After Emerson

After Emerson

by John T. Lysaker


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John T. Lysaker works between and weaves together questions and replies in philosophical psychology, Emerson studies, and ethics in this book of deep existential questioning. Each essay in this atypical, philosophical book employs recurring terms, phrases, and questions that characterize our contemporary age. Setting out from the idea of where we are in an almost literal sense, Lysaker takes readers on an intellectual journey into thematic concerns and commitments of broad interest, such as the nature of self and self-experience, ethical life, poetry and philosophy, and history and race. In the manner of Emerson, Cavell, and Rorty, Lysaker's vibrant writing is certain to have a transformative effect on American philosophy today.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253026002
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/22/2017
Series: American Philosophy
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John T. Lysaker is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. He is author of Emerson and Self-Culture (IUP).

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After Emerson

By John T. Lysaker

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 John T. Lysaker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02603-3



Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I. How do you inhabit the world? When you stretch, caress and kiss, when you read and write, how are you? If you were to give a descriptively rich and convincing account of yourself on this score, what terms would you use? Would you speak of muscles contracting and expanding, of circulatory systems, synapses, and the careful maintenance of body temperature? Would you speak of experiences you've had, of smells and sounds, of recurring thoughts and feelings, perhaps even commitments? Would you speak of the company you keep, of your parents or your country, of friends, enemies, colleagues? Would you speak of gender, race, sexuality, or some socioeconomic status? What of your culture, subculture, or generational demographic? Would you speak of a mentor, a hero, possibly a god, and the mark their presence (or absence) has left on your bearings?

How do you inhabit the world? If you were to give a descriptively rich and convincing account of yourself on this score, one you would comfortably offer as self-knowledge, what grammar would you use? Would you speak of those events and things that have made and continue to shape you, most without your say-so? Would you also speak of how you've undergone and engaged those events and things, submitted to some, resisted others, and conspired with t hose that seemed to open a path worth pursuing? Would you speak of the ones to whom you speak (including some future you), or of the very fact that you often address others without knowing it? Are you of that address, say when responding to queries or speaking in the hope that you might be heard?

So much to say and so many ways to say it — events, experiences, I's and you's, we's and me's, handshakes, kisses, blinking eyes, words of hate and a cluster of toxins by a power plant that no one wants in their backyard but most are happy to have in yours. As you try to tell it, tell yourself, which voice will you use? When is it appropriate to speak in the passive? After all, it's hard to strut about as if we authored most of the ways we inhabit the world, despite the self-proclaimed lies of self-made men. Would you save the active voice for the influence of what-you-are-not upon what-you-are? Or is it push and pull, everything active and colliding? Or would you venture an account in the middle voice, one neither active nor passive? Do we need a distinct voice to say our part in how a human life does its thing in events like understanding, wanting, not feeling like it, just finding our way?

However you reply, and I hope you have, do you simultaneously address how well you inhabit the world, how it goes it for you? Do you simultaneously (which is not to say equally) consider what your bearing does for, perhaps even to, others? Is some sense of success, goodness, pleasure, mediocrity, justice, virtue, duty, happiness, or flourishing woven through your sense of how you inhabit the world? Can you reply without evaluating the ways you inhabit the world? Or is an evaluation of such ways itself a way?

"How do you inhabit the world?" A certain kind of philosophy is woven into this question, though not in any professional sense. Questions concerning our place in nature, our character, our continuities and discontinuities with one another, other animals, with things are as much a part of our bearing as questions about dinner, the affections of another, or where the sun goes after dusk. We are constantly giving voice to what seems constant, to what recurs. I say this because human cultures mark rites of passage surrounding birth, procreation, and death, and they do so with images and stories that situate us in some larger drama, say of ancestors, mountains, gods, final battles, heaven and earth. From a sense of balance to an anticipation for summer, from the thought, "if only they could see me now" to our feel for what this might mean in the big scheme of things, humans continually orient themselves and I take each to count as a reply to a question like "how do you inhabit the world," a reply that might say, like a bear, as the rational animal, if only like a rose.

"How do you inhabit the world?" A certain kind of philosophy is woven into this question, and if it is quick on its feet, it becomes apparent that the question has already replied to its own query. In pausing to ask and formulate the question, one already inhabits the world in a determinate manner. As Heidegger made evident in Sein und Zeit, not only is philosophy a way of inhabiting the world, but also, questions, any question, only arise out of determinate inhabitations. No reflective act marks the point at which we begin to inhabit the world. Not just the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk. Reflection itself is retrospective, a response to how we have already responded to a world in which we are prereflectively enmeshed.

