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The opacity of the initial: deciphering the terms of agency and identity in "self-reliance" and On Liberty.

Emerson and Mill share a distinctive preoccupation with conceptions of the "self" and "individuality." This commonality is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Emerson's "Self-Reliance" (1841) and the third part of Mill's On Liberty (1859), where the "self" and "individuality" are submitted as the operative philosophical terms, and advanced as the conditions by which the referents of those concepts are realized. But what precisely do Emerson and Mill mean when they invoke the "self" and "individuality"? I offer two responses. First, that Emerson and Mill fail to assert a clear account of their terminology. Yet, one finds no reason to suspect duplicity. So an explanation for the apparent obscurity and avoidance must lie elsewhere. Secondly, and in reply to the conceptual obscurantism suggested in the first response, I suspect that Emerson's "self-reliance" and Mill's "individuality" are deployed heuristically. The terms are forwarded, mainly, as acts of naming--in particular, acts of naming an ideal condition. Motivation for the use and characterization of the terms, then, would not be to offer inviolable definitions, but to create a kind of sentiment that would suffice as a response to a rather ominous philosophical problematic, namely, skepticism. I conclude with an account of how such a response connects with their affirmative naming of the "self" and "individuality," and their elective aversion to an explicit definition of these terms.


Between vague wavering Capability and fixed indubitable Performance, what a difference! A certain inarticulate Self-consciousness dwells dimly in us; which only our Works can render articulate and decisively discernable. Our works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments. Hence, too, the folly of that impossible Precept, Know Thy self, till it be translated into this partially possible one, Know what though canst work-at.

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1)

Of the many arresting, imaginatively fecund, and myth-making en counters that could have happened during Emerson's nineteenth-century life--an evening meal with Nietzsche in Basel, an afternoon walk with Goethe in Weimer, an after-recital conversation with Beethoven in Vienna or Liszt in Paris--several actually did occur. There was Coleridge, Wordsworth, Chopin, and Alexis de Tocqueville. (2) And at a crucial moment of transition--in 1833 at the end of his convalescent year abroad (healing both from the loss of his wife by tuberculosis and the loss of his vocation by his own hand)--Emerson went calling on John Stuart Mill in London after having been recommended to him by a nephew of Baron d'Eichthal while traveling in Italy. (3) Mill, in turn, supplied Emerson with a note of introduction to Thomas Carlyle. When Emerson and Mill met on Tuesday, 23 July 1833, Emerson had only recently crossed into his fourth decade (turning thirty on May 25), and Mill was twenty-seven (born 20 May 1806). And yet, the fantastic of this actual meeting proves somewhat mundane upon realizing that when they met, Emerson was not quite Emerson, and Mill was not quite Mill. Furthermore, Mill was not very impressed with his caller--admitting to Carlyle: "I should have thought he was about the last person who would have interested you"--even as Emerson's striking rapport with Carlyle overshadowed his impression of his British contemporary: "I never saw more amiableness than is in his countenance," he wrote in his journal of Carlyle; and, of the time they spent together: "A white day in my years." (4) If Emerson and Mill's meeting did not effectuate an immediate kinship (perhaps they would have liked each other more had they met in later years), there is yet something intriguing in a thought about the trajectories of their thinking after the meeting--of a warm kinship in their ideas despite their cool encounter. In particular, while distanced by an ocean and by certain strains of personality, Emerson and Mill appear to commune with and contribute to a shared project held with kindred intimacy and intensity namely, a modem, critical account of the individual. Emerson's most overt installment appears in 1841 as the second essay of his first series of essays, and Mill's emerges in the third part of his 1859 work, On Liberty.

In the years leading up to "Self-Reliance," Emerson had already made bold and effective swipes at massive institutional frameworks: against organized education in 1837 ("The American Scholar"), and against organized religion in 1838 ("Address at the Divinity School in Cambridge"). His first book, Nature, which he was drafting in the weeks and months after meeting Mill, planted the initial seed of the enduring topics of his criticism; indeed, his late '30s public pronouncements can be read as more pointed, more contextualized applications of ideas already well developed in his earlier work. In Nature, he writes:
 [....] But the best read naturalist who lends an entire and
 devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to
 learn of his relation to the world, and that it is not to be
 learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of
 known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the
 spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility....

 [....] The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies
 broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.
 He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of
 the spirit.

 [....] Build, therefore, your own world. [italics added] (5)

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson extends this line of postulation by entertaining doubts concerning the legitimate use of offices ("The American Scholar"), admonishing us to question the grounds of prevailing authority (the "Address"), and speculating on untaught methods of recovering and uniting the self (Nature); and, he fuses these separate inquiries into a constructive examination of a pragmatic disposition, namely, self-reliance. Sounding more immanent than the "spirit" invoked in Nature, and quite a bit more generic that the social positions that come under interrogation in "The American Scholar" and the "Address" (e.g., the professor in the academy, and the pastor in the church), "self-reliance" seems at once a practical, psychological attitude and a rather abstract conceptual invention. The "self," as an idea, seems as familiar as it is ambiguous. And this compound--"self-reliance"--adds a novel inflection of relation, which instead of elucidating the idea only intensifies its abstruseness. In its prominence as the grounding concept of this essay (asserting titular significance, being used directly five times in the course of the work, and many times more obliquely), "self-reliance" calls out for clarification. What does Emerson mean by "self-reliance," and what does he want us to understand by his use of this term in the context of his prior work and his developing aspirations?

In On Liberty, specifically its third part, Mill proposes that "individuality" be taken up as the chief element of what he calls "well-being." (6) And while Mill indexes the causes and consequences of individuality (positive and negative), he omits a satisfying account of the concept "individuality." (Perhaps there is not one to give.) Is individuality a state or a process; an inherent quality of all individuals or an achievement of the very few; a subjective disposition or an objective assessment; an essence or a construct? Is it something one has by virtue of being an individual, or does achieving individuality make one an individual? And so on, along varying interrogative permutations. But, in brief, what do Emerson and Mill mean when they invoke "self-reliance" and "individuality"?

I have two responses. First, that Emerson and Mill share a conceptual outlook that generates "self-reliance" and "individuality" as parallel terms, but also share, somewhat distressingly, a common aphasia (perhaps it is a common elision): a failure to assert a clear account of their terminology. In these cases, the result is often tautological: the concepts presume themselves as part of their definition. To be self-reliant one must be self-reliant; to possess individuality, one must already have individuality. At this crucial moment in their work, with these terms that are of ultimate importance to the stability of their project, Emerson and Mill beg the question. They do so in a very subtle way: by using a coterie of terms that are traded with one another (as if synonymous) to create a conceptual constellation without yielding a definition of its form or formation. There is no evidence for duplicitousness. The explanation for the apparent obscurity and avoidance must lie elsewhere.

