publisher colophon
  • How Close a Reader of Emerson Is Stanley Cavell?

This article examines Stanley Cavell's method of reading Emerson—and finds it wanting in rigor and fidelity to the original. Though Cavell declares himself to be among those "who care about the Emersonian text," who are "concerned to preserve the order of words of the Emersonian text," there is a substantial amount of evidence that this is not always the case. A close reading of Cavell's readings of Emerson reveals a pattern of misconstrual and misquotation whose effect is to strip away the "otherness" of Emerson's words and further the project of refashioning him as a secular, skeptical, postmetaphysical thinker.


Stanley Cavell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, construal and its consequences for interpretation

Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest.

ralph waldo emerson, "Uses of Great Men" [End Page 557]

Caveat Lector

For well over three decades now, Stanley Cavell has been Emerson's foremost philosophical interpreter and defender. He has done more than any other philosopher to secure Emerson's rehabilitation as a serious thinker. If Emerson is now a legitimate figure in the university philosophy curriculum—and not just in English or American studies—his renewed legitimacy is in large part owing to Cavell's tireless advocacy. By restoring Emerson to the canon of great philosophers, Cavell has changed the way we view American philosophy, arguably even philosophy tout court. That is no small achievement.

To a large extent, however, Cavell's more specific achievement as rehabilitator of Emerson is based on a misunderstanding, itself the direct consequence of a tendency to scant the basic construal phase of reading.1 When we ask, "How close a reader of Emerson is Stanley Cavell?" the answer must unfortunately be, in a number of crucial instances, not very. A careful comparison of Cavell's readings with the originals reveals a persistent disregard for the words on the page. If Cavell's commentaries mark a watershed in Emerson studies, their textual grounds are comparatively small: a handful of the major essays, often limited to specific passages to which he often returns—and those not always accurately quoted or construed, as we shall see. The result is an unquestionably bold and original yet in many ways unsubstantiated reading of Emerson—a reading that appeals to postmodern sensibilities of a darker, skeptical, postreligious, antimetaphysical variety. Cavell is perhaps the best example of "present-minded" approaches to Emerson.2 Cavell's Emerson is an Emerson in our own likeness.

It might of course be objected that I am forcing a role on Cavell that he would probably refuse, applying norms of argumentation, evidence, and accountability that are inappropriate to his hallmark philosophical style. In his readings of Emerson, one might argue, Cavell is doing something altogether different. He is doing a different kind of philosophy. He is writing "after" Emerson, or composing variations on him for today, which is not at all the same thing as conventional scholarly explication or commentary.

While freely acknowledging the value and force of this line of reasoning, which has the merit of preserving what is unique in Cavell's philosophy, I would point out that it omits a key element. Cavell's originality notwithstanding, he still advances claims about Emerson's thought that, when taken together, produce the "present-minded" account of him that [End Page 558] I have sketched in above. It is these claims that I shall be examining—that is, those particular moments when Cavell moves from adaptation, variation, or even "fantasizing for Emerson" (1989, 107) to positive assertions and truth claims. It is in these particular cases that careful construal still matters a great deal.

To turn now to specific examples. As the distinguished Emerson scholar Joel Porte observed in a brief yet devastating critique, "Cavell may be a brilliant philosopher, but he is also capable of being a careless literary scholar." For Porte, Cavell is "not a reliable quoter of Emerson's texts" (Porte 2003, 460). Though Cavell declares himself to be among those "who care about the Emersonian text," who are "concerned to preserve the order of words of the Emersonian text" (2003, 186, 190), Porte provides evidence that this is not always the case. He compares, for example, two sentences from the crucial closing paragraph of Emerson's "Experience," first in the original and then as they reappear—as one, much-altered sentence—in Cavell's lecture "Finding as Founding." Here is the original: "I say this polemically, or in reply to the inquiry, why not realize your world? But far be from me the despair which prejudges the law by a paltry empiricism,—since there never was a right endeavor, but it succeeded" (3:48).3 And here is Cavell's version of Emerson's original: "I say this polemically, or in reply to despair which prejudges the law by a paltry empiricism;—since there never was an endeavor but it succeeded" (Cavell 1989, 112). Porte remarks: "The mangled sentence makes no sense. And Emerson's crucial claim that 'there never was a right endeavor, but it succeeded' is turned, through misquotation, into a meaningless banality. Cavell's comment—'this is a reasonably treacherous Emersonian texture of summary'—can only elicit the response, Yes, especially when that 'texture' is unraveled" (2003, 460–61). Cavell's misquotation weakens Emerson's "crucial claim" by omitting the very word that gives it philosophical content—the word right. I shall return to this point in a moment. I should point out, in all fairness, that earlier in "Finding" Cavell does render Emerson's claim accurately twice, first identifying the core issue—correctly—as "whether an endeavor is right" and then dismissing the claim altogether, a few lines before the passage quoted above, as a "tautology" (Cavell 1989, 96, 111), which perhaps explains his subsequent indifference to the crucial adjective. The misquotation then paves the way for three paragraphs of close analysis and commentary by Cavell, to which I shall also return shortly. [End Page 559]

