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Why Emerson is Much Too Smart to be a Philosopher

Nancy Bunge considers Emerson as a philosopher, to show that he is a poet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) not only made influential arguments for a distinctively American literature, his early admirers and students include Walt Whitman, generally considered America’s best poet, and Henry David Thoreau, who established American environmental literature with Walden. As a result, Emerson’s influence pervades American literature to this day. Emerson’s love of grand statement may invite some to see him as a philosopher, but this approach seriously short circuits his aims. Emerson and his disciples strove to awaken their readers from intellectual, emotional and spiritual torpor. Reducing his literary essays to tortured conceptual statements, such as Stanley Cavell produces, does Emerson no service, and interferes with achievement of this primary goal.

Emerson vs Cavell

Stanley Cavell taught philosophy for over thirty years at Harvard University, where he is now the Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value. He received a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly called a ‘genius grant’) and served as president of the American Philosophical Association. He has published over twenty books. Cavell has also won admiration for his analyses of Thoreau and Shakespeare. With this impressive lineage, Cavell stands poised to shape not only future studies of Emerson, but also all philosophic analyses of literature. But although Stanley Cavell frequently declares Emerson a philosopher, Emerson’s writings give no sign that he aspires to this label. Cavell attributes this lapse to Emerson’s insecurity about his reasoning powers, but Emerson declares philosophy inferior to literature: “I think that philosophy is still rude and elementary. It will one day be taught by poets. The poet is in the natural attitude; he is believing; the philosopher, after some struggle, having only reasons for believing.” (Complete Works XII p14) Emerson prefers inspiration to analysis: “The poet sees wholes and avoids analysis; the metaphysician, dealing… with the mathematics of the mind, puts himself out of the way of inspiration; loses that which is the miracle and creates the worship.”

The attitude towards philosophy which Emerson expresses in these passages complements his literary goals. While philosophy trades in ideas which language can capture, Emerson attempts to express something beyond concepts and words; so he calls language “fossil poetry” (Collected Works III p13), the archaic remnants of art that has ceased to move people. The poet, on the other hand, produces literature that will help nature achieve what Emerson considers its essential task: “ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms” (p14). Cavell complains about those who call Emerson’s work foggy, but Emerson sees fogginess as a necessary by-product of attempting to convey the ineffable: “The aim of the author is not to tell the truth – that he cannot do, but to suggest it. He has only approximated it himself, & hence his cumbrous embarrassed speech: he uses many words, hoping that one, if not another, will bring you as near to the fact as he is.” Because of language’s limits, Emerson explains, “There are many things that refuse to be recorded – perhaps the larger half. The unsaid part is the best of every discourse.” (Journals V p51)

Cavell seems to concede that Emerson does not produce traditional philosophy, with its emphasis on logic and objectivity, when he links Emerson to Wittgenstein through their shared respect for ordinary language. Unfortunately for Cavell’s theory, although Emerson does embrace concrete experiences and words, and urges all artists to do the same, unlike Wittgenstein he wants to transform commonplace objects and language into symbols of a higher reality. Emerson explains that, “The test of the poet is the power to take the passing day, with its news, its cares, its fears, as he shares them, and hold it up to a divine reason, till he sees it to have a purpose and a beauty, and to be related to astronomy and history and the eternal order of the world.” (Collected Works VIII p35)

Cavell dissolves this discrepancy between Wittgenstein and Emerson in an imaginative way. He declares that when Emerson talks about God, he really means language. Cavell quotes the following Emerson passage: “We lie in the lap of an immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth.” Cavell continues: “I know that while others take this ‘intelligence’ as an allusion to God… I take it as an allusion to, or fantasy of, our shared language.” (Lectures After Emerson p117) Here, Cavell seems to embrace the philosophy of language articulated by Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty explains to Alice why ‘glory’ means ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’: “‘When I use a word,…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” For Humpty Dumpty’s statement to render Cavell’s view of Emerson’s thinking with total accuracy, one must replace “I use” with “Emerson uses,” transforming Cavell’s thinking to this: “When Emerson uses a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

