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EMERSONIAN SELF-RELIANCE AND SELF-DECEPTION THEORY by Kenneth Marc Harris Philosophers and philosophically minded critics who have attempted to apply self-deception theory to literature have done so almost entirely with an eye toward fiction and drama‚ÄĒunderstandably, because of the many illustrations of self-deception such literature can provide.1 On the other hand, philosophers and philosophically minded critics who have worked with Emerson and other Anglo-American transcendentalists have done so from other perspectives within philosophy, in particular with regard to epistemology.2 I hope to demonstrate that recent philosophical attempts to explain self-deception and related phenomena such as akrasia may usefully be applied to the central tenets of Emersonian thought as expressed in many of the major writings, most clearly in "Self-Reliance." Application of self-deception theory to that facet of Emerson's thought concerning self-reliance, moreover, can help resolve a persistent dilemma in Emerson criticism. In evaluating the essay "Self-Reliance" critics face the dilemma of reconciling what they see as Emerson's idealism with what at the same time they admit is the unidealistic self-interestedness that the term itself, if not the essay, seems to promote, or at least has been perceived as promoting. Though not having in mind "Self-Reliance" specifically,Joel Porte puts his finger on the dilemma when he makes the following assertion: "The view of Emerson as a shallow optimist who approved of, or indeed helped inspire, the mindless boosterism or go-getting spirit so frequently associated with mid-nineteenth-century America is Philosophy and Literature, ¬© 1991, 15: 286-294 Kenneth Marc Harris287 as false to Emerson as it is to our national character."3 Its truth or falseness to Emerson or to the American character notwithstanding, the persistent dissemination of the view Porte refers to cannot be doubted and, if only because of its pervasiveness, it cannot be lightly dismissed. Nor is it self-evidendy implausible or unfair: regarded in isolation, characteristic Emersonian catchphrases such as self-reliance, compensation, and "the Beautiful Necessity" do indeed all too easily lend themselves to an attitude of smug self-satisfaction. In an approach typical of Emerson's apologists among literary critics and historians, Donald E. Pease attempts to reconcile the selflessness that Emerson's defenders derive from his doctrine of self-reliance with the selfishness that the term otherwise would connote by implying that Emerson was speaking in some kind of a code on behalf of the presumably few listeners whose own "exercise of self-reliance as a moral faculty could definitively clarify the confusion between" what Emerson really "meant and what the public understood."4 But there is no evidence ofwhich I am aware that Emerson or anyone among his contemporaries believed that his meaning and the public understanding of it were at variance to the extent Pease claims. Let me put the problem this way. Emerson and his contemporaries (with a few exceptions such as Melville) either did not recognize or were not disturbed by the conflict or apparent conflict between the selfishness and the selflessness that are both implicit in his doctrine of self-reliance. That is to say, Emerson's contemporaries must have realized that he was describing a mental state that could embrace both idealism and selfishness without imploding from its own internal contradiction. One mental state capable of embracing opposites without untenable inner contradiction that was well known in Emerson's time (and long before) is self-deception. Could the mental state Emerson describes as selfreliance be a more or less "positive" analog of self-deception? Two frequently noted analogs ofself-deception bearing at least a faint resemblance to Emersonian self-reliance are positive thinking and wishful thinking. To engage in self-deception means to believe that such and such is the case and at the same time to deceive oneselfinto believing that something else, usually the precise opposite, is the case: in Demos's classic formulation, to believe p and not-p.5 Both positive thinking and wishful thinking similarly involve some degree of belief that a desired state exists while at the same time recognizing that it does not exist. Brian P. McLaughlin distinguishes positive thinking from wishful thinking by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 286-294
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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