A second example of Cavell's misquotation of the same paragraph of "Experience" may be found in "Thinking of Emerson," his earliest reading of the essay: "We are in a state of 'romance' with the universe (to use a word from the last sentence of the essay)" (1981, 128). Emerson's original sentence in fact reads: "the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power" (3:49). As with the word right, the essential adjective, which gives the line its philosophical meaning, has been dropped. Here too, Cavell (1989, 79, 95; 1990, xxi) restores the adjective true when he returns to "Experience" later on in "Finding" and in the preface to Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, although in this last case the correct quotation is introduced by a paraphrase—"the human romance with the world"—that means something altogether different.

The overall impression produced by these alterations is that, under Cavell's authority, Emerson's words may be safely omitted, restored, replaced by others, or rearranged. The introduction to Conditions, to give a third example of Cavell's misquoting the last paragraph of "Experience," even changes the order and number of the elements making up the "world" Emerson "converses with." Thus Emerson wrote: "I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think" (3:48). In Cavell this becomes "the world I converse with in the farm and in the city" (1990, 19). The original order of Emerson's thought seems intended to foreclose the possibility of a romantic escape to the countryside as a place of unity where the "two worlds" might finally coincide. That the artificial world of the city and the world of mind might not coincide is not especially surprising. That the "discrepance" should extend to transactions with the simpler, more natural world of the farms signals a potentially deeper problem for philosophy and the conduct of life.

Emerson was an exceedingly careful writer. The order and form of his words matter a great deal. The word romance cannot be quoted alone (or in new combinations), any more than endeavor: the specific adjectives Emerson used make all the difference in the world, philosophically. Right and true have clear metaphysical import. Cavell's omissions might perhaps be considered peccadilloes hardly worth mentioning, were they not consistent with his skeptical, explicitly antimetaphysical claim, present in both "Thinking of Emerson" and "Finding as Founding," that the closing line of the essay "does not exactly shift the burden from the genius onto the world" (1989, 95). Of course it does. That is exactly what Emerson's [End Page 560] conclusion does. The two adjectives make claims about the general nature of the world, which exists for us—that is to say, to further our ethical action and creativity. These are claims that Cavell seeks to deny.

Before pursuing this line of argument in the next section, I would like to take a moment to consider the broader implications of Cavell's misquotations. All of those I have cited thus far concern the last paragraph of "Experience," which served as the textual fulcrum for Cavell's successful effort to move Emerson into the category of serious philosophy. With his enormously influential reading of "Experience," Cavell has single-handedly turned this essay into the new center of gravity of the Emerson canon. The fate of Cavell's rehabilitation of Emerson as philosopher thus turned on his reading of "Experience." This is where the work of "measuring Emerson's philosophicality" properly begins, with the essay that may be said "to constitute the Emersonian philosophical voice." Cavell defines that voice both as a departure from the conventionally "neo-Platonic" metaphysics of Nature—a departure already under way in "The American Scholar," the Divinity School Address, and "Self-Reliance"—and as a willingness, illustrated above all by "the close of 'Experience,'" to embrace skepticism (1989, 79). The "Emersonian philosophical voice" is the voice of skepticism.

With "Experience," then, the stakes could not be higher, either for the new vision of Emerson's philosophy or for Cavell's personal authority as philosophical commentator in chief. Emerson's rehabilitation as a skeptical, antimetaphysical, and—as we shall see—"secular" philosopher begins with this epoch-making reinterpretation.

