What's the use of reading Emerson pragmatically? The example of William James.
For those who see Ralph Waldo Emerson as a seminal figure in the tradition of American pragmatism, 2003 marks a double anniver-sary: it is not only the bicentennial of Emerson's birth, but also a century since William James and John Dewey, America's most influential prag-matic philosophers, delivered, on the occasion of Emerson's centennial, addresses that constitute their most explicit public pronouncements on their great American precursor. (1) Perhaps most striking, on this dual anni-versary, is the degree to which common perceptions of Emerson--both amongst academic critics and in American culture at large--have still not incorporated the significance of the legacy that James and Dewey ac-knowledged a century ago. Although the renaissance in Emerson studies that has occurred in recent decades has coincided with a rediscovery of Emerson's incipient pragmatism, the full import of his affinities to the American pragmatists--especially in regards to how we are to read and assess the body of his work--remains under-appreciated. Much scholar-ship on Emerson persists in portraying him as an idealist not of the prag-matic stripe, but as a proponent of an absolutist faith in the ideal as an otherworldly, "transcendental" unity. This commonplace assessment no doubt continues to shape the way he is taught in undergraduate class-rooms--where, sadly, the majority of Americans who read Emerson probably encounter him. I imagine that my own undergraduate intro-duction to Emerson remains all too typical. In the mid 1980"s, when groundbreaking re-assessments like Richard Poirier's The Renewal of Literature were emerging, and attending Amherst College (Poirier's own alma mater, where no less an Emersonian than Robert Frost once held court), a place where one might have thought respect for Emerson could be virtually inspired with each breath, my only exposure to Emerson was to have him dismissed by a professor--with the "transparent eyeball" passage of Nature as our main text--as a kind of museum piece whose mystic faith in transcendent unity was, from our contemporary perspec-tive, wholly incredible. Even for those critics who stress the pragmatic aspects of Emerson's thought, questions remain. How far and to what purpose can Emerson's writings be described as "pragmatic"? How might an awareness of ways in which he anticipates the pragmatism of James or Dewey shape the way we read Emerson--our assessment of the consistency of philosophical vision expressed in his works, his relation to the philosophical tradition, indeed his claim to the title of "philosopher" at all?
Taking William James as my example, I want to suggest that these questions can be illuminated by considering how the pragmatists themselves approached Emerson. Specifically, when James endeavored, on the centennial of Emerson's birth, to appraise the enduring importance of the philosophical vision laid forth in Emerson's writings, how did he apply the attitudes and principles of his pragmatic method? Characteristically, the linch-pin of James' approach is the pragmatic view that the meaning and coherence of Emerson's ideas must be sought in their consequences for directing human behavior to beneficial results. In the opening lines of Pragmatism, James approvingly quotes G.K. Chesterton's claim that "the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe,"--in other words, his philosophy. In the broadest and most meaningful terms, James asserts, philosophy "is not a technical matter," but describes each person's "sense," consciously articulated or not, "of what life honestly and deeply means" (487). A philosophy, pragmatists such as James and Dewey argue, is in essence a belief, an attempt to describe reality and orient ourselves towards it in a manner that satisfies fundamental human needs and desires--such as the need actively to express our selves and engage our world, and the moral desire that our actions and choices should make some significant difference. (2) The way that one describes the world we inhabit has immense practical importance, for it shapes the choices one makes about how to engage that world, how to act, how to spend the energies of one's life. In sum, ethics--the "practical question of the conduct of life," "How shall I live?" as Emerson puts it ("Fate," 943)--is inseparable from philosophy. Indeed, pragmatism's essential gesture is its insistence that philosophy must be reconceived as ethics: that philosophy must turn away from the traditional concept of truth as accurately or objectively naming the ultimate nature of reality, and towards the practice of judging beliefs based on whether they direct our conduct in ways that yield beneficial outcomes.
The pragmatic method of clarifying a philosophy's meaning by identifying the actions and consequences it promotes is especially helpful in regards to Emerson, for there persists in Emerson studies today a profound disagreement over the basic character of his philosophy--his "view of the universe"--and, subsequently, over the political or ethical implications of his thought. Applying what James identified as the "most central" and "pregnant" of philosophical distinctions (Pragmatism, 542), this disagreement is most clearly framed as the question of whether Emerson is a monist, viewing reality as suffused by an absolute, ideal unity, or a pluralist, viewing reality as characterized by real diversity, particularity, and contingency. For many of Emerson's critics, from his day to our own, there has been no real debate. As Michael Lopez and Charles Mitchell have shown, the history of Emerson's critical reception records a remarkably widespread view that Emerson is an idealist of the monistic variety, whose "transcendentalist" fascination with the absolute tends to ignore or subsume the particulars of our material existence; as a result, critical debate often has been limited to assessing the value or consequences of this accepted version of Emersonianism (Lopez, 3-52; Mitchell, 1-72). Some have described Emerson's alleged detachment from the muddy particulars of life as a virtue: like the critics from the "genteel tradition," who, Mitchell argues, viewed Emerson's idealism as a kind of moral haven cloistered from the amoralities of Gilded Age society (35); or like Louis Mumford, who depicted Emerson as a Romantic champion of the imagination's power to transform the mundane facts of experience into an ideal truth. (3) Much more frequently, however, readers as diverse as Herman Melville, Henry James, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, Van Wyck Brooks, and, more recently, Irving Howe, David Marr, John Updike, and Bartlett Giamatti, have cited Emerson's supposed commitment to an abstract idealism in order to dismiss him as philosophically obsolete, woefully out of touch with the secular empiricism of the modern world, and as morally deficient, a naive optimist who blithely ignores the reality of evil and promotes a socially and politically irresponsible individualism. (4) Moreover, as both Lopez and Mitchell ably document, Emerson's defenders and detractors alike often have used the accepted portrait of Emerson as an abstract idealist to suggest that his writings themselves no longer merit any careful interpretation--if they ever did. Emerson's historical importance is almost universally acknowledged, even as his essays are dismissed as outdated in their ideas, lacking in philosophical logic, and incoherent in terms of literary form. The result has been a remarkable inattention to the very complexities of Emerson's writings that would complicate and challenge the entrenched caricature of him as an absolute idealist.
Curiously, moreover, Emerson's supposed absolutism has been described as taking two nearly contradictory forms. (5) As the title of Stephen E. Whicher's influential study Freedom and Fate indicates, critics have charted in Emerson's thought a shift from a naive affirmation of individual power, in his early works, to a more sober focus, it, his later works, on the forces that limit the power and autonomy of individual acts. The "early" Emerson posited by this widely accepted narrative celebrates an autonomous self whose power lies in its ability to access through the inner promptings of one's own "genius," "soul," or "moral sentiment"--a divine unity in which we all participate. The "late" Emerson, in contrast, celebrates the material forces that determine our human identities and acts. In short, Emerson is depicted as moving from an absolutist notion of freedom to an absolutist determinism, from a naive optimism that affirms the individual's ability to transcend and transform the limitations of our material world, to a fatalistic optimism that affirms the limitations of our world as necessary parts of a divinely beneficent whole. These absolutist interpretations also shape the most common criticisms of Emerson's politics: his early idealist emphasis on individual power is seen as renouncing collective politics, and as blaming suffering and inequality on people's failures to achieve individual regeneration; conversely, his late, fatalistic acquiescence is seen as discouraging political action by reinforcing a laissez-faire faith in the ability of large, impersonal forces to create a moral result.
