Double Consciousness: Echoes of Emerson in Du Bois and Ellison

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ralph Waldo Ellison

As we further explore the rhetorical Emerson, continuing with racial implications in his rhetoric of “Fate,” and Emerson’s rhetorical lineage that can be traced in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Waldo Ellison in the twentieth century, we should keep in mind Buell’s assertion that Emerson represents well both the promise and the problem of doing socially significant intellectual work. Du Bois and Ellison are intellects who are also socially significant in the broader American culture–one could argue, more significant than Emerson. The question, then, as you read their work after reading “Fate”:  In this intellectual and rhetorical engagement with American society and the issue of race, what do we see and hear that we could say is significant in Emerson?

One of the potential Emersonian relations found in Du Bois emerges with his phrase “double consciousness.” That phrase also appears in Emerson’s “Fate” as well as his address on “The Transcendentalist.” For recent scholarship that explores Emerson and Du Bois, consider this article, Contending Forces‘ Intellectual History: Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century. There are also relations that can be drawn between the two with regard to their vision of education, specifically liberal education. The author Michael Roth addresses some of this in his book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Roth will be visiting our campus in February 2016 for a lecture on the topic. Du Bois, to my mind, sounds particularly Emersonian in his argument for what he calls “The Talented Tenth.” The emphasis, there, is for an education that focuses on intellect and genius, rather than one that focuses on manual skills.

Ellison, in his “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” helps us think about some of the questions of his Emersonian relationship. Because there is a character named “Mr. Emerson” in Invisible Man who is not likable, critics long assumed that Ellison was only lampooning Emerson and his transcendental aloofness from social problems. However, I would point us to recent scholarship by James Albrecht, who argues for a more complex influence in Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison. To my mind, having recently reread Invisible Man with this scholarship in mind, I read Emerson’s relation to Ellison, and recognize significant traces of Emerson’s socially-engaged intellectual work, in the prominence and power of oratory in the novel. A power that Ellison learns from Emerson and writes about in the novel is the rhetorical power that Emerson would call “eloquence.” Ellison shows us how this power is at once socially significant and intellectual.

Finding the right balance for this power–for being or having an intellect, human thinking, but also enacting thought, acting upon intellect–seems to be the conclusion that Emerson reaches in “Fate.” These are the lines where “double consciousness” emerges at the end:

One key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge, exists, the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one, and the other foot on the back of the other.

Notice that we are off the ground, but not uplifted into the blithe air. We are seeking to plant our feet on “the horses of [our] public and private  nature,” moving somewhere, and trying to keep our balance. Emerson here forwards an allegorical image circulated by Plato in his dialogue “Phaedrus”: “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.” The poet Wallace Stevens in the 20th century also picked up this image of movement and balance in an essay titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.”

Emerson and the Rhetoric of Race

October 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson lecturing in 1848 Concord Free Library

You will recall from our discussion and reading of “Self-Reliance” that long-standing conventional wisdom has assumed Emerson’s transcendentalism to be aloof, removed from social concerns, if not hostile to them. We might wonder, then, where Emerson stood regarding the crucial social and political problem at the time of his major work, the 1830s through the Civil War: American slavery. Remembering this passage from “Self-Reliance,” we might understand (knowing how it is easy to misread this essay) where Emerson gets this reputation:

“I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, `Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.”

But, as we should expect by now, Emerson’s perspective on reform generally, and antislavery reform specifically, are more complicated than that. Some of that complication might be found in a re-reading of “Self-Reliance.” This complication of Emerson and reform and race has been pursued in criticism over the last twenty-five years, guided in part by the attention given to Emerson’s antislavery lectures and other writings, demonstrating his active engagement with abolitionism, beginning with his August 1844 address on “Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.” In his lecture in 1851 “Address to the Citizens of Concord” condemning the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson renders this engagement in clear terms: “The last year has forced us all into politics,” and later declares, “the law is suicidal and cannot be obeyed.” Here Emerson sounds much more like his “student” Thoreau, known for his essay on “Civil Disobedience” and usually given more credit for acting upon his beliefs.

