Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oakeshott's Rationalist

The first time I encountered Michael Oakeshott was in a contemporary political theory class in 2001, from which this paper issued. From the time of Hobbes, the first conservative theorist in the face of the spread of modern democracy, through the 19th century, a hot topic in political philosophy was that of sovereignty. It kind of recedes after that, but still exists under varied guises.

Hobbes, whom Oakeshott is one of the major interpreters of, saw the problem of sovereignty as the problem of where the buck stops--every state must have a sovereign, and though Hobbes expressed preference for the single authority of a king in the Leviathan, he did concede that an oligarchy would do, just so long as the authority chain did not lead into an infinite regress--some body had to have the final say.

The United States stands, of course, as something of a practical refutation of the philosophical problem--the US Constitution effectively disperses the very idea of final authority and replaces it with various interim authorities amongst its bodies that can be checked in the fullness of time by its other bodies (a "system of checks and balances," as we are consistently taught in school--or at least were taught until Reagan started eviscerating the American educational system). I suspect that the practical survival and success of more and more democracies set up in manners similar to the United States has caused political theories to spend more of their time on other subjects.

Oakeshott was identified to me then as the contemporary conservative theorist par excellence. The file the paper was saved under was called "oakeshottispureevil". Oakeshott's problem in "Rationalism in Politics" is that the ability to negotiate the arena of politics is not something that one can learn in a book, but something that must be experienced in a tradition, like that of farming, handed down father to son over a long period of exposure. My response, though probably not that carefully carried out (and, oh my god, is the writing bad--only about half the paragraphs are worth anything), was simple--why isn't politics like that for democratic citizens? How isn't the 18 years of watching political discussion by politicians and deliberation over who to vote for by one's family members before one has a chance to cast their first vote not analogous to an aristocratic tradition of familial heritage? The problem of rationalism, like sovereignty, seems to me to stand and fall with the practical experience of modern democracies (though, here again, the Reagan Revolution which birthed American neoconservatism is eviscerating this experience, though now in a much more real way as the decline of a democratic political education leads directly to the demise of democracy, and the feeling that an authoritarian elite--whether aristocratic or corporate--should rule, an outcome neocon political strategists foresaw quite clearly).

Since reading more widely, my opinion on Oakeshott has changed somewhat. He's certainly a conservative, but I see now his real enemy was theory, at the time identified as Marxism, the then political Left of the world. Rank-and-file Americans have never taken Marxism seriously, and so I had no real idea why Oakeshott was writing against this mysterious Rationalist as he was. I see now, however, that Oakeshott's Rationalist was also the basic enemy Rorty identified as "the Academic Left"--that by mastering a theory we would better the world, politically speaking. This family resemblance between people like Oakeshott (and MacIntyre and others who lauded "tradition") and Rorty, I think, is largely what garnered catcalls of "crypto-conservative" and the like from other philosophers. Be that as it may, Rorty was a lifelong political liberal, though he quite rightly saw that political theory was kind of silly, and that what we perhaps need more of is philosophical rallyment around "tradition" and "virtues," rather then around "reason" and "principles." Specifically, it is the distinction between tradition and reason that Oakeshott takes for granted (to take down the Rationalist) that grounds my bafflement, and the erasure of which would produce a better dialogue between a conservative and liberal political philosophy by agreeing on the stupidity of Theory problems and getting down to empirical problems like the stupidity of the pundit-class produced by corporate media conglomeration.

All parenthetical references are to Michael Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Expanded Ed. (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 1962, 1991).


In his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” Michael Oakeshott attempts to justify his own conservatism by refuting the value of rationalism in politics. He does this by defining the Rationalist and then attempting to show that everything a Rationalist stands for is bad. His conservatism is then justified because it is everything that a Rationalist is not. I will show that Oakeshott fails to justify his own conservatism in two ways: 1) Oakeshott discredits reason by aligning it with the Rationalist, but then smuggles it into tradition to allow for change and 2) his central tenet of “experience only” for participating in a tradition fails in the face of an educated democracy.

The first place to start is with Oakeshott’s definition of a Rationalist. He first links it intrinsically with reason by saying, “…there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’…” (6) He also opposes it to experience when he says, “He has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance.” (ibid.) Oakeshott actually goes on for several pages worth of definition of what a Rationalist is. He ends up with a very narrow definition that I cannot imagine anyone actually following.

Oakeshott has a very specific purpose in mind with such a narrow definition. With such a narrow definition that no person could completely agree to, Oakeshott can easily “refute” Rationalism, which immediately endorses his own conservatism. It works like this because Rationalism is linked intrinsically with reason and opposed to its philosophical counterpart experience. Experience is aligned directly with Oakeshott’s traditionalist conservatism and from it he argues that one should not participate in politics if one has never had experience in it.

His refutation of Rationalism mainly consists of accusing Rationalism of denying a form of knowledge. Oakeshott splits knowledge into two parts: technical and practical. Oakeshott contends that Rationalism only acknowledges technical knowledge as real knowledge. Traditionalists, presumably, acknowledge both kinds, but seem to be more inherently aligned to practical knowledge because practical knowledge is gained through experience. This error on the part of Rationalism is really the only place Oakeshott stages an argument outside of name-calling.

The critique of Oakeshott begins with the question of change. It is obvious how change occurs in Rationalism: the Rationalist is constantly critically analyzing his position with reason. What is questionable is how change occurs “naturally” and not self-consciously in a tradition. Oakeshott says that a Rationalist “does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless.” (8) But where does this change happen then? Nowhere does Oakeshott answer this question and the reason is this: reason is needed for change. And since reason is linked directly to the Rationalist it needs to be held as far away from his traditionalism as possible.

To illustrate the need of reason in change, let us take the example of a metalsmith. Our metalsmith is hammering away at his smithy. Becoming tired he stops and begins to think about his arm motion. Believing that he is wasting energy by lifting his arm so far into the air, the metalsmith thinks of a different way of hammering. He projects that his new way would use less energy and then tries it out. Seeing it work he continues with his new arm motion. Did the metalsmith not just abstract his arm motion when thinking of a new way? This was an addition to practical knowledge, not technical knowledge. But since practical knowledge is only acknowledged by the traditionalist we find that Oakeshott has smuggled reason into his traditionalism.