What is worth noting, however, is that the essay that carries the most weight in Cavell's rehabilitation of Emerson is also the object of frequent misquotation and misconstrual. In "Finding," to take a final example of misquotation, Cavell (1989, 95) omits the two words in italics in the following sentence: "For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs" (3:43). This omission too has serious consequences since it undoes Emerson's scrupulously evenhanded treatment of the negative ("skepticisms") and the positive ("beliefs"), seen as equal parts of an internal logic of intellectual development that he represents, overall, in resolutely affirmative terms. Cavell's paraphrase, by contrast, restores the "as much" omitted from the original, makes the equality a higher-order phenomenon (expressing philosophy's vision of itself and of its pragmatic [End Page 561] "mission" of practical realization), and places his final emphasis on the negative: "For Emerson the mission is rather, or as much, to awaken us to why it is happening as it is, negatively not affirmatively" (Cavell 1989, 95; my italics). Cavell concludes that Emerson is criticizing us for denying not only our affirmations but "our negations (say our skepticisms)" (Cavell 1989, 96). True enough, but giving the last word to skepticism seems a violation of Emerson's intent, for his emphasis throughout the passage—the conclusion to the "Reality" chapter of "Experience"—is on progress in philosophy: on the "new statement," the "new picture," the "doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have." In a word, the emphasis is on making "affirmations outside of [skepticisms]." This same passage, after all, is where Emerson exclaims, "Onward and onward!" In Emerson, equally generous measures of negative and positive, of skepticism and belief, expressed by "as much," subserve a logic of onwardness that takes us beyond skeptical limitation: "out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed" (3:43). In Cavell, on the other hand, equality is a sign of a consciousness-raising or "awakening" where philosophy comes to realize that skepticism is "unsolvable." What Cavell fails to see, in omitting the two words "as much," is the true nature of Emerson's "doctrine of faith," which is all-accommodating. If skepticism is nothing to fear ("nor do I fear skepticism for any good soul"), that is because faith always has the final word. Hence the serene, liberal attitude toward skepticism, expressed perfectly by "as much": "We may well give skepticism as much line as we can. The spirit will return, and fill us." To give skepticism "as much line as we can" is to give it "full swing," for it poses no real threat. Thus Emerson writes in "Worship": "A just thinker will allow full swing to his skepticism. I dip my pen in the blackest ink, because I am not afraid of falling into my inkpot" (6:107). To grasp Emerson's attitude toward skepticism, we must also understand his attitude toward faith or worship.

Misconstruing Words: Secular and Skepticism

To continue on the subject of faith, Joel Porte gives a striking example of misconstrual on Cavell's part involving the meaning of the word secular, which also appears in the conclusion of the essay "Experience": "I am not the novice I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago. Let who will ask, where is the fruit? I find a private fruit sufficient. . . . I should feel it pitiful to [End Page 562] demand a result on this town and county, an overt effect on the instant month and year. The effect is deep and secular as the cause. It works on periods in which mortal lifetime is lost" (3:47–48; my italics). Cavell's commentary on Emerson's lines, Porte notes, "assum[es] reasonably that Emerson is thinking of the death of his son (a primary impulse for the essay)" (2003, 461). Thus Cavell writes: "The fruit of what happened 'seven years ago,' the time of Waldo's birth, is to 'have an effect deep and secular as the cause.' It must be immanent. A secular sacrifice would be for a transcendence not to a higher realm, but to another inhabitation of this realm" (1989, 107). And now Porte's remarks: "The misquotation here is trivial but the misreading is not. The context should have told Cavell that Emerson is writing about the effect of time. But Cavell misunderstands Emerson's lingo. Emerson virtually never uses the word 'secular' to mean what it does today. Rather, in Emerson's usage, 'secular' means 'taking place over a long period of time.' Thus the sentence in question has nothing to do with a 'secular' versus a 'religious' transcendence. Caveat Lector!" (2003, 461). Cavell's mistake here, like the omissions we saw earlier, seems consistent with his general project of refashioning Emerson as a postreligious, postmetaphysical, "de-Transcendentalized" philosopher (Buell 1984, 120; 2003, 220–21). What appears to be guiding Cavell's reading is more an antireligious, anti-metaphysical agenda than the words on the page, which, as Porte observes, are clearly about "the effect of time." What Cavell has given us here is less a straightforward construal of Emerson's words than a "present-minded" appropriation of them: for Cavell, Emerson is already like us, already living in a secularized culture like our own—already living "in the aftermath of religion's dominance" (Cavell 1988, xii).