The Emerson reader and critic most responsible for this work in rethinking and rereading Emerson by way of his antislavery writing is Len Gougeon, author of Virtue’s Hero. A book that builds on Gougeon’s work, while extending the rereading of Emerson and race into twentieth-century writing (and relations to writers like Ralph Waldo Ellison and to cultural forms like jazz) is Michael Magee’s Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing. Versions of the critical view of Emerson that these authors counter include John Carlos Rowe’s At Emerson’s Tomb, who sees Emerson’s legacy for American literature as problematically anti-social. If interested in doing further work on Emerson’s rhetorical engagement with race and reform for the final project, I recommend you look at these works.

What does the 1844 “Emancipation” address show us of Emerson’s rhetoric of race (as I will term his engagement in the issues of anti-slavery and the racial issues that are involved)? How does this rhetorical Emerson compare or contrast with the poetic and philosophical Emerson we have studied thus far? Is this a new Emerson?

Yes and no. The explicit focus on reform is new to our reading; Emerson is not in this address worried that his love afar might be spite at home. In fact, that becomes the argument, that home is not unconnected to what is going on afar. There is, as Emerson memorably and devastatingly puts in, blood in the sugar that derives from slavery, and that sugar is sweetening the tea in Boston. What’s not new, at the same time, is the idea that this institution of slavery can be defeated by the powers of ideas, by the force he terms “eloquence,” by intellect, by a “moral revolution.” At the end of Nature, in the chapter “Prospects,” Emerson anticipates a “revolution in things” that he analogizes to the blind being restored to sight: “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.” Isn’t the pure idea of human freedom now simply extended to the revolution in the thing of slavery?

I think so. But Emerson complicates matters in the 1844 address by using the word “power” to describe the intellect and applying it to race. Race (and the “form” of race) does and doesn’t matter in the face of this power. Emerson later names this power “Fate” (an 1860 essay we will read next week). Does this power of intellect abolish race? Reinforce it? Make racial distinctions immaterial or more material? (These questions begin to suggest to me why Emerson might be taken up as both hero and villain in America’s history of race and reform).  Here is the passage–I leave it now for your rereading and our further thinking:

I have said that this event interests us because it came mainly from the concession of the whites; I add, that in part it is the earning of the blacks. They won the pity and respect which they have received, by their powers and native endowments. I think this a circumstance of the highest import. Their whole future is in it. Our planet, before the age of written history, had its races of savages, like the generations of sour paste, or the animalcules that wiggle and bite in a drop of putrid water. Who cares for these or for their wars ? We do not wish a world of bugs or of birds ; neither afterward of Scythians, Caraibs or Feejees. The grand style of Nature, her great periods, is all we observe in them. Who cares for oppressing whites, or oppressed blacks, twenty centuries ago, more than for bad dreams ? Eaters and food are in the harmony of Nature; and there too is the germ forever protected, unfolding gigantic leaf after leaf, a newer flower, a richer fruit, in every period, yet its next product is never to be guessed. It will only save what is worth saving; and it saves not by compassion, but by power. It appoints no police to guard the lion but his teeth and claws ; no fort or city for the bird but his wings ; no rescue for flies and mites but their spawning numbers, which no ravages can overcome. It deals with men after the same manner. If they are rude and foolish, down they must go. When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea, -that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated.’ But if the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength nor circumstance can hurt him: he will survive and play his part. So now, the arrival in the world of such men as Toussaint, and the Haytian heroes, or of the leaders of their race in Barbadoes and Jamaica, outweighs in good omen all the English and American humanity. The anti-slavery of the whole world is dust in the balance before this, – is a poor squeamishness and nervousness : the might and the right are here: here is the anti-slave : here is man : and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance. The intellect,-that is miraculous! Who has it, has the talisman: his skin and bones, though they were of the color of night, are transparent, and the everlasting stars shine through, with attractive beams. But a compassion for that which is not and cannot be useful or lovely, is degrading and futile. All the songs and newspapers and money subscriptions and vituperation of such as do not think with us, will avail nothing against a fact. I say to you, you must save yourself, black or white, man or woman; other help is none. I esteem the occasion of this jubilee to be the proud discovery that the black race can contend with the white : that in the great anthem which we call history, a piece of many parts and vast compass, after playing a long time a very low and subdued accompaniment, they perceive the time arrived when they can strike in with effect and take a master’s part in the music. The civility of the world has reached that pitch that their more moral genius is becoming indispensable, and the quality of this race is to be honored for itself. For this, they have been preserved in sandy deserts, in rice-swamps, in kitchens and shoe-shops, so long : now let them emerge, clothed and in their own form.

