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.
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.]
In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.
[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson
There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)
There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.
My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.
Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.
[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship
There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)
Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:
I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)
A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.
I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)
We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.
[III] Experimental lessons of science
The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)
I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.
For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.