Oakeshott might come back and say that he’s not trying to refute the value of reason in politics, but the Rationalist in politics. He might say that Rationalism is a plague because those who become infected can no longer acknowledge tradition and history. Here we come to the root of the problem within Oakeshott’s essay. Oakeshott has set up a straw man. His Rationalist is no man. Oakeshott has tailored his definition of Rationalism so tightly that no one could be wholly identified with it. Whoever his Rationalist is, I certainly don’t agree with him. Completely ignoring history and scraping tradition for the sake of scraping it is definitely a mistake. So Oakeshott refutes the Rationalist, an extreme position if there ever was one, and flees to the other extreme: only tradition has a place in politics. Oakeshott’s refutation of his Rationalist is no big deal, but by doing so he destroys any value to be gained from Rationalism. This being his plan, he could then go to the opposite extreme since everything about his Rationalist must be bad. By chucking the Rationalist’s crib of politics, Oakeshott ends up throwing out the baby, too.

The baby is us. The baby Oakeshott throws out is thinking individuals. Every person has a mind and is entitled to use it. Oakeshott might argue that he isn’t restricting the use of an individual’s mind. A person must be able to think about his job or trade. The metalsmith must be able to think about his craft, his tradition to improve upon it. But why should the metalsmith restrict his thinking to his craft? Why can’t he think about politics? Oakeshott would say that the metalsmith should stick to his craft for the same reason that he shouldn’t be thinking about quantum physics, computer programming, or shoe cobbling: he has no experience in the field. But now Oakeshott is ignoring history and tradition. How did any of those fields get started, but with an innovative use of reason upon an older tradition? Quantum physics came out of a tradition of classical physics, computer programming out of a tradition of making physical tools to help calculation, and shoe cobbling out of a tradition of walking in bare feet. In each of these three cases, reason was used to improve a tradition. If you back up far enough in human history, almost all traditions could be seen as coming from the hunter-gatherer’s tradition of survival.

Oakeshott might concede that he was a little hasty in throwing out reason, but he would be quick to point out that if we take survival as the original tradition, the increase of specialization in traditions and the breaking off of new traditions fits exactly into what his argument is for change within tradition. Oakeshott would say that the slow, gradual improvements made to an existing tradition could produce new traditions, which would then produce its own tradition. Oakeshott would then say that after a new tradition has broken off, a person shouldn’t go back to the old tradition or to any of the other branches of traditions. In this case, a quantum physicist wouldn’t go back to food production/accumulation, he would stick to quantum physics. And because of this, politicians should stick to politics and not metalsmithing and vice versa. This is why the metalsmith should restrict his thinking to his craft and not politics. A politician doesn’t come into the smithy and start telling the metalsmith what to do. And the metalsmith, I can assume, wouldn’t want him to.

I would accept this point, but only if the metalsmith and the politician know nothing of the other’s craft. If the politician did metalsmithing on the side for fun, he might have a few pointers for the metalsmith. The two should stay out of each other’s hair only if they have no experience in the tradition. Oakeshott would probably agree with this. Experience is the key. My problem becomes, Why restrict the gaining of experience in various traditions? No man is born a politician or metalsmith. They are educated as such. If Oakeshott is afraid of letting un-politically educated people into politics, why not give them a political education and let them participate? In a democracy, all people take part in the political experience. And if we give them a political education before we allow them to participate (say before a voting age of 18) what is the problem? Why restrict? In a tradition of democracy and education there isn’t a problem and there should not be a restriction on people’s involvement in politics.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Quote of the Day 5

Once again, instead of New Me or Old Me, let's have some Repeated Me:

"The ultimate parody of the struggle between the Sophists and Platonists, between not knowing what to teach and teaching something, comes to us in the form of an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. The younger brother asks his older, successful brother for advice for an upcoming interview, whether he has a secret weapon. The older, wiser brother makes him promise not to tell anybody and, noting that it is kind of a long-term strategy, asks him how much time he has. The younger brother says he has only a week, and the older brother says that it still might work. His secret wisdom, the secret to all of his success, the strategy he has employed? 'Every time a penny passes through your hands, stick it up your ass. And then spend it.' ... 'That's a lot of ass-pennies I've got out there, my friend. And here's where the magic comes in: when I meet someone who intimidates me, who puts me on edge, a real 'hard ass,' I just think to myself, 'they've probably handled one of my ass-pennies.' In fact, they probably got one in their pocket right then. That just seems to sort of give me the upper-hand. I mean, hey, I haven't touched anything that's been in their ass.'

"And that is what has happened to political philosophy. Plato made wisdom ineffable, which means the secret of life could be, according to the philosophers, sticking pennies in your ass. Nothing is closer to the heart of the human experiment than our negotiations with each other over how we are to function together--but is that the essence of humanity? 'Go ahead, defend that thesis. I will destroy it,' says the ghost of Socrates. Plato thought the wisdom of Socrates was the idea of an ineffable object of supremacy that was pure and holy and so extraordinarily not human, totally free of humanity's taint. What we should come to acknowledge as the wisdom of Socrates, however, is not the inhumanness of abstraction, but the total inanity of looking for abstract essences that somehow control particular, specific human activities. No general definition of arete is going to tell us how to teach it as a general techne. Though the Sophists thought of themselves as teaching a general skill called "success," careers spent in service to wisdom, what they were actually doing was something more specific, teaching Athenians how to survive in the Greek city-state environment."

--What Happened to Political Philosophy?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Quote of the Day 4

Once again, instead of New Me or Old Me, let's have some Repeated Me:

"I think the way to split the difference between logical positivism and mysticism is to eschew the common presupposition between them--the idea that language is supposed to "capture" anything, that there is a gap or distance in need of being spanned. ...

"Language neither does nor does not capture experience. Language isn't in the capturing business. Language is not a pirate. Language is a tool that we use to deal with reality, with our experience. If we make this turn fully from language-as-a-mirror/pirate to language-as-a-tool, if we fully get rid of representationalism, I think we will want to get rid of the idea of a "pre-intellectual experience." What we will have instead are non-intellectual experiences, like kicking a rock, seeing a sunset, being eaten by a tiger, dropping some acid. It's not that our language fails in capturing our experience of smoking peyote, it's that language sometimes finds it difficult to deal with it. The experience of having a tough time of putting something into words isn't a measure of language's failure or success, it's simply a measure of difficulty, of the struggle to find an analogue that makes sense in the analogues upon analogues upon analogues that make up civilization's knowledge."

--Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance

Friday, May 22, 2009

Quote of the Day 3

Once again, instead of New Me or Old Me, let's have some Repeated Me:

"If Dennett is to be believed, the “mind” isn’t all we thought it was. If Susan Neiman, then the “heart” must include more than good intentions. If Bloom, the “spirit” just is what we make of it. However, I think all three combine to make up the “voice” of a philosopher. This is all like Davidson’s triangulation of world-person-community, which, translated into textual interpretation, plays out into text-writer-reader. Understanding a language takes Davidson’s triangle and understanding a philosopher takes it, too. Interpretation is the collusion of the three parts, and no part can be understood separately.

