Jan 092004

David Fiore is back for a third helping (or fourth or fifth, I’ve lost count by now). His erudite reply to my Professor X piece investigates various ancillary points of Emerson scholarship, like his relationship to Coleridge and the important question of whether the notorious transparent eyeball can see itself. David is terrifyingly well-informed on these matters, which fortunately need not concern us here. The question was whether Emerson advocates surrender to emotion. David, to his credit, does not attempt to deny this, and really it would be impossible to deny; every second page of Emerson contains passages to this effect. He takes a different approach:

Having read some of Winters, I see now, Aaron, why you place so much emphasis upon the logical consequences of philosophical positions. But you cannot deal with Emerson (or me!) this way. For Winters, Crane is a superior Emersonian, because he is “not content to write in a muddling manner about the Way; he is concerned primarily with the End.” But this is precisely what makes him such a failure as an Emersonian–and a sane human being. Life is a problem. People, like works of art, are alive so long as they maintain their ideas in tension. To long for the resolution of these tensions, as you do Aaron, is to long for catastrophe. [Italics his.]

Since David has many distinguished predecessors in this view, like “Negative Capability” Keats, who can be excused on grounds of extreme youth, and F. Scott “Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time” Fitzgerald, I may be forgiven for insisting on some obvious points. Life is indeed a problem, many problems, which one does one’s best to solve, through exercise of the rational faculty. Man acts and chooses: each choice excludes many others. Some choices are wise, others foolish; some conduce to his well-being, others to his destruction. One can no more hold an idea and its opposite at the same time — what, in this case, could “hold” possibly mean? — than one can act on an idea and its opposite at the same time. In the face of these difficulties, Emerson recommends abdication.

Emerson sprang from the dominant 19th-century intellectual tradition in America, New England Nonconformist. It is best represented by the Holmes family (Oliver Wendell Sr. and Jr.) and the James family (Henry Sr., William, Henry, and Alice). Its products include Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Today New England Nonconformism is extinct; Katharine Hepburn (b. 1907) was perhaps its last degenerate scion.

New England Nonconformists, with very few exceptions, were hobbyists. They liked to toy with ideas, often radical ideas and often very brilliantly. They filled the ranks of the Abolitionists and suffragettes; but they tended not to reason to these positions but intuit them. Their motto could have been Holmes Jr.’s frequent remark that he hated facts, that the chief end of man was to form general propositions, and that no general proposition was worth a damn. Holmes père et fils, Emerson, and William James were all radical skeptics philosophically who conducted themselves personally with exemplary rectitude. What constrained them was a deep prudence and moral sense, informed by the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, the doctrine that although good works and success on earth technically avail one nought, as all seats in the Kingdom of Heaven are reserved, they yet demonstrate one’s fitness for Election. Yvor Winters calls this a “New England emotional coloration,” accurately. To put it flippantly, the vote for women was all very well, but “never dip into capital” was a real rule to live by. (On the other hand, in the dominant 20th-century American intellectual tradition, the New York Jewish, ideas became the ticket to success.) Henry James’ American characters act not on ideas but on an inarticulable “moral sense.” This moral sense attenuated as its doctrinal background exerted less and less direct influence, until it finally vanished altogether.

This is why Emerson died rich, old, and in bed, and Hart Crane jumped off an ocean liner.

  20 Responses to “Professor X Redux”

  1. Well Aaron, I guess we’re not going to agree on this.

    Personally, I think Emerson made it to a ripe old (senile, in fact) age because he was able to find it in himself to write stuff like "Days" and "Experience" (which I love just as much as "Self-Reliance" and Nature–we won’t even talk about foolishness like "The Over-Soul" and "Compensation"! my problem with Winters is that he wants to act as if those latter two are the "foundations" of an "Emersonian system", when clearly, as far as I’m concerned, there just isn’t any such animal)

    Did you ever look into the great "Miracles controversy" of 1836-1837? It began with George Ripley’s assertion that Christ’s Miracles were of course not to be accepted as fact by modern Unitarians, flowered into a real knock-down-drag-out when conservative Boston realized that, without the Miracles, they had nothing upon which to base a code of morality, and really got good when Emerson got up to speak to a class of Harvard Divinity graduates & told them that "Miracle is Monster" (he was, of course, barred from the grounds for the next thirty years or so)…

    Your position on Emerson is very similar to Norton’s–to wit: Ralph was a good (and even sober-minded) individual, but his doctrines pointed the way to madness. The Puritan authorities had similar objections to Anne Hutchinson–everyone seemed to like her, as a person (shades of Hester Prynne).