One might wonder why Cavell works so hard to make Emerson’s statements compatible with his notions of philosophy, but one would raise this question in vain. Cavell points out that other writers and thinkers, including Emerson himself, have been denying that Emerson is a philosopher ever since 1848 – as though those very protests justify Cavell declaring Emerson a philosopher. Perhaps, if these people had asked Cavell to psychoanalyze them, it would make sense for him to dismiss their collective view as resistance. But Cavell claims to write philosophy, and that obliges him to produce a rational justification for calling Emerson a philosopher. Instead, Cavell presents this: “maybe he is insisting on something else just as disturbing, for example to be pre-philosophical, to call for philosophy, as from his inheritors. But what is the state in which the claim of philosophy is refused and a claim upon philosophy is entered? It might be quite as remarkable, or rare, as the state of philosophy itself, so to speak, and no less urgent to deny.” (ibid p78)

Not surprisingly, Cavell’s more particular comments on Emerson tend to cast obscurity, not light, on Emerson’s work. For instance, when Cavell analyzes a passage from what appears to be his favorite Emerson essay, ‘Experience’, he repeatedly transforms lucid statements into convoluted ones. According to Cavell, when Emerson writes, “All our hits are accidents,” he really means, “no hit is of anything we should any longer call the essence.” When Emerson says, “Our relations to each other are oblique and casual,” Cavell explains that Emerson means that our relations to each other are “by inclination and fateful accident, you could say, by intellectual melodrama.” And when Emerson writes, “We may have the sphere for our cricketball, but not a berry for our philosophy,” Cavell claims that Emerson does not mean, as many might suppose, that even though human beings have the whole world at their disposal, they understand little of it. No: Cavell maintains that Emerson really means “you cannot even know a berry by observation (one of Berkeley’s examples was a cherry) and… if you turn observation around you may, I’m glad he says here, ‘have the sphere,’ achieve a reception of the globe; you may even learn to say a new conception.” (Lectures p110) Cavell’s interpretations here seem far from convincing or helpful. If making Emerson a philosopher requires that one replace his elegance with awkwardness, it’s probably best to leave the job undone. Certainly Emerson much preferred the title of poet; and graceful expression seems more likely to achieve Emerson’s goal of moving others than Cavell’s tortured philosophical analysis.

Cavell seems to assume that since Emerson’s work expresses philosophic ideas, it is philosophy. But literature often conveys philosophic ideas, usually in a dramatically different way than philosophy per se. For instance, Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and novelist Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon, both argue that one achieves freedom by treating people as ends in themselves.

Here are some of Kant’s central arguments:

“For, all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves. But from this there arises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws, that is, a kingdom, which can be called a kingdom of ends… A rational being belongs as a member to the kingdom of ends when he gives universal laws in it but is also himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign when, as lawgiving, he is not subject to the will of any other... With the idea of freedom the concept of autonomy is now inseparably combined, and with the concept of autonomy the universal principle of morality which in idea is the ground of all actions of rational beings.Groundwork, pp.41 and 57.

By contrast, in Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison puts her most direct definitions into the mouths of Pilate and Milkman at the novel’s end. Pilate dies, telling Milkman, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more,” thus articulating the stance implied by her compassionate behavior throughout the book. As he watches her die, Milkman understands “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” (p336)

Both Morrison and Kant argue that people achieve freedom when they treat other human beings as ‘ends’ not ‘means’, but they present these ideas in distinct ways, and make their arguments on different grounds. The foundation of freedom for Kant is reason. For Morrison, love plays the central role. So, not surprisingly, Kant makes his argument through logical exposition; Morrison, through images and characters which stir the reader’s emotions. This seems typical of the different ways philosophers and storytellers proceed: philosophers rely heavily on reason, writers on emotion. These different approaches seem equally valid and valuable. Few would dispute that human beings need to approach the world with both love and reason to function well. Trying to reduce literature to philosophy therefore seems a misguided attempt to dismiss the validity of emotional appeal.

Emerson vs Tillich

Comparing Emerson’s essay ‘Experience’ with a philosophical work that contains strikingly similar ideas, Paul Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be, illuminates the essay’s literary qualities well.