"A philosopher’s voice includes her mind, her heart, and her spirit. It includes how she’s getting to a place, where she’s going, and where she will end up being—the now, the little bit later, and the far into the future. Not all minds are cogent, not all hearts good, not all spirits living—not all arguments sound, conclusions useful, or philosophies engaging. But the philosopher, the voice, includes all of these."

--Voice, Mind, Heart, Spirit

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Philosophy, Metaphysics, and Common Sense

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Socrates essentially defined philosophy as a common, basic human activity when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Plato said that philosophy was for the very few people who were able to do it. Pirsig said philosophy isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t help with life. Rorty said philosophy is pretty remote from life.

Is there a way of coordinating all of these thoughts? Do they all fit together? I think they can, in their way, fit together coherently, but there have been better and worse ways of construing them.

Socrates came upon the Greek scene at a very important point in its cultural evolution. For some years, leisured aristocrats had begun popping up around the Aegean Sea and composing themselves in a manner that had previously been unheard of—our first intellectuals. They for the most part had begun speculating about the way reality as a whole functioned, though they did occasionally drift into the way humanity, specifically, functioned (humans being a natural enough subject within the purview of “reality”). These drifts didn’t pick up speed until democracy had taken hold in Greece. The hold of democracy on Athens produced a shift in the educational institutions of Greece. The existence of a citizen class in Athens created a need for a means of educating them, one that surpassed the means that existed for the needs of fickle aristocracies. For the first time in history, an opportunity was created in which people could live on their wits.

These were the Sophists, the first professional intellectuals, and, like most people I know, they soon began talking about themselves and what they do. The trouble for them was that nobody had really done what they did before. Their only real models were the poets, the previous educators of Greece, but the poets’ profession had itself begun to change, too, at about the same time. It was a common enough feature for Greek rhapsodes, oral poets, to brood about what they were doing (captured well by Hesiod in his musings on the Muses) and the earlier physiologoi, Thales, Heraclitus and the rest, had themselves produced occasional remarks, but we can imagine it wasn’t until the pressure of professional differentiation set in for the Sophists (produced by the high concentration of them in Athens) that real self-consciousness kicked in. The Sophists had to attract customers, which meant not only displaying their wares in public, but arguing for why they knew what they were doing, over and against their competitors.

What they did, in fact, was increase the ability of public speakers to convince their audience that they were right. In Athens, in contrast to today, every man was their own politician and lawyer. This meant that arguing your view (say, of innocence) became dramatically more important than in previous, aristocratic generations, where oratory was more for the battlefield (the first great place you had to convince people of doing something, like bleeding). So the Sophists, our first rhetoricians, began to reflect on the process of argumentation, persuasion, how a person is convinced to do something.

The Sophists, however, fell victim to the forces of rampant cultural evolution. Not only were they working without a net on the self-image and practice of intellectuals in general, but they were still working with the tools of their forebears. The Sophists saw quite clearly, and correctly, that the process of persuasion, and particularly argumentation, only works with an understanding of your audience—a persuader, if to prove effective, must work with the beliefs of his audience to have any chance of being understood, let alone be successful. This, however, produced some hasty formulations, a few of which equated the conventions (nomos) and opinions (doxa) of society with what is right and just. Socrates would have none of this. Socrates saw quite clearly, and correctly, that what society currently believes couldn’t possibly be full-blown equated with what is ultimately right and just. This would leave no place for change.

Even worse, the Sophists thought of themselves as teachers of aretê. Aretê was long translated as “virtue,” and it’s hard to have any sympathy for the Sophists in the face of Socrates if they thought they were teaching virtue, good moral behavior. In this light, Socrates appears as the crusading anti-professionalist, damning the know-it-alls for supposing they had the market cornered on the good and righteous. I think this is the good light that comes out of the Delphism Socrates cleaved to: the unexamined life is not worth living. For Socrates, we couldn’t simply take what we were taught at face value because there might be better ways of doing things. This isn’t something for a professional class, but something for everyone. The Socratic spirit is the critical spirit of looking askance at the ways things are done, particularly if they are defended on the grounds of “that’s the way we’ve always done them.” Philosophy, in this sense, is reflection, thinking, taking what you do, your habits, apart to see what it is you’re actually doing and whether it makes any sense to continue to do so. The Socratic interaction between common sense and philosophy is that between the wisdom of the ages and the love of something better.

While there is certainly some truth to Socrates’ scorn of the Sophists, things are never quite that cut and dried when it comes to the Greeks. As I’ve mentioned, things were changing, and quite quickly, during what we now call the Greek Enlightenment. Scholars in the latter half of the 20th century have now mostly come to agree that “virtue” is not a very good translation of aretê and doesn’t quite capture what the Greeks meant by it. Most nowadays go with “excellence,” and one prominent scholar has even suggested “success.” These terms, and in particular the latter, make much more sense out of what the Sophists thought they were doing. “Virtue” may make sense of Socratic enmity, but are we really to believe that a whole class of people of such pomp and arrogance actually existed, as a class? Aretê was a word in transition and in the earlier aristocratic age it was more narrowly confined to the nobility and the things they did. But the rise of democracy spread out the things they did and the application of the commendation. If an Athenian citizen makes his way through his political life (which for them, much more than for us, was their life) by the power of his speech, does it not make sense for the professional orators, teaching the skills of persuasion and argumentation, to not think of themselves as teaching success, aretê?

Much like today’s social misfits, Plato agreed with Socrates that if that’s what success is, give me failure. Neither of them wanted money (easy for Plato since he had money), they simply wanted something better for humanity. They took seriously the idea that an ethical life is possible, but something that must be worked towards, and not just handed (like the nobleman’s aretê). Plato saw democracy at work and saw the blind leading the blind. And so Plato institutionalized the life of the critic, created a home and a tradition of transmitting the skeptical attitude toward contemporary modes of life. This mode of life might best be generally called the “life of inquiry.” Unlike Socrates, however, Plato was far more interested in how inquiry takes place, the methods and instruments of inquiry. Much like his Sophist counterparts, Plato meditated frequently on how we dig into ourselves and reality generally. Plato concluded that, whatever it was that Socrates did, it was hard and not, sadly, for everyone.