    You can find most of this stuff–and a great deal more–in Perry Miller’s The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, which is the most astonishing anthology I’ve ever read–it’s more like a play actually (or perhaps I should say: "action scholarship")

    Of course, I think there’s more to the Emersonian position than just madness held in check by sober regional traditions (how else do you explain me?)–and the key is Enlightenment liberalism. I like Jonathan Edwards (the only theorist a post-modern novelist needs) far more than Emerson, as an existential philosopher, but there’s no doubt that he had some problems when it came to thinking about polity…


  2. Aristotle, I am afraid, had the last word on all of this. Without logical consistency, no sentence uttered, no action performed, indeed, no single WORD, spoken or written, can have any kind of meaning at all. Chucking the Law of Non-Contradiction makes all verbage mere sound and all assertions an empty-set. Of course, as Aristotle also understood, even folks like Mr. Fiore never fail to ACT as though the laws of logic are iron-clad –walking to Megara, he will always head in the direction of Megara … No doubt, the relentless necessities of logic are a big inconvenience to all who want to maintain nonsense or to those who don’t want to bother to think about things like "logical consequences," but truth will always need verification and logic is our principal means of doing this.

  3. I’m not sure why you think I would want to deny that causes have effects, Jim–I never made a statement to the contrary…

    But we don’t live in laboratories, and the conditions for testing our hypotheses are so poor that there’s very little chance of our ever getting very far with the experiment. Besides that–our bodies and minds fail us… You may wake up tomorrow feeling completely differently about something (or someone)–and does that mean that the feeling is wrong? Or that the one that preceded it was? Only a monomaniac could (or would want to) use their life as a bridge to get from a first principle to a "logical consequence". And what if there are a few things that are important to you, and they come into conflict? That’s what Melville’s Pierre is about.

    But all of this is far too vague… What kinds of relentless necessities of logic are you talkng about Jim? Do you think it’s as easy to plan out a perfect life as it is to plan a trip to Megara?

    I’d really like to know.


  4. The "logical consequences" of a position (philosophical or otherwise) are an unavoidable part of our understanding of any item of literature. A story or a poem cannot contradict itself without becoming literally meaningless. A good story or poem about the state of such confusion is possible, but it, too, must make sense, know what it’s saying and avoid contradiction. Otherwise it is, as I say, meaningless.

    Sure, people hold their ideas "in tension," if by this you mean people are always changing. But this change in perspective is usually not of the Copernican Revolution variety. It is usually an organic development, which follows a kind of logic. Only the deeply disturbed will go from one bipolar extreme to its opposite on a regular basis.

    Contradictions cannot exist in reality. They only exist(temporarily) in the minds of ignorant but dedicated thinkers–and (permanently) in the minds of those who refuse to think. But a contradictory assertion, in a poem or novel or essay, renders the literature a meaningless hash. I do not mean only what is sometimes called "necessary" or "tautological" truth, but that its meaning cannot contradict any fact in the range of the author’s current knowledge. (Except intentionally, as in fantasy or science fiction, where the need to maintain an internal logic is still more pressing.)

    "Art" is not a valid excuse for meaningless emotional effusion.

  5. Jim,

    I agree with that last.

    However, let’s not forget how all of this started.