Is the problem logical or terminological? Both, I suspect. Logical because the argument is an enthymeme (i.e., missing a premise); terminological, because the missing premise has a name. Emerson and Mill presume there is a self to realize, and that such a realization is achieved through the embodied performance of an individual--for example, as protest or aversion to conformity (Emerson), or as the unrestrained exercise of "inward forces" and "energy" (Mill). (7) Furthermore, such realization requires both freedom (Emerson) or liberty (Mill) and constraint (Emerson) or restraint (Mill) in order to be effected. And finally, one must be willing to struggle for the achievement of one's self because such realization is the moral objective of human creativity (through "genius") and expression (by means of "originality"). (8) In order to speak satisfyingly about achieving a self through embodied performance, and heeding claims from one's "genius," a stronger sense of what that self is (or is not) must be supplied. Emerson and Mill offer accounts of achieving the self without explicating what obtains prior to that achievement, and in so doing complicate a defense of what follows it. In other words, the point of postulating that there is a self to realize is, presumably, to realize it. But how can a self be realized ("unattained but attainable," as Emerson says) without presuming an earlier version of a self?. (9) Does the idea of realization forbid the existence of an essence or nature, or does it demand it? Are we looking for a system of incremental progressions, or of stable, enduring qualities? Part of my work here is to show how Emerson and Mill equivocate on the terms of agency and identity, and thereby obscure attempts to assess the meaning of the self at the center of their critical projects.

Secondly, and in reply to the conceptual obscurantism suggested in the first response, I suspect that Emerson's "self-reliance" and Mill's "individuality" are deployed heuristically. The terms are forwarded, mainly, as acts of naming, in particular, acts of naming an ideal condition (one they believe essential to individual human integrity, and by extension responsibility and prosperity). Motivation for the use and characterization of the terms, then, would not be to offer inviolable definitions, but to create a kind of sentiment that would suffice as a response to a rather ominous philosophical problematic, namely, skepticism. And that sentiment, it could be said, is meant to stimulate in us the idea that we must join the fray, and take the chance of naming our world--standing for it. They cannot tell us how to do this; the tuition must be realized as intuition. This is why I suppose Emerson and Mill to be preoccupied with naming, but not defining. The lapsed clarity of their concepts leaves them susceptible to the criticism of being presumptuous or renegade (here, resting whole arguments on undefined terms), while this very vagueness proves to be an intellectual openness (one fills in what one needs to fill in, as from intuition); they supply the name, we define the content. When placed beside an explanation of their practice of naming, this vulnerability imparts its own kind of definition--one that is rather indirect, and not terribly solicitous of its own defense. They are trying to teach us something without letting on that instruction has begun.

I must first defend the idea that Emerson's notion of "self-reliance" and Mill's notion of "individuality" do, in fact, address the same sort of cultural circumstance. Emerson and Mill perceive what might be called, in Tocqueville's words, "the tyranny of the majority," and both advance their works in the spirit of dissenting from such rule; not because of a wish to be unfettered from custom (toward an anarchism), but because public opinion seems at odds with the flourishing of the private individual. (10) "The despotism of custom," Mill writes, "is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement." (11) Eighteen years earlier, Emerson con-firmed a similar assessment: "Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater." (12) Mill emphasizes melioration, Emerson preservation, but the shared concern is the infringement of civil society--its opinions, habits, and expectations--upon the domain of individuals. "... I cannot sell my liberty and my power," Emerson reports, "to save their sensibility." (13) And power, Emerson defines, is "... in nature the essential measure of right." (14)

Mill introduced his project, in part, by saying that the only freedom we should commit ourselves to is that which allows us to "pursu[e] our own good in our own way." (15) To avoid a full-blown relativism or invite moral collapse, he qualifies this by saying that such goods can be pursued only in so far as that search and its intended end do not cause harm to others. (16) Emerson, however, is less concerned with causing harm to others than he is in others causing harm to him. If Mill is setting out the ways in which personal goods can be pursued without interfering with the goods others pursue, Emerson is outlining the many ways in which such interference is enacted. Indeed, we are harmed by others, according to Emerson, mainly because we invite and enable harm through our supplication: "I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions." (17)

Believing that society is antagonistic to, indeed in conspiracy against, individual development, entreats the question of what might be preserved, supported, or inspired by insuring liberty for individuals. Mill and Emerson do not postulate a comprehensive range of results, nor should they (as that would be against the spirit of their argument for a plurality of indeterminately rich human expression); rather, they emphasize the conditions under which a wide range of possibilities may reasonably be expected to emerge. Mill calls this condition "individuality," Emerson "self-reliance."

"Individuality," for Mill, is the "chief ingredient of individual and social progress" and "one of the leading essentials of well-being." (18) And it can be understood as possessing the qualities of "spontaneity" and "originality"--the former being akin to "inward forces," the latter to "the new." (19) Custom opposes individuality because it solicits the diminishment of spontaneity and originality; on this view, one is "rewarded" for conforming to the given standard, not for innovating or denying it. "[W]hatever crushes individuality is despotism," Mill writes. (20) Therefore, the society that supports and acts against "personal impulses and preferences" is despotic. (21)

"Self-Reliance" (the essay) seems a fuller articulation of the compact Latin epigraph that marks the reader's first contact with the work: "Ne te quaesiveris extra" ["Do not seek yourself outside yourself"]. (22) Imagine a diagram sketched for this kind of relation. It might involve a center and a periphery, and, maybe an arrow (to signal direction). The arrow could emerge from the center, and before reaching the perimeter, turn back upon the center. In this way, the arrow designates that the center is related to itself. But what does such an illustration illustrate? What, for example, does the arrow point to? For Emerson, the concept "self-reliance" reinforces the idea of retaining one's finer impulses, and letting them return to support themselves. One does not seek a self outside the self because the self is consubstantial: oneself is already one's self. The problem, according to Emerson, is that we don't believe this is the case. And so "self-reliance" repeats as an oracle of private faith (faith in one's self): "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. Speak you latent conviction...." (23) And a bit later: "Trust thyself', every heart vibrates to that iron string...." (24) For "the absolutely trustworthy [is] seated at [the] heart [of great men]." (25) "And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster." (26) Lacking this trust means lacking faith in oneself, for instance, that one can be the originating node of genius or power. Much of Emerson's essay is an inductive exploration of the consequences of such a lack--the meanness of adopting something from another (quotation, imitation), the weakness of rejecting something from oneself (timidity, apology), and the shame of being a subject who is persistently subject to others (mendicancy, sychophantism). "Self-reliance" is thus preached, by Emerson, as a sort of gospel of deliverance from the impersonal effect attendant with every act of self-denial (this is often depicted in terms of "shame" (27)). Still, with all this trust and reliance and faith what can be said about the self that is trusted and relied upon and made the object of one's faith?

