Friday, June 28, 2013

Emerson's Development

1. He who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet — The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing — But in the third stage the great question begins to bore you — Searching for the inner dialectic; 2. Philosopher: one whose art of living is bound up with theory — Whicher on Emerson: acquiescence — The Principle of Compensation and the Principle of Self-Reliance; 3. The tragic lapse theory of Emerson’s inner life — How do you reconcile the inner turmoil with the outer production? — Lapsarian accounts: right about biography, wrong about philosophy; 4. The Principle of Mood — Emerson’s dualism between monism/dualism — Assertion is relative to the mood in when we make them; 5. Juxtaposing “The Poet” and “Experience” — Nature loves to hide — Dream delivers us to dream — Romanticism’s promise of power as a dream to be actualized; 6. Whicher and Mumford — Self-preservation and self-transformation — Transformation and resistance, continuity and change

1.      Harold Bloom once said that “critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet.” [1] One of the things Bloom meant about critics is that they are like metaphysicians, philosophers—these are the kinds of chaps who look for the meaning of things, for a reason why X happened and not Y. This is, pushed to the extreme, reduction which leads to monism. The things disappear beneath the meaning you’ve extracted, and do that enough times and you’ll be left with one thing—Meaning/Reason. (This is why logos is the enveloping term in Greek idealism.) [2]

A more practical version of this is the scholar’s dismay at the fox. As Isaiah Berlin reminded us, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For Berlin, this was a distinction between those with “a single central vision, one system” and those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” [3] Scholars like to connect things; they like to explain why X was written. And it is, honestly, much easier if the writer is a hedgehog, because then you can keep drawing connections back to the central thesis that you’ve sussed out on behalf of the writer. This becomes particularly important as a tool of efficiency if the writer in question wrote material over a long period of time—first book or last, juvenilia or marginalia, hey, wouldn’t you know: it says the same thing.

Life (sigh) is never like this, though it’s difficult to imagine why we’d want to spend so much of our time as scholars on such imagined repetition. But we do like order—we like it when a writer does things for reasons that form a pattern. We don’t like it when those reasons are boring. Why did John Grisham write The Firm? To make money? Yawn. Why did Harriet Beecher Stowe write Uncle Tom’s Cabin? To fight racism? Okay, that’s more interesting; I can work with that. Why did Heidegger turn away from Being and Time? Because he realized that the goal of metaphysics was to both do it and transcend it and so had to work out a way of realizing both his own ambitions for conceptual mastery and desires for mystical silence? Now we’re talking. We like people like J. M. Coetzee, who described this hoped-for hedgehogginess thus:
One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere. [4]
(The third stage, of course, is back to Yawnsville, but then I think that might be precisely the point.)

When we fail at coming up with a single ambition or vision that a writer adheres to, we like just as much the challenge of showing how a writer unfolds via an inner dialectic. “Ralph was bored so he asked himself a different question” isn’t good enough—doesn’t really seem to merit attention (by itself). But how Richard Rorty’s first famous article, “Mind-Body Identity, Privacy, and Categories” (1965), displays the central conceptual move that leads to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and from there to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but equally that that first article is not Rorty’s answer to the mind-body problem, nor is Mirror Rorty’s final answer about philosophy—that is interesting. It takes time to show, and to show it is to shed new and needed light on what Rorty was really doing.

2.      This search for an inner dialectic works quite well when approaching the central American Romantics, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville. It’s easy to tell a “death of the imagination” narrative with Hawthorne and a “retreat to private expression” narrative with Melville. Emerson’s tale of development was established definitively by Stephen Whicher. Whicher’s Freedom and Fate (1953) is the beginning point for any serious scholarly work on Emerson, [7] and especially any work on Emerson as a philosopher. For Whicher’s book is about Emerson’s “inner life,” and Emerson’s inner life was taken up by the obsession with intellectual problems. Whicher shows how Emerson is a philosopher in Alexander Nehamas’s sense, someone whose art of living is bound up with the propounding of theoretical theses. [8]

Whicher’s central story is one of “acquiescence” (xvi). The general gist goes like this: Emerson’s first stage was the impress of the typical New England heritage of a Calvinistic belief in God’s Providence. However, do to the watering down of “the white-hot core of the original Calvinistic piety” (8) in Unitarianism, Emerson became susceptible to Humean doubt. This doubt laid waste to all the underpinnings of his faith in Providence, without actually touching the faith itself. This meant that natural, rational, and supernatural paths of justification were out for Emerson, but what saved him was the realization that God was within him—Emerson turns the original Protestant Reformation into a full-blown revolution. “The rock on which he thereafter based his life was the knowledge that the soul of man does not merely, as had long been taught, contain a spark or drop or breath of voice of God; it is God” (21).

So the first two stages of Emerson’s development, that take us to the resignation of his post in the Unitarian Church, give us the interaction of two fundamental principles to understand Emerson: 1) his faith in God’s Providence becomes Emerson’s Principle of Compensation which is then supplemented by 2) the God-within which becomes the Principle of Self-Reliance. The story that Whicher tells is that in the third stage the Principle of Self-Reliance expands into a kind of power madness, “that when Emerson found a basis for the assertion of unconditional good, in his discovery of the God within the soul, the law of compensation slipped into a subordinate place in his thoughts” (39). Finding God within gave Emerson the sense that all of our shackles were man-made, and thus paled in comparison to the power we had when we relied instead on God for support. Mad with his belief that he could do anything, Emerson’s Principle of Self-Reliance quite naturally collapses under its own weight, from the unbalanced ratio between claims-of-power and evidence-for-power. The more the world “remained obdurately independent of his will” (60), the more he saw that the Principle of Self-Reliance was clearly not all there was. So in the fifth and final stage, the Principle of Compensation returns in order to circumscribe the power announced by Self-Reliance. And so the promise of freedom Emerson felt with the discovery of the God within is diminished as he acquiesces to the encompassing demands of fate.

3.      There is something very powerful and importantly right about Whicher’s narrative. However, there are two interlocked problems that should lead us to dissent from the conclusions Whicher draws about Emerson’s philosophical attitude. The first is the condensation of the proposed shift between all five stages at the very beginning of his career. The evidence Whicher accumulates doesn’t point at a steady development, but that the major movement of acquiescence has already occurred by Essays, First Series (1941). Nature (1836) is, without a doubt, a bewildering text that does not see Emerson at the height of his powers, but everyone affirms that all the action is in his first two books of essays. [9] How can his most powerful moments be an acquiescence?

Given that the evidence of the interplay between the Principle of Compensation and the Principle of Self-Reliance is present at minimum in seed form even at the beginning of his career as writer, it is equally easy to mark not a sharp break but a gradual unfolding of the essential elements of his mature thought. The difference between the two is that what Lawrence Buell calls Whicher’s “tragic lapse theory of Emerson’s inner life” [10] doesn’t do well in suggesting that Emerson has a coherent philosophy. In essence, Whicher explains away incoherence as biographically legible conflict that is, indeed, conceptually bunk. This treatment, of course, is given industrial strength justification by Emerson himself, his most famous line being “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (“Self-Reliance”).

So the second problem that leads from the first is that Whicher’s account doesn’t precisely help us read the final product. The reason is simple: there’s a reason that Emerson’s journals were raided for the final product of his polished essays and that things appeared as they did, and other things (from the journals) disappeared as they did. The question is what those local reasons were, something that would aid our ability to interpret how the essays hang together as they stand. We should not use the journals to explain away the need for us to think hard about what Emerson was meaning to do in the essays. Barbara Packer, in her book which we should see as an extension of Whicher’s account, summarizes the scholarly problem well in relation to Nature: the problem is in “finding a stylistically sensitive way of reconciling a diachronic account of the book’s genesis and growth with a synchronic account of its structure.” [11]

The main thesis I would forward is that Whicher-Packer lapsarian accounts are broadly right about Emerson’s biography, but wrong about his philosophy. I think such biographical sleuthing has been successful in establishing that Emerson’s initial, cosmically high hopes about the power that could be unleashed within each of us were tragically dashed—what I don’t think they’ve done as well in is in suggesting what Emerson did with that tragedy in constructing his philosophy. In particular, formulating the account as lapsarian gives us exactly the wrong handle on the heart of Emerson’s thought. Emerson may have thought in such biblical terms as the Fall of Man, and mythologized the paradox of having infinite power within while continuing to fail without in those terms, but the central strain of Emerson that faces the future breaks radically with these modes of thought, and so to interpret him according to them is to darken precisely what is most enlightening about him on our problems.

4.      Whicher’s problem, I think, is that he doesn’t ascribe enough importance to what I shall call Emerson’s Principle of Mood. I think the hidden message of Emerson’s trajectory is not the fundamental importance of the struggle between the optimistic power of Self-Reliance against the pessimistic power of Fate (which has significant prima facie evidence in the trajectory to The Conduct of Life), but the struggle between the promise he felt in Self-Reliance and it’s ephemerality in the face of changing moods. The Principle of Compensation, which is always overinfluenced by Emerson’s faith in Providence (which is quite cheery), gives way to Mood as the most important element waging battle against Emerson’s optimism. It isn’t optimism vs. pessimism, but optimism vs. optimism/pessimism.

The conceptual source of Whicher’s rhetoric of acquiescence is his sense that Emerson is trying, and failing, to find a way to live in the Power of His Soul all the time. I think all of the following summarizing moments go wrong on precisely the point I’m addressing, and they mount in a steady progression (italics are all mine): “Though not quite ready himself to give up to the soul beyond the possibility of a quick self-recovery, the thought then central to his mind was of a new state of life, a state of greatness and freedom beyond anything in human experience, into which, if he could only hit upon the password, he and all men might at any moment enter” (48); “If freedom lay only in the total self-trust of greatness, and if in fact he could be great only in inceptions and not in act, how did his new faith free him?” (70); “Even if we drop the question of action, and seek on ‘Reality,’ the problem still remains, How is such wholeness to be won and kept?” (83-4); “But the radical defect of man, the creator in the finite, is his incapacity to maintain his creative force. ‘The only sin is limitation’—but this is original sin beyond the power of grace” (97); “Man is promised the world—a promise perpetually renewed and never kept” (111). You can tell Whicher’s account begins to lose explanatory power when he perversely construes Emerson’s exuberant redescription of sin as a lapsarian tragedy. He may, biographically, have been looking for a password and totality, but the philosophy we get in its finished form is not like this. Emerson’s tragic optimism lays precisely in his giving up of the desire for completeness—not as a lost hope, but as a dumb hope. (And this, to me, seems perfectly consistent with having to be reminded oneself about how dumb one’s hopes might be.)