How do you inhabit the world? Emerson titled his sixth collection of 3 essays The Conduct of Life. Published in i860, the collection was rendered into German in 1862 as Die Führung des Lebens. As Heikki Kovalainen reports, the volume so struck the young Nietzsche that he recounted the collision in two very early essays, "Fatum und Geschichte" and "Willensfreiheit und Fatum," both of which quote Emerson at length (Kovalainen 2010). But that is not why I recall The Conduct of Life. The title, like this earlier line from "The American Scholar" of 1837, is instructive: "I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power" (CW1, 59). Actions instruct, particularly when marked by friction, when the world insists, which it always does at some level or other. There, where we find the world in our way, the character of our life becomes salient. Habits are thrown into relief, and as habits, and so too moods, even temperament — fluctuating, affective orientations that Emerson finds whenever he finds objects. But more than our bearings prove salient in action. The world, in its continuities with and differences from our bearings, also makes itself known in our doing, whether in experimental conditions or daily pursuits, though also in our arrivals and relations. Think of a lover's unexpected hesitation — a familiar hand suddenly trembles with something other than desire, and we tremble as we sense what is beginning to arrive. Or think of the history that resides, unsettled in words like Chappaqua, Umpqua, or Chattahoochee. How does one name it? "Genocide" leaps to mind but shatters against all it gathers, though the clamor bears some witness to horror. Undone by a different horror, Celan nevertheless offers an instructive thought.

Before your late face,
a lone-wandering
nights that change me too,
something came to stand,
which was already with us once, untouched
by thoughts. (Celan 1995 — translation modified)

Untouched by thoughts? Every day these words — Chappaqua, Umpqua, or Chattahoochee — are said and read. And the dead buried therein persist only in the further indignity heaped on them. But if we catch the insult, and mark it, a bit of the world makes itself known.

And then there is this for those who labor to find themselves. To the degree you can, work your mind into the pull of genes on what has become your hand, your tooth, the stirrup, anvil, and hammer, taste buds, and synaptic gates. Think of your cells regenerating, some possibly going rogue. What is your breakfast doing now? Its sugars, its fats, its fiber? How long have you've been sitting there?

A kind of eloquence accompanies our thoughts and deeds; they say a good deal about how we inhabit the world and the world we inhabit. We thus need to hear Emerson's i860 collection in two registers. In the conduct of life, life is conducted. (Again and again we will labor with what is possibly a third sense.) But this is perhaps too easy, as if one might read from deeds the truth of one's inhabitation, as if actions not only were louder than words, but clearer, more distinct. But suppose that the conduct of life does not simply express some substantial nature lurking and coursing through us. Push past the figure-ground gestalt and accept the pull and push that is the world and your rolls therein. Because conduct conducts, how we inhabit the world is in part a function of how we have inhabited the world, and a material variable in the world we inhabit. Following Wordsworth, and independent of any natural piety, the child fathers the man — although these cycles of birth and rebirth are, as you know, more than a matter of fathers and sons.

In finding the conduct of life generative, I also find myself recalled to the opening phrase of Emerson's "Experience," where he asks: "Where do we find ourselves?" (CW3, 29) On a first reading, "ourselves" seems to be his principal concern. But as the essay proceeds, a different focus comes into view, one illumined by Stanley Cavell (1989) in "Finding as Founding." Across "Experience," Emerson repeatedly returns to the task of finding his footing in life's buck and sway, in the "evanescence and lubricity of all objects," which he terms the "most unhandsome part of our condition" (CW3, 29). In fact, by the essay's close, finding the where of our lives, locating the evolving limits at which we find ourselves (which Emerson figures as the "lords of life"), finding becomes the focal concern of an Emersonian account of how we inhabit the world. More elaborately, I would say that our conductivity runs along a coil. We find ourselves conducting life and that finding both adds to the current we later find and opens that current to intensifications, redirections, and displacements.

II. I asked, "how do we inhabit the world" and I found determinate ways of inhabiting already in the asking. I asked again and found that should I turn in any direction, even inward, the world meets me as I go. I asked again and found that modes of inhabiting the world also conduct life, opening and closing futures for me, for you, but also for so much more than either. The question, "how do you inhabit the world" is thus also a question of "how do you conduct the world." But not just that; we are not simply wires, or so I want to say, having found finding. Said otherwise, the conduct of life, at least in our case, is tied to self-finding, to how we locate ourselves and respond to that location.

But all these plays with "conduct" and "finding," with "currents" and "location" suggest another facet of what I am now terming our conductivity. Where do we find ourselves? In language, though I hasten to add, as we work at finding. Words and phrases, grammars and genres, they mark another lord of life, one that, as Emerson has it, "we find in our way." Our way runs through language, and along that way, we quote its long histories, follow its suggestiveness, embrace its grammars, fuss with its nuances, and try to say things just-so: "black hole," "being-in-the-world," "I can't tell you how sorry I am," "Bah-bah-bahbah, bah-bah-bahbah, I wanna be sedated." To find oneself within language is thus to find the task of finding oneself thickened. Cavell, again on point: "Emerson will say, or show, that words demand conversion or transfiguration or reattachment" (1989, 82).