With Plato’s notion of the philosopher-king, he crystallized the notion of a professional wisdom-seeker, and for all of the reasons of his idol, Socrates, it must founder. Inquiry into ourselves is better done by ourselves. However, as much as looking askance at the world is a common ability for all, the tools are not. The Sophists were right in that. The tradition that branches out from Plato is philosophical, but it is a specific formation, one which I shall call “metaphysics.” The trail of metaphysics over the centuries is a trail of attempts to inquire, of trying new methods for, and objects of, inquiry. Exploding out from Plato, the paths weave about, branching off in a multitude of directions. Some succeed—these branches break off and fall from the tree of metaphysics and set up shop for themselves, become different disciplines. Some simply die, still-born in the breast of the never-heard-from-again thinker. But the tradition continues on.

It is on the other side of this 2500 year process that we find Pirsig and Rorty, and it is only by understanding their reactions to this process that we can make sense of their opinions about philosophy. To bridge into Pirsig, I’d like to first meditate on my use of “metaphysics,” which is a sort of wedding of Whitehead (“we are footnotes to Plato”) and Heidegger (“metaphysics is Platonism”). The philosophers one studies in Philosophy Departments, these footnotes, have been placed there because of the way contemporary philosophers tell the story of their own discipline. A typical way of narrating it gives us license to break philosophy into three branches: metaphysics (study of being), epistemology (study of knowing), and axiology (ethics and aesthetics—study of valuing). Kant, the first professional philosopher, gave us these branches, and our canonized selection of philosophers, when he looked back at the course of amateur philosophical writings and saw a way of breaking up his near contemporaries into two groups, the Rationalists and the Empiricists, which he was able to broker a peace agreement between and launch true professional study of being and knowing—at least, a kind that didn’t tread on science’s accelerating ground. Many of these philosophers studied other things, but the obsession Kant centered his narrative around, which preselected his choice of exemplars, was of how we are and how we know it.

Metaphysics is a handy moniker for the professional philosophy that stems out of the Kantian historiographical tradition because the understanding it breeds is that the study of being will never be far from the study of knowing. When you assert the way something is, an interlocutor will always be interested in how you know that. Philosophers in this tradition have always gone back and forth as to which is primary, whether you can intelligibly answer the question of knowledge by itself before wielding it upon instances, or whether one must lock down a conception of the way the world is first before wondering about how you know it. One thing in this tradition is certain however—ethics and aesthetics are secondary studies. If one takes the activities of being and knowing as basic, one will naturally think that valuing is secondary because the explanation given is predicated on the earlier assumption of primacy. “What is beauty/good/value and how do you know it?”, metaphysical and epistemological questions, will seem primary in ethics and aesthetics and need to be answered ahead of actual ethical and aesthetic questions, “What things are beautiful/good/valuable?” Taking philosophy to be the life of inquiry, we can see why Pirsig takes the field of aesthetics, as an inquiry into Beauty, to task for being impossible and insipid—what is one going to say about it in general, ahead of instances?

One way to understand what Pirsig did is to think of him as reversing the traditional order of things in professional philosophy and making axiology (Quality) primary to metaphysics (objects) and epistemology (subjects). If we flip the order of axiology and metaphysics, however, we will need new definitions for them, ones that won’t seem naturally metaphysical. I think if we construe metaphysics as “inquiry into how things work” and axiology as “inquiry into what we should value” we can see better, for one, philosophy’s relationship to science. Kant said that philosophy was queen of the sciences, ruling and judging all other human activities, institutionalizing the pretentiousness that Socrates accused the Sophists of. However, if we think of metaphysics as inquiry into how things work, we can see the sense of Newton having described himself as a natural philosopher. Inquiry into how things work began with the Pre-Socratics, who still get treated in history of science classes. The broad inquiry began breaking off into specialties as a new method or new way of looking at an old problem took off. On this view, metaphysics today in Philosophy Departments is the way it is because the natural and human sciences have set up shop on their own, taking with them part of what used to be in the philosophical purview. In fact, we might say that philosophy’s success lies in the fact that it has birthed these specialized fields, and might continue to do so.

With our new definitions, we can also see Socrates’ admonition of the Sophists for thinking they could professionalize, specialize the field of aretê as presaging the failure of 2500 years of trying to specialize ethics and aesthetics. When Pirsig attacks Plato for enshrining the Truth over the Good, he is suggesting that Truth, or “how things work,” is a distinct field and activity within life, but it is a value choice for us to perform that activity amongst other activities. Axiology is Socrates’ pure amateur field of inquiry into ourselves and what we should do. When Pirsig says that metaphysics isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t help with life, he is saying that knowing how things work doesn’t always help with our choices in what we should do, let alone tell us which ones to make.[fn.1]

Pirsig comes to this conclusion from the outside of professional philosophy. Standing at the gates looking in, Pirsig sees a lot of sterile, pointless debates about subjects so seemingly remote from life that it almost amounted to dereliction of duty. Rorty comes to very similar conclusions, but from the inside. Rorty did his time in grad school and spent 20 years burrowing to the center of these debates. Rorty, also, sees a lot of sterile, pointless debates about subjects seemingly remote from life, but for Rorty, the notion of “duty” only makes sense within the parameters of a profession. Physicists have a “duty” to perfecting their models of the physical world and the degree to which they’ve gotten better is the same proportion to which their conversations have become more insular and incomprehensible to the outside world. Rorty’s only concern is that some of the debates in philosophy departments don’t seem to have any outlet into the pool of life. This itself wouldn’t necessarily mean so much, except that many of these same debates, like in ethics, seem to be directly about life—and the professionals start to think they know something no one else does.

There is a prima facie distance between Pirsig and Rorty on the utility of metaphysics, study of being and knowing, to people living their lives. I’d like to help surmount this distance by inquiring into how Pirsig’s view of metaphysics actually functions. The context within which Pirsig’s inquiries occur are that of a culture-wide spiritual crisis. In ZMM, Pirsig sees the dysfunctional attitude of his friends, the Sutherlands, towards technology as expressions of a deep-lying attitude that undergirds Western culture in its relation to life, one he traces to Ancient Greek philosophy. In an odd way, Pirsig’s ZMM parallel’s Plato’s Republic—the central argumentative figure of the Republic is the analogy between the city and the soul and in the same way Pirsig draws an analogy between the individual’s spiritual crisis (Phaedrus’) and his culture’s (this particularly occurs at the end of Chapter 10, as Pirsig narrates the end of Phaedrus’ first university experience). Plato makes the analogy to help show that justice is uniform across the two units and to establish the unity of the questions and answers for both city and soul. Pirsig’s Socratic individualism rejects Plato’s requirement for a professional class of philosophers and reinstates the personal search for aretê. Pirsig’s search is conditioned, however, by its locus in the tradition of philosophy that extends from Plato to Kant to his own philosophy professors. This causes him to point to conceptual distinctions, generated in the Platonic tradition, as the locus of our, of his, spiritual crisis.