If Emerson contrasts the self-reliant with the conformist, Mill trades on an analogy of the growing tree--an image that is at once more complicated and, perhaps, more illustrative than the proposed circle and arrow (above). "Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing." (28) Quite in keeping with the implications of the industrial revolution happening all about him, Mill conjures the image of "automatons in human form"--"machines" that might do our bidding at command, without protest, adjustment, or compensation. (29) Such machines--built by design, limited by construction, and kept static--are inversions of the human as natural organism. Mill imagines that humans have "energy" that is the "source" of "character." (30) Like the tree, however, the "inward forces" must engage outward forces--such as "culture"--and together cultivate "individuality." (31) Mill is partial to organic metaphors (in Utilitarianism he writes of the "nobler feelings" of "young persons" as a "very tender plant, easily killed" (32)), but his appeals to energy, nature, and forces can be distracting. The purpose of the example is merely, but crucially, to make evident how "restraint" can go too far, and that such transgression compromises individuality. This sentiment is memorably captured in the comparison he draws between individuality and "a Chinese lady's foot,'" the latter of which is "maim[ed] by compression." (33) The tree, or the foot, like individuality, must be permitted to branch out, to spread out, without fear of being trimmed or contained. Mill's critique of conformity reaches its apogee when he likens the inheritors of Calvinist doctrine of human depravity to topiaries: "... [T]here is at present a strong tendency to this narrow theory of life, and to the pinched and hidebound type of human character which it patronizes. Many persons, no doubt, sincerely think that human beings thus cramped and dwarfed, are as their Maker designed them to be; just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut into figures of animals, than as nature made them." (34) What, then, blocks the tendency of growth, disfigures by compression, and clips the transgressive?

Mill and Emerson accuse society (also prominently figured as "culture," "custom," and the "conventional") for interfering with individual expression. Emerson begins his essay by distinguishing the "original" from the "conventional," thus pairing originality with the uncompromised and self-generated, and conventionality with that which is borrowed and acquired from society. Noting Mill's use of the words "force" and "character," consider Emerson addressing the harm of privileging social inheritances: "The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character.... And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life." (35) Society dilutes genius. The "game of conformity" coercively constrains thought and action to the point where "If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument." (36) The priest's collar confirms allegiances even before a word is spoken: "Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? (37) Social institutions--both as grand structures (such as religion or education) and as the miniature, everyday habits of interaction--compel action that may be at odds with one's native impulses. Take an example from Emerson's close taxonomy of the ordinary instances of compromise: "the forced smile." "'The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping willfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation." (38) Mill contends that the "forces" society "disciplin[es] and control[s]" are those precisely driven by the "element of spontaneity and individuality." (39) He thought "some early states of society" actually possessed an "excess" of such an element. Now, however, there is no such remainder: "[S]ociety," writes Mill, "has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences." (40) "In our times," Mill continues, "every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship." (41) Discipline through surveillance, and coersion through standardization has become commonplace. Education is designed to "bring people under common influences," and this has the infelicitous effect of homogenizing the community of learners so that they "read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them." (42) Commonness encourages sameness. Being liked somehow becomes connected with being alike--to the point where sameness makes all the difference. No one inquires after his or her own good, his or her own preference, but defers to some (shared) external standard. Mill clarifies: "I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary." (43) In Mill's surveillance society, where everyone is watching and being watched, monitoring for errancy and the erratic, consciousness is sufficiently anesthetized to forestall the exceptional act. "... [P]eculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes...." (44) Social coercion nullifies personal aversion.

The liberating act, then, is that which unbinds one's thoughts and actions from received institutions and opinions, and solders them instead to the inmost, native, and originary: the space, for Emerson, of the "heart," the "gleam of light," and "the spontaneous impression." (45) Society, as Mill says, arranges itself so as to fog one's perception of an inner source or standard. Burning away this dissimulation takes an act of concentrated will: "The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice." (46) Instances of passive inheritance--where we learn that "Customs are made for customary circumstances, and customary characters"--demonstrate the infrequency of the free act. (47) Emerson writes: "Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us." (48) The counterpoint to the conformist act, for Emerson, is that which emanates from within (instead of filters in from without): "Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing." (49) Conformity is a condition of stagnancy, and so it is both paralyzing and uninformative.

Mill's counter-concept to conformity is "individuality," and he articulates its meaning by keeping very close to the organic metaphors that populate his remarks. "Individuality," he tells us, "is the same thing with development," which is to say, individuality is a process of growth. (50) "... [I]t is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings ...." (51) And Mill takes for granted that we should value whatever condition "brings human beings nearer to the best thing they can be...." (52) Such an achievement cannot be spurred or generated by "ape-like" imitation, but by the "exceptional individuals" who are encouraged to grow in the "soil" of freedom, variety, and movement. (53) There are, Mill estimates, rather few individuals who are socially cultivated to develop their individuality, and this state of affairs is both a cause and a consequence of rampant conformity. Since eccentricity is punished, and accession to the average, the mediocre, and bounded is rewarded, few are willing to risk the penalties of deviation. "Genius," and this is Mill, not Emerson, "can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people.... " And genius "... in its true sense ..." is nothing but "... originality in thought and action ...." (54) Through this calculus of antagonism and traversal, it is evident that a greater degree of social disconformity yields a higher portion of individuality. Emerson establishes the same logic: "... these [social] relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself." (55)

The foregoing may seem a rousing, affirmative trace of Emerson and Mill's shared concern for the sanctity and integrity of the individual in the midst of society, but the energy of the insights, and their implications, appear compromised when one seeks after the first terms of the debate. What stands at the beginning of the procession of antagonisms? Who (or what) is the self that one is reproved to rely on (in Emerson)? What is the individuality that one is commended to realize (in Mill)? If these essayists reject antinomianism, then who (or what) is the standard for law and conduct? While inspiring to consider the application of their remarks, it is immensely difficult to appeal from them. Emerson and Mill complicate the inheritance of their terms of agency and identity--somewhat by obfuscation, and somewhat by solecism. But what if instead of reading that opacity as a detriment to their criticism, it was regarded as its innovation? This will take some getting used to.

Emerson, perhaps somewhat more directly than Mill, isolates the central problematic of the present investigation, when he writes: "The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?" (56) And so a catalogue of concepts emerge that need defining, that need defending: "original action," "self-trust," "aboriginal Self," " universal reliance," and (the verb appropriate to Mill's recurrent use of organic metaphor) "grounded." What is the source from which this system of reliance grows; what is the initial territory upon which it establishes a system of roots? Emerson continues:
 What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star,
 without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a
 ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least
 mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that
 source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life,
 which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary
 wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In
 that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go,
 all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being
 which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is
 not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time,
 from man, but one without them, and proceeds obviously
 from the same source whence their life and being also
 proceed. We first share the life by which things exist, and
 afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that
 we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and
 of thoughts (57) [italics added]

Emerson confesses his terminological aphasia: "we know not how," and if we know, we "forget." Emerson's Platonic allegory of perceptual impairment--by Lethe, among other things--will intensify in later essays. (58) In earlier work, such as the "Address," however, Emerson emphasized the difference between tuition and intuition, where the tuition is, at best, "provocation." (59) There he noted that "I can accept nothing" at "second hand." (60) And the "absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation." (61) "Primary" faith (in the "Address") or wisdom (in "Self-Reliance") cannot be taught; so they must be initial, essential, innate. Thus, inquiry after or definition of the nature of such a nature is forestalled. In the passage above, there is no shame and no regret that interrogation has reached its limits. And so while Emerson proclaims the initial as Spontaneity, Instinct, and Intuition, he connotes that any account of them is "the last fact behind which analysis cannot go." Indeed, it is, in this context, the first fact. It appears to be last because Emerson, like Mill, makes it the terminus of the inquiry, instead of its beginning. Mill says that individuality is the outcome of restraining the "impulses" of "spontaneity," but there is no reverse theory of spontaneity's origin. Thus, the source of the self has been obscured. With the opacity of these initial terms of agency and identity, Emerson and Mill cultivate a special brand of philosophical superstition, one that assumes its grounding concept, and therefore leaves their arguments without a requisite premise. This is Emerson and Mill's enthymematic provocation.

