Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism - The Carus Lectures 1988

Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism - The Carus Lectures 1988

by Stanley Cavell


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Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism - The Carus Lectures 1988 by Stanley Cavell

In these three lectures, Cavell situates Emerson at an intersection of three crossroads: a place where both philosophy and literature pass; where the two traditions of English and German philosophy shun one another; where the cultures of America and Europe unsettle one another.

"Cavell's 'readings' of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Emerson and other thinkers surely deepen our understanding of them, but they do much more: they offer a vision of what life can be and what culture can mean. . . . These profound lectures are a wonderful place to make [Cavell's] acquaintance."—Hilary Putnam

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226098210
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/1991
Series: Carus Lectures Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stanley Cavell teaches philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author of In Quest of the Ordinary, This New Yet Unapproachable America, and Themes Out of School, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Emersonian Representations in Heidegger and Nietzsche

In taking the perspective of the Carus Lectures as an opportunity to recommend Emerson, despite all, to the closer attention of the American philosophical community, I hope I may be trusted to recognize how generally impertinent his teachings, in style and in material, can sound to philosophical ears — including still, from time to time, despite all, my own. But what else should one expect? My recommendation is bound to be based — unless it is to multiply impertinence — on something as yet unfamiliar in Emerson, as if I am claiming him to remain a stranger. In that case to soften his strangeness would be pointless — which is no excuse, I do realize, for hardening it. About my own sound it may help to say that while I may often leave ideas in what seems a more literary state, sometimes in a more psychoanalytic state, than a philosopher might wish — that is, that a philosopher might prefer a further philosophical derivation of the ideas — I mean to leave everything I will say, or have, I guess, ever said, as in a sense provisional, the sense that it is to be gone on from. If to a further derivation in philosophical form, so much the better; but I would not lose the intuitions in the meantime — among them the intuition that philosophy should sometimes distrust its defenses of philosophical form.

It is common knowledge that Emerson's "The American Scholar" is a call for Man Thinking, something Emerson contrasts with thinking in "the divided or social state," thinking, let us say, as a specialty. I do not know of any commentary on this text that finds Emerson to be thinking about the idea of thinking. Uniformly, rather, it seems to be taken that he and his readers understand well enough what it is he is calling for, that it is something like thinking with the whole man; and I suppose this can be taken so for granted because there has been, since Emerson's time, or the time he speaks for, a widespread dissatisfaction with thinking as represented in Western philosophy since the Enlightenment, a dissatisfaction vaguely and often impatiently associated, I believe, with an idea of romanticism. And of course there has been, in turn, a reactive impatience with this dissatisfaction. Emerson is, in his way, locating himself within this struggle when he calls upon American thinkers to rely on and to cheer themselves: "For this self-trust, the reason is deeper than can be fathomed — darker than can be enlightened" ("The American Scholar," p. 75). As if he anticipates that a reader might suppose him accordingly to be opposed to the Enlightenment, he will famously also say, "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; ... I embrace the common, I sit at the feet of the familiar, the low," a claim I have taken as underwriting ordinary language philosophy's devotion to the ordinary, surely one inheritance of the Enlightenment.

Existentialism — in the years in which it seemed that every mode of thinking antagonistic to analytical philosophy was called Existentialism — was famous for some such dissatisfaction with philosophical reason, expressed, for example, by Karl Jaspers in his book on Nietzsche, originally published in 1935:

That the source of philosophical knowledge is not to be found in thinking about mere objects or in investigating mere facts but rather in the unity of thought and life, so that thinking grows out of the provocation and agitation of the whole man — all this constitutes for Nietzsche's self-consciousness the real character of his truth: "I have always composed my writings with my whole body and life"; "All truths are bloody truths to me." (Jaspers, Nietzsche, p. 386)

("Cut these sentences and they bleed.") Philosophy, as institutionalized in the English-speaking world, has not much felt attacked by nor vulnerable to such criticism, partly because the style and animus of the criticism is so foreign as to suggest simply other subjects, but partly, and sufficiently, because surely since Frege and the early Russell, analytical philosophy can see what thinking is, or should be, namely reasoning, expressed in a certain style of argumentation.

In taking on Emerson's view of thinking I will not be interested to advocate his view over, nor much to characterize it against, views more familiar to us (say a view of reason as rationality) but rather to ask attention to an attitude toward or investment in words that Emerson's view seems to depend upon, an attitude allegorical of an investment in our lives that I believe those trained in professional philosophy are trained to disapprove of. The disapproval of the attitude interests me as much as the attitude itself. If, as professional philosophers, we were asked whether philosophizing demands of us anything we would think of as a style of writing, our answer, I guess, would waver, perhaps because our philosophical motivation in writing is less to defend a style than to repress style or allow it only in ornamental doses. In speaking of disapproval, accordingly, I am not raising a question of taste, of something merely not for us, but a question of intellectual seriousness and illicitness. However glad we may be to think of ourselves as intellectually fastidious, I do not suppose we relish the idea of ourselves as intellectual police.