Let us now consider the term skepticism, the conceptual linchpin of Cavell's interpretation of Emerson. Cavell claims that in the mature Emerson skepticism is "unsolvable." As we have seen, "Finding" takes this purported "unsolvability" to be what distinguishes the genuinely "Emersonian philosophical voice" of "Experience," "The American Scholar," the Divinity School Address, and "Self-Reliance," on the one hand, from Nature, on the other: "I would characterize the difference by saying that in Nature Emerson is taking the issue of skepticism as solvable or controllable whereas thereafter he takes its unsolvability to the heart of his thinking" (Cavell 1989, 79). This characterization is inconsistent with any one of a number of passages one could quote from the later writings. To test the validity of Cavell's crucial claim regarding the evolution of Emerson's [End Page 563] philosophy, one might turn, for example, to the late Emerson essay that, after "Experience," is most explicitly concerned with skepticism. I refer to "Montaigne, or the Skeptic," an essay omitted in Cavell's discussions of skepticism in Emerson. (The only line from "Montaigne" that I have found in Cavell's writings is unidentified, unrelated to skepticism, and misquoted in a way that suggests his source is secondhand.4) It is the essay on the "representative" skeptic, however, that best illustrates the problematic nature of Cavell's "unsolvability" claim. Here is Emerson's conclusion on the skeptical theme: "The final solution in which Skepticism is lost, is, in the moral sentiment, which never forfeits its supremacy. All moods may be safely tried, and their weight allowed to all objections: the moral sentiment as easily outweighs them all, as any one. This is the drop which balances the sea. I play with the miscellany of facts and take those superficial views which we call Skepticism but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes Skepticism impossible" (4:92, 103; my italics). As it turns out, Emerson's "moral sentiment" overcomes skepticism by reminding us not of the "unhandsome part of our condition" or of the "discrepance" between "the world I converse with in the city and in the farms" and "the world I think" but of the far deeper continuity that unites self and world in one great causal continuum (3:29, 48; Urbas 2010). The moral sentiment is a metaphysical principle that is both "out there in Nature" and "the basis of the human mind." It grounds Emerson's all-powerful, all-accommodating, all-compensating "doctrine of Faith": there is nothing "which the doctrine of Faith cannot down-weigh" (6:117, 107; my italics).

Cavell's view of Emerson and skepticism does not seem to result from a close engagement with "Montaigne, or the Skeptic," any more than with "Worship," even though this last essay contains the most succinct and explicit definition of skepticism to be found anywhere in the Emerson corpus: "Skepticism is unbelief in cause and effect" (6:117). Cavell's avoidance of "Worship" is telling. His misconstrual of "secular" as what is opposed to religious transcendence is matched by his preference for a "skepticism" emptied of its determinate theological and metaphysical meaning. In Emerson's nineteenth century, however, this determinate meaning was still very much present. As the anti-Transcendentalist philosopher Francis Bowen noted in his 1849 Lowell Lectures, "Skepticism in philosophy and skepticism in religion, if not the same thing, at least usually go together," as they certainly do in Bowen's own inquiry into skepticism, which deals primarily with atheism or "unbelief" (1849, 3, 204). Similarly, Transcendental [End Page 564] Club member Cyrus Bartol's 1850 review essay on "modern skepticism" frames the issue as one of religious faith and the evidence of Christianity. For Emerson, likewise, the question of skepticism is inseparable from its contrary, belief, defined paradigmatically as religious belief.5 That was how Emerson and his culture framed the issue.

Perhaps the key to Cavell's avoidance of the "Montaigne" essay is to be found in his writings not on Emerson but on Shakespeare. In Disowning Knowledge, Cavell explains why the skepticism he has "in mind" is not in Montaigne but in the "philosophical refinement" or epistemologizing redefinition of the question by Descartes. As Cavell's title suggests, his "skeptical problematic" is that of the epistemology-centered tradition: "the question whether I know with certainty of the existence of the external world and of myself and others in it" (1987, 3). "Philosophy-as-epistemology," to borrow Richard Rorty's (1980, 136–40) description of the tradition, serves as Cavell's paradigm in his writings on Shakespeare and on Emerson. Montaigne's skepticism is ruled out as the outdated or narrower form: "The issue posed is no longer, or not alone, as with earlier skepticism, how to conduct oneself best in an uncertain world; the issue suggested is how to live at all in a groundless world" (Cavell 1987, 3). This historical shift in philosophy's central problem marks, in Rorty's convenient summary, the "triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom" (1980, 61). It is this new, epistemologizing paradigm of skepticism that informs Cavell's reading of Emerson.

