Paper Abstracts

Session Title: "Emerson Thinking"

SAAP Annual Meeting 2008


Joseph Urbas

Université Michel de Montaigne - Bordeaux III


"Emerson, Transcendentalism, and the Ontological Turn in American Thought, 1820-1850"


This paper will present and defend three related claims: 1)  Emerson is primarily a philosopher of being, not an epistemologist.  To be more precise, he is a philosopher of being-as-cause or—to borrow his own coinage—a "causationist."  Emerson's oeuvre, including his poetry, is a sustained development of this dynamic ontology of being-as-cause. 2) The three decades from 1820 to 1850, which witnessed the emergence, consolidation, and maturation of Emerson's philosophy, mark a distinctive ontological turn in American thought.  Transcendentalism, which may be understood as a species of causationism, was a part of this general trend. 3) Emerson and his peers, as they themselves recognized, were also part of a broader transatlantic philosophical movement seeking a legitimate passage from psychology to ontology, a movement in search of a new philosophy of being.



Jennifer Gurley

Le Moyne College


"Why Emerson is Not a Pragmatist"


            In this paper, I refute current literary critical accounts of Emerson's pragmatism as I reexamine his conception of truth and its implications for ethics.  First, I describe how contemporary Americanists define pragmatism as a form of skepticism or as a philosophy of action, and accordingly characterize Emerson as concerned to express local knowledge or affect politics.  I turn next to William James to recover and assess American pragmatism's original claim: that ideal truths can be discovered immanently, without conceiving an ideal realm, and they can be expressed positively, as explanations or arguments.  I then turn to Emerson to demonstrate that James's self-contained epistemological system cannot adequately account for other-worldly truth because it fails to account for otherness as such.  Suspicious of reliance on current conditions alone, Emerson understands truth intersubjectively and rhetorically constructed in dialogue with an impersonal other.  His truth is not positive understanding, but an act of recognizing and describing limits, namely, of discovering the particular constraints that bind and so produce what we can know and say about particular psychic and social encounters.  This work of comprehending limitation derives from a classical, distinctly Platonic notion of dialogue that Emerson calls "partaking" (after Plato's metekhō).  Presenting the search for truth as dialogically constraining, Emerson demonstrates that human knowledge, conceived in regard for an impersonal other, is generated by limitation and restrains precisely as it insists on the self.  Therefore, original insight is partial and dynamic rather than universal and stationary.  Hence Emerson cannot describe ethical conduct in causal, instrumental terms, because for him truth is not content, but limiting force.  Hence Emerson's value is not, as modern pragmatic readings would have it, in his ability to adapt knowledge for particular instances.  He matters instead because he struggles repeatedly to overcome his alienation from truth by describing limitation itself and by modeling the appropriate attitudes--of humility and doubt--that enable this work.  His writings are not arguments but examples, occasional accounts of truthseeking that might inspire others to engage their own dialogical battles with the impersonal limit that bounds and only indirectly can affect the ethical.



Susan Dunston

New Mexico Tech. College of Mines


A Philosophy of Difference and its Political Fallout: Emerson, Cavell, and Feminism


Despite some obvious discrepancies between Emerson and Stanley Cavell, on the one hand, and feminists, particularly contemporary, on the other, remarkable philosophical consonance exists among them in their theories of difference, power, and political ethics. Cavell’s work facilitates ways of reading Emerson that reveal the aspects of Emerson’s thought most relevant to tensions feminism seeks to address: difference and relation, and power and violence. The “pitches” of their philosophies, as Cavell would say, resonate across a world irradiated and shot through with the fallout of our history to suggest an integrated approach to the problem of violence.