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A schematic solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy

2014/05/02 3 comments

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.]

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Emerson’s long logic

2014/01/20 1 comment

When I cast about for a starting place for a discussion of Emerson, that perpetually quoted and misquoted line from “Self-Reliance” always offers itself: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So too did it offer itself to early reviewers of Emerson, who all sound the same voice when it comes to Emerson’s “system.” Let us examine a few of these reviews. (All gathered in this book. Emerson citations are to the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures.)

A first reviewer, unnamed, writing for the New York Review, notes that “the volume contains no system, nor any attempt at one.” Indeed, “We doubt, however, whether Mr. Emerson has carefully compared his views with each other.” What we are left with “are rather fragments, and glimpses” and not “a logical or even continuous discussion.” But the reviewer does allow one point on which Emerson is “rigidly systematic”: in claiming “there is no moral law but the instincts of our own being.” Naturally, this is “impracticable” and finds “no basis in the nature of man.” The work as a whole is a “work of moments, and for youth.”

A second reviewer, C. C. Felton, writing for the Christian Examiner, is equally critical. “The Essays cannot be said to contain any system,” and indeed we should not be surprised, given that Emerson “has expressed such sovereign contempt for consistency.” Slyly, Felton finds “no fault with this,” as he received ample warning; nevertheless “a writer, whose opinions are so variable, cannot wonder if they have but little value in the eyes of the world.” Nonetheless, he has a “general doctrine, for example, with regard to the instincts,” and this general doctrine, “if acted upon, would overturn society, and resolve the world into chaos.”

The two reviews are more or less identical, despite their containing distinct words arranged in a distinct order. Though in one case, they do not even contain distinct words. Both reviews, though critical, marvel at Emerson’s language, with caveats. The first reviewer: “In a style, which on every page delights us by its simplicity and grace, and offends us by an affected quaintness…” And Felton: “Some of his sentences breath the most exquisite music, of which language is capable… but the effect of his powers of style is not a little diminished by a studied quaintness of language…” The convergence of the two reviews is striking—they capture fairly accurately a first experience of Emerson.

That what they capture is not entirely determined by their negative reaction to Emerson can be seen by a glance at a third review, by Orestes Brownson, in the Boston Quarterly Review. This review is much longer, and while I have not read all of it, a quick survey shows that it is much more positive. Nonetheless, in the first paragraph, we find yet again: “They contain no doctrine or system of doctrines.” Brownson engages in a bit of reflection on this point: how does this mean we should read the work? The Essays “consist of detached observations, independent propositions, distinct, enigmatical, oracular sayings, each of which is to be taken by itself, and judged of by its own merits.”

This is enough. We are to forego any attempt to find consistency in Emerson; we are to read his works as containing accidentally collected bits to be assessed in isolation. This is the method, more or less, of the first two reviewers as well, though they never give it such clear voice. All three, I think, get Emerson wrong. And they get Emerson wrong in a way that, had they simply read Emerson a bit more carefully, they would have found Emerson warning against all along.

I do not mean to rebut the claim that Emerson’s works contain no system. They do not, not really. But they are marked by a species of consistency, one Emerson is careful to describe. As I am sure I have noted in some earlier post, when Emerson condemns consistency, what he condemns is foolish consistency—the qualifier we may presume indicates that not all consistency is so condemned. In his essay “Intellect”, he does some work to illustrate what sort of consistency he favors, which he baptizes “long logic.”

In passage which begins with the assertion of “the superiority of the spontaneous or intuitive principle over the arithmetical or logical” (419), Emerson offers ample food to the critic—but only if one overlooks the careful use of the word “principle”, a crucial word for Emerson. Principles, for Emerson, are connected with the divine, the moral law, the systematization of facts—with every name, that is, that Emerson gives to the chief good he incessantly praises. The intuitive principle, while connected to acting on the whims of the moment, is not something as transitory as a whim. And if we read two sentences later, Emerson makes this explicit: “We want, in every man, a long logic.” (419)

This logic is “the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition.” (419) It takes place over time. Each mind has, instinctually, “its own method” which it must follow out. And the way to do that is to “Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.” It is this trusting of his instincts to their end that gives Emerson’s work its long logic, its wise consistency.

Two older posts of mind give an example of this long logic at work. In my post on Nature, I followed Emerson’s famous transparent eyeball passage as it underwent modifications, twists and turns. It begins as a passive receptivity, an influx of the divine, but over the course of the essay it becomes something more, something active and creative. Emerson distinguishes in “Intellect” between “intellect constructive” (i.e. Genius) and “intellect receptive” (422)—what occurs in Nature is the transition from the receptive intellect to the constructive intellect. The conceptions and images shift, do not quite sit consistently to one another, but that is precisely because Emerson, the author, has changed, and would have the reader change, too. This is long logic at work; it comes with the sacrifice of a foolish consistency. The process in “The Method of Nature” is similar; I leave you to peruse it for yourself.

In this way we can see the problem with Brownson’s method. That there is no system, no arithmetical logic, as it were, to Emerson, does not mean that we should take his writing as consistent of disjointed bits, to be evaluated for itself. Emerson stresses, again and again, everywhere—indeed it is this, and not his views on instinct, that might with justice be called the one rigidly systematical aspect of this thought—that the essence of Life lies in movement. To ignore the long logic of his works is to ignore their movement, and so to miss out on everything alive in them.

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So ends the main body of this post. But I cannot resist some further comment on my series of posts on poetry and prudence. As we saw, the first two reviews hammered Emerson for the impracticability of his views on instinct. On the one hand, I hope I have called attention to some strains of Emerson that help combat the charge. Yet with my other hand I would like to accept the criticism on Emerson’s behalf. The charge of impracticality is one Emerson should accept. While in his essay on “Prudence” Emerson hopes for a reconciliation of poetry with prudence (see my first post in the series), by “Circles” he more firmly recognizes the ineluctable antagonism between them. (Pause to consider that this itself is another manifestation of Emerson’s long logic.) He sees the need to sacrifice prudence to trust: where prudence conflicts with self-reliance, choose self-reliance. And they will conflict; there is no eluding that.

In “Intellect” Emerson reaffirms this. “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please,—you can never have both.” (425) Repose and comfort are the domain of prudence. But truth, as we have just seen, lies in movement, change, self-overcoming—and thus contradiction of one’s past self. One may repose in one’s habits, one’s system, but such a lack of activity is stultifying. Trust in one’s instincts—not only momentarily, but “to the end” (419)—is the method by which truth is obtained. If this is impracticable, if this is an assault on prudence, so be it, for the choice between truth and repose is a choice. That has its risks, but Emerson is happy to accept them.

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.

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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.