One prominent trend in recent scholarship extends these long-standing patterns in Emerson criticism. Many critics continue to accept the traditional interpretation of Emerson's thought and focus their efforts on re-assessing its political consequences within a given historical or ideological context. For example, Sacvan Bercovitch's argument that Emerson shifted from a "utopian" critique of capitalism to an "ideological" apology for capitalism updates the Whicherian opposition between Emerson's early idealism and late acquiescence. (6) Myra Jehlen, in contrast, has asserted that Emerson's individualism always existed in a contradictory relationship with the fatalistic implications of his monism. Because Emerson views truth as absolute and wholly independent of human actions--so Jehlen's argument goes--he concludes that we have access to truth only through our preexisting harmony with or intuition of nature, and that our actions merely express or replicate this truth. This severe proscription of human creativity provides, according to Jehlen, a powerful metaphysical support for the amorality of capitalism: it simultaneously removes any responsibility for political action (since nature does not need human reforms or revolutions) and authorizes economic and nationalistic expansion (since nature comprehends all such activity) (85, 108-110). Similarly, Christopher Newfield contends that the theme of self-transcendence or abandonment that runs throughout Emerson's writings encourages submission to the "benevolent despotism" of American democracy, which substitutes oligarchy and consumerism in place of any meaningful collective control, while Dana Nelson has argued that Emerson's theory of "great men" supports an anti-democratic submission to the "representativity" of American presidential politics. All of these approaches exhibit what Richard Teichgraeber has astutely diagnosed as the "guiding clichd" of new historicist criticism: "namely, the proposition that what might look like dissent or subversion in literary discourse always turns out to be, on closer inspection, a set of attitudes or ideas that a dominant political and economic order can appropriate to justify and sustain itself" (xvi). Perhaps more important, for my purposes, is the fact that these writers' assessments of the political and ideological implications of Emerson's individualism remain trapped within an outdated interpretive paradigm that assumes his thought oscillates between the absolutist poles of an idealistic and fatalistic optimism.
There exists, of course, an influential counter-trend in Emerson criticism: one that, over the past thirty years, has re-asserted Emerson's status as a central figure in American thought--and, indeed, as an under-appreciated influence on Continental thought--not despite, but because of the ideas explored in his essays. Where so many critics have bemoaned a lack of philosophical logic or coherence, these critics have seen a deliberate emphasis on the complexity, contradiction, and antagonism that characterizes experience. Where others have proclaimed a lack of literary form, these critics have traced a rhetorical strategy that mirrors Emerson's interest in antagonism, action, and transition. And where others have seen an absolute idealist, these critics have found a thinker who explores the possibilities for power that exist within and against the limitations of the cultural and material environment--an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.
To be sure, the idea that Emerson's thought has a significant pragmatic strain is not new, having been voiced by earlier critics such as Kenneth Burke and Frederic Carpenter, not to mention by James and Dewey themselves. But the most influential figures in the recent rediscovery of a pragmatic Emerson have been Stanley Cavell, Richard Poirier, and Harold Bloom. Cavell perhaps has done the most to assert Emerson's importance as a philosopher. Identifying a series of related concerns in Emerson's thought--an embrace of ordinary language and experience, of "onward" or "aversive" thinking, and of moral perfectionism--Cavell has argued that Emerson is not a builder of philosophical systems, but rather a thinker who practices philosophy "as a mode of thought that undertakes to bring philosophy to an end" ("Thinking of Emerson,"129), anticipating the projects of thinkers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. For Poirier, Emerson exemplifies a tradition in which literary performance--the reshaping of inherited language and literary conventions--dramatizes the sells fundamental desire to express itself by engaging and re-inflecting the resistant cultural and material environment. Poirier has cogently detailed how this Emersonian stress on performance--with its emphasis on action and transition, and its rejection of the desire for metaphysical certainty--has deep affinities with the pragmatism of William James. Finally, Bloom has described Emerson as the founder of the American difference in romanticism, a writer whose pragmatic emphasis on knowing as an act of power and will leads him to employ a rhetoric of discontinuity in which the self is a "voice" that "splinter[s] and destroy[s] its own texts," a rhetoric that Bloom reads as a quintessentially American, and proto-Nietzschean, rebellion against the continuities of historical time and tradition (116, 113-14). (7)
While these writers have helped to re-establish the connections between Emerson and pragmatism, they do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the "pragmatic" character of Emerson's thought. Indeed, Cavell--in an essay whose titular question asks, "What's the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?"--worries that stressing the pragmatic aspects of Emerson's thought risks erasing the distinctiveness of his philosophical achievement, or, worse, of replicating the all-too-familiar gesture of Emerson criticism, that of proclaiming his historical importance and influence only to imply that his thought is somehow inadequate or obsolete:
To my mind, to understand Emerson as essentially the forerunner of pragmatism is perhaps to consider pragmatism as representing more effectively or rationally what Emerson had undertaken to bring to these shores. This is the latest in the sequence of repressions of Emerson's thought by a culture he helped to found, of what is distinctive in that thought. Such a repression has punctuated Emerson's reputation from the first moment he could be said to have acquired one. ("What's the Use," 79)
In other words, in stressing the pragmatic elements of Emerson's vision, there is a danger of perpetuating the idea that his thought is somehow deficient if taken on its own: that his ideas are not really coherent until they are incorporated in the more consistent pragmatic logic of a James or Dewey. If Cavell and Poirier have taught us anything, it is the impudence of condescending to a writer as capacious and complex as Emerson. As Poirier asserts, we must not treat Emerson "as anything less than the great and difficult writer he is, as a writer who has already anticipated any degree of sophistication that might be brought to him" ("Human," 30). The challenge for critics who would place Emerson in a genealogy of American pragmatism, then, is to avoid the pitfall of reducing Emerson to less than the still-relevant, still-indispensable thinker that he is, the rare kind of writer who requires us to return to him again and again, and always rewards us when we are willing to assume the complexity of his thought and follow it where it leads.
In response to Cavell's question, then, I would contend that there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, which would be anachronistic, but by reading Emerson pragmatically--by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson's vision. There are political reasons for placing Emerson at the head of a pragmatic tradition that runs through James to twentieth century writers like Dewey, Burke, and Ralph Ellison, for this tradition highlights what are, in my estimation, the most politically valuable aspects of Emerson's individualism, while also revising and augmenting his ethics to meet urgent ethical challenges posed by our contemporary world. This positioning of Emerson, which I have pursued elsewhere, (8) is beyond the scope of this essay. I can outline here, however, a second major benefit of reading Emerson pragmatically. Instead of depicting Emerson, as Cavell fears, as a merely incipient or incoherent pragmatist, reading Emerson pragmatically provides the clearest refutation to the central assumption that has been used to assert the incoherence of his thought: the charge, outlined above, that the potential pluralism of his individualist ethics is undermined by the absolutist optimism of his early idealism and his later fatalism. A pragmatic approach to Emerson helps reveal the anti-absolutist balance that lies at the heart of his vision--a vision of human power and agency as existing in an antagonistic relation within and against the limits of our material existence; a vision that is expressed with remarkable consistency in Emerson's early and late works alike. William James' pragmatic method for mediating between the absolutist oppositions of traditional philosophy points the way to such a pragmatic reading of Emerson, as is evidenced in the way that James himself approached Emerson's writings.
Emerson's influence on James is well established. (9) Emerson was a friend of Henry James, Sr., and made occasional visits to the James household--during one of which he "blessed" the infant William. James at a youthful age was exposed to Emerson's writings through his father's library, and through evenings in which his father read Emerson's essays aloud to the family. In his personal copies of Emerson's works (the first of which he obtained in 1871), James marked numerous passages, made marginal notes, and compiled indexed lists of quotes--in pencil, blue pencil, and black ink, suggesting that he read Emerson carefully several times over the course of his career (Carpenter, 40-41). (10) Perhaps most importantly, James re-read nearly all of Emerson's collected works--no small feat--in preparation for delivering an address during the 1903 centennial celebration of Emerson's birth. He wrote to his brother Henry that "reading the divine Emerson, volume after volume, has done me a lot of good," and to another correspondent he remarked that "reading the whole of [Emerson] over again continuously has made me feel his greatness as I never did before. He's really a critter to be thankful for" (Letters I:190, 194). Emerson was thus freshly in James' mind during the important years 1904-1907, when he published essays later collected as Essays in Radical Empiricism and wrote the lecture series later published as Pragmatism.
Moreover, as Frederic Carpenter first documented, the indexes of passages that James inscribed in the fly-leaves of his copy of Emerson's Miscellanies: Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (the most heavily-indexed volume amongst his copies of Emerson) include one titled "against my philosophy," covering passages that seem to express a monistic belief in absolute unity, and a second titled "pragmatism," under which James lists passages conveying pragmatic attitudes toward language, action, and truth. (11) Though these headings do not reappear in his other copies of Emerson's works, passages representing one or the other of these tendencies constitute a large portion--if not the majority of the passages that James marked throughout all the volumes of Emerson he owned. The pattern thus revealed in James' reading of Emerson is significant for two reasons: first, it proves that he identified a strong pragmatic strain in Emerson's thought, one at odds with the dominant image of Emerson as a naively optimistic, "'transcendental" idealist. At the same time, however, it indicates that James, like other readers after him who have striven to construct a pragmatic Emerson, wrestled with the question of how to reconcile Emerson's pragmatic attitudes with the presence of passages that suggest a more abstract or monistic idealism.