In a moment of minimalist aphoristic distillation, Emerson writes: "The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion." (62) Being averted--turned away--from a conformist move, however, implies being turned toward another node of focus; thus, self-reliance is a different sort of conformity, namely, a conforming to one's self. (63) "Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,--as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances." (64) The most requested virtue being conformity to "those actions which are reckoned excellent" by others. (65) Emerson counters this kind of conformity with his own "aversation"--addressed at once with humility and hubris: "Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony." (66) Compare this with the later admission, in "Experience," that "[g]hostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again." (67) Here, at least, Emerson argues for a substantial presence, one equipped with the special capacity to assess states of affairs without appeal to an external standard. "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it." (68) Emerson uses these terms as if they were synonyms, but a "nature" is a given thing, a "constitution" is a created thing, so we must adjudicate how to read this pairing. Either he means to say that a nature is a construct, or that a constitution is supplied. If the former, then, one's nature is changeable, and thus susceptible to alteration. If the latter, then, one's constitution is fixed, and thus impervious to amendment. Neither of these options will work in Emerson's schema, since there must be an internal standard against which to judge one's thoughts and actions. Emerson wants an interior referent that will disqualify exterior claims, but this comes at the price of dissolving both. He thinks a distinction can be made between "popular standards" and his own, but, alas, both appeal to a nature or a constitution, and if to both, then the distinction becomes useless.

Emerson seems to have heard this complaint before, or anticipated it, since he writes: "The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism.... But the law of consciousness abides." (69) A standard remains, though not derived from culture. Can we say, then, that the "law of consciousness" authors one's constitution, and that the result is one's nature? Perhaps, but then the idea of a "nature" seems defeated, and the standard it might provide, undone. What then is the law of consciousness? In deflecting the charge of antinomianism, Emerson clutches for another essential, interior standard, and he comes up with "law of consciousness." If such a law is not derived from "popular standards," then it must claim another source. What is opposed to the created and constituted? Well, the given: nature, of course.

The "populace," in Emerson, however, remains an indistinct class. Is he speaking of everyone? What about children? In the introduction to On Liberty, Mill defines explicitly the class to which his theories are addressed and to which they apply: "It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in their maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood." (70) In the third part of his essay, Mill assigns freedom of choice to this class of persons: "... [I]t is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way." (71) What is it that children have when they are "below the age" of, and not yet "arrived at," maturity? Are they not (yet) infused with the energy, impulses, and spontaneity of their elders? It seems odd to deny such qualities to children, given Mill's emphasis on growth and development--most visibly in the tree metaphors. A tree has a beginning, a youth--and yet, it is still itself. Why are children--who are defined as beginning humans, already maturing through youth--not part of the audience? Emerson, in a somewhat different, though relevant, context writes: "Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being?" (72) If Emerson is sensitive to the totality of growth, whilst Mill prunes the view, what can be said for the character of the acorn? Does the genetics of the acorn portend an essence? Or, as Mill's environmental holism reveals, does the acorn only achieve its "fullness of life" in the soil of culture? (73) Yet, according to Mill, society aggressively "restrains" growth, elective experiment, and severs aspiring branches of eccentricity. Holding to Mill's exclusion and to his metaphor, it would seem that a child is not yet even an acorn--since that essence, that genetic recipe--only emerges at maturity. If this postponement is allowed (even if it contradicts the intuitive sense of his metaphor), one is no closer to or clearer on what it is the individual "has" (or achieves) once "the law" declares him or her mature. Is the newly matured individual a hot-house product of culture (where the self is generated by social influence), or blessed with an inspired shift in consciousness that allows him or her to perceive the essence thus far buried by adolescence? Mill does not acknowledge the complication his limited class instigates, and Emerson does not care to press harder on either "being" or "becoming." (74) Would it not be preferable to these views, then, to think of one's self or individuality as internally supplied and generated, for example, where one possesses both seed and soil?

It should be worth reviewing the robust inventory of names Emerson and Mill assign to the thing (or state? or condition?) one is tempted to refer to with the title "self," or the source of the self. Mill uses: character, conscience, individuality, individual, individual character, judgment, spontaneity, reason, genius, source, nature, human nature, impulses, inward forces, power, and energy. Emerson employs: character, conscience, constitution, spontaneous impression, genius, soul, spirit, reason, right, power, law, original, aboriginal, originality, instinct, intuition, thought, mind, heart, sense, gleam of light, nature, human nature, consciousness, and I. And other words could be added to these lists. Is this proliferation of names meant to be taken as an index of synonyms for the "self," or, instead, as a constellation of ideas very near it? One way of accounting for the plenitude of terms, and their rather brilliant associations and inflections, would be to trace the lush genealogy of their usage by Emerson and Mill's predecessors and signature influences. Several works come to mind.

In search of a tertium quid, consider Montaigne's Essays (1580), Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1787), Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-96), Coleridge' s Biographica Literaria (1817), and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1836). Emerson's affection for Montaigne's Essays comes early and persists ("It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience," Emerson wrote in Representative Men.) (75) Kantianism becomes a philosophical specter that haunts the age, as if an overweening apparition from the continent had come to make a claim against the world offered by Locke and Hume. And Goethe's masterful literary transfiguration of philosophical concepts becomes, for Emerson, an inspiring model of expression (especially of writing). (76) But it is, perhaps, with Coleridge and Carlyle that these many words find their closest intellectual antecedent. Indeed, Emerson was much invested in the reception of Carlyle's work in America, going so far as to write a preface for the 1836 edition of Sartor Resartus. I should wish for a fitting digression at this point, something to fill out the promising associations nested in these texts, but I will instead focus on what seems more pertinent to the question of why these terms were appropriated, and when applied, how those implantations were meant to serve both as a response to a history of philosophy (reaching back at least to Montaigne) and as a declaration to a future for philosophy yet to come.

