are pale, and bloodless.

We are of mixed inheritance, “physically as well as metaphysically thing[s] of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors.” (1108) In such a state, a certain narcissism is needed, even if we may hope it is something better than narcissism in the end.

A selection

Emerson’s “Worship”, as I read it, is a strangely conflicted essay. With one of its faces, it offers strong denunciations of the reliance on custom and parties (“old dead things” – 1061) and on organized religion generally (“I do not find the religions of men at this moment very creditable to them” – 1058), and on dogma (“I do not think [skepticism] can be cured or stayed by any modification of theologic creeds” – 1062). Yet at the same time it looks to and relies on numerous ideas that can now only be considered as dogmas themselves – e.g., that we suffer from godlessness, that there is a moral order to the universe, that all actions are subject to a system of moral compensation. Emerson thus seems to engage in just that practice he so dislikes: apology.

This is unavoidable. Emerson himself showed, in Representative Men, how a great individual could be taken as representing something universal and eternal – and yet Emerson, in each essay, turned around and showed how these same individuals were flawed, tied to their own time, base, partial. Emerson is not immune from his own method, and in “Worship” this is especially apparent. Genius, Emerson tells us, is selective, and if I may pretend to genius for a moment, I can select from Emerson’s work two strains: the “true” Emerson, who launches himself into the future and reveals great truths, and the “false” Emerson, who is mired in the dogmas and attitudes of his time even as he thrusts against them. (Of course, it is important that it is my genius that makes this selection – Emerson could not have made it himself, for obvious reasons.) In “Worship”, the false Emerson has an especially strong voice. I shall, however, try to sift out one of the essay’s valuable strands.

What is worship, for Emerson? There are two conceptions presented in the essay. On the first conception, it is the seeing of the moral order to the universe. “Religion or worship is the attitude of those who see this unity, intimacy, and sincerity; who see that, against all appearances, the nature of things works for truth and right forever.” (1064-5) This is the false Emerson, the Emerson who lapses into a dogma when threatened by materialistic skepticism. (This is not the place for an extended discussion, but there are key parallels tying this essay into Emerson’s quite skeptical essay on Montaigne in Representative Men.)

But there is another conception in the essay. Emerson does not simply revile materialism. He has, in many ways, given it its due in the first five essays in The Conduct of Life, and that continues here:

Even the fury of material activity has some results friendly to moral health. The energetic action of the times develops individualism and the religious appear isolated. I esteem this a step in the right direction. Heaven deals with us on no representative system. Souls are not saved in bundles. (1062)

Materialism breaks up the idea of a common interest and so develops individualism. It focuses on the individual and not the common good. This is a step in the right direction because, in matters of the spirit, there simply is no common good: “Souls are not saved in bundles.” Each person is self-responsible and only self-responsible. There is no sharing of such burdens, no salvation by party. But this materialism has its costs: it leads to a certain aimlessness:

In our large cities, the population is godless, materialized, – no bond, no fellow-feeling, no enthusiasm. These are not men, but hungers, thirsts, fevers, and appetites walking. How is it people manage to live on, – so aimless as they are. (1059)

When all that is sought is comfort, the satisfaction of desires, then a person becomes a disjoint bundle of such desires, and not a unity. The strengthening of individualism can thus be accompanied by the loss of the individual. Emerson’s solution to this is, of course, self-reliance, on one’s own experience. Reliance on the experience of another (and this is what all reliance on doctrine is) is insufficient. Insufficient for what? For acquiring an aim, without which life is not “respectable.” (1071) Aims and self-reliance are intimately intertwined. The aimless individual, the mere bundle, lacks any self on which to rely. The presence of an aim, however, organizes this bundle, selects from among it what is valuable and suppresses what is not, and thereby yields a self on which one can rely. And this is the second conception of worship: if godlessness is aimlessness, and the having of an aim is, for Emerson, what is divine.

Two metaphors in Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”

2013/10/17 1 comment

UPDATE: For reasons that baffle me, this post has been cited as a source in a wikipedia article. If you were sent here from that, know that I am not at all an expert, merely an interested reader. I would not, if I were you, trust anything I say here.


My seminar on the boundary between humans and animals continues on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, philosopher and poet, author of the long essay “Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life”. Here I want to explore two metaphors about the process of science as they arise in this essay. The essay may be read here, and page references are to that file.

Coleridge, in the “Theory of Life”, offers two quite different and quite interesting metaphors about the scientific process. The first metaphor, located in the essay’s first paragraph, is a call to rigor:

The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller’s scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. (21)

The jeweler’s scales here represent accuracy and precision, as opposed to the much blunter tools of common opinion and vulgar usage. A further undercurrent of the metaphor is its relationship to honesty: accuracy and precision in this context are not purely descriptive virtues, but rather are connected to the discovery of the true value of the jewel. On the market, by contrast, the confusion created by common opinion and vulgar usage allows for swindling and deception. The essay begins by describing Coleridge’s opponents: those who have earlier attempted to define life, but have done so in a way more reminiscent of the market than the jeweler’s scales. The first metaphor, then, is not just a call to rigor; it is a reproach.