Before turning in detail to James, it will be helpful to consider the various ways readers might respond to the presence of monistic passages in Emerson. Such passages are indeed frequent in his works, occurring even in those essays whose overall arguments offer pragmatic exhortations to seek value in the opportunities for action that exist within the limits of our world. For example, the essay "Self-Reliance," belying the absolute autonomy commonly associated with its titular subject, is primarily concerned (if not obsessed) with the constraints that limit individual originality and with the efforts individuals must make to achieve integrity within these constraints. Yet only a few lines after voicing the deeply pragmatic conclusion that "Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state," Emerson indulges in the following flourish of monistic rhetoric: "This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into the lower forms" (271-72). This one example will suffice for my purposes; interested readers can find similar passages sprinkled throughout Emerson's works. The important question is, how does one deal with the apparent conflict such passages raise between a pragmatic and a monistic Emerson?
One might simply conclude that there is indeed an unresolved contradiction at the heart of Emerson's thought, one of which he was perhaps unaware and that confirms his reputed incapacity for philosophical coherence. Yet such a conclusion would ignore the ways in which Emerson explicitly employs contrast and contradiction as a compositional and rhetorical strategy, playing with the tension between opposing tendencies or poles of human thought. As George Kateb notes (6-7), Emerson describes precisely such a method in the opening of "Fate," where he suggests that our human concepts cannot logically comprehend the antagonistic realities of experience:
This is true, and that other is true. But our geometry cannot span these extreme points, and reconcile them. What to do? By obeying each thought frankly, by harping, or, if you will, pounding on each string, we learn at last its power. By the same obedience to other thoughts, we learn theirs, and then comes some reasonable hope of harmonizing them. (943)
The Emerson who employs such a method is not striving for a logically consistent philosophy, so much as experimenting with the power of different analytical perspectives; consequently, readers need to be wary of taking Emerson's voicing of any particular perspective as expressing his "true" philosophical opinion. Emerson undoubtedly does require such interpretive caution, for he was capable of claiming, in one of his more irascible and eccentric moments, "let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false" ("Circles," 412).
Yet any reader who would not dismiss Emerson as a merely relativistic provocateur must attempt to gauge the comparative value that Emerson finds in the different "strings" he "harps on," must attempt to judge how Emerson is able to "harmonize" seemingly opposed monistic and pluralistic insights. Emerson's renunciation of a constraining logical consistency thus justifies readers in emphasizing certain strands of his thought as essential to his philosophical vision, and dismissing others as inessential. Kateb, for example, values Emerson's pluralistic embrace of antagonism because it trains the self in a democratic receptiveness to and reverence for the particulars of the material world, but he finds this central aspect of Emerson's thought threatened by a contrasting "religiousness," by expressions of belief in a divine unity suffusing the particulars of our world. Kateb assumes that such monistic statements are sincere, answering a temperamental yearning in Emerson's sensibility, but ultimately concludes--somewhat uneasily--that readers are justified in viewing them as inessential. (12) Kateb's conclusion is worth quoting in full, for it succinctly outlines the main interpretive strategies for dealing with Emerson's monism:
First, we can tolerate his religiousness because we judge it to be comparatively minor. It is more than a blemish--perhaps more than a flaw--but it is a good deal less than an insuperable obstacle. Second, we can elicit a secular meaning from his religious conceptions just as he extracted his own religiousness from church religions. We can translate him as he translated his tradition. We can push him in a more unreligious direction. In doing that, we would actually be far less coercive than he was: we would have much less to do than he did. And, last, we can simply work with the inexhaustible abundance of detachable utterance his writings contain by easing its way, unencumbered by religiousness, to us. Here, too we would follow Emerson's precept. He speaks of "a class of passages" in Shakespeare "which bear to be separated from their connexion as single gems do from a crown and choicely kept for their intrinsic worth." We can, by these and other proceedings, be self-reliant readers of the great teacher of self-reliance. (95)
Kateb is surely correct that Emerson himself offers a theory of historical change and reading that authorizes readers to appropriate those aspects of his thought that are relevant for our present uses. Starting with the opening paragraph of his first book, Nature, Emerson stressed that inherited traditions and ideas grow obsolete and threaten to obscure our perception of new possibilities, unless they are treated not literally as absolute truths, but poetically (or pragmatically) as tools that can be translated or turned to meet the new needs of our present. Symbols, as he writes in "The Poet," "must be held lightly, and be very willingly translated into the equivalent terms which others use" (464); or, as he counseled graduating theologians in his Divinity School "Address," "[a]ll attempts to contrive a system" are "cold" and "vain": "Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing" (91). This attitude helps explain the presence of religious or idealistic vocabularies in Emerson, for it suggests that Emerson deliberately retained terms such as "the Soul," "God," and "Providence" even as he translated them into a secular philosophy and ethics--as is indicated by the furor that erupted in the wake of his Divinity School "Address." (13) Extending this Emersonian practice, we are well justified in translating Emerson, in stressing the pragmatic applications of his ideas that remain alive for us today, and leaving behind the vestiges of a monistic idealism in his writing. (And, as Kateb suggests, such a translation is minimal compared with Emerson's attempt to translate traditional theology into a post-theological ethics).
Similarly, the co-existence of monistic and pluralistic strands in Emerson's thought can be seen as symptomatic of his position within an historical moment characterized by fundamental changes in Western intellectual attitudes. Emerson's life straddled the transition from a theological to a post-theological worldview: the Unitarianism that shaped his education and early career as a minister was already a rejection of the absolutist theology of Calvinism in favor of a more ethical Christianity, (14) and Emerson in turn soon abandoned the elements of traditional Chris-tian theology that Unitarianism retained. Emerson's career also coincided with the growing ascendancy of the secularism promoted by natural science, (15) as well as with a concurrent transition in philosophy, one that Lopez describes as the shift from a Kantian to a post-Kantian idealism (211). Lopez suggests that Emerson's essays reveal the tension of these transitions, exemplifying "an unwieldy but singularly mid-nineteenth-century composite or synthesis--one that looks backward to [...] idealist, organicist, and theistic traditions, as it concurrently looks forward to the power philosophies characteristic of the later nineteenth century" (9). In this regard, too, Emerson instructs us how to read him, asserting in "The American Scholar" that no writer can "entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book," and concluding that "[t]he discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only the least part,--only the authentic utterances of the oracle;--all the rest he rejects" (56, 59). (16) In sum, if we see Emerson as a transitional figure in intellectual history, there is a clear Emersonian logic for emphasizing the emerging pragmatism of his thought rather than its residues of an obsolete idealism, for emphasizing the future Emerson was moving towards rather than the past he was leaving behind.
Such arguments, it seems to me, form the basic contours of the rationale that any reader who wants to recover a pragmatic Emerson must employ; and perhaps, for most readers, they are sufficient. For William James, however, the opposition between monism and pluralism was, as mentioned above, the most "pregnant" of all philosophical oppositions, the one with the most far-reaching consequences for our moral lives (Pragmatism, 542). Monistic absolutism--whether of the optimistic or pessimistic variety--was anathema to James' entire ethical vision. Thus, in claiming Emerson as an intellectual ancestor, it is unlikely that he would easily dismiss Emerson's monistic elements, picking only those "detachable utterances" (in Kateb's terms) that fit his philosophy. Here I depart somewhat from Charles Mitchell's assessment, who concludes that James "wanted to make use of Emerson, not make sense of him, and his method was to mine Emerson for the valuable insights he contained, take these along, and leave the detritus behind" (82-83). No doubt James did make selective use of Emerson, as all readers do, (17) and, as I discuss below, James did conclude that Emerson's voicing of monist and pluralist perspectives revealed a lack of logical consistency. However, in an important sense James went further than most readers have in attempting to "make sense" of the conflict between Emerson's monism and his pluralism. After all, James' pragmatic method was precisely designed to make sense of--to measure the practical consequences of--conflicts between opposing philosophical positions. By applying his pragmatic method to the question of Emerson's monism or pluralism, James developed a more extensive rationale than those sketched above for viewing Emerson's thought as essentially pluralistic and melioristic--and thus as anticipating central strands of his own pragmatism.