I think we can find this sense of duality—between the elated promise of independence and the depressed realization of its fragmented nature—in his published work, from beginning to end. Less than a year after the publication of Nature, Emerson writes in his journal “A believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two.” [13] For Emerson, Unity is the essence of God and thus Self-Reliance’s promise of power, and thus duality is a fragmented deflation of that promise. What I think we find in Emerson’s writing is a dualism between monism/dualism—depending on mood, he sees the world through one lens, and then another.

The importance of the circumscription of mood is that it creates a radical positionality to the Emersonian utterance. And this is how we are to understand Emerson’s hobgoblin—for while it makes sense to say that you cannot hold both “there is a god” and “there is no god,” what sense does it make to say that you cannot be both happy and sad? Oh—at the same time, sure, but it certainly doesn’t make any sense to say that a person is being incoherent when they wake up in the morning happy and end the evening sad. Emerson’s radical thought is that our assertions about the world are equally relative to the mood we are in when we make them. And this then makes conceptual coherence a more complex affair to adjudicate the importance of. This means that to understand the most important syntactical unit in the Emersonian corpus—the sentence—you have to ascribe a mood, and that way mount a picture of coherence relative to the kinds of moods. The Principle of Mood is essentially the claim that it is rhetoric all the way down, that we are always contextually and rhetorically defined—but more, for it points the way toward a necessary expansion of our conceptual accounts to include the emotions, passions, temperament, attitude. So while the last half the 20th century has pretty much seen the rhetorical stance become common sense for the intellectuals, we still have Emerson sitting beyond.

5.      On the surface, the necessity of understanding the text in context seems so obvious in terms of understanding anything as having one particular meaning as opposed to another that to invoke it to justify apparent contradiction looks suspiciously convenient (which is what many of Emerson’s contemporaries thought—Melville, for one). So I’d like to give one example that illustrates how Emerson uses this thought in a constructive mode. Emblematic of this general train of thought is the first two essays of Essays, Series Two: “The Poet” and “Experience.” These two essays cannot be read separately without giving a very misleading picture of Emerson’s vision. “The Poet” gives us a predictably up-beat picture—by this time, even to his contemporaries, Emerson was The Optimist. “The poet is the sayer, the namer … a sovereign, and stands on the centre.” “The Universe is the externization of the soul.” “Poets are thus liberating gods.” But in “Experience,” Emerson uses the death of his son, Waldo, to establish the much darker tone of the piece, offering this disturbing reaction:
In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
I don’t intend to here attempt to read this passage, which continues to shock our sensibilities. (I should add that Emerson’s grief in his journal is overwhelming—if there is anything in his published work that needs to be understood according to the Principle of Mood, it is this passage.) For now I simply offer the above two cross selections to establish the tenor of the essays as a whole. What I want to instead compare are two examples of a more specific procedure that Emerson uses to great effect in these two essays. Compare these two passages, and ask yourself—which essay does it come from?
I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.

For the time of towns is tolled from the world by funereal chimes, but in nature the universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy. God wills also that thou abdicate a manifold and duplex life, and that thou be content that others speak for thee. Others shall be thy gentlemen and shall represent all courtesy and worldly life for thee; others shall do the great and resounding actions also. Thou shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine; thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his well-beloved flower and thou shalt be known only to thine own, and they shall console thee with tenderest love.
If you guessed I would be tricky and put the second essay first and the first second, you’d be right. The mood of the two passages are so starkly opposed—the first depressing while the second, though speaking of the sad nature of the poet to be useless in society, makes it sound great. What I want to punch up are the two lines that express the same conceptual thought but in two precisely different attitudes, like an apple being looked at from two different directions. “Nature does not like to be observed” and “Thou shalt lie close hid with nature.” This is an allusion to an aphorism of Heraclitus, “nature loves to hide.” In the darker essay of “Experience,” Nature’s tendency to hide from us is really our fault, the “most unhandsome part of our condition.” But from a different direction, the poet is who transcends this condition (and thus liberating gods for it) though at the expense of being lost to social intercourse. (“To be great is to be misunderstood,” as Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.”) One more:
That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations, times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and, while the drunkenness lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.
Again, the moods are so clearly juxtaposed. The poet, drunk on his power to say, would sell off everything else—which is precisely the dark fringe to this dream, the nightmare hanging off in the wings: What if it is all an illusion? If it’s an illusion, then getting drunk on it seems to just double down on a shitty hand. Emerson’s early life took Humean skepticism very seriously, and these two passages perfectly illustrate Emerson’s constructive use of that early encounter. Emerson conceptualizes romanticism’s promise of power as a dream, which is both its best and worst feature. Progress is contingent on our ability to actualize the dream in the world, but what then is the world but an endless succession of particular people’s dreams? This is how you make the epistemological skepticism of Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume practical again. (Something, I should add, Hume I think already began to do if Annette Baier’s reading of him is right in A Progress of Sentiments.) For the output of this line is not paralysis, as a practically lived Cartesian skepticism would be—if you are self-conscious enough about mood circumscribing speech acts, as I think Emerson is, then the mood in which you become depressed about mood circumscribing speech acts and how it just shows it all to be a sham, an illusion, “so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within” [14]—then you’ll also recognize that sometimes you aren’t in that mood. And this suggests to me that the point of this juxtaposition of moods on the metaphor of dreams is that what we must really beware is not the act of saying tout court, but the drunkenness of dogmatism—self-reliant saying can forget its fallibility in its moment of power, of changing the shape of the world by changing what it is possible for us to dream of.

6.      Since Whicher supplies all the evidence needed to modulate his case, I think it’s easy to see the slant he puts on it as an unfortunate Mumfordism. While above I attempted to show what the conceptual source of the rhetoric of acquiescence was, it’s nearest historical source is Lewis Mumford’s groundbreaking and very influential The Golden Day (1926). With Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, and Waldo Frank, they composed the “Young American” critics, a group of wide-ranging intellectuals and cultural critics whose central philosophical preoccupation in the early 20th century was an attack on John Dewey and pragmatism for, essentially, not being radical enough. After Mumford’s chapter on the central American Romantics (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville), “The Golden Day,” follows his chapter on William Dean Howells, Twain, and William James, “The Pragmatic Acquiescence.”
What is valid in idealism is the belief in this process of re-molding, re-forming, re-creating, and so humanizing the rough chaos of existence. That belief had vanished: it no longer seemed a genuine possibility. … It was an act of grand acquiescence. Transcendentalism, as Emerson caustically said, had resulted in a headache; but the pragmatism that followed it was a paralysis. This generation had lost the power of choice; it bowed to the inevitable; it swam with the tide; and it went as far as the tide would carry it. [15]
I don’t wish to whitewash Mumford’s complex relationship to James, Dewey, and pragmatism, but his view of it was perhaps a little overinfluenced by Santayana’s criticism of Emerson through James as “the genteel tradition.” For it’s not hard to see how Emerson himself led to the situation—the divine providence that became Emerson’s Principle of Compensation later became what Emerson called “fate.”

Rather than confuting Mumford’s particular interpretation of pragmatism, I want to close by offering this more general observation about the conceptual resources of James and Dewey’s pragmatism. What I think Mumford and Whicher misunderstand about Emerson and the pragmatists is the importance of romantic self-transformation. They saw the essentially conservative character of “reality” and instrumentalism, but didn’t see how the Emersonian tradition was attempting to unlock a radically different orientation to a necessary recognition of the crossed axes of self-preservation and self-transformation. When Whicher sees Emerson try to assimilate the world’s resistance to the Poet’s Self-Reliance by his Principle of Compensation, he thinks Emerson has sold the pass to inevitability. In instrumentalism, we see how ends must first be fixed before deciding on what means or instruments one uses to carry out those ends, and thus how it doesn’t provide the opportunity to change those ends. But this understanding of Dewey’s instrumentalism completely ignores what Dewey tried to articulate in his notion of the means-ends continuum—that in the process of formulating a set of means to carry out a defined end we alter our sense of what end is desired, thus setting off a dialectic, as now new means are needed for the new end, the search for which will again alter the end-in-view, requiring new means, ad infinitum. [16] If we think of romanticism as the movement of thought that apotheosizes the transformative character of human power, we will see that while Mumford’s interpretation of pragmatism plays down the importance of romanticism in pragmatism in favor of Emerson and Whicher’s interpretation of Emerson plays down the importance of romanticism in Emerson in favor of pragmatism (unfortunately, on this view), and that what we really need is a view of Emerson and pragmatism that integrates their views of transformation and resistance, continuity and change, future and past into a coherent conceptual account. [17] It isn’t for them that we must do this, for it certainly may well turn out to be the case that we will have to reject some of their particular ways of understanding things—this is for us, for if Rorty is right, then figuring out how to get their conceptual projects to work is a way for us to understand how to get our conceptual projects to work.


[1] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 78

[2] This is obviously a very particular understanding of what philosophy is, roughly romantic. For example, it’s the picture that is unveiled in my discussion of John Barth—see the third section of "On Literature's Accidents."

[3] From the beginning of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which can be found in Berlin’s Russian Thinkers or The Proper Study of Mankind.

[4] Quoted in Christopher Tayler’s “Tables and Chairs,” London Review of Books, March 21, 2013.

[5] This was the burden of Robert Brandom’s “Vocabularies of Pragmatism,” in his Perspectives on Pragmatism. Rorty’s response was that Brandom’s paper gave him “a more flattering view of the course of my work than before. Brandom has suggested a coherence between my earlier and my later writings that had not occurred to me. I had not seen that there was a connection between the eliminative materialism I was urging in the 1960s and the private-public distinction I have been urging since Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. My unconscious has been more cunning than I had realized” (“Response to Brandom,” 190n4, in Rorty and His Critics).