From remarks by Stanley Cavell, in his introduction to Disowning Knowledge, I draft here a possible explanation both for the use and for the implications of Emerson and Mill's words, and it comes very close to what may be considered a primary function of philosophical inquiry: naming the world as a way to know the world. Naming is at once an invitation and a hazard; thus, one names to know, but may not, at last, know what one names. Despite this, naming is an act of responsibility for knowledge. I would call the naming Emerson and Mill do a form of responsibility as response--in particular, to skepticism. Cavell writes:
 Emerson says in "Self-Reliance": "Primary wisdom [is]
 Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions." He is
 accordingly called, not incorrectly, a philosopher of intuition.
 For some reason it is typically not noticed that he is at the
 same time a teacher of tuition. But in such a statement
 declaring the importance of intuition, Emerson is at the same
 time grounding the necessity of tuition. I read him as teaching
 that the occurrence to us of intuition places a demand upon
 us, namely for tuition; call this wording, the willingness to
 subject oneself to words, to make oneself intelligible. (Tuition
 so conceived is what I understand criticism to be.) (77)

What Cavell here calls "wording," I have called "naming"; both appeal to the risk of adopting a term to "stand for" what one means ("For that reality," Emerson says in "Lecture on the Times," "let us stand; that let us serve, and for that speak." (78) In "Self-Reliance," Emerson fuses postulation with representativeness: "I will stand here for humanity...." (79)) Emerson, like Mill, tries to make the self intelligible by soliciting words to stand for it, much as one might describe a rare color by analogizing its quality to some (more) familiar instantiations of the color--so the sunset is lilac and tangerine, the rising moon a shade of dry bone. Recourse to the familiar (the known?) works in this color trading. Yet, with Emerson's effort to teach intuitions, for example, by naming them, there is little sense of the familiar referent or the object of comparison. How much more do I know about the self by its being named--worded--as soul, consciousness, genius, etc.? Well, what if that isn't the point? What if the motivation for tuition were the instruction of that which cannot be taught, and therefore, that which cannot be doubted?. (Return briefly to the passage from Nature that attests the recovery and unity of the self by learning what cannot be taught). In other words, what if the ambitious, though flailing, project of naming the self were mounted as an antagonism to the idea that humans don't have selves after all? Naming the self, then, is an act of faith, a summons to superstition, a plea for the occult, in so far as it deflates the opposing opinion that no such thing abides. So it is a response to the agony of an absence: the idea that there is, in fact, no self to rely upon, no individuality to develop. Again Cavell:
 We may say that what [the best case of knowledge] is
 vulnerable to is the transformation of a scene of knowing
 for oneself into a sense that true knowledge is beyond
 the human self, that what we hold in our minds to be true
 of the world can have at best the status of opinion,
 educated guesswork, hypothesis, construction, belief.
 The concept of belief is turned from its common
 source.... [I]n such a case a word is being used outside
 its language game(s), apart from its ordinary criteria. It is
 essential to language that words can so be turned. But
 there are consequences. (80)

But there are consequences. When Emerson left the church, when he left, that is, the realm of concepts and categories that framed his human experience up to that point, he faced the challenge of renaming the world. Nature is his first distended effort to do so. And there, as in "Self-Reliance," the reader is forced to consider the exchange--for example, where soul becomes self, and God becomes nature, and faith becomes trust. A "philosopher of intuition" all of sudden seems a euphemism for a philosopher who leaves first terms in a muddy state, who proliferates names but withholds their definitions. Emerson has "turned" language--perhaps like Wittgenstein (in another scene of the organic), who found that when justifications come to an end his "spade is turned," which is to say that he reaches "bedrock;" or, as Emerson put it: reaches "the last fact behind which analysis cannot go." (81) (Remember, conformity explains nothing; and, if averse to conformity, one "cannot spend the day in explanation." (82)) A final few lines from Cavell should clinch why I bring him into this discussion, here, responding to the "madness" of the "skeptics fantastic quest for certainty":
 The glimpse is of an internal connection between skepticism
 and romanticism, of a sense why skepticism is what romantic
 writers are locked in struggle against, writers from Coleridge
 and Wordsworth to Emerson and Thoreau and Poe (and for
 future reference I single out E.T.A. Hoffmann); and
 specifically in struggle for some ground of animism, which
 may take the form of animation (as emblematized by Hoffmann's
 automatons, in Coleridge's figure of life-in-death in
 The Ancient Mariner, perhaps in Frankenstein), a struggle as
 if to bring the world back to life from the death dealt it in
 philosophy, anyway in philosophical skepticism. (83)

I have noted Emerson's aversion to the approach taken by "the young scholars, who invade our hills," showing that "all their botany is Latin names." (84) Here, I put Emerson's "Blight" beside Cavell's claim to illustrate how naming can anesthetize the world. This comes to something like wording the world to death. Philosophy is an accomplice. Animism or animation in the works Cavell cites, and morning or waking up in Thoreau, seeing clearly in Emerson, and unfettered growth in Mill, reinforce the notion that life is at stake precisely in the terms one sets out for knowing it. The threat of skepticism, for Emerson and Mill, means something very specific: the erasure of the self, the deferral of individuality. Emerson's declarative "I actually am," and his goading that we no longer say "'I think,' 'I am,'" makes the "internal connection" Cavell "glimpses" more than a little salient. First, it puts Emerson and Mill into the (scientific, philosophical, religious) conversation of naming, and therefore of how we will know the world. Secondly, it heightens the consequences of not knowing what one's names mean, or to what they refer.

Do Emerson and Mill succumb to what Wittgenstein calls the "metaphysical use" of these words--for example, in so far as the words lose touch with their referent? (85) Or have I succumbed to conducting an investigation into the metaphysical use of words that may not bear the weight of such interrogation? (Have I catalogued a list of names that name nothing?) If the idea of Emerson and Mill's using "romantic" names (borrowed from Coleridge, Carlyle, et al.) is attractive, then it may be that they are writing from within a language game, with an awareness of the outward criteria that define the terms of use, and I am the offender--the outsider extracting names from their context (from their "game") in such a way that they appear empty or equivocal, dogmatic or euphemistic. Do Emerson and Mill know what they mean when they say "self" and "individuality"? That I find these words ("self" and "individuality") mutually reinforcing but not well defined might imply that I am pressing for an expression of hollow terms; or, if full, then terminally resistant to yielding any descriptive precipitate. Does it matter to Emerson and Mill that these words define each other, yet do not quite define a thing, or a process? Are these words to be taken as gestures, important merely for their connotation of an inner, uncompromised space (a space beyond or behind analysis, at bedrock, aside from metaphysical usage)? If so, then would it be better to read Emerson and Mill not as equivocating, but instead as issuing a cascade of synonyms for a sentiment (not for an idea, or an object, or an essence)? After all, it was Emerson, in the third line of his essay, who wrote of the eminent painter's lines: "The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain." (86)

In digesting the appeal Emerson and Mill make--as one of aversion to conformity, and one of heeding interior insights--perhaps there is more to say about the sentiment of their concern than the content of the concepts they employ. Their admonitions seem accurate and enduring. And yet, for one who aims to appropriate and reply to such a sentiment, or as this project has aimed, to decipher the terms by which agency and identity are defined and effected, there is the lingering doubt that the appeal is grounded on nothing more than an act of faith. If this is so, can a philosophical investigation of these terms be conducted, or is it terminally forestalled by "the last fact behind which analysis cannot go" --if such a fact, itself, could be identified? (87) Consider that Emerson and Mill set up a contrast between the conventional or customary and the original and new, not quite emphasizing that while the former is a matter of empirical sociology, the latter is more akin to a kind of prayer or meditation. The catalogue of offenses (where individuals are "lost in the crowd" [Mill] or fail to achieve "solitude" in the "midst of the crowd" [Emerson]) registered in the lines of their essays reveals just how prominent the social aspect informs the motivation of their critiques: from unwarranted cowardliness to compromised creativity, from indifferent acquiescence to interested supplication. (88) Social congregation yields a full ledger of lapses, but in their turn to the private, inner realm that is said to be immune from such errors, we are left without any perceptual or conceptual standard, that is, without any suitable exchange for the satisfyingly empirical evidence they provide to illustrate their worry. The offense is empirical, but the resource to amend the infraction is not. And neither is it conceptual.