    I said: "I’m glad PETA exists, because they force humans to think about matters that they’d rather not (did Aristotle bother thinking about whether slavery was right? no! he took it as a given and moved on, unless I’m misremembering…) and I believe people should treat animals as ends, not means"

    Aaron said (and I believe you concurred): "If David really believed this, he’d have to conclude that it’s okay to kill people who hurt animals…"

    And I said: "No, I wouldn’t, because–in the real world–there are always other considerations that prevent us from following one proposition out to its’ logical conclusion. In this case, there’s also the small matter that I believe that all life is
    sacred. Not to mention the fact that I firmly support a liberal democratic polity…"

    Each of these propositions place my mind on a different track, and life is all about trying to find a way to reconcile irreconcilable propositions like these as best you can.

    It’s a ridiculous cop-out to demand of someone that they just pick one proposition and proceed to a "logical conclusion".

    Again I say–maybe you’re just trying to get to Megara Jim; but I’m trying to lead as rich a life as possible…


  6. I object to your summaries of both me and Aristotle. You may quarrel, as do I, with Aristotle’s theory of slavery, but you can’t say he didn’t think about the problem.

    And I certainly did not claim that you, or anyone, should conclude that "it’s okay to kill people who hurt animals." What I said is that by your lights, at the very least, it’s okay to vandalize the laboratories of scientists who experiment on animals, and that even more radical forms of civil disobedience are conceivably justified.

  7. Okay Aaron, I’ll admit I gave your formulation a melodramatic turn–however, the only real point I was trying to make is that there are very good reasons for not pushing your propositions to their logical conclusions–it’s not so much hypocrisy or timidity as it is a balancing act.

    However, on Aristotle–I think you’re projecting when you say that The Philosopher thought about the "problem" of slavery. Clearly, as far as Aristotle was concerned, there was no "problem" at all–it was just an aspect (like the fact that woman were inferior to men, etc.) of the way things were…

    You cannot dispute this point without transgressing the boundaries of Aristotlean (or Thomist) thought… To do it successfully, you need the leverage provided by Romantic "Higher Law" principles–intuitions about the way things "ought to be" that have no grounding in the natural world!


  8. Every proposition must be a trip to Megara in this sense, Dave, and ALL of our propositions need to be "pushed to their logical conclusion." To arrive at a single contradiction is to confess an error along the way. Some profound problem exists in any theory with still-unresolved contradictions.

    "Ought-to-be" questions can (and ought to be) grounded only in the "natural world," and I reject "intuition" and/or Romantic "Higher Law" to do so. Hume’s case for such radical ethical subjectivism has been refuted ably and cannot simply be assumed.

    If you think that animals have "rights" and you are not willing to defend those "rights" as you would human rights, then let me suggest that you are using the wrong concept and causing the concept of "human rights" to suffer in consequence. Perhaps you need a new category, but "rights" are something Washington, Jefferson (and I) are willing to risk everything for…and get violent over.

  9. Okay Jim, but surely you’d have to admit that there really wasn’t any social progress made until the Reformation freed the conscience (the "Intuitive Ought") to perform the function that I believe it must!

    Isn’t it astonishing that, for all intents and purposes (except for the varying degrees of "barbarian interference" intellectuals had to deal with) the society that spawned Aquinas wasn’t really any different from the one that Aristotle inhabited? It’s no accident, believe me… "Natural" morality "plateaued" with St. Thomas… Things would never have changed without intervention from "beyond" nature…

    If you really think that life is merely a question of deciding upon the right principles and living by them, regardless of contingencies, I feel sorry for you Jim. You’ll wind up discarding a lot of notions that might enrich your life, simply because they’d lead to weirdness if pushed too far (and by too far I mean beyond the limits prescribed by countervailing chains of reasoning)… A novelist who thinks this way will wind up writing some pretty feeble stuff–like, oh, The Fountainhead

    About "rights"–well, maybe. But it strikes me that the value of "hobbyists" has been greatly underestimated around these parts. Most sustainable human advances have been fomented by people who had nothing to gain (except the gratification of their conscience) from the changes. I’ll write something about this at my blog very soon.