[6] When you look at Hawthorne, you find a writer with a fairly stable vocabulary for tropes, an intense desire to make those tropes about troping, and an abiding concern about his ability to trope—so we can spot a trajectory wherein many of Hawthorne’s tales and sketches thematize the problem of writing within them, to his three vital novels—all in some manner internalizing the problem of writing, whether Hester’s needlework or Holgrave’s daguerreotyping or Coverdale the minor transcendental poet—to the final Marble Faun, all about death, representation, and the death of representation. Tack on Hawthorne’s inability to finish his final projects and you have a pretty good outline for a “death of the imagination” narrative. (If you want a display of what "thematizing the problem of writing" means, you might check out section 2 of "Work and Idleness.") When you look at Melville, you find a writer fascinated by the act of storytelling, but struggling to find his real voice as a writer. All his books through Moby-Dick are first-person narratives, and after encountering Hawthorne’s work and its literary-conceptual gymnastics, Melville writes his Great Book, publishes it, begins writing the next, and as the bad reviews of Moby-Dick come out, we can see him transforming Pierre into something that seems designed to fail (gloriously, for the book is brilliant). And The Confidence-Man—there’s no protagonist, no narrative! (On the surface, only, of course.) After that he gives up prose entirely for poetry, never publishing another story (Billy Budd was unfinished and posthumous) and writing the longest poem in English (barring, I believe, The Faerie Queene), nearly 18,000 lines, and some other short lyrics in the last 30+ years of his life. This story, reading his increasing impenetrability as a form of private expression, is the burden of Edgar Dryden’s Monumental Melville.

[7] Along with F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), which obviously has a much larger scope. I hope to say something about Matthiessen’s book soon.

[8] See the “Introduction” to Nehamas’s The Art of Living. Nehamas makes a number of other distinctions in approaching theory and philosophy, all of which are pertinent to understanding Emerson. In particular, as Nehamas himself notes, the kind of philosopher his study is in large part about (Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault) are often called “literary” because central to their act of philosophy is the process of self-creation that happens in the written medium. Additionally, Nehamas’s exemplars “do not insist that their life is a model for the world at large. They do not want to be imitated, at least not directly. That is, they believe that those who want to imitate them must develop their own art of living, their own self, perhaps to exhibit it for others but not so that others imitate them directly. Imitation, in this context, is to become someone on one’s own; but the someone one becomes must be different from one’s model” (10). The relationship to the Emerson who said “imitation is suicide” (“The Poet”) and the Thoreau who said “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account” (Walden, Ch. 1) should be obvious. However, Nehamas has never given any attention to the relationship (genealogical or otherwise) between Emerson and Nietzsche, though everyone who works on either is well aware of it. Nehamas’s story in that book is structured by the obsession his three later writers had with Socrates (and, hence, Plato). And given that two major heroes and influences on Emerson were Plato and Montaigne, there might be an interesting story to tell about the refraction of ideas through all these prisms of intellectual power and self-reliance.

[9] Considering Emerson’s Principle of Transition, that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition” (“Self-Reliance”), an argument could be made about the nature of Nature’s power being based on its slippery fluidity. That is, however, not an argument I intend on making, nor will I discuss the Principle of Transition. Nature is great fun, but Emerson’s acme is in the 1840s work.

[10] Buell, Emerson, 98

[11] Emerson’s Fall, 29

[12] The argument I would make about Emerson’s central line of thought—which is clearly well beyond the space afforded here, and beyond my present grasp anyway—is analogous to the arguments Hans Blumenberg and Bernard Yack mount against philosophers of history like Karl Löwith and Eric Voegelin. The latter two basically formulate narratives in which today’s modern, secular problems are simply the revenging of old, religious problems because our secular terms are simply written over the palimpsest of religion. (This is sometimes called the “secularization thesis,” and Löwith’s Meaning in History is paradigmatic.) By contrast, Blumenberg and Yack in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and The Longing for Total Revolution, respectively, attempt to show how some secular conceptual mechanics are genuinely new moves that produce new problems with no precursor in the older modes of thought. What I think is important in understanding Emerson are the reasons for his formulation of self-reliance as self-reliance, and not “God-reliance,” in Whicher’s very influential conflation (57). There’s no doubt in my mind that Emerson sincerely believed that God was within, and so that self-reliance was in some way God-reliance, but the conceptual work being done by his formulations of self-reliance were ultimately antithetical to belief in any and every form of God that is not found within—and this means that most forms of religion are behind the Emersonian curve. Furthermore, I think there’s a reason why his synonym for self-reliance in “Self-Reliance” is “self-trust” and not “self-faith” as well.

[13] May 26, 1837

[14] This is from the extraordinary close of Ch. 42 of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I use it here as a placeholder for a larger discussion about the Melvillean and Emersonian strands of antirepresentationalism that I find pervasive in the central American Romantics. For in “Experience,” Emerson comes as close as he can get to the apocalyptic pessimism Melville displays in his mature work about the very possibility of representation, of there being any point to this pathetic negotiation we call “life.” Emerson articulates it—and somehow swerves back to optimism. I think of Melville and Emerson standing to each other as, in a manner, Derrida stands to Rorty. Rorty recognizes Derrida’s “arguments” as having an affinity to pragmatism’s antirepresentationlism, but equally that that rejection does not a pragmatist make. To make inroads on this angle, one should coordinate “The Whiteness of the Whale” with Derrida’s “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (in his Margins of Philosophy). Compare Ishmael’s rhetorical question, “is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” to Derrida’s thesis: “White mythology—metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest” (213).

[15] The Golden Day, 83 of the 1957 Beacon Paperback edition

[16] Brandom has reformulated Dewey’s notion of the means-ends continuum for Rorty’s notion of what Brandom calls the “vocabulary vocabulary”: “Every use of a vocabulary, every application of a concept in making a claim, both is answerable to norms implicit in communal practice—its public dimension, apart from which it cannot mean anything (though it can cause something)—and transforms those norms by its novelty—its private dimension, apart from which it does not formulate a belief, plan, or purpose worth expression” ("Vocabularies of Pragmatism," Perspectives on Pragmatism, 153). It's worth pointing out that here Brandom is attempting to assimilate some very specialized points in the philosophy of language with Rorty's taking up of the Mill-Berlin tradition of articulating a public/private distinction in order defend liberalism, but that given Emerson's own preoccupation with the distiction society and solitude, there might be some interesting resources in Emerson to think through this angle on pragmatism that Brandom has done so well in bringing to light. For a different application of Brandom's philosophy of language to the public/private distinction, see my "A Spatial Model of Belief Change."

[17] Despite the previous note, Brandom has rejected romanticism as an important genealogical root of pragmatism. See my discussion of this in “Pragmatism as Enlightened Romanticism.”

Friday, June 21, 2013

Work and Idleness in the American Romantics

1. Perry Miller and the Puritan work ethic — Idleness as sin — Melville’s harpooners — Allegory — Melville’s nothing is really something; 2. Hawthorne’s Old Manse — Thresholds as thematic — Hawthorne’s prefaces — Romance as enchantment; 3. Veils and eagle-eyed reading — Idleness and enchantment; 4. Emerson: do your work; 5. Thoreau: converting experience into poetry — Don't be a tool — Ecumenicism and ineffability; 6. Indirection — Precision and drift

1.     Ever since Max Weber, we’ve come to know a certain hard-headed dedication to self-abnegating work as “the Protestant ethic.” In America, we know this to be the Puritan work ethic. Perry Miller records it well:
That every man should have a calling and work hard in it was a first premise of Puritanism. The guidebook for earthly existence, William Ames’s Conscience with the Power and Cases thereof [1643], confirmed his authoritative summary of theology, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity [1623], that even the man who has an income must work. Everyone has a talent for something, given of God, which he must improve. Although poverty is not a sin if it be suffered for causes outside one’s control, for any to accept it voluntarily is utterly reprehensible. God has so contrived the world that men must seek the necessities of life in the earth or in the sea, but the objects of their search have been cunningly placed for the finding. [1]
There might be a lot of penetrating questions to be asked about the relationship between this theology and a functioning economy. The depth of resonance to our current political rhetoric I pass over as obvious, and Miller records his own sense of resonance to his times (his book was published in 1952) when he suggests that the Puritan clergymen’s jeremiads against the society they saw around them in the colonies, “taken in sequence … constitute a chapter in the emergence of the capitalist mentality, showing how intelligence copes with—or more cogently, how it fails to cope with—a change it simultaneously desires and abhors” (40).

Whatever the real sources of this work ethic and whatever its relationship to the growth of an industrial economy, the fact is certain that in the mid-19th century, American intellectuals thought of this work ethic as tied to industrialization and as Puritan in spirit. The relationship of the American Romantics, however, to this work ethic was qualified at best. One interesting thread to be pulled out of the rich cloth of their commonalities is their use of “idleness.” Idleness is quite nearly the Puritan sin par excellence, a term embedded in their moral vocabularies in a way it isn’t today. For a boy to be called “idle” today—well, first, who on earth would call their child “idle”? We might say “lazy,” but even that word isn’t quite so charged as “idle” was. Idleness was an effrontery to God, in part. So whenever it appears in their work, it is done so self-consciously. It is not a mistake that at the end of the short chapter, “The Dart,” Ishmael says in Moby-Dick that “to insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.” This is one of those moments where Moby-Dick expands suddenly and seamlessly into its largest capacity as allegory, making the world an Ocean and every person a Whaleman.

Is everyone a harpooner, though? I take it not, and I think Melville’s perception is enhanced when we don’t assume that every particular person is the object of his allegorizing (as we would in allegories like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where everyone is “Christian,” the protagonist). The Pequod embodies Man’s Mission through Life, both horizontally and vertically. On the horizontal side, there’s not only the fact that there are only men (not a mistake for either the ship or the allegory), but the distinction between crew—from the officers of the ship, all white, to their “squires,” the harpooners, all non-white. By casting Queequeg the Pacific Islander, Tashtego the American Indian, and Daggoo the “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” as the harpooners, Melville is able to encapsulate the World from the white European’s perspective during the 19th-century’s Age of Imperial Expansion—“the native American [by which he means, not unironically, “white people”] liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles.” [2] But not only this, for there are the many other whalemen on board, from the blacksmith to “Black Little Pip,” who will get lost at sea (physically and spiritually), and the common sailor, who blends into the background, to the “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men,” who—“disgusted with the carking cares of earth”—find themselves at the topmast and completely forget to call out at the sight of whales, what with “the problem of the universe revolving” in them and all. [3] Thus is Ishmael.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that Ishmael, in a somewhat transcendental guise, is described here as, basically, idle. Melville considered writing, and primarily of the literary kind, “the great Art of Telling the Truth.” These harpooners of the World require rest—subsidized rest if you want your Truth. They look like they’re doing nothing, but it really is something.