Perhaps this unflattering trade is what Emerson means by the "reason of self-trust"--namely, that it abides by an interior logic that is not shareable. (89) This implies that justification of one's genius (e.g., as "original action" from the "fountain of action and of thought" [Emerson], or as "originality in thought and action" [Mill]) may (and indeed is likely to) fail articulation, and thus lead to confusion. (90) After all, Emerson writes at length about dismissing the injury of being misunderstood. (91) And Mill encourages a stoical repudiation of those who would see "the tyranny of opinion ... make eccentricity a reproach." (92) If conceptual articulation fails, then communication is crippled. Intuition is both untaught and unteachable. The misunderstandings that derive from such a system seem rather close to what Cavell has called, in quite a special sense, the problem of knowing and acknowledging. (93) Thus, being misunderstood is akin to a failed moment of knowledge, and of acknowledgement. The aspiration of Emerson and Mill's apprisal, however, is that if we must succumb to such unknownness, to being odd, seeming strange, coming to the end of analysis, withholding explanation, then, at least, we ought to be known to ourselves. Call this a private epistemology for proof of one's own existence. (Recall that it is Emerson who laments the customary failure to affirm the cogito: we no longer say "I think," "I am" but quote "some saint or sage." (94)) Emerson sequences such proclamations of his own existence: "I actually am," "I must be myself," "... for what I am." (95) And because others neglect living "wholly from within," and realizing that "power is inborn" he admits doubts of the other's existence: "... I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are." (96)

When the self-reliant clash with conformists (Emerson), when individualities come into conflict with the masses (Mill), what can be shared besides these misunderstandings, these occasions of being unknown to each other? Emerson and Mill, like Nietzsche, seem to think that it is quite unlikely that everyone will be self-reliant, achieve individuality, and so the idea of a community of self-reliant individuals seems as phantasmagoric as it is problematic, as alluring as improbable. Mill says the "only power deserving the name is that of the masses," and that "the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind." (97) Because "the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power ..." we note fewer and fewer "exceptional individuals"--that is, persons who have "dared to be eccentric." (98) Individuality is not in fashion, and so those who "dare" are, for want of popular enthusiasm, exceptional, rare. Emerson sustains the same imbalance: "But now we are a mob.... We must go alone." (99) Emerson and Mill are not preoccupied with explaining themselves to others--"I do not wish to expiate, but to live," says Emerson, "... we cannot spend the day in explanation"--even in so far as they have written these essays, presumably, with readers in mind. (100) The reports, then, issue a network of paradoxes: how can we take their advice without violating the very principles they affirm? Instruction is invalidated, so there is no inlet to a coherent notion of a socially integrated community of self-reliant individuals; it is, a priori, contrary to the spirit of original thought and action.

Since "imitation is suicide," one's only recourse--at once toward preservation and creation (or growth)--is becoming one's own model. This sort of reflexive exemplarity requires the standing model (or the standard, or what one stands for) to be internally generated, and thenceforth, internally heeded. External dictation is akin to resignation: where self-identity has nothing of oneself in it, but becomes a fabrication of fragments borrowed from the identities of others. This is why Emerson hears an admonition in the lines of the painter at the beginning of his essay; he accedes that expression is necessary, but exceptional, and that it is risky--perhaps the principle risk that distinguishes a human life (not as life, but as human). Quotation (in word) and imitation (in act) consecrate self-destruction, while the bid for the original becomes the defining and defiant act of self-creation--where the "created" self is at last identifiable and thus known, perhaps, known as given (not so much tutored as recognized).

Even if one grants that the finer moral of Emerson and Mill's culture critiques lies in their assessment of the society/individual dynamic, and not, say, in what is at stake in producing a clear and distinct definition of the "self" or "individuality," one is left, nevertheless, with two significant residual problems: (a) On Mill's account, "individuality" is the achievement of "character," and yet it also seems its prerequisite. (101) On Emerson's line, the "self" has an antecedent: "the aboriginal Self." (102) Thus, in both views, one must possess "genius" in order to develop it. (103) If most humans are cowards and cattle, bugs and spawn, ape-like, the herd, the rabble, the mob, and topiaries of one sort or another, how can they become individuals without already being individuals? (104) (b) And taken the other way: if the self already is (i.e., has its being), how can it become something else? Mill's "different experiments in living," and Emerson's commendation to "do your work" come to nothing if one already is who one will be. (105)

A response to the first residuum: because of the material, limiting circumstance that individuates--namely, the identifiable, discrete, unified human body--Emerson and Mill, like so many others, have inferred the possibility of something that names such individuation (e.g., soul, spirit, self, etc.). For example, where individuality would mean "being oneself" or "being who one is." In this parallel between the body (as material) and the self (as concept or essence), it is possible to imagine such individuals who either lack a self, or who in possessing a self lack the capacity to perceive it (and therefore, cannot follow it authentically). I suspect that Emerson and Mill mean the latter, but--to capitalize on rhetorical force--say the former. The caricature yields a more compelling explanation for the state of affairs. The individual as topiary, of which there are many guises, in fact possesses a self, she just cannot distinguish between her volition and that of the cultural hedge-trimmer that forever circles with sharpened blades and a prototype in mind. The individual becomes a culturally conceived ornament so stylized that she can no longer articulate how she wishes to grow.

A reply to the second residuum: if we could read "becoming" as the manifestation of "being," something of the paradox might be allayed. Becoming would be read as a process of asserting being (viz., the internal and unchanging). For Emerson and Mill, quite interestingly, this can result in innovation. Becoming who one is, then, is not a matter of following an inner dictator, which would imply merely exchanging cultural coercion for private coercion. Rather, it means, as Mill puts it: letting "the Niagara river" of genius make its bid for new banks and pathways. (106) In "The American Scholar," spoken a few years before "Self-Reliance" was published, Emerson confessed: "In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, one or two approximations to the right state of every man. All the rest behold in the hero or the poet their own green and crude being,--ripened; yes, and are content to be less, so that may attain to its full stature." (107)

From this second response, I derive two corollaries, with which I bring the present work to an end: (i) that newness is possible, and only possible when regarded as the necessary outcome of an inner condition; and, (ii) that orientation defines the parameters of external creation based on internal principles.

