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The Other Emerson

The Other Emerson

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Other Emerson
    Book Description:

    Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most significant figures in nineteenth-century American literature and culture—indeed, this collection argues, in the history of philosophy. The Other Emerson is a thorough reassessment of the philosophical underpinnings, theoretical innovations, and ethical and political implications of the prose writings of one of America’s most enduring thinkers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7487-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxxiv)

    “Where do we find ourselves?” That sentence, which famously opens Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience,” will do quite well to announce the volume you have before you: not just because of its distinguished provenance (“Experience” is, perhaps, Emerson’s most important single essay), but also, as Sharon Cameron and Stanley Cavell have noted, because of the multiple senses in which that question is to be understood, senses that conspire to produce a kind of “vertigo” sketched in Emerson’s answer to his own question:¹ “In a series, of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We...


    • 1. The Way of life by abandonment: Emerson’s Impersonal
      (pp. 3-40)

      “Most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and about our own identity, over time,” Derek Parfit writes inReasons and Persons,a book that challenges commonsense ideas about personal identity, and whose conclusions, I shall suggest, pertain directly to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.¹ The false view, according to Parfit, centers on the idea that we are separately existing entities. We hold such a view because we mistake the psychological continuity of consciousness for the continued existence of a separately existing self in whom that consciousness inheres. But since experience gives no proof of this premise,...

    • 2. Paths of Coherence through Emerson’s Philosophy: The Case of “Nominalist and Realist”
      (pp. 41-58)

      This essay begins with a short introduction to Emerson’s thought by means of somepaths of coherencerunning through it. For although one must acknowledge opposing tendencies in his thinking, and even Emerson’s own advertisements of his inconsistency, his thought does hang together. After following a few of these paths, I will turn to Emerson’s “Nominalist and Realist,” which brings theEssays: Second Seriesto a close precisely by raising and answering questions about the coherence of Emerson’s thought.

      Consider the idea of process, which for Emerson is at once a metaphysical character and a mark of moral and artistic...

    • 3. Brain Walks: Emerson on Thinking
      (pp. 59-98)

      Emerson’s essay “Intellect” voices a somewhat bizarre idea about thinking by claiming—counterintuitively—that it is the most difficult thing in the world: “What is the hardest task in the world? To think.” By calling thinking “the hardest task” Emerson is saying—in contrast to a whole tradition of philosophy—that thinking is not simply available to us, that we are not simply thinking beings, but rather that thinking is a “task” or goal to which we must respond in order, precisely, to be responsible beings. However, as it turns out, this highest duty is the most difficult to respond...


    • 4. The Guano of History
      (pp. 101-130)

      How is it that the dead speak? How is it that the dispossessed can tell their stories? How is it that the past survives in the present and informs the future, silently, but without pacifying or silencing a single torment or a single torture? What can memory be when it seeks to remember the trauma of captivity, loss, and displacement? What makes someone choose death over living? In what way does death leave behind a decomposing trace that, turning into earth at the time of death, gives meaning to the memory, the violence, the wounds, the protests, the cries of...

    • 5. “Experience,” antislavery, and the crisis of Emersonianism
      (pp. 131-166)

      Two of the key terms in the title of this essay, “antislavery” and “crisis of Emersonianism,” refer to familiar themes within the Emerson canon. Readings of Emerson have normatively assumed the form of variations on the theme of the crisis precipitated by conflicting interpretations of Emerson’s ambivalence toward questions of social reform. Emerson’s vexing relationship to the campaign to abolish slavery is the most recent object that his interpreters have invoked to represent this contention.

      But the crisis with which I shall be concerned took place within the speaker of Emerson’s “Experience.” Although this speaker articulated it in an idiom...

    • 6. Reading Emerson, in Other Times: On a Politics of Solitude and an Ethics of Risk
      (pp. 167-200)

      In his early academic speeches, including “The American Scholar” address to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837 and the following year’s oration on “Literary Ethics” for the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, Emerson goes to great lengths to define the intellectual enterprise with which he and many readers of the present volume identify. One’s ability to realize this role, however, is obstructed by a constant obstacle, which he succinctly formulates in “Literary Ethics”: “The condition of our incarnation in a private self, seems to be, a perpetual tendency to prefer the private law, to obey the private impulse, to...

    • 7. Emerson, Skepticism, and Politics
      (pp. 201-226)

      For several decades, Stanley Cavell has been working to make Emerson’s voice reheard in the core of American philosophy. This activity is not simply historical rehabilitation, nor is it a return to the source. What appears very clearly in a series of recent texts assembled in his collectionEmerson’s Transcendental Etudesis that Cavell also wants to make heard the present-day pertinence of Emerson’s thinking, notably its political pertinence in the context of America today.

      Emerson’s political ambivalence is a fact known by his readers; he seems to combine, for example, the call to self-reliance and obedience to nature and...


    • 8. Emerson, or Man Thinking
      (pp. 229-250)

      In his recent meditation on the affinities between Nietzsche and Emerson—“hence their endless differences”—Stanley Cavell addresses what could be called the ethical attitude toward the moment of silence in each thinker. What Nietzsche and Emerson share in common, according to Cavell, is a certain aversion toward chatter that marks the habit of thinking in their respective cultures. This aversion can be directly related to the untimely character of each thinker; as Nietzsche writes inThe Gay Science, “the extraordinary furtherer of man . . . has always found himself, andhadto find himself, in contradiction to his...

    • 9. Emerson’s Adjacencies: Radical Empiricism in Nature
      (pp. 251-270)

      Ralph Waldo Emerson’s last sermon before resigning his pulpit in the Second Unitarian Church of Boston (1832) took the form of a defense of his conviction “that Jesus did not intend to establish an institution for perpetual observance when he ate the passover with his disciples”:

      Now observe the facts. Two of the evangelists (namely, Matthew and John) were of the twelve disciples and were present on that occasion. Neither of them drops the slightest intimation of any intention on the part of Jesus to set up anything permanent. John especially, the beloved disciple, who has recorded with minuteness the...

    • 10. “The Eye Is the First Circle”: Emerson’s “Romanticism,” Cavell’s Skepticism, Luhmann’s Modernity
      (pp. 271-300)

      I want to begin with an apparently simple set of questions, one that will, I trust, seem less simple—and more rhetorical, no doubt—by the end of this essay: Do we know how to read Emerson? How do we remain true to the essential strangeness, the unrepentantly eccentric and heretical quality of his writing, as it insists on itself at every moment (at least up to the end of the period capped with the essays that make upThe Conduct of Life)?¹ That seemingly straightforward question has been complicated considerably—and, I hope, permanently—by philosopher Stanley Cavell’s large...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 301-306)

    With the essays collected here ringing in my ears—so many of the words music to my ears—I say at once that I feel myself in a world new to me of Emerson reception, before all one in response to which I feel no defensiveness over my ways of showing admiration of the Emersonian text. It is a privilege to accept the invitation to venture some celebratory thoughts accompanying what I trust will be the fruitful voyage of the present volume by allowing the ringing to bring to life for me a few remarks of Emerson’s that I do...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 307-310)
  10. Index
    (pp. 311-317)