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Joan Richardson on Emerson, the Pragmatist

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Creative Writing, Information Design, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics on December 9, 2010 at 9:22 pm

If pragmatism is, as Joan Richardson claims, “thinking about thinking” (79), and if Emerson is, as Richardson claims, a pragmatist, then we might ask ourselves what intellectual tradition Emerson appears to appropriate and modify.  What are Emerson’s “moving pictures” (the title of Richardson’s chapter on Emerson), and how do they receive and transmit thought and theory?  Richardson seems to suggest that, for Emerson as for Jonathan Edwards, nature and imagination are mutually reinforcing and inextricably tied concepts.  Emerson works out of Edwards’s paradigms while altering them to fit his own historical moment.  Emerson mimics not only Edwards’s intellectual framework—his theories—but also Edwards’s diction and syntax (63).  Put differently, Emerson imitates a concept while imitating the vocabularies through which that concept passed down to him. 

What makes Edwards and Emerson unique is their turn to nature to make sense of the “transcendent.”  Just as Edwards looks to spiders and light to aestheticize his theology and exhilarate his congregation, so Emerson looks to nature to spiritualize the human mind.  Both men observe and then internalize the natural world to refine their thinking about thinking.  For Emerson, however, the human mind is itself an organism—one hungry for knowledge.  The mind is not so much “the room of the idea” as it is a living being with an appetite for thought (67).  Emerson employs and seeks out metaphor to organize this thought—one might say to satiate his ravenous intellectual appetite—and he does so because he realizes “the seminal role played by image” (68).  The world, for Emerson, is full of semiotic possibility, and one can arrive at truths about reality through the study of metaphor.  Science, after all, uses signs and symbols—i.e., metaphors—to test and decode the natural world (see, e.g., Richardson on the “metaphor intrinsic to biology’s emergence as a distinct field”) (69).    

The mind has as its agency the mediation of images and signs, a mediation whose patterns point toward the spiritual and the real and the really spiritual.  When Emerson realizes that he has to re-conceive imagination as a participant and not as a repository (77) of language, he also realizes that language—i.e., signs, symbols, and the cultures that use them—can, if properly employed, “transform [and] reconvert […] culture/language into nature” (79).  Or, put another way, Emerson “fulfill[s] his own intention to become a natural historian of the intellect by making the elements of mind itself, words, the human ground and world, the field of his and his audience’s exploration and collection” (80). 

Because the mind is, for Emerson, an organism, it evolves according to evolutionary processes of adaptation that mirror, or perhaps set in motion, aesthetic adaptations that mark a given time and place.  Emerson understands his work as the latest in a line of inherited theories, a variation of a variation of a theme.  As such, his work reproduces and revises traits from earlier generations.  Having this understanding, Emerson, like Darwin, dresses up diction and syntax to reflect and transmit not only the natural processes of evolution—i.e., those occurring to plants and animals—but also the intellectual processes of evolution (which, it turns out, are also natural) (81).  Thus, Emerson’s challenge—of a piece with Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence—is to “describe the effects of this phototropism of ideas, through time, into eventual dispersion and diverse forms of maturation” (81).  Emerson’s challenge, in other words, is to select and then arrange diction and syntax to signal the processes of intellectual and biological evolution.

Richardson’s A Natural History of Pragmatism is not for the casual reader and may require second and third readings before it can be fully appreciated; nevertheless, it represents important work in the field of pragmatism.  I mention the Emerson section in passing simply to call attention to my favorite chapter in the book—one which addresses an oft-disputed topic: Emerson’s pragmatist pedigree.  Richardson’s attention to Edwards as Emerson’s pragmatist predecessor surely complicates the already complicated work done on Emerson.   

As Richardson reflects on how Emerson writes “sentences fashioned to excite the heat of their words into motion, light, translating religious experience into aesthetic performance,” she supports her claims with language that is as exciting as the exciting language that is her subject (89).  Richardson’s language performs the performance of her focus, and the show is worth the read. 

For further reading:

Joan Richardson.  A Natural History of Pragmatism.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

  1. Beyond the dubious claim that pragmatism is “thinking about thinking” — which would make Heidegger and Badiou pragmatists (!) — it sounds very interesting. I love Emerson — and, for me, he comes highly recommended: from Nietzsche!

  2. you seem from time to time to discuss pragmatism but to the expense of richard rorty. what say you about rrs podcast through the uni of chicago commenting upon posner?

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