Mill addresses the first residuum, and the first corollary:
 Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot
 feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how
 should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it
 would not be originality. The first service which originality
 has to render them, is that of opening their eyes: which being
 once fully done, they would have a chance of being themselves
 original. Meanwhile, recollecting that nothing was ever
 yet done which some one was not the first to do, and that all
 good things which exist are the fruits of originality, let them
 be modest enough to believe that there is something still left
 to accomplish.... (108) [italics added]

Custom, then, is just the extenuation of the new, which by virtue of iteration becomes the norm, the accepted,--the customary. "... [T]he way, the thought, the good," writes Emerson, "shall be wholly strange and new. It shall exclude example and experience." (109) Mill calculates that "the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained." (110) Making things strange, new, and eccentric is, to be sure, at odds with society's wave; one may simply get swept up and swept away. (111) Canon formation is a distinctive example of this phenomenon: the new is incorporated, the neglected is recovered, and sometimes even the works that attack the canon become canonical. Emerson's "The American Scholar," with its vitriol about the danger of books (e.g., their power to extinguish any generation or momentum of new writing) has yet become a celebrated portion of a canon. While we read of Emerson's account of canon formation, we are faced with a work that became part of the canon he counsels us to treat with suspicion, to regard not as a given, but as a made collection. Thus the habit of readers "believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given,"--again--"forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books." (112) There was a time before Cicero. And a time when what Cicero wrote was new. And a time before that new Ciceronian text was part of a canon. Is it unfathomable, Emerson wants us to consider, for such a transformation to occur for us? Are we capable of the new? Or is everything, at last, "received at second-hand"? (113)

Emerson offers something to the second residuum and second corollary: perhaps the most affecting and effective way of depicting the self is as an orientation. In particular, as a posture. The timidity and apology that defines present human life is partly a result of being "no longer upright." (114) To stand for something entails standing.
 It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands
 alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail.... He who
 knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has
 looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving,
 throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights
 himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs,
 works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is
 stronger than a man who stands on his head. (115) [italics added]

"Rights himself"--that is, corrects himself (as from error of conformity), straightens himself (as from the posture of deformity, degradation, and primativeness), and, one might say, asserts the legal implications of both: where one has a right to be self-corrective, and self-supporting. (116) "The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle." (117) Humans are evolutionarily better suited to create the new, strange, and eccentric, but when we not only follow the flow of the crowd (as if caught in a wave), but keep our backs to the sky and our faces to the ground we assume the posture of the ruminant. "We do not yet see that virtue is Height," and that rights correlate to the posture of being upright: "There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height...." (118) The first consequence of standing upright is free hands, which Emerson takes as the first condition of enacting the miraculous.

Returning to the corrective that sentiment, and not conceptualization, be assessed the primary contribution of Emerson and Mill's essays, and sustaining the implication that it is human bodies that are at once models of action and the registries of their effects, it seems quite plausible to believe that their work is a sequence of inferences drawn from personal experience: thus inductively drawing philosophical principles from personal knowledge, and deducing philosophical knowledge from private principles. If this holds, Emerson and Mill, mindful of their own reprovals, try to make the inmost the outmost, attempt to transform the private to a universal sense. (119) The reflexive energy of sentiment, where it inspires and then becomes part of the lesson of the inspired work, can be read in both essays. We can then take "Self-Reliance" as an artifact of Emerson's genius, and On Liberty as Mill's conscription of originality; Emerson's self-reliant act, and Mill's impulsive expression of individuality. In the embodied performances of their own work, Emerson and Mill demonstrate that the terms of agency and identity are not decipherable concepts, at last, but ineluctable conditions. We learn this indirectly--being tutored to recognize this as intuition.

If Emerson and Mill write in a mood of anxiety, and mount their projects on this anxiety, consider that it was not merely driven by a reaction to an academic concern over philosophical skepticism, but by something much more proximate, more personal: supplying skeptics (themselves included) with some node of reassurance. In particular, offering a kind of autobiographical response to one's own sense of self-existence. After all, what else are their accounts but counterpoints to certain social habits that deny existence by denying agency and identity, self-reliance and individuality, and in time become personal tendencies, then personal habits? Private questions (Am I alive? Who am I? And how shall I live?) are obscured by public expectations (Are you following? Do you fit in? What can you offer?). Emerson and Mill's anxiety is aimed at reversing this priority--so that being known by others doesn't come at the cost of being known by oneself. Self-knowledge becomes a test case for knowledge of the world (objects) and others (minds) because that kind of knowledge makes the other kinds possible. Self-knowledge is the condition (or pre-condition) of the other varieties of knowledge. One way to countermand skepticism is by naming that which can mount a reply (say, the way re-naming [naming again] resembles re-turning [turning again--toward or away]). Naming itself is a method of defining the world, a powerful act and affirmation of knowledge.

The epigraph from Carlyle, placed at the beginning of these remarks, references the ancient Delphic oracle--know thyself--and mocks it: at best, knowing what to do will count as knowing what I am. Emerson writes: "But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself." (120) I know the work by "untaught sallies" and I do the work for a "continual self-recovery." (121) Emerson preserves Carlyle's doubt by shifting the criterion of knowledge to an aspect of practice. "Know thyself" is converted to "Trust thyself," where knowledge derives from action. (122) Trust is an action of regard, a kind of disposition for binding the world while unbinding one's potential in it. Loyal to such trust, the indecipherable self, at last, deciphers the world making it at once knowable and habitable.

Harvard University


(1) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, in Prose of the Victorian Period, ed. William E. Buckler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958), p. 88.

(2) It is a pleasure and an honor to thank John Lachs, Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University--teacher, mentor, and friend--for first recommending me to consider the lines of affinity between Mill's On Liberty and Emerson's "Self-Reliance." Also, I wish to extend my gratitude to Barry Tharaud, whose able, generous, and insightful editing much improved the present essay.

(3) John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), pp. 135-36.

(4) McAleer, 140; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (Harvard UP, 1982), p. 113 (26 August 1833).

(5) Emerson, Nat 1.66 10, 1.73 27, 1.76 17. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Edition, in 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1904). A note on Emerson citations: the work appears first, followed by the volume, page, and line. The Concord Edition is digitized online at, and indexed by keyword. Abbreviations for all works cited here are as follows: Nat (Nature), AmS ("The American Scholar"), DSA ("The Divinity School Address"), LT ("Lecture on the Times"), Hist ("History"), SR ("Self-Reliance"), Hsm1 ("Heroism"), Exp ("Experience"), MoS ("Montaigne; or, the Skeptic"), and, Sue ("Success").

(6) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford UP, 1991), p. 63.

(7) Mill, 66.

(8) Mill, 64, 72; Emerson, SR 2.45 9, 2.63 22.

(9) "So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic or Oriental or modem essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self." Emerson, Hist 2.7 6.

(10) Mill, 8. See also Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. Stephen D. Grant (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), vol. 1, pt. 2, see. 7, pp. 106-9.

(11) Mill, 78; italics added.

(12) Emerson, SR 2.49 25; italics added.

(13) Emerson, SR 2.73 27.

(14) Emerson, SR 2.70 23.

(15) Mill, 17.

(16) Mill, 14.

(17) Emerson, SR 2.51 3.

(18) Mill, 63.

(19) Mill, "spontaneity," 63; "originality," 64; "inward forces," 66; "the new," 71.

(20) Mill, 71.

(21) Mill, 68.

(22) Emerson, SR 2.43 1. This translation comes from p. 1142 of Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: The Library of America, 1983).

(23) Emerson, SR 2.45 7.

(24) Emerson, SR 2.47 12; italics added.

(25) Emerson, SR 2.47 18; italics added.

