Emerson and William James

September 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

In 1842, while Emerson was lecturing in New York City, the lecture series that included “The Poet” attended by Walter Whitman, a newspaper editor from Brooklyn, a newborn William James was brought to Emerson for his blessing. Ever since, Emerson has been viewed as William James’s intellectual godfather. James, later in his life, read through Emerson’s works carefully (more than once), and frequently cited his thought or expression–as he does in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” James is known for developing a philosophy of pragmatism. This essay isn’t from his book of that name (it comes a few years later, significantly after he does an extended rereading of Emerson in preparation for his 1903 memorial address “Emerson”), but it could be read as on its way to that perspective, especially the resolution it reaches for how we should act, given our blindness. Earlier in his career, James also published a monumental work on Psychology, which includes a famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought.”

For more reading and research on William James, should you want to purse this philosophical relation further, consult the following web sources:

William James (UKY site): links to digital versions of many of his texts and essays.

William James’ Cambridge.

For more on James’s interest in, and understanding of, Emerson, read his memorial address included in our Norton edition of Emerson’s works.

You could also read an essay that I have written on Emerson, James, and (as I argue) a relationship of ideas and context that concern rhetoric and the changes in liberal education that emerge with the new American university at the end of the nineteenth century. That essay, “Metonymies of Mind: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and the Rhetoric of Liberal Education,” will be published in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric. Here is the abstract (if you want to read the essay, I can send you the manuscript):

Critics in both philosophy and literary studies have rightly emphasized a “poetics of transition” relating the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson to that of William James. However, less attention has been given to the ways that Emerson’s philosophy of rhetoric correlates with James’s rhetorical perspectives on psychology and philosophy. Fundamentally rhetorical interests in the contiguous circumstances and contingent reception of thinking link James to Emerson beyond matters of poetics and style. This essay correlates Emerson’s understanding of a rhetoric of metonymy as the basis of thinking with the principle of contiguity crucial to James’s philosophy of mind. This relation between rhetoric and philosophy reiterates a rhetoric of mind that both Emerson and James associate with the older liberal education of the college just at the point that it disappears into the professional, specialized disciplines of the emerging university in late nineteenth-century America.

One other line of thinking for further reading. Recall how James uses his dog–and our intimate relation to such animals, and yet our inability to understand them–as analogy for how humans are radically blind to all beings, human and nonhuman. This implication from James and his philosophy of pragmatism has been taken up by philosophers more recently and applied to the topic of environmentalism and animal rights. For example, the volume Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships. I wonder if you see this sense of ethical relation to the world in Emerson’s philosophy of nature and experience, or would argue for this perspective as a counter to the ways Emerson seems to locate the natural world in the mind of the self. Something, perhaps, for a final project.


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