In order to explain why Emerson's possible monism was such a serious obstacle for James and how he dealt with this obstacle, it is necessary to outline in cursory fashion certain fundamental aspects of James' pragmatism. James describes pragmatism as a method for resolving philosophical disputes by gauging the practical consequences that competing beliefs have for human behavior and its results. (18) Faced with the absolutist dichotomies of traditional philosophy--such as monism versus pluralism, idealism versus materialism, a belief in free-will versus fatalism--Jamesian pragmatism evaluates the consequences or benefits of each position, and when possible seeks a middle ground that combines benefits from each. It is the hope of such a synthesis--the desire for a philosophy that combines empiricism's engagement of particular facts with idealism's faith in the power of ideas and belief--that provides the driving force behind James' philosophical project. This pragmatic method also implies an "attitude of orientation" (Pragmatism, 510), a turn away from questions of origins and causes--such as, who made the world--and towards questions dealing with the present and with future consequences, such as: what kind of world is it, (19) and, crucially, what kind of behavior does it require from us--how shall we act in and towards our world?
Applying this pragmatic method to major philosophical disputes like the existence of free will and the debate between theism and materialism, James concludes that they boil down to the question of whether genuine novelty occurs or not (Pragmatism, 538)--in short, to the question of monism versus pluralism. Our beliefs, choices and actions can have significance only, James argues, in a world in which our acts help realize one possibility instead of another, help realize a possibility that otherwise might not occur ("Dilemma," 588-89). Pluralism describes such a world: a world not unified by any single purpose, a world with genuine indeterminacy and novelty. In contrast, monism implies that the apparent changes of our world reflect no real novelty or indeterminacy, but merely express a pre-existent absolute order--whether it be the omniscient purpose of a deity or the inexorable laws of matter (Pluralistic, 776; "Dilemma," 568-70). Similarly, James argues that our moral judgments--such as regret that one result should have occurred instead of another--make sense only in a world where different results are indeed possible. In a truly monistic world, all evils and sufferings must be accepted as necessary parts of the transcendent unity--whether that unity is viewed optimistically as beneficent, or pessimistically as evil. Pragmatically weighing the consequences of these competing descriptions of the universe, James concludes that monism leads to a fatalism that intolerably frustrates two fundamental aspects of human nature: our need actively to engage our world, and the moral sentiments that motivate our acts by judging some results to be better than others. Our world can be a moral world only if it is a pluralistic world, James concludes, and we ought not to believe in a deterministic universe, so long as experience justifies us in believing otherwise. (20)
One last aspect of James' general approach needs to be stressed here. James insists that monism is by definition the absolutist position in the debate between monism and pluralism. To assert transcendent unity is logically to exclude the existence of any novelty or contingency. In contrast, pluralism is an anti-absolutist position. It does not assert absolute contingency; it does not deny the existence of diverse and pervasive kinds of unity in our universe, nor deny that there is a great deal of determinism in our world--that the possibilities for change are in many ways determined and hemmed-in. It only denies that there is absolute determinism; it only insists that there is some small--yet sufficient--degree of indeterminacy that allows our acts to help introduce novelty into our world (Pragmatism, 556; "Dilemma," 570). With this distinction in mind, James analyzes what an assertion of "unity" might practically mean. Most importantly, he concludes, it could refer to the "'generic unity" that obtains among similar things in our universe--a unity without which human thought would be impossible, since no inferences from past experiences to new experiences could be drawn (Pragmatism, 546-47). Or it might refer to the genuinely deterministic, and for James morally intolerable, assertion of an absolute unity suffusing the apparent diversity of our world (547-48). But short of this absolute position, James argues, assertions of unity are relatively empty statements, merely summarizing with a unifying name--such as "world" or "universe"--the "sum total of all the ascertainable particular conjunctions and concatenations" that exist in experience (551-52). Such vague assertions of wholeness do, James admits, have an emotional value in expressing a sheer wonder at the existence of the universe. "We all have some ear for this monistic music," he acknowledges (553). But as long as one acknowledges a significant--indeed any--degree of indeterminacy in the world, one is in effect taking the pluralistic view that our world is both "one" and "many"--characterized by both union and disunion, determinism and indeterminacy. In such a world our actions and choices do matter, and our philosophical emphasis should shift away from a search for "the" truth that names a divine unity and towards the question of which of our finite truths will guide our actions so as to help us create a better future.
With this line of argument in mind, we can understand why James, when confronted with the seemingly contradictory expressions of monism and pluralism in Emerson's thought, would focus on the following key questions: First, what kind of a world does Emerson describe--what is his "view of the universe"? Is it one in which genuine diversity, novelty, and contingency exist? And, second, how is his essential view of the universe revealed or clarified in its practical consequences on human behavior; how does Emerson counsel us to act in and towards our world? As we trace James' answers to these questions, it becomes apparent why he would conclude that Emerson--his affirmations of unity notwithstanding--articulated an effectively pluralistic view of reality. It also becomes evident how Emerson's subsequent emphasis on action prefigures central aspects of James' own pragmatic ethics.
James' clearest and most detailed discussion of these issues appears in the 1903 address he delivered at the Concord celebration of the centennial of Emerson's birth. (21) Describing Emerson's essential "insight and creed," James writes: "Through the individual fact there ever shone for him the effulgence of the Universal Reason. The great Cosmic Intellect terminates and houses itself in mortal men and passing hours. Each of us is an angle of its eternal vision, and the only way to be true to our Maker is to be loyal to ourselves" (1121). On first blush, this passage seems to depict a monistic assertion of the "Universal Reason" with its "eternal vision," but in fact the tension between the universal and the particular that James describes here neatly encapsulates why Emerson's "transcendentalism" emerges as an essentially pluralistic vision. If one asserts a universal divinity, but insists that this divinity is incarnated or immanent in the finite particulars of the material world--"housed" in "mortal men and passing hours" as James puts it--and, further, insists that this divinity can be accessed or engaged "only" by embracing one's partiality, by "being true" to the "angle" of reality that one's self embodies, then the notion of a supernatural divinity or ideality transcending the material world tends to drop away, and one is left, for all practical purposes, with a naturalistic, pluralistic vision. As Kenneth Burke asserts in A Grammar of Motives, a pantheistic equation of god and nature slides almost inevitably into a naturalistic vision (74-77). Applying a parallel logic to Emerson's 1836 Nature, Burke argues that Emerson's view of "the everyday world" as "a diversity of means for carrying out a unitary purpose" leads to a pragmatic focus on the world "as a set of instrumentalities," so that "Emerson's brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of out-and-out pragmatism" ("I, Eye, Ay," 154). James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, describes Emerson's thought in markedly similar terms: "Modem transcendental idealism, Emersonianism, for instance, also seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendental cult" (36). James saw that Emerson, by relinquishing the idea of a supernatural, anthropomorphic divinity, explicitly denounced the location of spirituality in any dimension beyond our material world: "Other world! there is no other world!" Emerson affirms in a passage that James quotes in his centenary address (1124).