Both Tillich and Emerson focus on revelatory experience. This Tillich describes as a state of ‘ecstatic reason’ (Systematic Theology I p.112). Both lament that the churches of their time no longer successfully evoke or recall such revelatory experiences, and both regret their contemporaries’ materialism. They agree that symbols can mediate between human beings and the divine, but since the human situation continually changes, so do the symbols that speak meaningfully to people.

Discouraged by what he sees going on in churches, Emerson reassigns to artists the responsibility for igniting revelatory awareness. He declares all great art religious: “The reference of all production at last to an Aboriginal Power explains the traits common to all works of the highest art – that they are universally intelligible; that they restore us to the simplest state of mind; and are religious.” (Collected Works II p213) Thus the artist has an advantage over members of the clergy: The ability to invent and use symbols appropriate to the age.

Tillich attempted to reform his age by developing a systematic theology. According to Tillich, the theologian focuses on the universal logos (principle) underlying revelatory experience. This demands he distance himself: “He can do this only in an attitude of detachment from his existential situation and in obedience to the universal logos. This obligates him to be critical of every special expression of his ultimate concern.” (Systematic Theology I p25) By contrast, Emerson argues that, rather than discuss the universal logos, the poet must present his or her experience as honestly as possible: “The way to avoid mannerism, the way to write what shall not go out of fashion, is to write sincerely... to transcribe your doubt or regret or whatever state of mind, without the airs of a fine gentleman or a great philosopher, without timidity or display, just as they lie in your consciousness, casting on God the responsibility of these facts. This is to dare.” (Journals V p342) Thus Emerson emphasizes subjectivity as virulently as Tillich seeks to achieve objectivity.

Tillich’s ‘Courage to Be’ involves recognizing and then transcending despair. It is “the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing.” (Courage to Be p.155) Anxiety, “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing” has three characteristics: “loss of direction, inadequate reactions, lack of ‘intentionality’.” (pp.36-37) In the first paragraphs of Emerson’s ‘Experience’, the narrator metaphorically describes all the symptoms Tillich ties to anxiety. Emerson’s narrator cannot understand his place in the world: “Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.” (lack of ‘intention’) Life does not touch him: “What opium is instilled into all disaster! It shows formidable as we approach it, but there is at last no rough rasping friction, but the most slippery sliding surfaces.” (inadequate reactions) He is unable to control the significance of his conduct: “If any of us know what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know!” (loss of direction) (Collected Works III pp.45-48) Rather than listing the characteristics of anxiety, as Tillich does, Emerson conveys a sense of them by rendering them through images and by mimicking the complexity of experience, as in this statement linking detachment and estrangement: “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” (ibid pp.27-8)

Tillich describes two major varieties of anxiety: “One type is… of annihilating narrowness, of the impossibility of escape and the horror of being trapped. The other is… of annihilating openness, of infinite, formless space into which one falls without place to fall upon.” (Courage p62) Emerson’s narrator also experiences these two faces of anxiety, giving a sense of both through familiar images. When he accuses his environment, broad expanses terrify: “We wake and find ourselves on a stair: there are stairs below us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.” (Collected Works III p27) As he decides that his limited perspective causes his problems, images of confinement appear: “Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see.” (Collected Works III p31) The introduction of many disparate thoughts, none of them developed at length, reinforces the sense of disorder in this section.

Tillich argues that human beings caught in anxiety can’t find relief by themselves, for they remain too sharply aware of their limits. Escape must come from achieving a sense of God’s grace: “It is the state of being grasped by the power of being which transcends everything that is and in which everything that is participates. He who is grasped by this power is able to affirm himself because he knows that he is affirmed by the power of being-itself.” (Courage to Be p173) Emerson argues nothing, but after describing despair, his essay renders the experiential process of moving towards a faith which overwhelms it.

