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Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.



Bloom, Poirier, Holmes: What’s the Link?

In American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on December 26, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence is of a piece with pragmatism as it is manifested in Richard Poirier’s account of poetic influence whereby a poet or writer struggles to overcome the powerful precedent of his or her forerunners.  Poirier goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Emerson’s “superfluity” has to do with Emerson’s anxiety about articulating the phenomenal world in ways that are new.  Like Emerson, Holmes distorts and recasts precedents.  Holmes uses the common law canon much as Emerson uses the literary canon, and vice versa.

Bloom and Poirier are Darwinians, as were most of the classical pragmatists, on the issue of revision and adaptation of forms to fit new social and cultural environments.  Bloom seems to suggest that there are perennial themes and tropes in the work of great poets over time, but that it is the new and creative ways in which these existing categories are expressed that make them great.  The anxiety is in finding new articulation for previously established content and methods.  The poet, then, is like the judge according Holmes: someone who must rely on precedent even as he carves out new spaces for critical inquiry.

Emerson is a milestone figure for Poirier because Emerson struggles with “linguistic skepticism.”  Emerson’s anxiety about expressing new ideas in old forms led him to embrace rhetorical superfluity as a means of compensating for the limitations of his own mind and historical moment.  Emerson was skeptical about the ability of the word or language to summon forth the meanings in his head or the sensations that he felt.  For Poirier, Emerson established what Joan Richardson calls an “aesthetic outpost” against which later writers like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens wrote.  Emerson facilitated continuity with the past while generating his own tropes on which later American writers would themselves trope.  All of this revision and adaptation had to do with a distinctly American tradition of writing that attempted to break free of the confines of European traditions and express the attitudes and possibilities created by the New World.  Holmes himself turned away from European jurisprudence and embraced philosophical pragmatism, which led to such interpretive tendencies as judicial restraint, deference to state legislatures, rejection of abstractions, and analysis of actual experiences tested and tried in both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.

What links Bloom, Poirier, and Holmes is Emerson.

American Literary History and Pragmatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Walt Whitman, Writing on August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

American literary history, even before C.S. Peirce named “pragmatism” as a philosophy, validates much of what pragmatism has to offer.  Joan Richardson speaks of “frontier instances” whereby certain writers become aesthetic outposts from which we can trace continuities of thought and artistic representation.  She treats literature as a life form that must adapt to its environment; similarly, Richard Poirier looks to a tradition of linguistic skepticism in American literature to show the role that artistic influence and troping have had on American culture.  Long before Richardson and Poirier, George Santayana exercised his own literary flair in his celebratory, summative essays about American culture and experience.  If American literary history can undergo operations of tracing and mapping, it might be because—as Richardson, Poirier, and Santayana have suggested—the unfolding and development of an American literary canon have been processes of evolution.  Literary texts and movements have shown a tendency toward growth that is responsive to the natural and changing circumstances of the time.

Richardson begins A Natural History of Pragmatism with 17th century Puritan ministers and then quickly moves to Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is representative of the Calvinist notion of limited disclosure, the idea, in other words, that God reveals his divinity to us through the shapes, forms, and outlines he provides to us in the phenomenal world.  From this idea (and others like it) began the uniquely American insistence on the value of nature and the physical universe to thought and the spiritual or psychological realm.  As Americans sought to make themselves culturally and intellectually independent from Europe, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they used the New World landscapes and vastly unexplored (by Europeans at least) terrains as objects of their fascination and as sources of inspiration.  Even figures like Jefferson insisted upon the scientific study of the natural world in order to authorize theories about law and politics, which he wished to distinguish from European ways.  Jefferson, like William Bartram, another naturalist, lionized Natives as being more in tune with nature and hence more “lawful” in the sense that their communal governments were in keeping with the laws of nature.  However problematic we may consider these romanticized depictions today, we should at least say of them that they inspired further attention to sustained observation of nature as a critical component of what was intended to be a new way of thinking divorced from the Old World of Europe.

Santayana says that when orthodoxy recedes, speculation flourishes, and accordingly it is no surprise that as Puritanism solidified into an orthodoxy of the kind against which it once defined itself, there was a resistance among artists and writers and thinkers.  Emerson, for one, adapted the thinking of the Calvinists while maintaining their commitment to the natural world as a means for realizing higher truths.  Instead of God revealing himself to man through the forms of the natural world, God, according to Emerson, was realized within the person with a poetical sense, who was inspired by the natural world to discover the divinity within himself.  To become one and to see all—that is, to become a “transparent eyeball”—was something of a religious experience for Emerson.  Read the rest of this entry »

Wallace Stevens and Imagination

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Communism, Conservatism, Creative Writing, History, Imagination, John William Corrington, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Wallace Stevens, Western Civilization, Writing on May 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at themendenhall.


It would seem at first blush that American modernism is incompatible with American conservatism.  But this impression pivots on a too-narrow conception of both “modernism” and “conservatism.”  The aesthetes who animated modern American poetry were, many of them, social and political conservatives.  This fact has been lost on those intellectuals who do not admit or acknowledge alternative and complicating visions of the world in general and of modernism in particular.  In the wake of the radical 1960s, many intellectuals simply ignored the contributions of the conservative imagination to literature, preferring to will away such unpalatable phenomena by pretending they do not exist.  However well-meaning, these intellectuals either assume without much hesitation or qualification that all modernist theories and practices were progressive, or they brush under the rug any conservative tendencies among writers they admire.  American modernism was progressive in its adaptation of forms, but it does not follow that avant-garde aesthetics necessarily entails progressive political programs.  Nevertheless, under Frankfurt School and Marxist auspices, among other things, the literati and others in the academy have rewritten the history and thought of modernist American poetry to purge it of all conservative influence.  George Santayana, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore—these individuals, according to progressive mantras, were intellectually challenging and therefore, the argument goes, politically leftist.  Such revisionism will not do. Read the rest of this entry »

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).     Read the rest of this entry »

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