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Relentless Unfolding: Emerson's Individual
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.3 (2003) 155-163

Amid its romantic excesses such as "[t]o believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,—that is genius" (Porte 2001, 121), Emersonian individualism remains a living project, one we would do well to understand more thoroughly and pursue more rigorously. To aid in this recovery, I will, in a translating repetition of Emerson's thought that engages a range of texts, offer eight theses that any successful reconstruction of individualism must embrace. I am not claiming that these theses are unique to Emerson; others hold similar views. I have elected to work with Emerson, however, because his work eludes the exhausted opposition between atomistic and collectivist accounts of human flourishing. Emerson thinks in severely relational terms. I say "severely relational" because he both denies the possibility of an atomistic self and refuses to dissolve human beings into, or defer our endeavors to, the systemic activities of macrosubjectivities like culture, states, traditional communities, civil-social associations, ecosystems, or even a divinity. Because he broaches the issue of how individuals are private and public, solitary and engaged, Emerson strikes me as a salutary interlocutor for those who would rethink individualism.

1. Individualism Requires Conscious Self-Fashioning

Permit me a point of stipulation and clarification. In metaphysics, we might speak of singular beings as individuals, and distinguish them from larger collectivities to which they may or may not belong. In this sense, anything that exists as a categorically distinct entity is an "individual," e.g., a shoe or muskrat. Here, however, I will treat individuals as accomplishments. In this sense, individuality is not a state coextensive with existing, but one that a person might more or less achieve.

In the work of Emerson, we readily find the thought that individuals are accomplishments: "The Intellect still asks that a man be born" (Porte 2001, 82). And: "So many promising youths, and never a finished man" (99). A human being must be born at least twice: once from a womb (of one kind or another), and then again through his or her own hands. The latter activity requires the individuation of forces that inform our being, e.g., language, as well those events that manifest it, such as our beliefs and actions. For example, through my writing and speech, I might develop a style of my own, half lyric ventures, half wise-cracks. Thus, to paraphrase Cavell, I might earn the right to say 'I am' by acquiring the capacity to richly say 'I think' (Heller 1986, 282). Or, to draw the thinking thing into more obvious transactions, I might fret that my profession is less mine than some set of demands that one-sidedly shape me. If so, if what we could call individuation is lacking, we may persist as metaphysical individuals but live as replicas.

I speak of individuation because individuality follows from activities such as journaling, friendships, walking in the woods, and buying goods, which enable us to bring our intuitions and inspirations about what to do and believe—e.g., protest an impending war or regard the academy within an archly capitalist social order—to bear on the various modalities of our being—e.g. neighbor, man, teacher, and so forth. In a perhaps broader sense, individuation also entails allowing an emerging sense of self, for instance as a site of ecopolitical becoming, to wash over our many beliefs, actions, and roles, tuning them, as it were, such that they acknowledge who emerges. Or, in more Emersonian terms, we could say that individuation occurs when we subordinate our inheritance to our genius, a point I'll develop below.

2. Individualism is an Ethical Project

Addressing Harvard Divinity School, Emerson stated: "The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul" (Porte 2001, 70). In the full context of Emerson's writings, this is an abundant passage. At this juncture, however, my point is simple: soul work, for Emerson, must be responsive to moral concerns. Not all influences are desirable; not all beliefs and actions are praiseworthy. Individuation is...



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