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  • The Skeptical Deduction: Reading Kant and Cavell in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
  • David Greenham (bio)

“What,” asks Emerson, “is the aboriginal self on which a universal reliance may be grounded?”1 This formulation of the problem addressed by his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” may be interpreted as a lack of self-evidence for the “self,” which in turn demands an inquiry into the self’s origin and ground. The first restriction, contained in the epigraph to the essay and taken from Persius’s Satires, is “Ne te quæsiveris extra”: “Do not seek yourself outside yourself” or “Look to no one outside yourself” (CW, 2:25).2 Though it lies ironically and teasingly beyond the body of the text, the quotation provides an obvious clue to the location of the self and one that might be expected in an essay bearing the title “Self-Reliance.” Yet questions remain. How are we to tell inside from outside? What are the self’s limits, especially when the man who poses the initial question is renowned for preaching “the infinitude of the private man”?3 Emerson, of course, presents a number of familiar assertive answers associated with genuine action, character, work, or the kind of rugged self belief that is weaned from “the she-wolf’s teat” (CW, 2:28). These answers, though they perhaps explain why the essay is popular, seem to be ways of bypassing or postponing the question to which it is addressed. Emerson’s words, which can be taken for homilies, and which correspond to the nascent American self-perception of rugged individualism, do not provide the self with evidence of itself. [End Page 253]

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson affirms aboriginality—literally the “origin from which” reliance may be derived—in typically romantic terms of loss: the self “first share[s] the life by which things exist” only to “forget that we have shared their cause” (CW, 2:37). But how do we come to remember the loss, to account for it and put it right? On one level, this loss and recollection stands as Emerson’s romantic conception of the Fall, as made clear in the 1836 Nature, where “a man is a god in ruins” (CW, 1:42), and the 1844 essay “Experience,” where the fall is not from grace but into forgetting, into “lethe” (CW, 3:27). But the discovery that we have forgotten, that we have fallen, does not amount to a recovery in itself: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man” (CW, 3:43). Even though too late, the recollection of loss, which does not recover that loss, still stands for Emerson’s hope for redemption. For it is important to remember, according to Emerson, that we belong to the world first, that we receive it before we lose it—that we must have received it in order to have lost it. This initial reception is “spontaneous” (or, at least, involuntary); our ability to rely on it is what is at stake. The existential corollary is that we may only respond to our loss from within it, and therefore we can never really know if we are recuperating the self or merely living out the Fall. Nevertheless, in order to be self-reliant we must already be able to be so, and as such self-reliance must be possible a priori.

It is the question of the a priori, I would argue, that links Emerson most clearly with his age and the generation of philosophers who preceded him. For his problems are of course far from unique to him. They are fundamental problems of romantic philosophy and of its literature, the disciplines that Emerson’s work spans. Stanley Cavell, more than any other recent philosopher, has responded to this aspect of Emerson’s work.4 He also provides, though does not develop, a way of approaching the problem of the self in Emerson by drawing attention to very specific aspects of Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy, claiming Kant as someone whose questions Emerson might have inherited. A particular bequest to which Cavell attests is Kant...


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pp. 253-281
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