Having identified as Emerson's primary creed the idea that divinity is to be found in all the facts of everyday life, James proceeds to the crucial question of whether this commits Emerson to a monistic optimism:
Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson's drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. [...] Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing to do with the indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar. For Emerson, the individual fact and moment were indeed suffused with absolute radiance, but it was upon a condition that saved the situation,--they must be worthy specimens,--sincere, authentic, archetypal; they must have made connection with what he calls the Moral Sentiment, they must in some way act as symbolic mouthpieces of the Universe's meaning. To know just which thing does act in this way, and which thing fails to make the true connection, is the secret (somewhat incommunicable, it must be confessed) of seership, and doubtless we must not expect of the seer too rigorous a consistency. Emerson himself was a real seer. He could perceive the full squalor of the individual fact, but he could also see the transfiguration. [...] Be it how it may, then, this is Emerson's revelation:--The point of any pen can be an epitome of reality; the commonest person's act, if genuinely activated, can lay hold on eternity. (1124-25)
One can see James in this passage addressing the pragmatic concerns outlined above: what kind of world does Emerson describe, and what consequences does this description have for human action? First, James argues that Emerson's pluralistic emphasis on difference, diversity, and particularity prevents him from being an absolute monist. Here James couches the issue in terms of optimism, but in the notebook that served as his draft for the address, James framed it in more technical terms as a tension between "monism" and a pluralistic "radical individualism." There, too, James concluded that Emerson's monistic tendency--his faith, reflecting an "inborn temperamental optimism" that "[t]he best in us was one life with the Universal Best"--was effectively offset by his opposing pluralism: "But it was only at its best and in its ecstasies that Life was thus One; for Emerson never drew a consequence from the Oneness that made him any less willing to acknowledge the rank diversity of individual facts" ("Emerson," 318-19). (22) Second, James casts this distinction between monism and pluralism in terms of its consequences for our moral lives: a true monism would endorse an "indiscriminate" optimism, one that celebrates all facts as necessary parts of a perfect unity. In contrast, James stresses that Emerson's optimism is "saved" by his insistence that the spirituality or ideality immanent in everyday facts is not absolute but potential or conditional--dependent on our ability to see the moral possibilities latent in the actualities of our present, to see which facts do "act as symbolic mouthpieces of the Universe's meaning," and on our ability to help realize those possibilities through efforts which are "genuinely activated." In effect, James here is identifying a major line of Emerson's influence on pragmatism: for this Emersonian optimism, one that locates the morality of our world in a potential that must be realized with the aid of human actions, prefigures the attitude of "meliorism" that is central to both James' and Dewey's pragmatism: the belief that in a pluralistic world with genuine contingency there exists the possibility that our actions may result in meaningful progress, in transformations of our environment (and our lives) that will render the goods of experience more secure, enduring and extensive--and, further, that this fighting chance for progress is not only sufficient for, but well-suited to, our active, agonistic human nature. (23)
This assessment of Emerson's optimism is closely tied to, and reinforced by, the other main focus of James' centenary address: Emerson's ethic of self-culture or individualized vocation. For in stressing the concept of vocation as central to Emerson's vision, James again emphasizes the connection between philosophy and ethics, employing the pragmatic method of clarifying the meaning of abstract principles or doctrines by gauging their consequences for human behavior. In other words, the essentially pluralistic nature of Emerson's optimism is evidenced by his ethical focus on the cultivation of individuality. Years earlier, (24) in "The Sentiment of Rationality," James had already argued that the true content of Emerson's philosophy lay not in its mystic assertions of unity, but in the specificity of its calls to action. "[H]owever vaguely a philosopher may define the ultimate universal datum, he cannot be said to leave it unknown to us so long as he in the slightest degree pretends that our emotional or active attitude towards it should be of one sort rather than another," James asserts, and then proceeds to list Emerson's philosophy as among those which avoid a vague mysticism because they specify the type of action our world requires from us: "Emerson's creed that everything that ever was or will be is here in the enveloping now; that man has but to obey himself,--'He who will rest in what he is, is a part of Destiny,"--is in like manner nothing but an exorcism of all skepticism as to the pertinency of one's natural faculties" (520-21, 522). In his centenary address, James similarly stresses Emerson's ethic of vocation as the defining characteristic of his worldview. While Emerson may affirm that individuals can participate in the universe's tendency toward benefit, he insists that they can do so only by working within the limits of their own peculiar and partial talents. To repeat James' description cited above, we each represent only an "angle" of the larger vision, and can be "true to our Maker" only by being "loyal to ourselves." Or, as James puts it a few paragraphs later: "Nothing can harm the man who rests in his appointed place and character. Such a man is invulnerable; he balances the universe, balances it as much by keeping small when he is small as by being great and spreading when he is great" (1122). The importance that James attributes to this concept of vocation indicates a second major line of influence running from Emerson to James, for James' own pluralism likewise results in an ethic of individualized vocation. This description of the Emersonian self who in his small way "balances the universe" prefigures James' own vision, in the closing pages of Pragmatism, of individuals whose actions "create" "moments in the world's salvation" by helping to realize ideals at the universe's "growing places" (612-13).
Perhaps the greatest benefit of reading Emerson pragmatically--through the lens of James' or Burke's interpretation of him, for example--is the way in which these subsequent pragmatists alert one to the anti-absolutist, pluralistic attitudes that are already existent in Emerson's texts. It is not possible, within the limits of this essay, to offer even a cursory overview of the various pragmatic attitudes in Emerson's thought; however, it is worth exploring a few examples here, to show how the conclusions that James reaches in his centenary address can help us better appreciate both the complexity and the coherence of Emerson's philosophic vision.
Consider, for instance, James' and Burke's observations on how the tension between Emerson's potential monism and his opposing pluralism results in a pantheistic or pragmatic focus on the particulars of the material world. This dynamic can be seen in "Self-Reliance," where Emerson, in the essay's opening paragraph, famously asserts: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius" (259). Read in isolation--or in Bartlett's Quotations--this might indeed be taken as a monistic assertion that the individual's thoughts apprehend the absolute. The trouble with such a reading, of course, is that numerous other passages in "Self-Reliance" suggest that individuals have no such access to a unifying thought that is "true for all men." (25) Quite the contrary, Emerson announces that "the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it" (262), implying that truth and morality are relative, individualized matters of following the promptings of one's own talents or "genius." Further, he insists that the "truth" one's genius reveals today may be different from what it reveals tomorrow, and he counsels us to brave the resulting risk of contradiction: "Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day" (265). The point is, if Emerson really were a monist who believed we have access to an absolute truth, then why would he prate about self-reliance or nonconformity at all, why advise us to follow the truths of our own constitutions? Why not instead enjoin readers (as his friend Carlyle did) to seek communal solidarity in a shared vision of the absolute?
Following this line of thought, it is crucial to note that the definition of genius in "Self-Reliance" does not say that geniuses apprehend absolute truth, only that they "believe" they do. As the essay's opening paragraph continues, it becomes clear that such a belief is necessary because it impels us to action. "Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense," Emerson exhorts, implying that one cannot really have a conviction until it is spoken; an inward belief is merely "latent" until it is realized in action (259). Moreover, the claim that one's conviction might become the "universal sense" is complicated by the rest of the paragraph, which describes the possibilities for self-expression in strange terms of assertion and domination:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another. (259)
Truth here appears less as "universal" knowledge to be shared than as an occasion for action that cannot be shared. To have another give voice to and confirm "precisely what we have thought and felt all the time" does not create an encouraging solidarity; instead, it robs us of the self-expression achieved by actively realizing our own "latent conviction." We are "alienated" from truths that we have not translated into action, and the "property" we have lost is the opportunity for self-cultivation. "What a man does, that he has," Emerson avows in "Spiritual Laws" (311); or, as he expresses it in "Self-Reliance," "that which a man is does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property" (281).
Far from an unalienated access to universal truth, then, Emerson's definition of genius--to "believe" that "your own thought" is "true for all men"--describes a will to act in spite of the fragmentation and partiality that characterizes even our best human efforts. "Self-Reliance" thus anticipates the argument that Emerson makes more explicitly in his 1844 essay "Nature," that "[e]xaggeration is in the course of things": "Nature sends no creature, no man into the world, without adding a small excess of his proper quality." This "excess" proves to be absolutely necessary, for "[a] man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate. It is partial, but he does not see it to be so whilst he utters it" (549, 551). Similarly, in "The Uses of Great Men," Emerson suggests that all individuals--as foolish as we are--share the monomaniacal confidence of geniuses: "Is it not a rare contrivance that lodged the due inertia in every creature, the conserving, resisting energy, the anger at being waked or changed? Altogether independent of the intellectual force in each, is the pride of opinion, the security that we are right" (626). Such a foolish confidence (as opposed to a foolish consistency) is beneficial, Emerson insists, for only by acting will an individual express his or her individual character. This helps explain, to return to "Self-Reliance," why Emerson counsels us to disregard our paralyzing fears of partiality and inconsistency. When Emerson claims that his contradictory acts "will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not," he is not asserting a transcendent or unified self, but only a self that adequately expresses its own power and limitation: "All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being. [...] We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills" (265-66). Contrary to any monistic overtones in Emerson's exhortations to individual power, what emerges instead is a frankly pluralistic vision that advises individuals to seek power through the exercise of their own finite talents.