    One other thing–those Americans you cite fought to achieve Independence. You probably think of it as a "revolution", but I would dispute that vehemently. The Lockean rights discourse–as codified within the constitution–came, for the most part, after the bloodshed, and probably would’ve been instituted anyway. And "altruism" played a big part in the important move away from the Hobbesian world you’re talking about Jim…

    hmm–"Of Hobbesians & Hobbyists" (spare me the Hobbits!)– it listens good no?


  10. I’m coming into this argument late, and perhaps don’t catch what it is about, but I think both Jim and Aaron are a little too confident about what propositions can do for us. Our minds have an awareness and level of cogitation that extends far beyond our ability to articulate at any particular moment. Articulation is helpful as a corrective, and brings its own satisfactions, but it always, as far as I can tell, falls short of being a summation of what we think.

    If articulation has serious limits, that is, if words so often fail us, we might be cautious about where logical conclusions take us. It may be that articulation serves better to stir the mighty mind and heighten its sensitivities, so that our constant, below-the-radar mental activity might respond to the world more successfully. In this event, the aporia of Socrates might serve us better than the treatises of Aristotle.

    Self-consciousness, as wonderful as it is, is over-rated. (This probably constitutes a disagreement with Hegel, by the way, so Aaron take note!)

  11. David:

    When a stranger starts to "feel sorry" for me, I start to genuinely pity that person. Exactly what "enriching" notions am I missing-out on? I will sometimes act on less than complete knowledge (when I have to), and I will never intentionally discard a promising hypothesis just because it’s not worked-out yet. But, it’s still just a hyposthesis. I really would like to know what precisely I’m missing…

    Your historical argument is also quite wrong. There have been relatively more or less just and free societies long before the Reformation, and the Reformation did not "free the conscience" of anyone except those lucky enough to live in a nation where their religion was shared by the Prince. Archbishop Cranmer was still burnt at the stake and many of Luther’s followers (and Catholics) were slaughtered during the Thirty Years War in the 1600’s. No, it was the application of Thomistic naturalism to social issues by men like Locke and Grotius in the 17th and 18th Centuries that made possible true "freedom of conscience," and America was the first nation to make such freedom the supreme law. However, the Islamic golden age and ancient Rome were both, in practice, far more tolerant (and therefore more existentially successful) than the anything in the Christian World before the 1700’s, i.e. before the development of "natural rights" from the notion of "natural law."

    As for the American Revolution–it was ideological from the outset. Ever heard of Tom Paine, the single greatest influence on rank-and-file Americans DURING the war? Ever heard of Jefferson’s writings BEFORE the Declaration? And the extremely Lockean Declaration itself came early-on in the bloodshed, no? And how about Patrick Henry’s speeches, or even John Adams exhortations to the Continental Congress, or George Washington’s understanding of the war from the outset, as revealed in his private coorespondence, or the way Brits debated the matter in Parliament AT THE TIME??????? All of these men’s conduct and their motives were grounded in their understandng of the rights of Englishmen, if not also their understanding of the Rights of Man. These guys were fighting for liberty, not just independence.

    I can only suggest that you reread The Fountainhead, as it appears that you never got the rather clear theme: altruism is the enemy of ALL progress and what you seem to call "altruism" was nothing of the sort. But this takes us far afield…

    I have as much in common with Hobbes as I do a devout Christian.


    All of this pre-verbal and "inarticulate" thought you speak of, I wonder, is it ever going to become "articulable"? Someday, after more thought, maybe…? Or, are you saying that there is real knowledge that we will NEVER be ableto "articulate"? If so, I don’t know what this could ever be–and, let me suggest, neither do you. No, I act only on knowledge that can be articulated, and I am really curious what else there could possibly be. Of course, you won’t be able to even indicate this stuff…you cannot articulate it, so putting it into words is ipso facto impossible. And, I suppose we can’t do an experiment for it, or test it, or even see if it is refutable in the first place since, well, gee, we can’t articulate it.

    Back here on earth, knowledge is the thing we can and must "articulate." Anything else is an epistemic license to commit murder and to believe whatever you want…

  12. "No, I act only on knowledge that can be articulated, and I am really curious what else there could possibly be. Of course, you won’t be able to even indicate this stuff…you cannot articulate it, so putting it into words is ipso facto impossible."