My concern right now is not whether Pirsig is right to do this. I’m sure that he is justified in doing so, though perhaps we shouldn’t be assured as to whether these are the only sources of our problems. What does interest me currently is how Pirsig turns philosophy into a kind of therapy. Phaedrus’ descent into madness is analogized, in the concept of the mythos, to the plight of dissident outcasts from culture in general. In Lila, Pirsig draws this parallel further in his discussion of a philosophy of insanity in Chapter 26. The utility of Pirsig’s philosophical pursuits are the extent to which they can be made applicable to concrete situations in life, which infuses the dynamic between the “philosophical” scenes and “narrative” scenes of both books. Pirsig employs philosophy to help him reintegrate with Phaedrus in ZMM and so become a full human being again and, in Lila, to reorient our culture more generally. This is why Pirsig develops a systematic metaphysics of distinctions—its only purpose is to help the individual life. Our sickness stems from the conceptual apparatuses handed us by the past and so we must seek their solution there.

Rorty treats professional philosophers the same way. As Rorty entered the professional ranks he shifted from an historically-oriented, Whiteheadian systematic metaphysician to a conceptual analyst. It wasn’t long before he encountered Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and became imprinted by the sense (and the attendant metaphors) that the textbook problems of philosophy were not only engendered by bad conceptual distinctions, but that philosophy’s obsession with what they took to be natural intuitions of life were neuroses that needed to be massaged out. The image of the Wittgensteinian therapist charmed Rorty most of his career and surfaced in most of his writings, so much so that Hilary Putnam once commented that Rorty wishes to “play doctor to the modern soul.”

I think Putnam get’s Rorty just about right, though Rorty wished more often to be thought of as playing therapist to the modern philosopher. To help understand what’s both right and wrong in Putnam’s comment, it helps to remember that both Freud and the New Science breathed new life into the notion of broiling, unseen causes behind appearances. The Greeks used the appearance/reality distinction to give sense to the notion that how our common sense (the mythos, doxa/opinion, nomos/convention) functions isn’t how reality actually functions and that we should perhaps inquire further into the matter. Pragmatists would like to demolish this supposition by noting that no one’s been able to tell us whether “it works because it's true” or rather “it’s true because it works,” and without being able to tell the difference between the two, we won’t be able to tell whether we’re finding out how reality really is or simply finding better and better understandings of it.

Freud and physical scientists, however, gave us a good, solid sense of what a reality behind an appearance actually looks like. Physicists started telling us that tables aren’t actually tables but clouds of electrons. Psychoanalysts started telling us that our problems getting an erection were because we wanted to do unhealthy things to our mothers and fathers. The reason why we believed them is because they were able to get results—they were able to tinker with the inputs to effect, in predictable and controllable ways, the outputs. The interesting thing about psychologists, of course, is that they don’t work with rocks, they work with us, much like the philosopher. Both the psychological therapist and philosophical therapist offer to help us with our lives, but there is a big difference—the psychologist’s patient isn’t required to know, understand, or even believe the truth of, the psychologist’s theoretical viewpoint to receive the benefit of the therapy that the theory enables. It isn’t clear, on the other hand, that the philosopher is working with anything other than what we know and believe.

Plato marked the birth of expertism, of inquirers knowing something about their objects of inquiry that others can’t follow. However, he also continued a tradition of esotericism, out of which the notion of an expert flows. This is the birthmark of any priestly tradition, which Plato gained through his exposure to the Pythagoreans (and their’s from an Orphic tradition, of which some think was not indigenous to the West, but an Eastern import). The esoteric is a class of mystery and secrets, and though we can clearly see its similarity to expertise, its separation through long affiliation is past due. There are many secrets, but the shift from esotericism to expertise is a shift in attitude, orientation, from viewing life and its variegated problems as ineffable mysteries to discussable difficulties.

There is a sense in which the philosopher, like the psychologist, knows something a little more than the regular Joe or Jane on the street. But this sense is the same in which Joe and Jane’s profession gives them the same distinction over the philosopher and psychologist. When we are talking about ourselves, our beliefs, views, attitudes, desires, habits, hopes and dreams, we are, in a sense, an expert over this area against which no one else could come close. But that doesn’t mean those who study the generalities of which you are a particular instantiation might not be able to help with your difficulties. What you should rebel against, like Socrates, however, is the notion that anyone knows some mystery about you, the reality behind your beliefs that swings free and independently of your view of your beliefs.

Socrates marked the birth of a self-critical culture. He thought it was important for everyone to examine themselves in an effort to better their future selves over their past selves. Plato swung the critical attitude at particular general problems, one’s that may be instantiated in particular people, but might be studied separately to help gain a handle on them. If we define the Socratic spirit as the spirit of Philosophy and the Platonic as Metaphysics, we might say that Philosophy is an amateur genre, one everyone should take part in, while Metaphysics is a specialized genre, one which might help for those who want to take the time and energy to delve into, but for which—because of the very fact of its generality over the particular life—we might not, and simply ask for help from time to time from the experts, should we need it.

If Common Sense is the continuing, evolving body of belief that is passed from generation to generation, then the Socratic spirit is the blood that keeps it moving. Pirsig may have been right, that a certain depth of attention, born of passing the buck on to specialists on too many scores, is lacking in our culture, and that the blood is beginning to stiffen and coagulate. What Pirsig was certainly right about, however, is that the Socratic spirit is not a flame lit in secret and watched over by robed priests called Professional Philosophers—it is the heritage of all reflective individuals. Rorty may have been right that the professionals are rightly picking special nits that might yet play out into the cultural blood stream, but like many specialized fields it isn’t immediately apparent how. What Rorty was certainly right about, however, is that the Socratic spirit is not only unprofessionalizable, but to be all the more protected because of it—it pays to have leisured self-explorers teaching our children how to explore, if not exactly what to explore.