By way of Emerson, I've been retracing thoughts one might find elsewhere, most notably in Sein und Zeit, though also, with important differences, in Experience and Nature, and then with other differences in thinkers such as William James, Simone de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty, and behind them all, with more differences still, in Hegel. I see no necessity in proceeding as I did. It may be that I find myself still in the current of Emerson's texts, and certain phrases in particular, but that does not establish Emerson as the obvious author to essay in the context of self-knowledge. Numerous others have engaged the question. The sheer plurality of perspectives and styles that constitute Souls of Black Folk continues to astonish and instruct. But I will not spend the day in explanation, as Emerson himself says in "Self-Reliance" following a startling conversion of two scriptural covenants: "I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation" (CW2, 30). Instead, this thought, the conduct of life in and as self-finding, is one I would bring into conversation with two contemporaries.

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor tries to establish a range of transcendental conditions circumscribing what I have been calling the conduct of life in and as self-finding. According to Taylor, we find ourselves as selves always already within moral spaces (or frameworks) that locate our lives relative to some sense of the good. In fact, Taylor believes that questions such as "how do you inhabit the world" and "where do we find ourselves" only make sense in a moral space organized by a framework, hence his invocation of the transcendental. If we cannot answer the question "to what end?," such questions, qua actions, are senseless, wind in dry grass, sound without fury, bah-bah-bahbah, bah-bah-bahbah, no need for sedation. In other words, we ask such questions because they enable us to "know where we stand," which is to say: (1) to know what we stand for, and (2) to know how well we are doing. And only that kind of knowledge, or rather its pursuit, gives life meaning. "Not to have a framework," Taylor concludes, "is to fall into a life which is spiritually meaningless" (1989, 18).

I turn to Taylor because I wonder whether my insistence that the conduct of life is more than expression is bounded by Taylor's conception of moral space and its inevitable frameworks. I hope not. If he is right, I not only have to spend the day in explanation but my whole life. "One could put it this way," Taylor writes: "because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence determine the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a quest" (1989, 51–52).

In presenting his case, Taylor has a threat in mind: naturalism. He fears that we might regard our moral space as the result of something "adventitious," and that is his word, though I am happy to take it as my own, even my own most. He doesn't offer a gallery of villains who propose such a view, but one could imagine evolutionary psychologists, historical materialists, and genealogists alike presenting frameworks, moral or otherwise, in terms of the adventitious, that is, as derivative. Perhaps Taylor doesn't engage particular views because he regards the point as formal, something like: my rivals may confront me with discoveries of the adventitious but such findings are nevertheless discoveries, in other words, actions that derive their bearings from some sense of the good at which they aim. Yes, one can have different frameworks and thus rival, even evolving goods, but the very idea of a framework and the moral space it provides remains aloof from the high seas of material and cultural metabolé.

A very long road awaits one who would prove that frameworks are in fact grand adventures in the adventitious, so let me limit my resistance to an observation that I find telling. Moral space seems to be the kind of thing that infants and children grow into, and out of which the very aged and infirm can fall. And no doubt the same is true of the species, that is, even if Nietzsche is wrong about how we came to make promises, there is no longer any good reason to think that our teleological bearings are something other than adventitious in an evolutionary sense. In other words, moral space is a result, hence subject to liminal zones and transitions. And those are zones in which we can find ourselves as if on a stair, unsure of where we've been, unsure of where we're going, to recall the second sentence of Emerson's "Experience." I thus do not think that moral space marks anything like a transcendental condition. Instead it names a long-standing location where we have found ourselves. But it is not immune to the kind of dislocation that occurs when we find the where of our finding.


Excerpted from After Emerson by John T. Lysaker. Copyright © 2017 John T. Lysaker. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Where Do We Find Ourselves?
Not with Syllables but Men
Essaying America
Living Multiplicity: A Matter of Course
Emerson, Race, & the Conduct of Life
Reforming Ethical Life
Emerson & the Case of Philosophy
Abbreviations for Emerson's Works

What People are Saying About This

"There is something fresh and hence refreshing in the manner in which John T. Lysaker takes up familiar topics. He shows, with both arresting details and an evolving design, how the conduct of life (to use Emerson's expression) demands a form of thought frequently at odds with contemporary fashions and preoccupations, with institutionally entrenched approaches and all too rigidly policed discourses."

Vincent Colapietro

There is something fresh and hence refreshing in the manner in which John T. Lysaker takes up familiar topics. He shows, with both arresting details and an evolving design, how the conduct of life (to use Emerson's expression) demands a form of thought frequently at odds with contemporary fashions and preoccupations, with institutionally entrenched approaches and all too rigidly policed discourses.

Vincent Colapietro]]>

There is something fresh and hence refreshing in the manner in which John T. Lysaker takes up familiar topics. He shows, with both arresting details and an evolving design, how the conduct of life (to use Emerson's expression) demands a form of thought frequently at odds with contemporary fashions and preoccupations, with institutionally entrenched approaches and all too rigidly policed discourses.

Robert E. Innis

An original and stimulating book, manifesting a level of reflection and existential concern of the highest order. It is intellectually and personally honest.

Robert E. Innis]]>

An original and stimulating book, manifesting a level of reflection and existential concern of the highest order. It is intellectually and personally honest.

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