A second example is afforded by Emerson's essay "Nominalist and Realist," which prefigures the pluralist argument of James' lecture "The One and the Many," namely, that the world is both "one" and "many," characterized by both unity and diversity. Weighing, in a Jamesian fashion, the claims of opposing philosophical camps--one locating essential reality in material particulars, the other locating it in general ideas (what James would characterize as the debate between empiricism and rationalism) (Pragmatism, 491)--Emerson concludes, much like James after him, that generalization and particularity correspond to two fundamental operations of human thought: "We are amphibious creatures, weaponed for two elements," Emerson asserts, "having two sets of faculties, the particular and the catholic" (577). (26) Accordingly, Emerson's essay explores both perspectives in turn, pragmatically voicing the value of each and declining to push this dialectic to a synthesis, instead portraying particularity and generalization as necessary antagonisms in human experience:
We must reconcile the contradictions as we can, but their discord and their concord introduce wild absurdities into our thinking and speech. No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie; Speech is better than silence; silence is better than speech;--All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion; Things are, and are not, at the same time;--and the like. All the universe over, there is but one thing, this old Two-Face, creator-creature, mind-matter, right-wrong, of which any proposition may be affirmed or denied. Very fitly, therefore, I assert, that every man is a partialist, that nature secures him as an instrument by self-conceit, preventing the tendencies to religion and science; [...] and now I add, that every man is a universalist also, and, as our earth, whilst it spins on its own axis, spins all the time around the sun through the celestial spaces, so the least of its rational children, the most dedicated to his private affair, works out, though as it were under a disguise, the universal problem. ("Nominalist and Realist," 585-86.)
Here Emerson expresses precisely the dynamic that James stresses in his centenary address, that an individual can participate in the "universal" forces of nature only through the "self-conceit" of pursuing his or her "private affair," only by exploiting the opportunities for power afforded by his or her unique and partial talents.
Moreover, much as James claims that to acknowledge any degree of genuine diversity and disunion effectively makes one a pluralist, so Emerson's practical recommendations for human behavior--his exhortations to individualized activity--are firmly planted within the pluralism of the natural world:
Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh particulars. It is all idle talking: as much as a man is whole, so is he also a part; and it were partial not to see it. [...] You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed to a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person, and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole. She will have all. Nick Bottom cannot play all the parts, work it how he may: there will be somebody else, and the world will be round. Everything must have its flower or effort at the beautiful, coarser or finer according to its stuff. They relieve and recommend each other, and the sanity of society is the balance of a thousand insanities.... [Nature] would never get anything done, if she suffered admirable Crichtons, and universal geniuses. She loves better a wheelwright who dreams all night of wheels, and a groom who is part of his horse: for she is full of work, and these are her hands. ("Nominalist and Realist," 580-81)
Emerson once described his writings as repetitions on a central theme, "the infinitude of the private man" (Journals, 7:342), a type of statement which, unfortunately, readers too often have taken at face value, for as is indicated by this passage's description of "personality" as an "inflamed fury" or "insanity," Emerson just as frequently stresses the individual's pathetic finitude. This is not to suggest, however, that Emerson's ethic of individualized vocation--his respect for the "wheelwright who dreams all night of wheels" and the "groom who is part of his horse"--is simply an acceptance of limitation, a surrender or abandonment to the larger forces of nature that use individuals as "instruments" or "hands" (though such abandonment does indeed represent an important aspect of his vision), for there is perhaps no writer who more furiously resents and resists the constraints on individuality than does Emerson. Rather, his vision of individuality exists in the tension or antagonism between limitation and power. Adopting the attitude that Kenneth Burke identifies as typifying pragmatism, (27) Emerson accepts limitations only in order to struggle against them: his ethics are always concerned with achieving a maximal integrity and power within the constraints of personhood. For Emerson, moreover, to stress limitation is not to belittle individuals, but in fact to assert the intrinsic value of all individuals and the diversity of possible experiences they embody. In Emerson, as in James, a pluralist acceptance of limitation implies an egalitarian affirmation of difference. As Emerson asserts in a sentence from "Nominalist and Realist" that James approvingly quoted in his centenary address: "If John was perfect, why are you and I alive? As long as any man exists, there is some need of him; let him fight for his own" (583). (28)
If James provides a clear pragmatic rationale for viewing Emerson's monism as incidental to the essentially pluralistic thrust of his thought, this is not to claim that James saw Emerson as a pragmatist, nor to deny that James continued to see significant differences between Emerson's writings and his own. Neither do I want to establish James as the ultimate authority on the pragmatic aspects of Emerson's thought; indeed, one result of reading Emerson pragmatically, of looking for lines of continuity between his and James' thought, is that it can point us toward conclusions that go beyond James' own willingness or ability to see the consistency of Emerson's anti-absolutist attitudes and methods.
Consider, for example, the following passage from a letter James wrote to W.C. Brownell in 1909, responding to an essay the latter had written on Emerson:
I have read your splendid essay (on Emerson) and return it. [...] I agree also entirely in your light estimate of his monistic metaphysics, and his Platonic philosophy in general. He evidently had no capacity whatever for metaphysical argument, but he found that certain transcendentalist and Platonic phrases named beautifully that side of the universe which for his soul (with its golden singing sense that the vulgar immediate is at naught relatively to the high and noble, gleeful and consoling life behind it) was all-important. So he abounded in monistic metaphysical talk which the very next pages belied. I see no great harm in the literary inconsistency. The monistic formulas do express a genuine direction in things, though it be to a great extent only ideal. His dogmatic expression of them never led him to suppress the facts which they ignored, so no harm was done. (See, e.g., the last couple of pages of his essay on history.) Of course to me they seem simply weak, those Platonic formulas, but there are readers whom they inspire, so let them pass! (qtd. in Perry, I:144; James' emphases).
Several aspects of James' stance toward Emerson here deserve emphasis. First, James reasserts the logic articulated in his centenary address, that because Emerson did not insist on the logical consequences of a true monism, did not "suppress" the pluralistic diversity of "facts," the monistic assertions in his writings are ultimately of little consequence. Second is the way in which James draws distinctions between his own and Emerson's visions. James reads Emerson's juxtaposition of monistic and pluralistic passages as a symptom of Emerson's own temperament. In the opening lecture of Pragmatism, James famously describes philosophy as being largely and legitimately determined by people's temperamental needs--needs that are often in conflict, as he summarizes in his list of "tender-minded" and "tough-minded" leanings. Most people, James acknowledges, "have a hankering for the good things on both sides," with the result that the "philosophic layman [...] never straighten[s] out his system, but liv[es] vaguely in one plausible compartment of it or another to suit the temptations of successive hours." Philosophers, however, cannot brook such logical inconsistency, James argues: "We cannot preserve a good intellectual conscience so long as we keep mixing incompatibles"--such as monism and pluralism--"from opposite sides of the line" (491-92). James' "radical empiricism" was designed precisely to achieve a logical consistency while still combining the "good things" from opposing philosophical camps: to maintain a consistent logic of "tough-minded" empiricism while also acknowledging the empirical reality and force of the ideas and beliefs craved by our "tender-minded" side. In short, James describes Emerson's mixing of opposing philosophical positions as a common human practice, though one that disqualifies Emerson as a philosopher--at least in James' sense of that term.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, while James is certainly correct that Emerson never attempted to develop a consistent doctrine such as radical empiricism, (29) one can nonetheless feel that James is being unduly condescending in concluding that Emerson's lack of logical consistency proves that he "had no capacity whatever for metaphysical argument." Following the suggestion of critics such as Cavell, Poirier, and Kateb, we are much more likely today than James was to see Emerson's inconsistencies as a deliberate strategy, one with philosophical significance and power. Indeed, James' condescension to Emerson here exemplifies the potential that Cavell fears--that judging Emerson by the standard of pragmatism will obscure the distinctiveness of Emerson's own philosophical complexity. That James, one of the most important bearers of the Emersonian legacy, can still voice the commonplace view that Emerson lacks philosophical rigor only goes to prove Cavell's point that Emerson's achievement as a philosopher largely has been repressed by the "culture he helped to found" ("What's the Use," 79). (30) Indeed, taking as an example the conclusion of the essay "History" that James recommends to Brownell, one can extend James' insight beyond and against James' own conclusions, and argue that Emerson's voicing of conflicting perspectives is not evidence of his failure as a philosopher, but rather a writerly practice that anticipates central aspects of James' own philosophy.