2.     We see this in Hawthorne as well. At the close of “The Old Manse,” Hawthorne’s sketch of his abode in Concord (rented from Emerson), Hawthorne says this:
In one respect, our precincts were like the Enchanted Ground, through which the pilgrim travelled on his way to the Celestial City. The guests, each and all, felt a slumberous influence upon them; they fell asleep in chairs, or took a more deliberate siesta on the sofa, or were seen stretched among the shadows of the orchard, looking up dreamily through the boughs. They could not have paid a more acceptable compliment to my abode, nor to my own qualities as a host. I held it as a proof, that they left their cares behind them, as they passed between the stone gate-posts, at the entrance of our avenue; and that the so powerful opiate was the abundance of peace and quiet, within and all around us. Others could give them pleasure and amusement; or instruction—these could be picked up anywhere—but it was for me to give them rest—rest, in a life of trouble. What better could be done for those weary and world-worn spirits? … what better could be done for anybody who came within our magic circle than to throw the spell of a tranquil spirit over him? And when it had wrought its full effect, then we dismissed him, with but misty reminiscences, as if he had been dreaming of us.

Were I to adopt a pet idea, as so many people do, and fondle it in my embraces to the exclusion of all others, it would be, that the great want which mankind labors under, at this present period, is—sleep!
This is a tremendously resonant passage that illustrates well Hawthorne’s peculiar talents in compression. First, there’s the use of thresholds. Hawthorne returns over and over to a select number of tropes and images, and one of these is the “threshold,” perhaps best illustrated by the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne’s narrator binds together the “prison-door” (also the title of the short chapter) with “the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal.” This binding not only turns us from the prison door as threshold-for-Hester to the first chapter as threshold-for-reader, but also to “The Custom-House” preface as threshold-for-reader—Hawthorne is delicately moving us into the enchanted precincts of his narrative. We started in real life, and then moved to reading the preface, where the “Hawthorne” we may have met in Concord or Salem or on the cover of the book is transformed first into “the intrusive author” who would “prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” After passing through the portal of the preface, this “I” suffers a further transformation into the narrator, which the pause at the “prison-door” (first chapter or physical prison door?) alerts us to.

This is how, broadly, Hawthorne thought of his prefaces, and “The Old Manse” functions the same way. Notice the parallel between “Old Manse” and “Custom-House” as spatial locations, and further notice how “The Old Manse” begins: “Between two tall gate-posts of rough-hewn stone … we beheld the gray front of the old parsonage, terminating the vista of an avenue of black-ash trees. … The glimmering shadows, that lay half-asleep between the door of the house and the public highway, were a kind of spiritual medium, seen through which, the edifice had not quite the aspect of belonging to the material world” (italics mine). The reader, moving through “The Old Manse,” parallels his own spectral self moving through the Old Manse’s gateposts, conducted by the narrator to the sights to be seen.

The threshold we are crossing, as I’ve intimated, is into the enchantment of his story. Hawthorne conceived of romance as a kind of enchanting, and itself as a liminal space between “the Actual and the Imaginary,” as he put it in “The Custom-House.” The second set of figures I want to call attention to, then, are mediums—all objects of mediation held a special power for Hawthorne. From the “moonlight” (light from the sun mediated by the moon) that is “a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer” which prefaces his definition of romance, to the “glimmering shadows” we just saw between the highway and the Old Manse which function as a “spiritual medium” (and thus causing the Old Manse to hover between Actual/material and Imaginary/spiritual).

Now, return to our original passage: “In one respect, our precincts were like the Enchanted Ground, through which the pilgrim travelled on his way to the Celestial City.” The Old Manse here becomes a figure for romance, for Hawthorne’s writing. Not only are we primed by the echo of “glimmering shadows, that lay half-asleep” with “the shadows of the orchard, looking up dreamily through the boughs” (the italics keying two more liminalities), but by troping the Old Manse as the Enchanted Ground of The Pilgrim’s Progress Hawthorne is able to: 1) make the Old Manse a liminal space (between beginning and destination, the Celestial City), 2) push the reader further into a literary, figural space (the first was the “spectralizing” I called attention to in beginning “The Old Manse” sketch, but if the reader was able to hold onto reality by considering it a sketch of a real place, and not a literary “making up,” now the reader’s spectral self is pushed through the literary wormhole of “like” and allusion into Bunyan’s narrative), and 3) make the reader into Everyman—just as Christian, the protagonist of The Pilgrim’s Progress, is on the same journey everyone else is on, so too is the reader—and wouldn’t you like some rest?

3.     So—Hawthorne is saying something a little different from Melville after all. (Wait for it.) Or is he? If you think of an author as a foe who secretes secrets into his text, then Hawthorne is the wiliest of opponents, and it is precisely what delighted Melville about him. One of Hawthorne’s favoritest of all tropes was the veil, which we’ve already met in the relevant context (in “The Custom-House”): “still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” Hawthorne repeats this in “The Old Manse”: “So far as I am a man of really individual attributes, I veil my face.” So when Hawthorne (or should we say, “the Hawthorne figure”?) says in the passage we’re primarily focused on unpacking, “Others could give them pleasure and amusement; or instruction … but it was for me to give them rest,” should we trust him? Is this a pose? Part of his veiling of his real meaning? Melville thought so. In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville mocks the idea that Hawthorne, as he was popularly thought, was “a pleasant writer, with a pleasant style,—a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated:—a man who means no meanings.” For Melville, however, the Truth had to be veiled as Hawthorne did, because Truth could not be approached directly and could therefore only be intimated “covertly, and by snatches.” And thus only “the eagle-eyed reader” was privy to the Truth.

Hawthorne says his house is for rest and for sleep. But you can’t stay—you want to get to your destination, whatever the “Celestial City” figures for you. More than that, however, are those glimmering shadows “half-asleep” at the threshold of “The Old Manse.” Those shadows, which as a medium are a trope for romance and enchantment, are not fully sleeping. They too are in a liminal space, resting perhaps but also slightly agitated. This is what Melville understood. You could take Hawthorne for merely a pleasant respite from the carking cares of the world, but if you look with sharp eyes, you’ll enter that dream-state where you come back affected by the subtle conceptual vibrations.

One of my reasons for reading Hawthorne so closely is to show how Hawthorne, like Melville, becomes the intellectual equal of our thinkers-in-prose. Literary patterning can just be for fun, but when you start pulling at the threads that make up certain literary writers’ tapestries, you’ll occasionally see far off elements respond to your pulling and open up to you with why—do the pyrotechnics mean anything? In this passage from “The Old Manse,” Hawthorne has thematized idleness into his writing. There is something essentially idle about falling under enchantment—that is part of its work. And this, Hawthorne thinks, is one of the things it is good for.

4.     Hawthorne’s experience with work other than writing was debilitating for his writing. While working for the Boston Custom House, Hawthorne writes to his beloved Sophia—who he will not marry until he’s made enough money to support them—that his “fancy is rendered so torpid by my uncongenial way of life, that I cannot sketch off the scenes and portraits that interest me.” [6] After resigning, he joins Brook Farm, the most famous American utopian community of the 19th century. You can imagine how disastrous working on a farm was to his imaginative strength and output. Just four months into the experience he writes to Sophia:
And joyful thought!—in a little more than a fortnight, thy husband [pet name—they were only secretly engaged at this point] will be free from his bondage—free to think of his Dove [another disgustingly affectionate nickname]—free to enjoy Nature—free to think and feel! I do think that a greater weight will then be removed from me, than when Christian’s burthen fell off at the foot of the cross. [allusion to Bunyan] Even my Custom-House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness: my mind and heart were freer. Oh, belovedest, labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it, without becoming proportionably brutified. [7]
“Free to think and feel!” With these sentiments, Hawthorne probably seems pretty aristocratic alongside Thoreau, especially, and Melville, who tried his hand at manly work at sea. Emerson felt a greater unease about his position, since unlike Hawthorne he didn’t have to work at all. Though Emerson did have some money troubles after he resigned his post in the Unitarian Church, he’d already laid the groundwork for his income through intellectual labor—writing and lecturing. So though Emerson preached a Puritanesque ethic of work, it was carefully modulated to emphasize faith to one’s calling. “The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. … But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A must consider what a blindman’s-bluff is this game of conformity” (“Self-Reliance”). But even while Emerson believed we must hold true to what we were on the inside, he had deep doubts about society’s responsibilities for subsidizing people like he and Hawthorne to sit around and think all day. A few months before publishing his first book of essays, he referred to it in his journal as “a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” And just months after publishing “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. … Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. … To be great is to be misunderstood” (“Self-Reliance”)—four months later he records in his journal:
If I should or could record the true experience of my later years, I should have to say that I skulk & play a mean, shiftless, subaltern part much the largest part of the time. Things are to be done which I have no skill to do, or are to be said which others can say better, and I lie by, or occupy my hands with something which is only an apology for idleness until my hour comes again. Thus how much of my reading & all my labor in house or garden seems mere waiting: any other could do it as well or better. It really seems to me of no importance—so little skill enters into these works, so little do they mix with my universal life—what I do, whether I hoe, or turn a grindstone, or copy manuscript, or eat my dinner. All my virtue consists in my consent to be insignificant which consent is founded on my faith in the great Optimism, which will justify itself to me at last. [10]
I won’t parse the last bit—discussion of Emerson’s faith in fate is beyond my powers yet. (Why, after all, is it faith in optimism? Faith in the attitude of faith, the providential optimism that all will work out for the best?) To be sure, though, what we see here is doubt about the value of his work.

5.     Part of this doubt, I think, stemmed from his suspicion that while he preached a message of converting experience into poetry, he didn’t really carry it out. For those who heard “The American Scholar” in 1837 and resonated with “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” there must have been a let down with the abstract discussions of the Law of Compensation and other “spiritual laws.” Thoreau, I think, thought this and his Walden is the outgrowth of carrying out the play Emerson only theorized. (While I like the trope of casting Emerson as the Theorist of the American Epic with Thoreau and Whitman as the authentic Emersonian Epic-Writers, I myself am not a fan of this criticism of Emerson. But that might be because I’m partial to abstract music.)