[1] This construal of metaphysics as inquiry into how things work also has the virtue, I think, of shedding important light as to what Pirsig meant by the intellectual level and why Plato was wrong to enshrine Truth.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Literacy as Symbol and Material Means in Douglass

This was the first draft for my final for my American Lit course in which the various Lit notes were taken from. I had to cut it to get it below five pages, but unlike the Hawthorne midterm--which has a shorter counterpart that, had I not realized early on that my table was too largely set, would have been too long--this is a completed longer version, and so less a first draft than a longer final version (though I think the one I turned in was tighter). The below uses some of the material and thoughts mentioned initially in my reflections on Douglass, but these are some things I've been thinking about since I first read Douglass a few years ago for an African-American Lit course I had the fortune of taking at UW-Madison, which is a powerhouse in that particular field. What's more, since reading Ong and Havelock, my sense of the power of literacy has increased exponentially and so crossing over Douglass once more felt like a real opportunity.

One thing I found interesting in rereading this myself, was that, unlike most of my previous critical readings of poetry and non-assertional prose--my previous attempts to act like a literary critic--there is hardly a glimmer of theoretical argumentation in this piece. Almost everything else always seemed to trend around, sometimes strained, sometimes not, to my preoccupations with the philosophical canon. I see this piece as an integral part of my decreasingly hazy vision of not only American literature, or even American intellectual activity, but Western intellectual and moral activity. It essentially stiches together my fascination with the story of literacy with Rorty's argument that moral progress is made by imagination, and that there are economic conditions for this.

References are to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press, 2001).

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” (Douglass, 50) Frederick Douglass thus narrates the epochal shift in his relationship with the famed slave-breaker, Edward Covey, and transitions to his now final, rapid fight for freedom. The emphasis in Douglass’s choice of words here, however, is on a reclaimed masculinity, “made a man,” but if we emphasize the first half of his formula, how a slave is made, and then unmade, these words of Douglass’s become more appropriate for the first turning point of the book—Chapter 6 and his discovery of the power of literacy. Literacy for Douglass is a skill that allows for the free acquisition of knowledge and the ability to negotiate the white man’s world. Having become free and sitting down to write his narrative, however, literacy also becomes more than a practical skill, like caulking. In Douglass’s story, and what would become the literary genre of slave narrative, reading and writing becomes a symbol for freedom and humanity, part of a network of rhetorical echoes and antitheses that reinforce the story and moral related. To close the paper, I should like to speculate on how the occasion of the slave narrative proves to be a site of breakdown in the very distinction between literary symbol and practical skill, moral condition and material condition, and, what’s more, how that very process secures Douglass’s narrative its enduring relevancy and power.

Douglass’s main focus on literacy occurs in Chapters 6 and 7. Prior to this point, the narrative consists in elaboration on the condition of the slave, and while he does interpolate criticism of the institution here (along with various, more subtle textual strategies of undermining it), it is not until his move to Baltimore that Douglass introduces, as part of his life arc, the possibility and means of escape and freedom. In this lies the power of reading and writing. As the kind Mrs. Auld teaches Douglass the first steps in literacy, Mr. Auld breaks off the education, saying, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. … He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” (31, italics his) This is a “new and special revelation” (ibid.) for the young Douglass and it opens up the “pathway from slavery to freedom.” (32) This pathway consists in the attainment of “the more valuable bread of knowledge,” (34) which functions in two ways for Douglass: 1) knowing how to read and write aids materially in his ability to escape from captivity and 2) Douglass learns that slavery is a contingent institution and that one of its main means of enforcement is the stripping of the slave of his humanity.

On the former score, Douglass’s ability to read and write aids him in, for instance, learning about the wider world from newspapers, in particular the abolitionist movement, (36-7) and in writing the “several protections” (62) during his first planned attempt to escape. Having become free and sitting down to write his narrative, however, literacy also becomes more than a practical skill, like caulking. While the skill of reading and writing, like caulking, is practically important to Douglass’s fight for freedom, it is arguably the symbolic power that literacy takes which is even more important for Douglass, and his moral cause generally. Douglass, having fought for freedom personally and joined the abolitionist cause, writes his story with a deliberate series of echoes, weaving together a backgrounding argument against slavery that the narrative carries with it.

We can find one echo-string in Douglass’s use of “unmanageable” in Mr. Auld’s argument to his wife. This is a strong echo of the word’s first appearance, a mere five pages before, as Douglass narrates Mr. Gore’s cool, passionless killing of Demby, another slave. Asked to defend this act, which is still illegal even in the South, Douglass reports that Mr. Gore had said, “that Demby had become unmanageable. … He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected … the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.” (26) Mr. Auld echoing Mr. Gore is Douglass’s deliberate strategy to bind together the two scenes and, between the two of them, they accurately predict Douglass’s future. From Mr. Auld, the fire for freedom is immediately flared in Douglass, who then becomes preoccupied with it and, consequently as Auld predicts, “discontented and unhappy,” (31) suffering “more anxiety” (39) and envying his “fellow-slaves for their stupidity.” (36) But this fire, which is almost never extinguished, becomes contagious—just as Mr. Gore predicted—as Douglass sets up a Sabbath school and, while teaching his students to read and write (one of whom Douglass says, through implied consequence of this, “is now free through my agency” (60)), attempted to “imbue their minds with thoughts of freedom.” (61)

The echo of “unmanageable,” then, suggests that the slave-masters by and large understand that deprivation of knowledge is key to keeping their captives in slavery. We can continue the echo and follow the string of literacy to knowledge to the first paragraph of his story:
“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. … A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages.” (13)
In this powerful opening, Douglass employs de-familiarization, a rhetorical strategy designed to make the familiar and mundane, such as knowing one’s birthday, strange and exotic. Douglass sets the distinction between slave and freeperson as, not between the intuitive black and white, but between those who know their birthdays and those who don’t. Even further, those who don’t have this knowledge, slaves, are tied to horses. Slaves are symbolically animals to the freeperson’s humanity. By showing us what we are taking for granted, Douglass exposes the underpinnings of how our reality is created and held together—and in this case, how it is withheld.

Literacy becomes a symbol for freedom and humanity and it being withheld a symbol of slavery and barbarism. Throughout the early chapters, when recalling his age Douglass notably says “probably seven or eight” (28) and “between ten and eleven,” (38) keeping the echo fresh in our minds.)[fn.1] Douglass’s strategy here is to create a constellation of echoes on two sides of a margin, a series of antitheses that line up with each other: literacy/non-literacy, knowledge/ignorant, free/slave, human/animal. These two separate webs reinforce each other, each occurrence of “reading” finding an echo in “free,” “human,” and likewise “ignorant” in “slave,” “animal.” This rhetorical structure serves to reinforce the institution for slavery for both slave and slaveholder, stuck in separate webs.