The conclusion of "History" no doubt appealed to James because it so dramatically renounced the potential monistic implications of statements earlier in the essay: for instance, in its opening paragraph that asserts, "There is one mind common to all individual men," and that, "Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent" (237). Emerson's overall argument in "History" does not reflect the monistic connotations of these statements, for the possibility of communing with the common mind is demystified and treated, as "Self-Reliance" treats it, in terms of the self's relation to the media of culture--to language, artifacts, the surviving products and records of other people's actions. Indeed, Emerson's theory of the sews relation to texts from the past prefigures the pragmatic view that the truth of inherited ideas lies in their ability to meet the needs of our present experience. (31) Even where Emerson's arguments follow such a pragmatic tack, however, there are moments of monistic rhetoric of the type that attracted James' ire: in his copy of "History," for instance, James underlined the phrase "that the mind is One, and that nature is correlative" (255), (32) and, by a similar passage in "The American Scholar" that discusses "the philosophical doctrine of the identity of all minds" (58), James questioned in the margin: "Why not 'commerce'--instead of identity" (Marginalia Miscellanies, 88). Given his concern over such moments, it is not surprising that James was attracted to the conclusion of "History," in which Emerson voices an abrupt and dramatic shift in his argument, renouncing any claim to unified knowledge:
Is there somewhat overweening in this claim? Then I reject all I have written, for what is the use of pretending to know what we know not? But it is the fault of our rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other. I hold our actual knowledge very cheap. Hear the rats in the wall, see the lizard on the fence, the fungus under foot, the lichen on the log. What do I know sympathetically, morally, of either of these worlds of life? As old as the Caucasian man,--perhaps older,--these creatures have kept their counsel beside him, and there is no record of any word or sign that has passed from one to the other. [...] I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is. How many times must we say Rome, and Paris, and Constantinople! What does Rome know of rat and lizard? What are Olympiads and Consulates to these neighbouring systems of being? Nay, what food or experience or succour have they for the Esquimaux sealhunter, for the Kanaka in his canoe, for the fisherman, the stevedore, the porter? (255-56)
After spending much of his essay affirming that history--as embodied in inherited culture--provides people with a wealth of tools for engaging nature and bringing it under human dominion, Emerson ends by insisting that our concepts and truths inevitably alienate us from reality and blind us to crucial aspects of the world around us. Instead of rhapsodizing on the "universal mind," Emerson here focuses insistently on brute particulars of nature whose alien otherness resists our conceptual systems--rats in our walls, lizards on our fences. The implications of this argument reveal important lines of influence between Emerson and James. It was James, after all, who argued that "language works against our perception of the truth," blinding us to the more evanescent, transitional aspects of experience ("Stream," 34, 34-38), and who argued that "reality independent of human thinking," which had not already been "cooked," "peptonized" or "faked" by the impositions of our concepts, was almost impossible to perceive (Pragmatism, 595). (33) Moreover, Emerson's query--"What do I know sympathetically, morally" of "these neighbouring systems of being"--anticipates the ethical imperative that James articulates in "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings": the need to attempt to recognize and value other experiences and other beings potentially obscured by the limits of our own individual and cultural perceptions.
Yet while these affinities clearly explain James' admiration for the conclusion of "History," James in his letter to Brownell fails to consider that the contradictions in Emerson's prose might reflect a conscious strategy with a similarly pragmatic significance and force. As Poiner has eloquently argued, James' pragmatic axiom that a truth or idea appears "less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work" (Pragmatism, 509), extends an Emersonian emphasis on action and transition--an emphasis that Emerson enacts in his essays by revealing and moving beyond the constraints of his own utterances (Renewal, 14-19, 33, and passim). Indeed, the closing paragraphs of "History" are a prime example of such Emersonian performance: they are important not only for the ideas they express, but as a gesture of Emerson's willingness to abandon or renounce previously held conclusions, truths, and certainties. Further, such a habit of abandoning or renouncing the certainties of any single perspective helps instill precisely that anti-dogmatic openness to other beings and experiences that James deems to be so ethically important. Merely to stress, as James does in the above-quoted letter, that Emerson's voicing of contradictory views saves him from his potential monism (while true) is clearly insufficient, and to conclude that the contradictions in Emerson's prose reveal his incapacity for philosophical argument misses the boat altogether. In assessing the conclusion of "History" and other essays where Emerson deploys contradictions and reversals in his arguments, we can see, even if James did not, a more pragmatic method behind Emerson's madness.
As I hope these examples demonstrate, to read Emerson "pragmatically" can help us appreciate the anti-absolutist attitudes expressed in his writings--so long as the perspectives afforded by his pragmatic successors are used to approach Emerson without condescension, with the eye for complexity that his writings demand of readers, and almost unfailingly reward. But to assert that Emerson's writings are far more coherent than critics normally have granted--to claim, for instance, that his early and late works do not shift in emphasis from freedom to fate, but express a remarkably consistent vision of human agency as existing in tension with limitation--is not to minimize the complexities and even contradictions in his philosophical vision. For, to hazard what I hope is not too cliched or facile a paradox, the consistency of Emerson's vision lies precisely in its contradictions, in his characteristic habit of confronting, articulating, and exploiting the antagonistic facets of human experience. In Emerson's broad and varied ruminations on individuality, for example, we encounter a self that is simultaneously empowered and enfeebled by culture; a self that exists only in its relations to its social and material environment, and whose acts thus are always socially implicated, yet also a self that retains an integral power to control the value of its own experience; a self that finds sustenance and meaning in its interactions with others, yet accepts stern limits on just how far individuals can help each other; and a self whose power alternately lies in its ability to focus and narrow its activity, and its contrasting willingness to abandon the security of familiar tasks for new ones. Such complexities at the heart of his vision explain Emerson's enduring influence, and explain why Dewey could conclude 1903--in an extravagant prediction which, in 2003, we have yet to fulfill--that "when democracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself already proposed in Emerson" ("Emerson," 191).
Pacific Lutheran University
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(1) For a cogent overview of the addresses on Emerson, circa 1900, by James, Dewey, Santayana, and Royce, see McDermott (n. 21 below).
(2) Though this piece primarily focuses on James, let me note in passing the following definition of philosophy from Dewey's essay "Philosophy and Democracy": "philosophy is a form of desire, of effort at action--a love, namely of wisdom; [...] it is an intellectualized wish, an aspiration subjected to rational discriminations and tests, a social hope reduced to a working program of action. [...] By wisdom we mean not systematic and proved knowledge of fact and truth, but a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better life to be led. Wisdom is a moral term. [...] As a moral term it refers to a choice about something to be done, a preference for living this sort of life rather than that. It refers not to accomplished reality but to a desired future which our desires, when translated into articulate conviction, may help bring into existence" (72-73).
(3) For a discussion of Mumford's portrayal of Emerson, see Albrecht, "Saying Yes and Saying No," (48-50). For a broader discussion of Mumford as a critic of William James' pragmatism, see Livingston (225-55).
(4) Lopez and Mitchell insightfully survey many of these various critics' responses to Emerson. On Henry James and Santayana, see Lopez (30-38); on T.S. Eliot, see Mitchell (6) and Lopez (20, 24); on Brooks, see Mitchell (49-52); on Howe see Lopez (24); on Updike, see Lopez (19, 76) and Mitchell (189-90). On Giamatti, see Lopez (122-23).
(5) In the following paragraphs, I rehearse an overview of patterns in Emerson criticism that I have made elsewhere in print: see "Living Property" (177-78), and "Saying Yes and Saying No" (50).
(6) More recently, Robert Milder has replicated a similar dichotomy by positing Emerson's transformation from a "social revolutionary" of the nonconformist variety, in his earlier writings, to a "liberal accommodationist" and "laissez-faire apologist" in his later writings (51, 67).