    My claim is not that there are acts of the mind that cannot be articulated (I don’t have a strong opinion on that point), but that the full extent of our mental activity far exceeds our ability to articulate at any given point. (If you look back at my first comment, I think you will realize that this is the point I made. Note especially my phrase "at any particular moment".) To trust simply in what has been made articulate is akin to cutting out one of your sense organs.

    "Back here on earth…"

    Your poor reading skills and your lack of generosity are an unfortunate combination.

  13. The question of unarticulated knowledge, interesting as it is in itself, is somewhat beside my point. I was discussing people, like Emerson and David Fiore, who articulate principles perfectly clearly but don’t feel obliged to reconcile them with their other, also articulate, knowledge. Once we articulate two contradictory ideas, we have to discard at least one of them. This is the only way to keep our intellectual houses in order.

  14. Jim,

    I never implied that Calvin & his buddies actually set up anything like a just society–I only claimed that they made it possible for their descendants (that’s us) to work on the problem… Don’t you think that Calvinism had something to do with transformation of "natural law" into "natural rights" that you speak of?

    On the War… I think you’d find many (Gordon Wood/ Berbanrd Bailyn/J.G.A. Pocock, etc.) historians who’d dispute your claims. Of course Lockean ideas were in the air in the 18th century–but figtung for "no taxation without representation" and political self-determination has nothing to do with the rights of Man.

    Bailyn’s book on the pamphlet literature of the period makes it pretty clear that, in general, American rabble-rousers were making use of terms derived from the English Commonwealthman tradition more than anything else. The Bill of Rights got tacked on to the whole shebang later, when the big movers and shakers already had what they really wanted (Independence) and could afford to be thoughtful about the kind of society they’d really like to live in.

    Now the Civil War, on the other hand–that’s a rights revolution for ya (I know, I know–it was a lot of less noble things too!)–and it was instigated by the altruistic concerns of "New Model" Calvinists such as Garrison…

    I still say, anytime you discard a principle (as opposed to allowing the balanced product of several chains of reasoning–each launched by a proposition that you can assent to–to guide your behaviour), you’re blinkering yourself–and I just don’t want to do that! My goal is always to be as responsive to the world as I can be–and I just can’t afford the luxury of a well-ordered intellectual house…


  15. Eddie:
    Oh, sure, there are lots of mental activities that don’t involve words: memory, perception, dreams, fantasies, emotions, etc. I stand corrected if that’s all that you meant. But you spoke of "awareness" and "a level of cogitation" suggesting that you believed such processes produce knowledge. I hold that only sense-perception and articulated logic can produce this. The rest can only provide evidence or inspiration for the process of gaining awareness… Was that a misread, too?
    I concede that Calvinism had "something to with" it. Just not the decisive part, as its history shows. And the issues of independence and liberty were nearly inseparable in so many contemporary minds that I wonder why we should take such pains to separate the issues now. Nor do I see the slightest conflict between a "well-ordered intellectual house" and a full, emotional, genuine and spontaneous "responsiveness" to all things.

  16. Aaron:
    If my argument is correct, then it might affect how we respond to contradiction. I do not take issue with the law of non-contradiction, so I agree that we can’t hold contradictory claims and believe them both to be true. But what to do then? Chances are, neither are true entirely. If we can find a real resolution, we are quite fortunate, and perhaps Emerson is to be blamed for not trying harder to find those resolutions. (I don’t have a strong opinion on this point either.) A fear of contradiction, however, might be unhealthy too. We do well to live with both sides of the contradiction, trying to be responsive to whatever truths our mind is reaching for in each claim. And if the contradiction is more on the periphery of our thinking, it might simply not be worth the attention.

    Essay writing, it seems to me, lends itself to living with contradiction. You let your mind travel a path and see where it leads, and as long as you find something substantial in that path to affirm, you let the travels stand for others to witness. Tomorrow your travels reach a different destination, and perhaps it is best just to leave it be.