I should perhaps confess that an ulterior stake of mine in speaking of Emerson's attitude to words is that — to begin specifying a suggestion already made — I find J. L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein to participate in a region of the attitude, the region that places an investment in the words of a natural language so heavy as to seem quite antithetical to sensible philosophizing. It was half a lifetime ago that I began writing philosophy by preparing a paper ("Must We Mean What We Say?") for this division of our philosophy association defending J. L. Austin's practice with ordinary language against criticisms of it articulated by Benson Mates, criticisms notably of Austin's apparently insufficient empirical basis for his claims to know what we say and mean when. I did not really answer Mates's criticisms because I could not account for that investment in the ordinary. I still cannot. This failure pairs with my inability to answer Barry Stroud's question to me twenty years later, at another Association meeting, about whether my Claim of Reason didn't amount to a claim to find a general solution to skepticism. I wanted to answer by saying that by the end of the first two parts of that book I had convinced myself not only that there is no such solution, that to think otherwise is skepticism's own self-interpretation, but that it seemed to me, on the contrary, work for an ambitious philosophy to attempt to keep philosophy open to the threat or temptation to skepticism. This left me what I named as Nowhere, and it led me, in the fourth part of my book, to particular territories customarily associated with literature — especially to aspects of Shakespearean and of certain romantic texts — in which I seemed to find comic and tragic and lyric obsessions with the ordinary that were the equivalent of something (not everything) philosophy knows as skepticism. Emerson became more and more prominent an inhabitant of these regions. His investment in the ordinary is so constant and so explicit that, perhaps because of the very strangeness and extravagance of his manner, it may indicate afresh why a philosopher interested in the manner might spend a reasonable lifetime looking for an account of it.

The first half of this lecture takes its bearing from pertinences Emerson's American Scholar address bears to Heidegger's sequence of lectures translated as What Is Called Thinking? (all citations of Heidegger are from this text); the second half continues the discussion broached in my Introduction of that moral perfectionism for which Emerson's writing is definitive, particularly in connection with its dominating influence on, among others, Nietzsche.

Emerson's sense of thinking is, generally, of a double process, or a single process with two names: transfiguration and conversion. For instance (still in "The American Scholar"), "A strange process, ... this by which experience is converted into thought, as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin. The manufacture goes forward at all hours" (p. 70). And again:

The actions and events of our childhood and youth are now matters of calmest observation. ... Not so with our recent actions, — with the business which we now have in hand. Our affections as yet circulate through it. ... The new deed ... remains for a time immersed in our unconscious life. In some contemplative hour it detaches itself ... to become a thought of the mind. Instantly it is raised, transfigured; the corruptible has put on incorruption, (pp. 70–71)

Transfiguration is to be taken as a rhetorical operation, Emerson's figure for a figure of speech — not necessarily for what rhetoricians name a known figure of speech, but for whatever it is that he will name the conversion of words. In "Self-Reliance" he calls the process that of passing from Intuition to Tuition, so it is fitting that those who find Emerson incapable of thought style him a philosopher of Intuition, occluding the teacher of Tuition. Tuition is what Emerson's writing presents itself to be throughout; hence, of course, to be articulating Intuition. It is when Emerson thinks of thinking, or conversion, as oppositional, or critical, that he calls it aversion. This bears relation not alone to Emerson's continuous critique of religion but to Kant's speaking of Reason, in his always astonishing "Conjectural Beginning of Human History," as requiring and enabling "violence" (to the voice of nature) and "refusal" (to desire), refusal being a "feat which brought about the passage from merely sensual to spiritual attractions," uncovering "the first hint at the development of man as a moral being" (pp. 56–57). And Emerson's aversion bears relation to Heidegger's discussion of why thinking in his investigation of it "is from the start tuned in a negative key." (What is Called Thinking? p. 29)

Accordingly, a guiding thought in directing myself to Emerson's way of thinking is his outcry in the sixth paragraph of "Self-Reliance": "The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion." I gather him there to be characterizing his writing, hence to mean that he writes in aversion to society's demand for conformity, specifically that his writing expresses his self-consciousness, his thinking as the imperative to an incessant conversion or refiguration of society's incessant demands for his consent — his conforming himself — to its doings; and at the same time to mean that his writing must accordingly be the object of aversion to society's consciousness, to what it might read in him. His imperative is registered in the outcry a few paragraphs later, "Every word they say chagrins us." Emerson is not, then, as the context might imply, expressing merely his general disappointment at some failure in the capacity of language to represent the world but also expressing, at the same time, his response to a general attitude toward words that is causing his all but complete sense of intellectual isolation. It is his perfectionism's cue.