For Thoreau, we definitely needed to revise our notions of work. Thoreau is our indigenous Critic of Industrialization, and while no economist as Marx was (and disastrously more naïve about the pastoral thematic in his utopic vision), he is at least if not more trenchant on the debilitating effects of a modern industrial commercial economy on a person’s spiritual life. F. O. Matthiessen cogently remarks that Thoreau “preached a gospel of leisure to Yankees” [11] to offset the deeply ingrained Puritan ethic. His most famous line, of course, sets the tone for the point of the Walden experiment: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Why? Because we have become “the tool of our tools,” and if you don’t hear the contemporary resonance in “when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him,” then I doubt you’ve even heard of a loan.

George W. Bush’s ironic summoning of the Puritan spirit on February 5, 2005 might be one of the greatest symbolic moments in American labor history—to a mother with three jobs, he says, “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.” Rorty used to say quite often that poverty comes before cultural issues because if you’re working three jobs, then you have no time to think about what’s best for your family or yourself, let alone what kinds of spiritual exercises you’d like to pursue or of other people who aren’t your family.

While that might be the most important relationship between work and idleness, there might be a more subtle relationship as well. Remember for Hawthorne that the best romance is halfway between the Actual and the Imaginary, “each imbuing itself with the nature of the other.” It is not pure fictionality that Hawthorne is after—not purely idle fancy. Likewise, Thoreau seems to have understood the problem of purity in either actuality or the imaginary. Despite his flare as a naturalist and eagle-eye for artifacts, Thoreau was wary of a too acute attention to detail. What Thoreau valued was a “sauntering of the eye.” And we can find the word’s resonance for him at the beginning of “Walking”: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country….’”

6.     Emerson talks of “fatal perception” in “Self-Reliance,” by which he means sight of something one cannot avoid. This was Emerson’s conception of intuition, or the influx of divinity, or what it means to be truly oneself (which at the same time makes you like God, and everyone else). I think this strain in Emerson is at odds with an equally dominant thread of indirection, which we also find in Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville. “An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us though its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author” ("The Poet"). For Thoreau, this idleness allows us to stray from the path—whatever direction we may have been accurately pursuing, it is not quite that now. “Rambling,” too, has this sense for all four. For Hawthorne, as we’ve seen, the veils reveal as much as they hide, for it is only through a medium that the ideal might imbue the real with its power. And Melville would not only agree with Emerson on reading, but Ahab is the iconic image for avoiding a direct relationship to reality and Truth—Ahab’s quest is for directness, and he unavoidably loses. [15]

We work hard at being precise—at being in control. But perhaps a little idleness would do us some good. Maybe taking our hand off the wheel occasionally, adding in a little drift. It is perhaps against the Puritan ethic that idleness pops into the vocabulary of the American Romantics the way it does, but their thematizing of idleness as a necessary condition for Truth, however variously conceived, is a curious and provocative move. I’m reminded of a passage in Heidegger’s Being and Time: “Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along—a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness.” [16] Since every good pragmatist—as I urge us all to be—is an antifoundationalist, we have to construe what “ground” we’re talking about here so it doesn’t sound so foundationalist-y. One mode of approaching it is to say that the “ground” in question is justification—we’re only entitled to say things about the way something is if we’re on firmer ground than “because I said so!” But if Emerson and Rorty are right, then some one claim about how X is will be circumscribed by the vocabulary one states the claim in. And if this is the case, then as Rorty said, you can’t argue your way into a new vocabulary—you have to jump in feet first. A sentence that doesn’t make sense in an old vocabulary can only be savored or spit out. And savoring it, on this analogy, is giving yourself enough latitude to acclimate yourself to the new taste, i.e. creating the vocabulary within which the sentence makes sense. We have to allow our inference-crunching, justification-demanding brains to be idle long enough to both emit and savor immediately nonsensical things in order for those things to do their work in creating the medium through which they’ll make sense.


[1] The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 40-41

[2] Moby-Dick, Ch. 27

[3] Moby-Dick, Ch. 35

[4] This is from Melville’s essential “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” It can be found easily in the Norton 2nd edition, edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford.

[5] Melville’s copy of Mosses from an Old Manse has a number of marginal scoring marks toward the end of this passage, which suggest to me that he vibrated to the thought here being articulated.

[6] May 29, 1840

[7] August 13, 1841

[8] I should also add that a significant portion of his income at this time was an inheritance from the estate of his first wife, Ellen, who died in 1831. Given the nature of the money, being bound up with loss, I can only imagine what additional psychological impact it had on his thoughts about idleness.

[9] October 7, 1840

[10] July 1841

[11] American Renaissance 92

[12] Chapter 1, “Economy” of Walden

[13] Hawthorne even recounts in “The Old Manse” that Thoreau had “a strange faculty of finding what the Indians have left behind them.”

[14] From Thoreau’s journal, quoted by Matthiessen on 90.

[15] And a story for another time, though perhaps meditate on Ishmael’s “key”: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Ch. 1).

[16] Macquarrie-Robinson edition, 212 (German 168)

[17] This is what Robert Brandom carries out brilliantly in terms of his pragmatist project of inferentialism in “Dasein, the Being that Thematizes” (collected in his Tales of the Might Dead).

[18] This is the line of thought that moves from Emerson’s “Circles” to Rorty’s “The Contingency of Language” (the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity).

[19] CIS 18

Friday, June 14, 2013

Asceticism and the Fire of the Imagination

1. The slow meander — Beauty in criticism; 2. Talking as injury — Talking as love; 3. Pater’s hard gem-like flame and the ironist — The strong poet’s fire; 4. Thoreau’s vital heat — Against obsession — Leisurely consumption and the art of chewing; 5. Romanticism of profusion — Asceticism and suffocation

1.     In what is purportedly the last piece Rorty wrote for publication, Rorty quotes two snatches of poetry that he “had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by” while he was dying of pancreatic cancer. The first is from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine”:
          We thank with brief thanksgiving
               Whatever gods may be
          That no life lives for ever;
          That dead men rise up never;
          That even the weariest river
               Winds somewhere safe to sea.
The second, Walter Savage Landor’s “On His Seventy-fifth Birthday”:
               Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art:
          I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
               It sinks; and I am ready to depart.
Of these snatches, Rorty says this:
I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers. I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. In lines such as these, all three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of  impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.
I like Rorty’s perspective on poetry. It is a kind of aesthetic perspective that, oddly enough, I’m not really allowed as a professional literary critic, at least in my professional capacity. You get frowny faces if you say you don’t love the beauty of literature, but you also get frowny faces if you try and write about it. There are two reasons for this, I think. One is the simple reason that it’s terribly difficult to write about. Our profession has too many bad memories of early shitty writing about what makes X, Y, or Z beautiful. And when we began to professionalize, say around 1900, the crap gained a stamp of authority that legitimized it in a way it previously lacked. As critics began to feel queer about the personal nature of what was deemed beautiful, they either fell back on Kantian-style aesthetic inquiry or purged it explicitly in order to smuggle it in implicitly as the study of pure form—this was New Criticism. New Criticism and Kantianism began to be rejected in the ’60s, but for many different, not always compatible reasons. One of those reasons was my second reason for why the current profession frowns on beauty—the (re)rise of post-Marxist debunking. Many think of talking about beauty as taking part in an ideological regime, so specifically stigmatize it as a bourgeois conspiracy to keep the people down. That’s changing, thank god, and many of us—and this is where my department largely falls—have felt and feel like beauty is important somehow, but feel uncomfortable talking about it, let alone writing about it.

2.     However, that being said, Rorty once said something in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that fell a little odd on our instincts as literary critics. In a kind of concluding aphorism during his discussion of Heidegger, Rorty says that the only solution to the problem of how to properly treat Heidegger’s power-words (e.g., noein, phusis, alētheia), which are part of his attempt to speak Being without talking about beings, is: “do not put Heidegger’s works in any context, do not treat them as movable pieces in a game, or as tools, or as relevant to any questions save Heidegger’s own. In short”—and here’s the bit—“give his words the privilege you extend to a lyric which you love too much to treat as an object of ‘literary criticism’ – a lyric which you recite, but do not (for fear of injuring it) relate to anything else” (CIS 115).

I thought this really interesting, and asked a friend of mine—who gets poetry in a way I do not—what she thought of it. She said it seemed really wrong. She expresses her love by talking about it.

That has to be, in some way, right for us talkative literary critics. And yet, I still feel like both attitudes of expression are right. I’m not sure I fear injuring Emily Dickinson, but I do know that I love reading her poetry and hate talking about it. (Or, maybe that’s just because I hate looking foolish.) But my friend is right certainly in one sense—Rorty has no business, qua pragmatist, thinking words, i.e. harnesses of relating, hurt anything. That’s a rare moment of ineffaphilia for Rorty. In the context of “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” however, with its description of Rorty’s intensely “snobbish” and solitary love of orchids, we might get a finer-grained picture of what Rorty means by the private/public distinction—some private things we do with friends, but some we do only by ourselves. Sometimes we express our love by burning outwards, engulfing others; sometimes we hold the flame away from the buffeting winds.

3.     It’s not a mistake that I’ve recurred to fire imagery, for this last piece of Rorty’s I’ve been quoting from takes its title from that line of Landor’s: “The Fire of Life.” [1] I don’t know why, but Rorty never quoted from Walter Pater, though the most famous passage in The Renaissance pretty much sums up the romantic view of the strong poet that so fired Rorty’s imagination:
To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems, by a lifted horizon, to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange flowers, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. [2]
Failure for Rorty’s ironist, hero of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, would be to take too seriously his own final vocabulary, which is largely inherited through that form of mass hypnosis we call “education.” Beliefs, for pragmatists, are habits of action, and Pater here perfectly describes the fear ironists have—that they’ll miss life if they aren’t able to discriminate finely the gradations between each person’s, thing’s, situation’s unique quality.