    My apologies for my prickliness. I would go beyond the mental activity you mention and include judgment as well. Think about all of the judgments involved with just driving a car (moving toward a destination, staying within the lines, assessing what other drivers are up to, etc.), and how few of them you articulate to yourself as your driving. (Or is that just me?) These judgments couldn’t be called knowledge, in the strong sense of the term, but they are solid judgments nonetheless. It appears to me that the number of judgments we make far exceeds the number of judgments we are self-conscious of, and a good thing that is, given how little we can focus our mind on at any time. I am led to conclude that the inarticulate (not inarticulable) judgments we make, being so vital and so much in the majority, are the important business of the mind, and that our articulation would do well to be of assistance, rather than attempt to be only an end in itself. Contradiction, while being an offense to self-consciousness, might well be a way of keeping the larger share of our mental activity more acute. There is an energy generated from affirming two claims that cannot stand perfectly together.

  17. Eddie:

    The judgments you speak of are simply those which have become (to steal Aristotle’s term) part of our "second nature." When I first learned to walk, and then to drive, many judgments I now make automatically and without conscious effort were, indeed, a conscious effort. Learning to play piano (well, to the limited degree that I do, at least) took me hours and years of practice, but, at certain points, what had once taken intense concentration and conscious effort become an effortless command to my fingers. It’s what the former U.S. Olympic coach called "trained instinct." We simply can’t afford to think about every aspect of performance during competition or even driving on a highway. All real training and education is the "automatizing" of the new skill, judgment or learning, building it into one’s soul, if you will. This does not mean that, once upon a time, these judgments were not very much conscious and very much an effort.

    Once completely verified within a context of data, no rational judgment is ever wrong–within that context. It is not the case that I find myself replacing or revolutionaizing my thinking over and over, so "chances are" only one of your two propositions is ever true, if one of them was rational in the first place. My own experience (and the history of science) contradicts the notion that our rational judgments are "often" flawed–not if they were really based in logic and evidence in the first place. (It was never rational to conclude, for example, that the entire earth was flat, since no one had the required information base for a rational judgment from mere sense-perception.)

    Truly rational judgments are never "overturned"–the context in which they pertain is merely qualified. Newton’s Laws were given greater solidity by Einstein, not less, but Newton’s unproved assertions (e.g. those about time and space) did have to abandoned for progress to be made.

  18. "Once completely verified within a context of data, no rational judgment is ever wrong–within that context."

    Unquestionably true Jim–but the problem is that many people don’t have your faith in a positivistic universe.

    You know what I’m saying… I am content to accept that the world (and you) are real–but there’s no way you can prove it to me… The scientific context you speak of is simply a metaphor–a useful metaphor, I grant you! A very necessary "as if"–but it has nothing to do with a "true" representation of the universe (if such a thing exists).

    The human mind operates within a much more inscrutable context than you are allowing Mr. Valliant.


  19. "This does not mean that, once upon a time, these judgments were not very much conscious and very much an effort."

    These judgments may well have involved conscious effort, but this is still short of articulation. We learn to walk, for example, through a conscious effort, but prior to an ability to say what we are doing. Furthermore, our second nature is not static once developed.

    "It is not the case that I find myself replacing or revolutionaizing my thinking over and over, so ‘chances are’ only one of your two propositions is ever true, if one of them was rational in the first place. My own experience (and the history of science) contradicts the notion that our rational judgments are ‘often’ flawed–not if they were really based in logic and evidence in the first place."

    Our experience then is different. I suffer often from Socrates’ aporia.

  20. (posted for Jim Valliant)


    I disagree. Both piano and driving were taught to me, at least, first
    through language and only then through practice. In piano, both
    technique and expression have been highly articulated, much to my aid,
    or, otherwise, the process would have been a long slog to reinvent the
    wheel. In addition, music even actually has a language which one must
    learn to automatically "read."

    But this is all gravy. The main point is that even walking,, which is
    mainly comprised of just perceptual judgments, is still articulABLE.

    Indeed, a complete understanding of it (as opposed to just being able to do it) requires scientific articulation.

    Jim Valliant

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