Editing Workshop: The Poetics of Sentences

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

As we have seen and read, Emerson is thought to have applied his poetic theory best in his prose. His sentences are his poetic lines.

When we revise and when we edit, we can also think of our sentences and our words with reference to poetics, ways for making  the essay move. Here are some ways for giving more attention to the specificity of sentences and words.

  1. Varieties of Sentence Style. A useful overview of what sentences are, how they work, the different kinds.Sentence variation is effective poetically and rhetorically in an essay–so having a better grasp of sentence variety will help. A
  2. Syntax: Parataxis vs. Hypotaxis. See this short article for a discussion of the two basic ways of organizing sentences. Emerson’s sentence style is known for its parataxis.There is also further discussion of this here that extends to periodic vs. running style of sentences. Since variety, again, is effective, think of providing some variation of paratactic and hypotactic.
  3. Topic Sentences and Signposting. Topic sentences are a key element in the arrangement of the essay–how the writer moves the reader through the argument. Signposts are key for coherence. Emerson’s essays, despite appearances, effectively and deliberately use both. In fact, part of the problem may be, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell noted, that every sentence in an Emerson essay functions like a topic sentence.
  4. Specificity of Language. Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea  vague; replace with more specific reference. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    1. Consider: is there a word in Emerson’s essays, or in Dickinson’s poems, or even in the entirety of Leaves of Grass, that you could argue wasn’t somehow deliberate and specific in its purpose? For a good poetic demonstration of, and argument for, specificity, read Robert PInsky’s poem “Shirt.”
  5. Worst sentence ever? You can try your hand, with an international contest–The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named for the guy who wrote this sentence:
    1. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Whitman’s Gymnastic Reading

October 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Where does Whitman leave us as readers? Once we put his book down, where are we? I think for Whitman, the answer is that we are never far from that book, even if we are meant to leave the book behind. Think of the various images Whitman presents for the metonymic relation he desires and asserts between his writing and his reader.

The closing lines of “Song of Myself”: “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles/… I stop somewhere waiting for you”

The closing  lines from “So Long!” that Whitman adds in 1860 to close Leaves of Grass:

This is no book,
Who touches this, touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease
calls me forth.

Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (a long essay he writes in the late 1860s) suggests why he is hesitant to define things:

Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

And, it might not surprise you, the ways that Whitman, late in his life, recounts his relation to Emerson and what he calls “Emersonianism.” Whitman presents the relation as a resistance. This is from an 1880 essay titled “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)” which concludes:

The reminiscence that years ago I began like most youngsters to have a touch (though it came late, and was only on the surface) of Emerson-on-the-brain—that I read his writings reverently, and address’d him in print as “Master,” and for a month or so thought of him as such—I retain not only with composure, but positive satisfaction. I have noticed that most young people of eager minds pass through this stage of exercise.    6
  The best part of Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently—no truer evolutionist.

What makes these lines and words “metonymic,” or an element of Whitman’s metonymic poetics? It is the relation, the “touch,” asserted (and desired) between the various elements of the poet (writing, words, books, pages, ideas. language, voice) and the persons receiving that touch, the audience, the reader (his or her hands, holding the book, eyes reading the pages). Metonymy, recall, is the figure of contextual and contiguous (near, touching) relationship: the part that tells a larger story of a larger whole to which it relates. The writing–and by extension for Whitman, the writer–is condensed into the language, thereby making it communicable to a reader, making it available for travel across the gulf of great differences and distances (“distance avails not”). And, this condensation of meaning, even as it enables translation to a reader, demands of that reader an active role in the process of translation. The reader has to uncompress what has been compressed. The reader, as Whitman assumes, has to finish the book.