Douglass creates these webs of reinforced meaning to identify their weak points, the inconsistencies in the logic the webs produce. Take this series—if we read Mr. Gore’s defense through Douglass’s rhetorical echoes, the suggestion is that if slaves learn to read, they will become free and enslave white people. Douglass is at pains to halt the scare tactic of revenge. Probably the most often repeated formula of the Narrative is that slavery dehumanizes both slave and slaveholder. (31, 33, 38, 41) In a very powerful moment, though Douglass is ostensibly only speaking of slaves (though the pronoun is importantly ambiguous), he says, “He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” (70) In an absolutely virtuoso performance, displaying the twisted logic produced by slavery in a deep irony, shading the exposure with a detached sympathy, Douglass says that when the slave-master must “sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity….” (14-15) One suggestion of our common humanity is that we are all “children of a common Father,” (75) but Douglass is at pains to argue that slaveholders simply use religion to cover their “infernal business with the garb of Christianity” (82) and that “he who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.” (81, italics mine)

Douglass’s most explicit, passion-filled arguments in the Narrative are against the hypocrisy of Christianity under the shadow of slavery. He identifies this as the weakest point, the most likely area to persuade people because the rhetorical echo chamber of slavery will go, “Well, of course they are ignorant, they’re more like animals.”[fn.2] If they are completely animals, there is no way to leverage yourself in. But once you start ceding a little ground, like Douglass receiving six cents from Master Hugh, it becomes “a sort of admission of my right to the whole.” (71) Douglass wishes to train the moral echo chamber of Christianity—with “love thy neighber,” “the least shall be first,” “we are all God’s children”—on the institution of slavery and to do that he must argue its hypocrisy. Literacy is the hub around which all this swings because it is the gateway—“education and slavery were incompatible.” (34) It becomes the symbolic beginning of the end by lighting the fires of freedom and the material instrument of his fighting the abolitionist cause. It was a material condition for his escape from slavery and an echoed symbol of freedom and humanity in his story.

There is another control on literacy, knowledge, freedom and humanity, however, one that has its own life beyond the boundaries of slavery. This is “leisure.” Leisure figures prominently in Douglass’s escape and enters itself into the symbolic arena with literacy, knowledge, freedom and humanity. Leisure, of course, on its face allows for a certain amount of freedom, allowing Douglass to learn how to read, teach others to read, and plan his escape. But even more, Douglass specifically emphasizes twice how, as I alluded earlier, he almost had the fire of freedom extinguished from him. In the first six months with Mr. Covey, Douglass says that the life of a plantation slave, which in Chapter 2 he says “there must be no halting,” (18) had broken him “in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed….” (49) This occurs a second time on the docks of Baltimore, where in the “perpetual whirl of excitement,” “I almost forgot my liberty.” (70) After being released from those duties, however, Douglass finds that in “these leisure times, those old notions about freedom would steal over me again.” (69) What is striking is that in the first passage Douglass was in a very specific slave situation with Mr. Covey, but the second the situation was more like regular, hectic work—Douglass being the lowest man on the rung, was bossed around by both white and black. And while all these others were freepersons, Douglass says, I think quite deliberately, “I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty.” (70)

The key, I think, to the enduring power of Douglass’s argument lies in one passage: “I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances.” (75) Douglass, because of slavery, can trust no one, an abominable state of loneliness, and before launching a breathtaking tour of a former slave’s psychic existence, he suggests the way in which non-slaves might come “to understand it”—imagination. This, however, requires leisure. But to get leisure, one must have the freedom to lounge around, and the key to that is education. And the sizable populace of semi-literate, uneducated, poor white people still at this time should suggest the sizable cultural obstacle I think Douglass at least dimly perceived.


[1] In fact, Douglass inaugurates Chapter 9 with, “I have now reached a period in my life when I can give dates.” (42) The importance is clear, but what is remarkable is that scholars think he was actually wrong in the first date he gave. (111) This isn’t a strike against Douglass, but simply serves to punch up the fact that real knowledge, the kind free, full human beings have, is independently verifiable. Douglass says up front that he had never “seen any authentic record containing” (13, italics mine) his birthday, and in fact thirsted for that knowledge to his dying day. The fact that Douglass could be wrong at that point in his narrative reflects a post-literate, free state, with slave-masters no longer controlling the flow of information.

[2] It is important to note the established practice of prefacing a black person’s writing with white people saying they wrote it, from Phyllis Wheatley to Douglass himself. It is significant also to notice some of the comments received about Douglass’s narrative: “I have seen and read a Narrative of the life of negro Frederick Douglass, purporting to have been written by himself; (doubtful)….” (134)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Uncertainty, Reason, and Trust in “Young Goodman Brown”

This was my midterm for my American Lit course in which the various Lit notes were taken from. The below uses some of the material and thoughts mentioned initially in my reflections on Hawthorne. There are essentially two different arguments worked out below, one about the interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" and one, briefly, about interpretation in general, a typical pattern for someone impressed by Stanley Fish, a person who wants to both interpret a text and advance an argument against those who want to suggest that this or that particular text is open (or closed, for that matter) in a way that other texts aren't--at the level of theory, all texts are as open and closed as any other. The separateness of the two arguments (and activities of theory and interpretation) are itself a consequence of the pragmatist theory of interpretation Fish elaborates.

References are to:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 1974, 1946.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Portable Hawthorne. Ed. William C. Spengemann. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Immanuel Kant wrote famously in 1781 that “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” (A 51/B 75)[fn.1] As worked out in Kant’s system and 19th century thought generally, this formula’s tremendous impact was to suggest the mind-dependence of reality. Emerson ambiguously took hold of this tradition and suggested we might never see reality directly, but always through the mediation of our minds. I would like to suggest that Hawthorne writes “Young Goodman Brown” as an allegory for the uncertainty of the human condition in its mediated state. Hawthorne uses the figure of the dream as a means in establishing ultimate uncertainty. Further, this uncertainty is caused by our ability to reason. We are fallen because we reason and words are depicted as the devil’s work, whispering to us the dark thoughts embedded in all of us. In this same conceptual set-up, however, we are given the tools of freedom. With the figure of Faith, Hawthorne suggests how one arrests, not just Satan, but the maddening, endless cycle of words and the mistrust engendered by them.

Kant began something called transcendental idealism, which was meant to combine the New Science with Christian spirituality, and it did so by splitting them off into two ontological corners: science took the conceptualizable phenomena and religion took the ultimately unknowable noumena. This posed a problem for spiritualists who had thought that they had known something. What they knew was God, and at the very roots of Christianity worked the ancient Greek tradition of Orphism that taught that there was a radical disjunct between Humanity and their realm and God and His. As Kant got wrapped into Orphism, it helped reproduce the idea that words, being human-made, would never help us see God’s plan, and, in the image of Milton, were in fact the devil’s work. Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” sits on this stage between Humanity and God and the uncertainty with which we divine His plan.