(7) For other critics who have placed Emerson in a pragmatic tradition, see: McDermott, West, and Robinson (Emerson and the Conduct of Life).
(8) See Albrecht, "'Saying Yes and Saying No': Individualist Ethics in Emerson, Burke, and Ellison." This project is also the focus of a book manuscript currently in progress, from which the current article is taken.
(9) See, for example, Perry (I:39-63, 140-45), Carpenter (passim), and Matthiessen (431-34).
(10) James' copies of Emerson's works are held in the rare books collection of Harvard University's Houghton Library. I have provided references to specific volumes from James' collection only when citing particular instances of James' marginalia.
(11) See Carpenter, passim. The other heading Carpenter stresses is one marked "RWE," which Carpenter believes designates passages that James saw as indicative of Emerson's singular sensibility (42).
(12) Using a similar interpretive logic, Lopez argues that Emerson's Nietzschean ethics of antagonism and overcoming constitute the "deep structure, or elemental pattern in his thought, a pattern which can be found underlying even those passages in which he seems most monistic" (4).
(13) For a discussion of the address and its aftermath, see Richardson, 288-300.
(14) David Robinson (Apostle of Culture) offers a lucid and valuable discussion of how Unitarian theology helped shape Emerson's Romantic ethic of self-culture. By extension, Robinson's argument helps us see Unitarianism as one of the precursors to American pragmatism.
(15) For a list of works on Emerson and science, see Rossi (139, note 6).
(16) James apparently applied this Emersonian reading lesson to Emerson himself, for in his copy of Emerson's Miscellanies, James wrote in the margin beside this passage, "True of R.W.E." (87).
(17) See note 16.
(18) James' definition of pragmatism, as elaborated in Pragmatism, is actually three-fold. He describes it as "primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable" by "interpret[ing] each notion by its tracing its respective practical consequences'" (506); second, as an "attitude of orientation," of "'looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts" (510); and, third, as a "genetic theory" of truth (515).
(19) For example, considering the philosophical question of "design in nature," James argues: "The old question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer--and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars. [...] What sort of design? and what sort of designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers" (Pragmatism, 536).
(20) The argument that I summarize here pulls together ideas articulated by James in a variety of works, most notably: the essays "The Sentiment of Rationality," "The Will to Believe," and "The Dilemma of Determinism," collected in The Will to Believes and the "One and the Many" and "Pragmatism and Religion" chapters from Pragmatism.
(21) McDermott offers an insightful discussion of James' address. Though his focus differs from mine, he shares my conclusion that James' address remains in some respects condescending toward Emerson. McDermott surveys the public pronouncements that four classic American philosophers--James, Dewey, Santayana, and Royce--made on Emerson and his intellectual legacy. McDermott himself identifies two significant lines of influence between Emerson and American pragmatism: first, Emerson's commitment to a "practical" and "experiential" approach to inquiry, one that rejects the traditional valuing of "the contemplative over the active life," and that eschews theoretical solutions for efforts to "live" in an "ameliorative and perceptive way" (32). Second, and more intriguingly, McDermott claims that Emerson actually "anticipated the doctrine of 'radical empiricism,'" specifically in the way he asserts the reality and "primary importance of relations over things" and "hold[s] to an aggressive doctrine of implication" (32). Given his identification of these proto-pragmatic aspects of Emerson's philosophy, McDermott finds James' address "disappointing" in "regard to the question of the influence of Emerson on James" (38). McDermott does identify an "important theme" in the address--James' stress on the practical, empiricist cast of Emerson's thought (its "radical temporality" and its focus on "individuals and particulars"); however, he concludes that the address is too much a superficial "encomium" (laced with "long passages from Emerson"), and bemoans the fact that James "never undertook a systematic study of Emerson, especially as directed his notions of experience, relations, and symbols. James would have found Emerson far more 'congenial' and helpful than many of the other thinkers he chose to examine. A detailed study of Emerson as an incipient radical empiricist is a noteworthy task for the future" (38-39). While I agree with McDermott's sense that James remains somewhat condescending towards Emerson, I have attempted to show how James' address nonetheless points the way to a reading of Emerson that is more pragmatic than perhaps even James himself was willing to allow.
(22) The notebook is held in the special collections of Harvard University's Houghton Library (Notebook No. 20 in bMSAm 1092.9, "Emerson / Common Sense / Miller--Bode."). The editors of Manuscript Essays and Notes date the "Emerson" portion of the notebook at 1905, which seems an obvious error, since the portion of the notebook dealing with Emerson is clearly a draft for the 1903 Address. It appears the editors mistakenly dated the entire contents of this notebook based on James' discussion of Dickinson Sergeant Miller and Boyd Henry Bode, which they date at 1905-1908 (Manuscript Essays and Notes, xxx).
(23) For James' meliorism, see Pragmatism (538, 612-19). For Dewey's meliorism, see Experience and Nature (Chapter 10, passim, esp. 313-15, 324-26) and Reconstruction in Philosophy (181-82). For a discussion of James' meliorism and how it is prefigured in Emerson's essay "Fate," see Albrecht, "The Sun Were Insipid" (144-48).
(24) "The Sentiment of Rationality," published in the 1897 collection The Will to Believe, combines two separate addresses originally delivered in 1879 and 1880.
(25) I am here re-working and expanding an argument already made in print. See "Emerson on Fire" (158-59).
(26) For a similar claim, see Emerson's "Plato; or, the Philosopher" (637-38). For examples from James, see: "The Sentiment of Rationality" (506), Some Problems of Philosophy (1010, 1020, 1034).
(27) In his introduction to Attitudes Toward History, entitled "James, Whitman, Emerson," Burke argues that the tradition these writers represent constitutes perhaps the most "well-rounded" ethical "frame" in American literature, for they typify the pragmatic refusal to accept limitation without also affirming our ability to act in response to those limits. Burke illustrates this attitude with the Jamesian motto, "Where resignation must be, it will be 'provisional,' [...] affording 'ground and leisure to advance to new philanthropic action'" (3).
(28) For James' quotation of this passage, see "Address" (1121).
(29) However, as McDermott argues, there are significant ways in which Emerson does anticipate James' radical empiricism. See note 21.
(30) Interestingly, Dewey was more willing than James to credit Emerson with a rigorous consistency of philosophical vision, anticipating Cavell's argument that Emerson's brand of "philosophy" eschewed the illusory quest for certainty that, Dewey felt, plagued traditional philosophy. In his 1903 address on Emerson, Dewey opens by noting: "It is said that Emerson is not a philosopher. I find this denegration false or true according as it is said in blame or praise--according to the reasons proffered. When the critic writes of lack of method, of the absence of continuity, of coherent logic, and, with the old story of the string of pearls loosely strung, puts Emerson away as a writer of maxims and proverbs, a recorder of brilliant insights and abrupt aphorisms, the critic, to my mind, but writes down his own incapacity to follow a logic that is finely wrought" ("Emerson," 184). There is, accordingly, a parallel argument to the one I make about James in this essay, tracing just what it would mean to read Emerson pragmatically through the particular lens of Dewey's pragmatism. For a sampling of critical works that place Dewey in relation to a tradition that includes Emerson, see: Conkin, Goodman, Levin, McDermott, Shusterman, Stuhr, and West.
(31) Emerson's essay "History" repeatedly asserts the proto-pragmatic view that the meaning of events from the past--as preserved in narratives and artifacts--is always defined by the symbolic or interpretive use to which we can put those narratives and artifacts in the present. For instance:
Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts. No anchor, no cable, no fences, avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon, Troy, Tyre, Palestine, and even early Rome, are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden, the sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry henceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign. (240)
This assertion that the meaning of historical artifacts does not (or cannot) reside in their ability to re-present a foregone reality, leads Emerson to focus instead on the meanings that historical artifacts hold in the present: "The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible" (238). Thus, even Emerson's provocative claim that "there is properly no history, only biography" (240), which has been taken as a sign of his ahistorical absolutism, in fact has a distinctly pragmatic logic.
(32) The full sentence in which this phrase occurs is: "Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative, history is to be read and written" ("History," 255).
(33) For an excellent discussion of the Emersonian affinities in such passages in James, see Poirier's discussion of James in The Renewal of Literature (14-18, 47-48).