In paragraph eleven of ‘Experience’, Emerson’s narrator realizes that in order to find peace he must abandon the impetus to construct a rational system since “life is not dialectics.” Thinking about life limits one’s capacity to live it. So, the narrator stops searching for a philosophical order to life and enjoys the present: “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours is wisdom.” (Collected Works III, p.34) He will change what he can and forget the rest: “Human life is made up of the two elements, power and form, and the proportion must be invariably kept, if we would have it sweet and sound.” (p.38) Positive images of openness and movement appear in this section, validating his declaration that “the great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway” (p.36) and multiplying as the narrator approaches the revelatory experience.

The narrator has a religious experience and changes his mind once more. He exchanges acceptance of a disordered world for awareness of a spiritual order which includes and transcends the states he has moved through: “In liberated moments, we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible... For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (p 43) Similarly, Tillich believes that those who enjoy the Courage to Be understand that “the Yes includes itself and the No which it takes into itself, blessedness comprises itself and the anxiety of which it is the conquest.” (Courage to Be p.180)

While Tillich and Emerson agree on the inclusive nature of this higher perspective, Emerson’s essay rests in it and explores its implications, just as someone who climbs a mountain peak pauses to savor the view. For one thing, Emerson notes, from this new position old complaints look misguided. Lack of control does not matter from the higher view because spiritual laws maneuver events. Moreover, insensitivity can protect as well as frustrate: “A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him, and if he gives so much as a leg or a finger, they will drown him.” (Collected Works III p.47) And the uncontrollable flow of events which frightened now delights because it manifests a higher redemptive spiritual order: “Suffice it for the joy of the universe that we have not arrived at a wall, but at interminable oceans.” (p.42)

While Tillich’s presentation has a logical sequence, Emerson’s essay has an organic structure, as if it’s alive, and it hints at the concluding vision throughout. At the beginning, Emerson’s narrator notes, albeit resentfully, that the individual’s ineffectiveness results from a larger power’s influence: “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.” (Collected Works III pp.29-30) As the essay progresses, this awareness of a larger order slowly overshadows the despondent (and ignorant) stance which opened it. Emerson’s organic presentation also ‘confuses’ the essay’s end: The narrator recognizes the ephemeral nature of the religious experience and the tyranny of the utilitarian stance the ‘real world’ requires. Thus ‘Experience’ ends with quiet hope, not ecstacy: “We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but, in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him.” (pp.85-86)

Tillich sets out the patterns of a religious experience which alleviates despair, while Emerson shares the religious experience with the reader. Tillich’s objective description helps to order and clarify Emerson’s essay; but Tillich himself admits that philosophic analysis cannot achieve the goal both he and Emerson embrace: “Reasoning as a limited cognitive function, detached from the personal center, never could create courage. One cannot remove anxiety by arguing it away.” (Courage to Be p13) Tillich values art precisely because its different approach makes it a powerful ally for philosophers. Indeed, his final lecture at Harvard was a two-hour analysis of modern paintings. In his last sermon, Tillich asks for art expressing the courage to be, because, he acknowledges, “it is the power of art to express something we encounter in the world and in ourselves, something only art can show us. Religion needs art.” (‘The Right to Hope’ pp.18-19.)

Tillich’s approach seems far preferable to Cavell’s. Unlike Cavell, Tillich feels comfortable acknowledging the value of work which takes a different approach than his own. To deal with a complicated world, human beings need not only a variety of perspectives and experiences, but also the capacity to understand them both intellectually and emotionally. So, it seems wise to avoid reducing philosophy to literature or vice versa and instead welcome the different kinds of knowledge these distinct angles of vision offer.

© Nancy Bunge 2007

Nancy Bunge is often Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at Michegan State University, although she is currently a senior Fulbright lecturer in American studies at the University of Siegen in Germany.

Works Cited
• Stanley Cavell, The New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein. Living Batch Press, 1989.
• Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vols. II and III. eds. Joseph Slater, Alfred Ferguson, and Jean Ferguson Carr. Harvard University Press, 1979, 1983; Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vols. VIII and XII. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1904; Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vol. V. ed. Merton M. Sealts Jr., Harvard University Press, 1965.
• Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. trans. and ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
• Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon. Plume, 1977.
• Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. University of Chicago Press, 1952; ‘The Right to Hope’ University of Chicago Magazine. Nov. 1965; Systematic Theology Vol I: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

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