(26) Emerson, SR 2.74 26; italics added. "Self-trust" is a dominant term in "The American Scholar," where Emerson writes: "[The scholar's duties] may all be comprised in self-trust" (AmS 1.100 17); "In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended" (AmS 1.104 1); and, "For this self-trust, the reason is deeper than can be fathomed" (AreS 1.106 4). In "Heroism," he says that "Self-trust is the essence of heroism" (Hsm1 2.250 10); and, in "Success," he claims that "Self-trust is the first secret of success ..." (Suc 7.292 25).

(27) For more on "shame," see Emerson, SR 2.46 9, 2.52 18, 2.69 23, 2.76 14.

(28) Mill, 66. Emerson draws a similar moral from the same metaphor: "The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul" SR 2.70 26. I italicize "recovering itself" as a note of comparison with the earlier quotation from Nature, where Emerson speaks of learning one's "relation to the world" as a process of "continual self-recovery." Nat 1.66 13 and Nat 1.66 17; italics added.

(29) Mill, 66.

(30) Mill, 67.

(31) Mill, 67.

(32) Mill, 141.

(33) Mill, 77.

(34) Mill, 69.

(35) Emerson, SR 2.54 5; italics added.

(36) Emerson, SR 2.54 18.

(37) Emerson, SR 2.54 22; italics added.

(38) Emerson, SR 2.55 23; italics added.

(39) Mill, 67; italics added.

(40) Mill, 68.

(41) Ibid.

(42) Mill, 81; italics added.

(43) Mill, 68; italics added.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Emerson, "heart," SR 2.45 8, 2.47 6, 2.47 12, 2.47 19, 2.73 15, 2.84 6; "gleam of light," SR 2.45 19; "spontaneous impression," SR 2.46 3.

(46) Mill, 65; italics added.

(47) Mill, 65.

(48) Emerson, SR 2.75 20.

(49) Emerson, SR 2.59 8.

(50) Mill, 71.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Mill, "ape-like," 65; "exceptional individuals," 74; "soil," 72.

(54) Mill, 72; his italics.

(55) Emerson, SR 2.73 5.

(56) Emerson, SR 2.63 22.

(57) Emerson, SR 2.63 26.

(58) See, for example, the opening paragraph of "Experience" (1844).

(59) Emerson, DSA 1.127 2.

(60) Emerson, DSA 1.127 6, 1.127 1.

(61) Emerson, DSA 1.127 7; italics added.

(62) Emerson, SR 2.50 4.

(63) Cavell, in "Aversive Thinking: Emersonian Representations in Heidegger and Nietzsche," has said (with his italics) something related to this: "Since his aversion is a continual turning away from society, it is thereby a continual turning toward it. Toward and away; it is motion of seduction--such as philosophy will contain" (Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, (U of Chicago P, 1990), p. 59. Still, one's orientation to society seems predicated, in Emerson, on a sense of one's orientation to one's self. Aversion to society makes self-relation prior to any possible re-turn to society.

(64) Emerson, SR 2.52 27.

(65) Emerson, SR 2.53 13.

(66) Emerson, SR 2.53 15.

(67) Emerson, Exp 3.45 16; italics added.

(68) Emerson, SR 2.50 23.

(69) Emerson, SR 2.74 6; italics added.

(70) Mill, 14; italics added.

(71) Mill, 64; italics added.

(72) Emerson, SR 2.66 16; italics added.

(73) Mill, 70.

(74) Emerson SR 2.66 27.

(75) Emerson, MoS 4.162 21.

(76) See Emerson's seventh, and concluding essay, in Representative Men: "Goethe; or, the Writer."

(77) Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge UP, 1987), pp. 4-5.

(78) Emerson LT 1.290 12. And he ends this lecture by saying, "... but you who hold not of to-day, not of the times, but of the Everlasting, are to stand for it ..." LT 1.291 9; italics added.

(79) SR 2.60 17.

(80) Cavell (1987), 7.

(81) "If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'" Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1953), [section]217, p. 85e.

(82) Emerson, SR 2.53 4.

(83) Cavell (1987), 8.

(84) See David Justin Hodge, On Emerson, The Wadsworth Philosophers Series (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), p. 4.

(85) "When philosophers use a word--'knowledge,' 'being,' 'object,' 'I,' 'proposition,' 'name'--and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use" Wittgenstein (1953), [section] 115, p. 48e; Wittgenstein's italics.

(86) Emerson, SR 2.45 5.

(87) Emerson, SR 2.64 9.

(88) Mill, 73; Emerson SR 2.54 2.

(89) Emerson, SR 2.63 23.

(90) Emerson, SR 2.63 22, 2.64 19; Mill, 72.

(91) "Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? ... To be great is to be misunderstood." Emerson, SR 2.57 26, 2.58 3.

(92) Mill, 74.

(93) See, especially, Cavell's essay "Knowing and Acknowledging" in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge UP, 1976; originally published 1969), pp. 238-66; and Part Four ("Skepticism and the Problem of Others") in The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford UP, 1979/1999), pp. 329-496.

(94) Emerson, SR 2.67 2.

(95) Emerson, "I actually am," SR 2.53 16; "I must be myself," SR 2.73 7; "... for what I am," SR 2.73 9.

(96) Emerson, "wholly from within," SR 2.50 18; "power is inborn," SR 2.89 10; "... the precise man you are," SR 2.54 12.

(97) Mill, 73.

(98) Mill, 74-75.

(99) Emerson, SR 2.71 14, 2.71 19.

(100) Emerson, "... to live," SR 2.53 4; "... in explanation" SR 2.52 1.

(101) Mill, 67.

(102) Emerson, SR 2.63 25.

(103) Mill, 72; Emerson, SR 2.45 9.

(104) "Men in history, men in the world of to-day, are bugs, are spawn, and are called 'the mass' and 'the herd'." Emerson, AmS 1.106 13; "mob," SR 2.71 14. Mill, "mob," 62; "ape-like," 65; "cattle," 72.

(105) Mill, 63. Emerson, SR 2.54 15.

(106) Mill, 72.

(107) Emerson, AmS 1.106 15.

(108) Mill, 73.

(109) Emerson, SR 2.68 25.

(110) Mill, 74-75.

(111) "Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal." Emerson, SR 2.87 11.

(112) Emerson, AmS 1.89 11.

(113) Emerson, DSA 1.127 1.

(114) Emerson, SR 2.67 1. For more on "posture," see Cavell's "Being Odd, Getting Even," in In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (U of Chicago P, 1988), esp., pp. 112-13.

(115) Emerson, SR 2.89 2.

(116) "I cannot consent to pay for a privilege," Emerson writes, "where I have intrinsic right." SR 2.53 14.

(117) Emerson, SR 2.85 5.

(118) Emerson, "virtue is Height," SR 2.70 7; "standard of height," SR 2.85 25.

(119) Emerson, "inmost"/"outmost," SR 2.45 11; "private heart"/ "universal sense," SR 2.45 8, 2.45 10.

(120) Emerson, SR 2.54 15; italics added.

(121) Emerson, Nat 1.66 16.

(122) Emerson, SR 2.47 12.
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Author:Hodge, David Justin
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Date:Mar 22, 2003
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