Rorty was caught by fire imagery at the end of his life. In “Philosophy and the Hybridization of Culture,” Rorty says that it might be sad if the ability to read ancient Greek and Latin died out, but if wouldn’t be a tragedy—“human creativity and diversity may flourish nonetheless. The human imagination may burn even brighter, even though many of the fuels that fed it are no longer available.” [3] This sense of fire as the imagination that destroys the material that keeps it alive is remnant of an earlier passage Rorty wrote for his contribution to a festschrift for Richard Bernstein, “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre”:
For members of the literary culture, redemption is to be achieved by getting in touch with the present limits of the human imagination. That is why a literary culture is always in search of novelty, always hoping to spot what Shelley called “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” rather than trying to escape from the temporal to the eternal. It is a premise of this culture that thought the imagination has present limits, these limits are capable of being extended forever. The imagination endlessly consumes its own artifacts. It is an ever-living, ever-expanding, fire. It is as subject to time and chance as are the flies and the worms, but although it endures and preserves the memory of its past, it will continue to transcend its previous limits. Though the fear of belatedness is ever present within the literary culture, this very fear makes for a more intense blaze. [4]
Here we get a sense of the strong poet’s self as a bonfire, needing to be fed more and more, burning hungrily through the materials we eventually run out of. There are certainly these Faustian types in literature and life, and there’s often a bit of melancholy surrounding Rorty’s treatment of the Hegels and Wordsworths, who outlived their brightest point, and a bit of embarrassed relief at the Byrons and Nietzsches, who didn’t. [5] And, too, we get a sense of the strong poet’s self as a forest fire, taking on the Nietzschean accents wherein we get cultural traditions as the product of the burning of a poet’s imaginative exercises. And, of course, Nietzsche got that from Emerson: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.” [6]

4.     But does the self necessarily burn itself out? That’s a problem of imagery in the passage above—the imagination consumes, but what is the imagination if we abdicate the Kantian faculty psychology Rorty strictly forbids? There’s a weird hypostatization of imagination that Rorty rarely indulges in—endlessly consuming, subject to chance but enduring, it will continue to transcend. And if we turn back to those fragile lyrics, what does it mean for them to be consumed if we can continue to return to them?

Pater’s sense of the ironist self as a “hard gem-like flame” gets at a self that is more relatable, I think, to the less self-destructive ironist than the strong ironist. And here it’s helpful to turn to another user of fire imagery—Thoreau. In the opening chapter of Walden, Thoreau begins developing an extended metaphor around the notion of the “vital heat” necessary for life that should not be confounded with the tools we use to generate it and keep it.
According to Liebig, man’s body is a stove, and food the fuel which keeps up the internal combustion in the lungs. In cold weather we eat more, in warm less. The animal heat is the result of a slow combustion, and disease and death take place when this is too rapid; or for want of fuel, or from some defect in the draught, the fire goes out. Of course the vital heat is not to be confounded with fire; but so much for analogy. It appears, therefore, from the above list, that the expression, animal life, is nearly synonymous with the expression, animal heat; for while Food may be regarded as the Fuel which keeps up the fire within us,—and Fuel serves only to prepare that Food or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without,—Shelter and Clothing also serve only to retain the heat thus generated and absorbed.
Most of “Economy” is given over to railing against our having become beholden to the mere things we created to help us keep up our vital heat, life. What once kept us alive, now keeps us from living. “But lo! men have become the tool of their tools.” Sliding Rorty’s Deweyan-Wittgensteinian notion of language being a tool to help us get what we want over Thoreau gives us this: the fire inside not only destroys but creates—the trick is to not become obsessed with any particularly product for risk of starving your fire.

I find Thoreau’s notion of the necessary “vital heat” in the self hiding behind the final paragraph of Rorty’s “The Fire of Life”:
I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts—just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human—farther removed from the beasts—than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.
To extend our metaphor: the fire inside destroys, consumes artifacts thrown into it, but in so destroying, it produces by an act of transformation. But how to describe that product? Rorty always recurred to Wittgenstein’s notion of throwing away the ladder after climbing it. But might we not want to remind ourselves of that act of transformation, particularly if we backslide? And now I picture Rorty, comfortably sitting back in a stairless 10th-story apartment, roasting chestnuts by an open fire. Or perhaps, roasting them in the pan itself: “we were put into our bodies as fire is put into a pan to be carried about…. [W]e are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it,” says Emerson in “The Poet.” We don’t precisely transform again by going over all our favorite aphorisms or lines of verse or favorite scenes of books or movies—but we do recapture something like that earlier moment. These chestnuts are leisurely consumables. And sometimes they surprise us—sometimes they flare to life again and teach us something new. (The best kinds, of course, are the ones that don’t burn down easily at all. This was the implicit definition of “universal” that I think Harold Bloom always had in mind in his late work—what we haven’t thought through because it is still us thinking. That’s a flame still burning on the fuel it was given. You might roll Landor around in your mouth for a bit, but Stevens’s “Of Mere Being” requires an awful lot of chewing.)

5.     There’s one surprising thing in this final passage from Rorty—his definition of what it is to be “fully human.” Rorty has as little business defining what it is to be human as he does suggesting words harm anything—pragmatists, and particularly Rorty’s pragmatism, abjures such theoretical positioning. The way to read this, I think, is as a last bit of cultural politics. It’s a rhetorical flourish, though certainly not a metaphysical definition of human nature. “Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human.” This is the Nietzschean romanticism of profusion, the form that finds most suspicious of all power-plays the ascetic. If the imagination is the engine of moral and intellectual progress, then a full mind with a polychromatic palette to paint with is the most likely to produce surprising patterns. The imagination needs material—fires need material to burn in them. An empty mind is just simply less likely to produce the bright flourishes that delight us and cause us to rethink our previous commitments and prejudices. That’s the main contention of Nietzschean romanticism. It is simply not the case that an ascetic form of life cannot produce moments of moral or intellectual progress. It’s just not likely. A mind that burns only one fuel is emaciated, and there’s nothing inherently special about an underfed mind.

This is cultural politics because Rorty doesn’t want to suggest that asceticism is illegitimate in any strong sense—it shouldn’t be eradicated, for example, for the health of the state. Mill’s “experiments of living” forbids such a maneuver. But Rorty is pretty sure we shouldn’t encourage it. That being said, I don’t have anything better than Nietzsche to entitle myself to the idea that a full mind will have a higher probability of helping humanity. I know of no empirical studies, and I can’t imagine them being done. After all, to formulate the study-question is to beg the question against asceticism. All us romantic Nietzscheans have on our side is the sense that thinking about your inherited form of life is best when it’s critical and that to be critical is to take a standpoint outside what it is you’re criticizing. That means the more available “outsides” you have, the better opportunity you will have to be critical of your inherited assumptions and predilections. You might be able to breathe for a time on the assumed power of a favorite book, but a hermetically sealed tradition will eventually suffocate the fire of life.


[1] This was published in Poetry, November 2007. It can be found online here

[2] From the Conclusion of Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Studies is the first edition, which was subsequently edited and rereleased in its iconic form as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Current scholarship suggests that Pater was under some pressure to tame down the first edition, particularly the sexual connotations that so inspired people like Oscar Wilde, but however that may be, I certainly prefer the diction of the first edition in this passage.

[3] Published in Educations and Their Purposes, eds. Roger T. Ames and Peter D. Hershock, 2008, p. 44.

[4] Published in Pragmatism, Critique, Judgment, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser, 2004, p. 12. This essay was reprinted with revisions in PCP, and the parallel passage is at 94, sans the Shelley (which is from The Defense of Poetry) and fire imagery. I suspect Rorty noticed he had too many metaphors going on. Happily, though, I've learned that Christopher J. Voparil, in his admirable collection The Rorty Reader, reprinted the original and not the cut PCP-version. Perhaps we could've lived without the fire metaphors, but there's a final section on Oscar Wilde and Rorty's vision of a literary culture that is excellent and now more centrally preserved.

[5] My favorite line of Rorty’s on Hegel is “What could he possibly do after the Phenomenology as an encore?” (Robert Solomon, in his In the Spirit of Hegel, reports that Rorty said this during an APA symposium on Derrida in 1978.)

[6] From “Circles” in Essays: First Series.

[7] Rorty himself doesn’t distinguish between the ironist and the strong poet, a conflation in the book that gets him in a lot of trouble.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism

1. Neo and retro — Rorty’s branding; 2. Pragmatism, radical empiricism, and the experience of life — Rorty’s 1st argument: why are we forced to use “experience”? — Myth of the Given and being forced — No force, no argument; 3. Rorty’s 2nd (non-)argument: “experience” is so passé — The linguistic turn did some good; 4. Varieties and the metaphysics of feeling — Getting turned on by religious experience — Metaphysics and asceticism; 5. Making nonlinguistic bliss accessible — Bliss from reading — Ecumenicism and ineffability

1.     I define “retropragmatism” as a recent species of pragmatism that hopes to help, in Barry Allen’s phrase, turn back the linguistic turn. [1] I think such a term is helpful to differentiate it from “classical pragmatism,” which we should reserve for the historical moment now well past. For what usually marks retropragmatists is a disciplish veneration for the classical Peirce, James, and Dewey in contradistinction to their vehement dislike for the neopragmatists, particularly Richard Rorty. “Neopragmatism” was the term Morton White coined in Toward Reunion in Philosophy to house Quine in the pragmatist pantheon, and it has since come to be used to mark the rise of pragmatist theses in philosophers working in the analytic tradition, i.e. those taking the linguistic turn. The most famous, by far, of neopragmatists is Rorty, and the retropragmatists’ ire is markedly reserved for him, I think, principally because those outside of philosophy identify Rorty with the renascence of pragmatism and enthusiasm for James and Dewey—which those on the outside often identify with Rorty’s peculiar brand of James and Dewey. This pisses off those that had been toiling in the gardens of pragmatism these many years, particularly because Rorty’s version is certainly not the original.