To pin down the program at work in “Young Goodman Brown,” I would like to first differentiate two ways in which Hawthorne uses narrative uncertainty to achieve his aims. Hawthorne frequently puts the reader at bay from the exact occurrences of his stories, but the reasons for doing so are not always the same nor achieve just the same results. For instance, it is often argued that Hawthorne’s prefacing of The Scarlet Letter with “The Custom House” and continued use of his “this-may-or-may-not-have-happened” figures, particularly the penultimate chapter’s revelation of what may or may not have been a red A on Dimmesdale’s chest, indicates Hawthorne’s wish to dethrone the authority of the author over his text. As readers, however, we should always be wary of this gesture for, as a matter of course, an author can never give up their authority of what appears on the page, and therefore over the text being presented. The meaning of any gesture of narrative uncertainty can only be found by the way it hangs together with the rest of the text, which thereby gives it its own particular inflection. The “antiauthoritarian author” is an illusion that Hawthorne creates, fitting together in this case with The Scarlet Letter’s wish to open up a space for moral reflection on the issues that the story presents, rather than forcefully moralizing in any particular direction.

Hawthorne’s use of the dream trope in “Young Goodman Brown” aims for something different. In the swift penultimate paragraph, Hawthorne wonders, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream, of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne, 64) This question remains totally unanswered, a seemingly massive hanging thread wafting in the forest winds. Rather than attempting to diffuse authority, as in The Scarlet Letter, I think Hawthorne is establishing the particular allegorical interpretation of his tale. All of the tricks of perceptual uncertainty that Hawthorne threads throughout are certainly uncertain—not in the service of ambiguous uncertainty, but specifically to establish the certain uncertainty of life, so that it doesn’t matter whether, e.g., a pink ribbon fell in the forest (59) or the staff actually writhed or not. (53) What matters is how Goodman Brown reacted to the uncertainty, to the events, real or dream, that were experienced.

All of this work occurring in Brown’s mind is what connects him to the Emersonian tradition of Kantians. The point of “Young Goodman Brown” is that it doesn’t matter whether it was a dream or not. Brown has been changed by the experience because dream and reality both occur in our minds equally, the mind thus attaining its mediatory powers. It would seem, however, that because Brown has been changed by this particular experience he has also thereby lost to the forces of sin. The shape-shifting devil says that the knowledge he would bestow those who’ve traveled is “to know their secret deeds,” (62) of all your neighbors, “to penetrate … the deep mystery of sin….” (63) What knowledge is this? seems to be the question. At the outset of Brown’s journey, Hawthorne sets in contradistinction the lonely solitude of the traveler with the possibility of “passing through an unseen multitude.” (52) This “unseen multitude” eventually takes the shape of all his neighbors: “And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her [Faith] onward.” (58) Even if we can commonsensically distinguish between saints and sinners, Hawthorne blurs them all together in Brown’s nightmare, the dark knowledge that we are all sinners.

The way in which Brown attains this knowledge is key and brings us back to Emerson. In the Orphic tradition that Emerson summons, the only true knowledge is that which breaks through the mediation of our minds to reality itself—the power of intuition. Whereas in a dark mood Emerson says “we do not see directly, but mediately,” (Emerson, 284) in a brighter mood Emerson seems to think that the truth of God is possible, though still not “second hand.” “What he [any other] announces, I must find true in me, or reject,” and this turn inward “is an intuition.” (76) Hawthorne’s counter—as the darker Emerson would surely agree—might be that all of these announcements, even our own, get bounced around the mediated internals of our reasoning minds. It is reasoning that gets Brown into trouble, listening to the devil.

The trick of the devil is his “reasoning as we go,” (Hawthorne, 53) “discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor….” (56) The reasoning that the devil teaches, which seems so natural in the “uncertain light,” (53) is that, if we harbor any sins in our own hearts, even living as if we did not, then could not any other, including those pure saints we esteem as being beyond sin entirely?
“Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward.” (62, italics mine)
It is because Brown treats the possibility of goodness as coextensive with the existence of pure cases of purity that, having finally lost faith in this easily doubted notion, he becomes a storm of gloom, “a distrustful, if not a desperate man,” (64) treating everyone as a secret horrid sinner, lustful for the worst depravities. Forever after, Brown “shrank from the bosom of Faith….” (ibid.)

The figure of Faith completes the allegory, for the significance is the setting of faith against doubt, and the triumph of doubt. Previous convictions of purity are shattered as Brown hears their whispers in the dark gloom of the wilderness. We should take the wilderness to be simply the living of life: we walk through life without truly knowing the hearts of our fellow-travelers, but—and this is key—only our own. “But, where is Faith?” (61) says Brown, and it is the loss that sinks us. By the same token, Hawthorne is suggesting to us how to climb out of despair—by the act of faith, faith and trust in our fellows. It is because Brown holds a particular view of good and evil that sinks him into depression. Brown has reacted to the uncertainty of our moral concepts, to the uncertainty over the Puritan good/evil dichotomy, one which holds for no mixed, ambiguous cases. Hawthorne isn’t sinking us into the despair of the Puritan Brown, he’s suggesting to us what mental furniture we can move around to reach different results.

Hawthorne casts the forest of “Young Goodman Brown” as a mental screen upon which the Puritan mind had projected their innermost, rejected desires, with for example Puritans imagining (and being titillated by) the image of Pagan orgies. Once you start reasoning, however, you start to pull at the thread that hangs the picture, you pull down the dichotomizing partition, illustrated here by the parentheses between “imagining” and “titillated.” This makes you, not an innocent, but as a reaction a “raging,” “gloomy” moralist. (60, 65) Brown’s paranoia of the forest is a paranoia of himself. This is, principally, why it doesn’t matter whether it’s a dream or not—it is real because he is changed by it. Literally real or a dream, it doesn’t matter to Goodman Brown. Rather than some form of direct intuition of reality, the results of which just get bounced around in the noggin anyways, Hawthorne, I believe, is suggesting that the knowledge of the self that reasoning brings is honesty with oneself and the repressed desires you harbor. Fear and paranoia—the Puritan mind—turns the breakdown of the partition into a peering into the abyss. Hawthorne thinks no such pure, sinful abyss exists and that social virtues like honesty with oneself and trust in others might replace it.


[1] Standard notation for the Critique of Pure Reason in Norman Kemp Smith’s translation lists both the first and second editions, and as A and B respectively.