Where do we see this in Whitman’s poetry?

How does this relate to Emerson’s poetics–his theory of poetry?

Do we see something different with Dickinson, whose shorter poems would seem to rely more on the incredible force of metaphor?

Whitman’s poetic grammar: attending to process

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Poem of the Singers, and of The Words Of Poems” 1856 Leaves of Grass

With the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sends to Emerson a poetry that would seem to be a direct response to his call (in “The Poet”) for a “metre-making argument.” Such is a poetry that moves beyond the conventional forms and metres of poety: a poetry that finds its source in the very forms of America (a poem in our eyes). In his letter back to Emerson, included in the 1856 edition (standing in for the preface, perhaps) Whitman addresses this notion that his poetry, or America’s poetry, is to be “commensurate” with the people he goes among in the city:

These are to be attended to; I am myself more drawn here than to those authors, publishers, importations, reprints, and so forth. [639]

So creating a poetry that attends to the people is one way to describe the “argument” of Leaves of Grass: the poetry derives from the people and finds its audience there as well.

What becomes Section 15 of “Song of Myself” (page 23, beginning with “The pure contralto sings”) provides a good example of this sort of attending. This is the place where the poem turns headlong into its first catalog of people and occupations (as though Whitman is walking with us through the city), attending to them in each line, and in the end, deriving or “weaving” the lines of this very “song of myself” from them, with them. This section is a good example of the significance of metonymy in Whitman. It speaks to the argument that Ed Folsom makes in “Transcendental Poetics”: that Whitman would seem to take Emerson’s notion of the poet’s use of metaphor and emblem and extend it more toward metonymy, “generat[ing] an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough” [270]. And we could extend this to the insight Professor Folsom offers on the Whitman documentary–that Whitman discovers his poetics in walking the city, seeing various people and realizing his relation to them: that could be me; I could be you.

So metonymy is a more specific poetic characteristic of Whitman–a key figure in his poetics, his poetic grammar, so to speak. Think back to the ways we have encountered Emerson’s own interest in metonymy (as he names it in “Poetry and Imagination”); and then consider Whitman as though he is putting this theory of organic or democratic or pragmatic poetics (as I argued in my post on Emerson’s poetics of convertibility) into the practice of his lines. This may make Whitman more or less Emersonian, depending on the lines you have in mind. What other examples of Whitman’s metonymy would you focus on as significant?

I hear it in this moment from “Poem of the Singers, and of the Words of Poems.” Whitman recalls Emerson’s argument from “The Poet” that all people are poets in their interest in song, but the poet has a “finer ear” for receiving and making something of the primal songs. Whitman recalls this, then fulfills it in the lines that emerge, the poem he creates out of the various names for poets and their poems. Notice how his use of repetition, the repeated term “singer” attached to each of the words, itself makes a poetry, a continual rhyme. He makes a poem out of the words of poems. This, too, is metonymy.

The singers are welcomed, understood, appear
often enough—but rare has the day been,
likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker
of poems,
Not every century, or every five centuries, has
contained such a day, for all its names.


The singers of successive hours of centuries may
have ostensible names, but the name of each
of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer,
hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer, head-
singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-
singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-singer,
echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, pas-
sion-singer, mystic-singer, weeping-singer,
fable-singer, item-singer, or something else.


All this time, and at all times, wait the words of
poems; [1856, p. 263]

The vision of attending to the people, and generating a poetry for them, and of them, or from them, is thus richly metonymic. To echo Emerson from “Experience,” I (and this book, these lines) am a fragment and these are a fragment of me. That line evokes another element of Whitman’s poetic grammar, one explored by Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Fletcher identifies as a key aspect of Whitman’s poetics the grammatical characteristic of middle voice. In short, this is a voice between active and passive–one English doesn’t really have. Fletcher hears it in Whitman’s characteristic use of intransitive verbs and reflexive phrases, in phrasings that “remain perpetually intransitive, like the vast majority of his middle-voicing verbs, his verbs of sensation, perception, and cognition.”  Fletcher goes on to extend this interest in “middle-voicing verbs,” to Whitman’s use of the present participle: “the phrase of the pure verb, the verb before it is locked down into predication” (109). Fletcher also identifies metonymy as crucial to the poetics Whitman invents (with some help from Emerson) for American poetry. This mixture of metonymy and middle voice creates something Fletcher names the “environment-poem” in which the focus of the poetry shifts from conventional categories of substance or product to process.