The second metaphor comes much later, and has quite a different tenor. It arises in the course of a friendly critique of John Abernethy’s theory of life:

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. (65)

This is a much richer metaphor than the first. In the first, accuracy is achieved by the use of a precise instrument that measures the relevant quantity exactly. But what is to be measured is given: Coleridge says nothing of the extraction of the jewel. Here, by contrast, finding the truth is not a matter of calm measurement. It is a matter of a strategic and perhaps even dangerous pursuit against a worthy adversary. And, while Coleridge thinks Abernethy has failed in his pursuit, this failure is nothing like that of his earlier targets, who have failed even to rise above the discourse of the marketplace.

Why this difference in metaphors? The difference in tone may be attributed to Coleridge’s differing levels of respect for his targets. But what about the difference in content, between the hunt and the jeweler’s scales? What I want to suggest is that this difference in content is crucially related to Coleridge’s views about the aims of science and the status of scientific theories, and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

Sprinkled throughout the essay are various anti-realist remarks about quantitative scientific theorizing, sometimes at an abstract level and sometimes connected to particular theories. Thus, early in the essay, Coleridge remarks on the theory of “the French chemists” that it remains the dominant theory because of “the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead” and not from “the continuance of an implicit belief in its stability” (23). This is a straightforwardly anti-realist attitude toward the theory: it is simply waiting to be replaced by a successor. Coleridge later generalizes the point: “For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins” (51), which receives an extensive footnote that begins by noting that abstractions are the “only subject of all abstract sciences.”

We can understand this view in light of Coleridge’s argument that everything that is, is Life. This argument itself is worthy of detailed consideration, but here I note only Coleridge’s comments about quantity and quality.

Our reason convinces us that the quantities of things, taken abstractedly as quantity, exist only in the relations they bear to the percipient; in plainer words, they exist only in our minds, ut quorum esse est percipi. For if the definite quantities have a ground, and therefore a reality, in the external world, and independent of the mind that perceives them, this ground is ipso facto a quality… (38-39)

Quantity, for Coleridge, is inherently mind-dependent, whereas external reality is qualitative. Quantity is nothing more than a human abstraction from this qualitative reality. The quantitative sciences, then, are properly considered with an anti-realist attitude—unless they are grounded in some qualitative reality.

Now it is worthwhile to recall that the first metaphor arises precisely in the context of an anti-realist argument about existing theories of life: these theories are to be rejected as insufficiently precise and rigorous. They do not pass the test of the jeweler’s scales; they belong in the marketplace. Indeed, Coleridge explicitly says that may be “sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer” (21). But now consider the metaphor again. The jeweler’s scales are precisely a quantitative instrument—and so the jeweler’s measurements are inherently mind-dependent abstractions.

Coleridge, however, wants to claim for his theory more than the sort of anti-realist success of the abstract sciences. Why, then, a metaphor that, by his criteria, only points toward the quantitative sciences? Some light is shed on this by the presence of a frequent bugbear in Coleridge’s essay: the materialist. Coleridge on numerous occasions points out the impossibility of a materialist account of Life—that is why Coleridge’s vitalist alternative is needed. (Note that Coleridge is a strange sort of vitalist in that his vitalism unifies the organic and physical sciences rather than serving as a basis for their disunity.) Nevertheless, Coleridge does not deny the genuine scientific successes of materialistic theories. It is merely that these successes are quantitative and not qualitative—and so deserving of an anti-realist attitude.

Here the second metaphor comes in. No longer are we in the back room of the jewelry shop. We are out in the field, hunting. The pursuit of truth is now mixed with sweat and blood. In an almost literal way, this metaphor puts flesh on the first. Moreover, it comes precisely in the context of a realist argument. While he critiques Abernethy, Coleridge is concerned to say that Abernethy nonetheless has the presentiment of a great truth. Unlike the jeweler, Abernethy is on the path to truth, and not mere abstraction. Coleridge, by using the hunt metaphor, can thus characterize his own view as being simply further down this path than Abernethy’s view, thereby securing a qualitative, realist basis for his theory of life.

Doubt and Climate

2013/09/07 5 comments

The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).

Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.

The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)

Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.

He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)

The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.

But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)

It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.

Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,

But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)

What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.

This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.

This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.

Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.

With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)

In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.

What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.

At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,

Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?

Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)

It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)

Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.

§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)

The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.

Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.

Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).

So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.