I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding by retropragmatists, more or less rightly resentful of Rorty’s undue influence on the branding of PragmatismTM, of both Rorty and his position with respect to James and Dewey. On the side of the man, the emotions churned up by personal allegiance are, in the end I think, a necessary component of intellectual thinking. One might have expected someone in my position to say that such attitudes are “regrettable,” and they are in this case, but pragmatists have to think a little differently about the general role of such solidarity and eros. As Rorty glosses James, “there is no source of obligation save the claims of individual sentient beings” (PSH 148). I don’t think we’ve yet gotten to the bottom of what this claim entails, about only being obligated to each other, and particularly about the role of what James called “our passional nature,” but this isn’t the philosophical problem I want to address here. [2] The reason I do, however all that, think resentment of Rorty on this score is regrettable is that Rorty was too humble a person for such attitudes to find a home. Rorty was happy that he could play a role in pragmatism’s rise at the end of the 20th century, but he was always deferential about what the gross effect was of his work. I don’t think he wanted people to think his brew of pragmatism was the one marketed by James and Dewey. I think, from beginning to end, he always felt awkward about accepting accolades for having done something people admired, and particularly for being pinpointed as an originator or powerful force of some idea or in some movement. Getting this sense about the man, however, requires rutting around in his writings for quite a while, and in the end—though as I shall be saying towards the end, this is actually not the case—our response to Rorty personally matters less than the position Rorty dug out in the pragmatist trenches. [3]

2.     The best way of isolating the difference between retropragmatists and neopragmatists is wondering about the relationship between, as James distinguished them, pragmatism and radical empiricism. Retropragmatists generally see an indelible link between the two, whereas neos not so much. So while neos would rather dump the radical empiricism as an unnecessary (or even pernicious) adjunct, retros think that without radical empiricism, pragmatism has its kneecaps shot. This is the common way retros express their distaste for analytic philosophy, generally—where did the experience of life go? There’s a lot of that old-timey “love of wisdom” nostalgia built into many of these appeals to experience, or rather the demand that our philosophical vocabularies give pride of place to “experience.” Some of the differences between retros and neos are hard to repair because it seems somewhat attitudinal, or perhaps methodological. For example, retros would really rather insist on saying “appeal to experience.” However, the neos don’t know how to talk philosophy without narrowing in on the actual terms we use to erect our philosophies, and so insist that, rather than deciding the issue by how much one talks about “one’s experience” (whose experience? Yours? Mine? Do we need to do surveys? How do we make sure the all-important “experience of life” is injected in our philosophy?), we talk about the kind of vocabulary we use to do philosophy. So that’s why I say attitudinal and methodological—neopragmatists insist we not conflate the experience of life with something as expensive sounding as “radical empiricism,” and so debate the merits of the ism separately from other issues surrounding our philosophical performance, but retropragmatists are suspicious of conceding the point (probably because of the vague whiff of irony surrounding my earlier handling of philosophia), while yet eager to lock horns over that ism.

Rorty’s only ever had two basic arguments to wield against radical empiricism, and so against retaining the term “experience” in one’s philosophical vocabulary (the modifier “philosophical” is important here, and often neglected in considering Rorty’s position). The first is implicit in “Dewey’s Metaphysics” (in CP), which begins with the citation of evidence that the master agreed with his rebellious disciple—Dewey’s late-stage hope, expressed in a letter to Arthur Bentley, to rewrite Experience and Nature as Nature and Culture and his regret about the earlier book: “I was dumb not have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written. I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean.” Most of “Dewey’s Metaphysics” revolves around Rorty’s argument against method, and hence metaphysics-as-foundational. However, the piece of historic folly, I think, is created by Dewey’s hope to produce “a statement of the generic traits manifested by existences of all kinds without regard to their differentiation into mental and physical.” [5] So the first argument runs like this: if Dewey hadn’t been looking for a set of “generic traits,” he wouldn’t have convinced himself that he had to include any particular this or that, let alone “experience.” This is not an attack on the attainment of a synoptic vision, though—Rorty’s favorite definition of philosophy, that vague activity, was Wilfrid Sellars’ “seeing how things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term” and right down to the end of his career he was bemoaning its absence on the American philosophical scene. [6] What Rorty rejects is the force of “had”—as a methodological point, we are never forced to use one term or vocabulary over another by anything except other people. So what neopragmatists need is a different argument for the use of “experience” than “you just have to because it’s just there, at the bottom of everything.” As David Lewis put it, incredulous stares are not arguments.

The root of this point is the Sellarsian rejection of the Myth of the Given. “Experiences,” or any other term of art for an unconceptualized bit, cannot force you to think of them in any particular way without being plugged into a network of concepts (i.e. a vocabulary). Meaningful content being just given in an experience is a resurrection of foundationalist empiricism, which the classical pragmatists all rejected (more or less). So against the demand that we use “experience” in our philosophical vocabularies, Rorty flips one coin with two sides: 1) you can’t force me to use it without relying on a foundational epistemology and 2) why would you want a metaphysics of generic terms if you aren’t going to hook it up to a foundationalist epistemology? [7]

Why, indeed—there’s a good answer to that question, but I won’t trail around to it until the end. For now, it’s enough to see that since retropragmatists want to avoid the Myth of the Given as much as the neos, they shouldn’t be able to force the term on us by way of epistemology or metaphysics, about how we know or what we know. But we should notice here, then, that Rorty’s argument against radical empiricism isn’t that it violates pragmatism’s antifoundationalism—it’s that one needs a different kind of reason for taking it up so as to avoid that possibility. One needs an answer for (2). And at the same time, Rorty hasn’t forwarded an argument against radical empiricism at all—if anything, it’s an argument against one particular way of being against the linguistic turn.

3.     The only other argument Rorty’s forwarded against radical empiricism is quite like the first—not really an argument against it at all. This is the argument in “Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin” (in TP). It’s roughly this—“experience” is so passé. Some argument, right? For just as stares are not arguments, neither are yawns. Rorty notes in the opening pages of the essay, in a sociological manner, that “if one looks at the end of the twentieth century rather than at its beginning, one finds something of a renaissance of pragmatism, but no similar renaissance of panpsychism. The philosophers of today who speak well of James and Dewey tend to speak ill of Bergson. They tend to talk about sentences a lot, but to say very little about ideas or experiences…” (291). This is precisely what’s changing, but we still have here neither an argument for or against taking part in or resisting the shift. The reason Rorty thinks that “experience” is passé is because he thinks that the linguistic turn, on the whole, did some good for philosophy—that the linguistic turn played an important role in helping philosophers kick the incubus of representationalism. However, and this is key, Rorty does not perceive any necessary connection between talking about language and being an antirepresentationalist. He simply notes that Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson seem to have had an easier time turning the tide against an entire host what Dewey called “the whole brood and nest of dualisms” bequeathed us by the Greeks. [8]

So what’s the deal? Where’s the juice? As we should be able to see, both of these arguments boil down to thrusting the burden of proof onto retropragmatists and urging them to answer, “what’s the difference that makes a difference?” I think the trick is to turn from Dewey to James. If one focuses on Dewey, I think it’s hard to see what all the hoopla is about. This is because a metaphysics of generic terms sounds so boring—how or why would we get fired up about that? Only if you thought you had to do it, but we’ve chucked that consideration. However, if we turn to James, we can get a better idea of what’s exciting. For Dewey, using “experience” feels like a purely intellectual measure; for James, it feels experiential.

4.     This is what we get out of a book like The Varieties of Religious Experience. In his late paper, “Some Inconsistencies in James’s Varieties,” [9] Rorty spends some time contrasting the James of “The Will to Believe” and Dewey of A Common Faith to the earlier James of Varieties, and particularly in retailing James’s ambiguities in how he uses “experience.” The main thing that comes out of the discussion, I think, is that what Rorty calls the “metaphysics of feeling” is the only good reason for thinking we need to risk the Myth of the Given (94). This is, essentially, Romanticism’s fire back across the bow of Enlightenment intellectualism. Rorty poses it as the corrective “to the metaphysics of cognition common to Hegel, [T. H.] Green, and Royce,” but rejects the idea that we need a metaphysics at all, a view about “what is real ‘in the completest sense of the term.’” The last phrase is from James’s conclusion: “so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term” (italics James’s). This is a fairly typical formulation of a notion of direct experience that people like Rorty find it hard to understand in a non-Myth of the Given sense. But perhaps even more dangerous is the notion of “completeness” in this context: what could our leverage be for knowing when we have it? One would need a substantive epistemological criterion with an attendant method for telling the difference, and that’s what Rorty spent most of his career debunking.

Rorty concludes by saying that if James doesn’t violate his own pragmatism by wielding “experience” as a weapon in metaphysical combat—something that would, because it is more “complete,” keep the slavering wolves of Freud and other external analyses of religious experience at bay—then this is tantamount to being “left wondering why we need bother with all those virtuosi” of religious experience that James elaborates in great detail, “whether the twenty Gifford lectures add anything to the twenty pages of ‘The Will to Believe’” (96). Why would we? Answering this question, I think, would be to move towards answering (2) above—why would we want a metaphysics of generic terms? Rorty, ironically enough, implicitly answers the question when he nevertheless “happily concedes” that Varieties “will continue to be read with profit for centuries to come.” Why would we read either The Varieties of Religious Experience or Experience and Nature? Because they turn us on. Rorty has repeatedly, throughout his career, articulated this ecumenical approach to life as a function of Mill’s formulation of “experiments in life” being the purpose of democracy in On Liberty. This is essentially an aesthetic attitude. However, it is an aesthetic attitude that is an ethical attitude, the same one Rorty urges toward James, that “exceptionally magnanimous man” whose Varieties, if read, “can help us become more like James, and thus help us become better people.” Why would we bother with all those virtuosi? Because “we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life.” That is from the first chapter of Varieties, which Rorty quotes approvingly as the line of thought that would not have violated James’s pragmatism (91).

Rorty can’t quite get to the point of suggesting Experience and Nature because it not only doesn’t turn him on, but he also thinks it feeds our ascetic impulses, the kind of masochism that leads to Platonism and that Nietzsche diagnosed as just another will to power. A metaphysics of generic terms would be a list you try and pare away to get as small as possible. But why? Who cares if it is small? To so care in this context would be to associate Occam’s Razor with a method to get at Reality as It Really Is. That’s why Rorty thinks of systematic metaphysics as a suspicious activity. But that’s a cultural argument about a certain type of lebensform and how much, on balance, good it has done and might continue to do. And that’s still not an argument against “experience.” [10]

5.     What I find most interesting about Rorty’s conclusion is that blind eye to James’s accomplishment in Varieties, which does not rest solely on the subtlety and generosity of the man’s mind and spirit. It is, as will become clear, an integral part of the achievement, but Rorty seems to suggest it’s the only thing interesting about it. However, what James does for a peculiar, modern lebensform—what Rorty variously calls “the ironist,” “the litterateur,” or “the intellectual”—is make an alternative, older though not quite incompatible lebensform accessible to it: James makes the nonlinguistic experience of bliss (what James, following the Romantics, calls “religious experience”) accessible to those who experience bliss primarily by reading. And what James, an extraordinary writer with an intense admiration for the ineffable, did for the capacious, aesthetic appreciator of mystic experience, someone in the future might do for the capacious, aesthetic appreciator of the multifarious forms of effing—call it, The Varieties of Reading Experience.