For in any environment substance is only known and functions only as (and in) process–precisely the subject matter of the new science of Complexity Theory, with its concern for emergent adaptations. The reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book. [173]

So: metonymy, middle voice, anaphora, present participles…. What other elements of Whitman’s poetic grammar do we notice in this evolving environment of Leaves of Grass?

Rereading and Revising Emerson: Strategies

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here are some “recomposition” strategies for reading and revising Emerson this week for the first Writing Project on the challenge and problem of Emerson’s philosophical relations. (Recall that “recomposition” is the last word of the essay “Quotation and Originality”).

How best to read Emerson and the challenges, as we have both seen and heard from critics, of how he provokes and performs thinking that is dynamic, wave-like, contradictory, fluctuating?

One answer, as I understand Dillard: devote your whole life to it; become a nun, or better yet, become a moth and burn for Emerson.

But short of that, since getting burned will get in the way of the work you need to do in other places, since both Emerson and Dillard argue for the world in which we live, for experience of the days, for transforming genius into practical power, there are some ways to approach a creative reading of Emerson and his relations that will be more rhetorically effective for the project–even if that project will need to remain, in some form, unfinished in order to be truly Emersonian.

Re/composition Strategy 1: What’s working here? Use the OED. Recognize that Emerson uses language, every word, with an understanding of its historical and symbolic complexities. Recall his discussion from the “Language” chapter of Nature. Select words from passages that you have in mind, put into the OED and see what’s in the archive. You can use this to generate analysis and interpretation as well as go back to a draft and rethink that interpretation. What’s working here, in the word, in the passage, that you can expand upon, given this history. What else might you say–or what might you need to revise or counter–given a more complicated reading nested in the connotations of the language?

A further way to elaborate what’s working, what’s at work in a passage or in the essay is to make the critical connection to Buell. Use that to authorize and extend the interpretation you are pursuing.

Re/composition Strategy 2:  What else might be said here, or is being said here, or somewhere else? Use Voyant Tools to track Emerson’s words across a text, or across several texts. In addition to digging into a word, with Emerson we also need to move across an essay, and across a series of essays, looking for both repetition (of words and their images and ideas) and resistance, contradiction. Remember the difficult lesson of “pulses” in “Experience,” or the necessity of being “misunderstood” as expressed in “Self-Reliance.” We talked about counterargument as a crucial philosophical and rhetorical perspective that Emerson has in mind and puts to work.  You can do the same by asking, and having peer readers ask: what else might be said, or is being said, in this very word or phrase (for example: “understanding”)  that seems to say something different later in the essay, or in another essay? Look for ways to counter your argument, and then use that to strengthen your argument–or move on to a better one. We need to be consistent (in the end) to produce an effective argument; a foolish consistency (“I’m sticking with the argument I started with regardless”) is highly ineffective.

This sort of potential for countering perspective can also be done with the relation you pursue with Dillard or James

Re/composition strategy #3: What’s the larger project? Think about what aspects of this initial project don’t fit here, and will need more time and space. Realize that this is an incomplete project to the extent that you have an opportunity, and most likely the necessity (if you are reading Emerson effectively), to return to this thought later: develop upon it in some way for the final project, for a senior thesis project, or maybe for that essay or book you will someday write while living as a sort of pilgrim in a cabin on the Puget Sound. At the same time, getting a better grasp on the larger project (and its implications) can provide you with good material for a conclusion that your argument works toward, larger implications that are opened up at the end, even as you close your initial argument and reinforce its claims.

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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