The isolation is enacted in "The American Scholar," whose occasion is enviably if not frighteningly distinctive. Whoever Emerson invokes as belonging to the class of scholars that commencement day at Harvard in the summer of 1837 — himself, his audience (whether as poets, preachers, or philosophers) — the principal fact about the class is that it is empty, the American Scholar does not exist. Then who is Emerson? Suppose we say that what motivates Emerson's thinking, or what causes this call for the American Scholar, is Emerson's vision of our not yet thinking. Is this plain fact of American history — that we are, we still find ourselves, looking for the commencement of our own culture — worth setting beside the intricate formulation whose recurrences generate Heidegger's What Is Called Thinking?: "Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking" (p. 6). (Das Bedenklichste in unserer bedenklichen Zeit ist, dass wir noch nicht denken.) It probably does not matter that the translation cannot capture the direct force in the relation of bedenklich to denken and the senses of bedenklich as doubtful, serious, risky, scrupulous — it would mean capturing the idea of the thing most critically provoking in our riskily provocative time to be that we are still not really provoked, that nothing serious matters to us, or nothing seriously, that our thoughts are unscrupulous, private. (Emerson's remark in his "Divinity School Address" echoes for me: "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul." What translation will capture the idea of provocation here as calling forth, challenging?) Nor hence capture the surrealistic inversion of the Cartesian thought that if I am thinking then I cannot be thinking that perhaps I do not think. In Heidegger, if I am thinking then precisely I must be thinking that I am (still) not thinking. I say the translation may not matter because one who is not inclined, as I am, at least intermittently to take Heidegger's text as a masterpiece of philosophy will not be encouraged — on the contrary — to place confidence in a mode of argumentation which invests itself in what is apt to seem at best the child's play of language and at worst the wild variation and excesses of linguistic form that have always interfered with rationality. For someone who has not experienced this play in Heidegger, or in Emerson, the extent of it can from time to time appear as a kind of philosophical folly.

I summarize two instances from the essay "Experience" to suggest the kind of practice that has convinced me that Emerson's thought is, on a certain way of turning it, a direct anticipation of Heidegger's. Emerson writes: "I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition." You may either dismiss, or savor, the relation between the clutching fingers and the hand in handsome as a developed taste for linguistic oddity, or you might further relate it to Emerson's recurring interest in the hand (as in speaking of what is at hand, by which, whatever else he means, he means the writing taking shape under his hand and now in ours) and thence to Heidegger's sudden remark, "Thinking is a handicraft," by which he means both that thinking requires training and makes something happen, but equally that it makes something happen in a particular way since the hand is a uniquely human possession: "The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs — paws, claws, fangs" (Heidegger, 16). (It matters to me in various ways to recall a seminar of C. I. Lewis's on "The Nature of the Right," given at Harvard in the academic year 1951–52 — the year Heidegger delivered the lectures constituting What Is Called Thinking? — in which Lewis emphasized the hand as a trait of the human, the tool-using trait, hence one establishing a human relation to the world, a realm of practice that expands the reaches of the self. The idea seemed to me in my greenness not to get very far, but it evidently left me with various impressions, among others one of intellectual isolation. Lewis's material was published posthumously under the title, "The Individual and the Social Order.") Emerson's image of clutching and Heidegger's of grasping, emblematize their interpretation of Western conceptualizing as a kind of sublimized violence. (Heidegger's word is greifen; it is readily translatable as "clutching.") Heidegger is famous here for his thematization of this violence as expressed in the world dominion of technology, but Emerson is no less explicit about it as a mode of thinking. The overcoming of this conceptualizing will require the achievement of a form of knowledge both Emerson and Heidegger call reception, alluding to the Kantian idea that knowledge is active, and sensuous intuition alone passive or receptive. (Overcoming Kant's idea of thinking as conceptualizing — say analyzing and synthesizing concepts — is coded into Emerson's idea that our most unhandsome part belongs to our condition. I have argued elsewhere (in "Emerson, Coleridge, Kant") that Emerson is transfiguring Kant's key term "condition" so that it speaks not alone of deducing twelve categories of the understanding but of deriving — say schematizing — every word in which we speak together (speaking together is what the word condition says); so that the conditions or terms of every term in our language stand to be derived philosophically, deduced.)


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction: Staying the Course
1. Aversive Thinking
Emersonian Representations in Heidegger and Nietzsche
2. The Argument of the Ordinary
Scenes of Instruction in Wittgenstein and in Kripke
3. The Conversation of Justice
Rawls and the Drama of Consent
Appendix A: Hope against Hope
Appendix B: A Cover Letter

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