Until that day, one might think we could console ourselves with reading someone like Harold Bloom, a voluminous reader who in the last half of his career turned to the “common reader” as the last bastion of secular spiritual autonomy. But this actually won’t help completely because Bloom decidedly and self-consciously is deaf to some forms of writing—if it isn’t written with one’s spiritual autonomy as a primary foci imaginarius, then Bloom doesn’t care much in talking about it. [11] A true Varieties of Reading Experience would take us on a grand tour of literary history, and all the forms of writing and the experiences of reading adjunct to them, without apotheosizing any one particular form. It would be ecumenical to Homer, Euripides, Malory, Cervantes, Milton, Pope, Richardson, Radcliffe, Byron, Cooper, Melville, Stowe, Whitman, Dreiser, Hemingway, Stevens—and if the point weren’t already too fine, I’d point out that we’d need to include Plato, Aquinas, Montaigne, Newton, Burckhardt, Pater, Freud, Weber, Bloom, and Richard Posner as well.

One interesting point we can make about this fantasy, though, is that the ecumenicism demonstrated by James toward the various religious traditions he treats and that of my fantasized book are the exact inverse of each other, and possibly properly so. To be ecumenical to ineffable experience is to make all the experiences, in some sense, the same—but to be properly ecumenical to effable experience, one needs to attend to the boundless differences. This might, as well, point to a connection between attraction to the ineffable and asceticism (or reduction) and attraction to the effable and romanticism (or proliferation). And this might be the reason Rorty prefers Dewey’s slim A Common Faith to James’s fat The Varieties of Religious Experience. While Dewey merely says religion is romance, James enacts it. And Rorty doesn’t think we should tempt ourselves to the ascetic anymore by making it look so romantic and enticing. Whatever asceticism we should have should be in our relationship to talking about it—just enjoy the bliss and stop effing telling us to stop effing.


[1] I say “help” because I get the sense that there is a much wider-spread movement to turn back the clock on analytic philosophy than just the species found in pragmatists. Since this is a broadly speaking “empiricist” reaction to analytic formalism, I cannot help but think that running parallel to a return to empiricist (foundational) metaphysics should make a pragmatist suspicious of the move, but then, an enduring tendency for pragmatists has always been to strike a more-empiricist-than-thou pose. I should also add that Allen, though formulating a number of powerful criticisms of linguistic-turn philosophy in his Knowledge and Civilization, wants little truck with a turn back to “experience.” Allen strikes a pose so reactionary that he’d turn us all the way back to before Plato formulated the quarrel between poets and philosophers—choosing instead the artisan as metaphorical unit for knowledge-production. This is a very interesting redescription of the philosophical landscape with powerful links to Dewey.

[2] Principally because I have only inchoate ideas about what to say about it as of yet. For an earlier discussion of Rorty’s “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,” from which that line is drawn, see my "Rorty, Religion, and Romance."

[3] I would point to two things, however, to give some evidence, at least, of the claims I’ve just made. First, on the side of his deferential attitude, I don’t think Rorty was just blowing smoke in his “Comments on Sleeper and Edel” (1985) when, at a conference organized by the Peirce Society, he said, “I am grateful for the opportunity…, but I should begin by confessing that I am out of my depth in addressing this audience. Not only the people here with me on the platform, but practically everyone in this room has read more James and Dewey than I have, and read them more recently.” And secondly, on the side of his shyness about originality in particular, there’s the comment he makes shortly after in “Comments”—“I can only say that my references to pragmatism were an effort to acknowledge my own lack of originality rather than an attempt to make new bottles look good by claiming that they held old wine”—and his more interesting, personal reflection in the introduction to Truth and Progress: “Back in the sixties, when I was a thrusting young analytic philosopher, I heard an admired senior colleague, Stuart Hampshire, describe a star-studded international conference on some vast and pretentious topic – a conference from which he had just returned and the results of which he had been asked to sum up at the final session. ‘No trick at all,’ Hampshire explained, ‘for an old syncretist hack like me.’ At that moment I realized what I wanted to be when I grew up” (TP 10n5).

[4] I should add that the relative merits of “experience” in our philosophical vocabulary is not the only general point of divergence Rorty, in particular, has with the classical pragmatists. The other basic one is about the relative merits of “method” in our philosophical vocabulary. However, since obsession over method never really went out of style in American philosophical life, it isn’t really all that retro to disagree with Rorty on that point as well. See Rorty’s “Pragmatism without Method” in ORT. (The irony of this footnote should be clear by the end of the piece.)

[5] Dewey, Later Works, Vol. 1: Experience and Nature, 308; qtd in Rorty, CP, 73

[6] Cf. “How Many Grains Make a Heap?” in the London Review of Books, Jan. 20, 2005.

[7] For another, earlier take on Sellars and Quine in relationship to the pressures of the retropragmatists, see my "Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn."

[8] Dewey, Middle Works, Vol. 12: Reconstruction in Philosophy, 271. For this Rortyan argument, see for example his “Twenty-Five Years Later” retrospective to his 1992 edition of The Linguistic Turn.

[9] In William James and a Science of Religions, edited by Wayne Proudfoot, 2004.

[10] The attitude I have about the relationship between experience and language is essentially the same as Richard Bernstein’s, but the direction with which I’ve pursued the problem (of the relationship) is the exact opposite as his. Both of us are concerned to see this as not a problem at all, but Bernstein’s route in The Pragmatic Turn is to criticize Rorty (on behalf, you might say, of the retropragmatists) and mine has been to defend Rorty (against the retropragmatists). The basic defense amounts to saying that Bernstein overstates things when he says that “it is a slander to suggest that the pragmatic thinkers, who did so much to undermine all forms of foundationalism, were guilty of appealing to experience as some sort of foundation” (152). I don’t think Rorty ever prosecuted that case, though he did collect some evidence for it. I think Bernstein is not chary enough about the various uses the pragmatists put to that term, and that it’s only by understanding constructive philosophical efforts in the context of argumentative moves against opponents (though not only in this context) that we can see fully the relative merits of those efforts (as against other constructive efforts). (Rorty specialized in this kind of context-plumbing, almost to exclusion.) Neither one of us wants to be reductive about experience or language, and Bernstein, I think, would agree with me that the retros shouldn’t be attacking the linguistic turn as such—that language is exceptionally important in understanding our relationship to the world, and that analytic philosophers like Sellars, Quine, Davidson, and Robert Brandom have increased that understanding because of their narrow focus.

Perhaps, though, I’m being kind in not thinking Bernstein a retropragmatist himself, because his final paragraph of “Experience after the Linguistic Turn” dreadfully repeats the two basic sillinesses of the retropragmatist position against the linguistic turn as I understand it: that there’s any risk of “sliding into linguistic idealism” and that focusing on, say, “vocabularies” as your central philosophical term of art “severely limits the range of human experience (historical, religious, moral, political, and aesthetic experience) that should be central to philosophical reflection” (152). On the first, “linguistic idealism” is just the up-dated scarecrow the classical pragmatists were constantly fighting. All you have to do to avoid it is make sure to have thought through the consequences of what Davidson called triangulation, “the triangle that, by relating speaker, interpreter, and the world, determines the contents of thought and speech” (Truth and Predication 75). And Bernstein doesn’t recognize the extent to which Brandom, for example, does recognize the naturalized pragmatist notion of triangulation Hegel called Erfahrung. Bernstein, in setting up Rorty as a target at the beginning of his paper, mentions as an extension in a footnote that Brandom doesn’t even have “experience” listed in the index of his massive Making It Explicit—a fact Rorty had noted with some pride when talking about his former student (see TP 122). What makes this more complex than Bernstein acknowledges is that Rorty’s pride stems from the fact that he sees Brandom as “carrying through on the ‘linguistic turn” by talking about social practices—not “language.” (Bernstein otherwise does appreciate this—see Pragmatic Turn 213.) Bernstein, in the footnote, goes on to say, “Even though Brandom closely identifies his pragmatic project with Hegel, he fails to see the philosophical importance of the concept of experience (Erfahrung), which plays such a prominent philosophical role in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” (232n4). As far as I can tell, this was written/published in 2010, and by 1999 Brandom had in fact written an essay that amplifies Hegel’s notion of Erfahrung (published later as Ch. 7 of Tales of the Mighty Dead), which he refers to when discussing that notion in the classical pragmatists in his introduction to Perspectives on Pragmatism (2011). (And further, to say that Brandom didn’t recognize this in Hegel by the time he finished writing Making It Explicit might be wrong as well. He suggests in the preface to his Between Saying and Doing that he’d begun working on his “Hegel project”—the book that is to be, finally though still yet unpublished, A Spirit of Trust—by the end of the ‘80s.)

However that may be, the more important silliness is the notion that talk of “vocabularies” might “limit the range of human experience” available for philosophical reflection. I have no idea how to limit the kinds of things we reflect about philosophically, and so have no real handle on how people who say this kind of thing wield it. I hear it all the time and am somewhat baffled. I can’t quite see how Rorty was limited, nor—more importantly—how his discussions of history and politics in Achieving Our Country or religion in Philosophy and Social Hope or aesthetic bliss in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity were in conflict with his “linguistic idealism.” For that’s what you have to say if you wield this argument—that if the person does talk about a particular range of experience, they aren’t entitled to be able to do so. But nobody I’ve seen does argue this—they just say the target isn’t doing it, whatever “it” is. That’s the trouble—what does it mean to limit the range of experience? What does it mean to exclude, say, “historical experience” from one’s discussion of history? Then we might be able to get a handle on what it means to include it, and what it might be to construct a philosophy that perhaps allows for a division of labor between injecting the political experience of an age into a piece of writing and perhaps not but still having interesting things to say about the politics of that age. Because my hunch is that not even retropragmatists want or solely value one kind of writing on their favorite topics. After all, once you understand reading to be an experience—as one should given the logical amplification of the Hegel-pragmatist argument—then it would seem an impoverishment to the cultural experience of humankind if we said that we now only wanted writing on religion like James’s Varieties, Laozi’s Daodejing, and perhaps Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, but not Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial A Religious History of the American People or Stephen Carter’s A Culture of Disbelief (because they are historical and socio-political, respectively).

[11] Bloom is not a popular critic in the academy right now, and I often find myself cheerfully admitting my admiration in the face of frowns, but if one wants a taste for how self-conscious Bloom is about his blinders, and for his priorities as an intellectual, take a look at his introduction to Richard Wright’s Native Son in the Chelsea House Modern Critical series (collected in his Novelists and Novels).