The real question, though, is What is Emerson's model? In Representative Men, we learn that, for him, skepticism's "representative" philosopher is not Descartes but Montaigne, which means that, like it or not, the "earlier" problematic is still central in his mind. This centrality is highlighted in the specific way Emerson frames his final judgment of Montaigne as philosopher. Here is the key question raised by the essay as a whole, in what we might call its moment of truth: "Shall we say that Montaigne has spoken wisely, and given the right and permanent expression of the human mind on the conduct of life?" (4:96). For Emerson, the conduct of life and the "quest for wisdom" remain the broader, deeper, and more urgent philosophical problems, as the essay "Experience" shows quite well by boldly restoring epistemological questions to their proper, subordinate position: "Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are" (3:35). What are these lines, which appear in the "Surface" chapter of "Experience," whose [End Page 565] keywords are life and wisdom (3:34–39), if not a Montaigne-like reflection on "how to conduct oneself best in an uncertain world"? Emerson's exquisitely ironic conclusion ("perhaps they are") turns the stance of classical skepticism against its modern incarnation by suspending judgment on the ultimate epistemological status of other minds and bodies, which is not the pressing issue, right here and now. It is rather the conduct of life—treating men and women well—that matters. If skepticism gives the distinct impression that "we live amid surfaces," Emerson retorts that "the true art of life is to skate well on them. Under the oldest mouldiest conventions, a man of native force prospers just as well as in the newest world, and that by skill of handling and treatment. He can take hold anywhere" (3:35). The "unhandsomeness of our condition" that Cavell's (1989, 113) reading of "Experience" has made famous turns out to be, upon closer inspection of the original, a mere "part of our condition." It does not prevent us from getting on in the world: "Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere" (3:29, 35).

This is a lesson that Emerson learned, very early on, from another skeptic whom Cavell has neglected: David Hume.6 The "causationist" terms of Emerson's response to the representative skeptic are more a reply to Hume than to Montaigne, whose Essays contains very few examples of such terminology.7 It was above all Hume who taught Emerson to understand skepticism and the conduct of life as questions of cause and effect. The causal tie between events may be unobservable; but, as Hume also asserted, all our inquiries involving matters of fact and existence—"all our reasonings in the conduct of life," in other words—are inferences from cause to effect. Causal inference is "the foundation of moral reasoning" (Hume 2000, 409; 1999, 210). From his college days, Emerson was fully aware of the "two Humes"—Hume the "arch-skeptic" and Hume the "arch-naturalist,"8 or philosopher of natural belief—and sided with the latter. As "Montaigne" puts it, in the answer to the question in the essay's moment of truth: "We are natural believers. Truth or the connection of cause and effect alone interests us. . . . Seen or unseen, we believe the tie exists" (4:96). Ethics thus turns on the metaphysical question of causation. That Emerson should have chosen the conduct of life for the title of his late collection of essays shows the centrality of the theme to his philosophy. It is no accident, I would submit, that The Conduct of Life is also the collection that defines skepticism as "unbelief in cause and effect" and reaffirms the "Montaigne" essay's commitment to the moral sentiment as "solution" to the problem. [End Page 566]

It is only by neglecting the two skeptics who had a strong, well-documented impact on Emerson's philosophical life that his view of skepticism can be made to fit the Cartesian paradigm. The result of Cavell's silence on these crucial influences is a persistent overemphasis on epistemology and on a number of philosophical problems mischaracterized as insurmountable or "unsolvable": skepticism, "moods," "groundlessness," "unhandsomeness," and the "two worlds" of practical existence and thought. The evacuation of any reference to the doctrines of faith or the moral sentiment is fatal to an adequate understanding of what the word skepticism means to Emerson. For him, the term has a very wide application. It means all varieties of "unbelief," including, and at bottom, atheism. Belief, for Emerson, is belief in causation, including, ultimately, belief in a "Supreme Cause." To deny the causal ground of our existence is, as Emerson says in "Self-Reliance," "impiety and atheism" (2:37). Emerson's doctrine of faith, initially formulated in response to the most famous atheist of the preceding age, Hume, is grounded in a strong metaphysical commitment to the divine law of universal causation: "The world is saturated with deity and with law" (4:103). Emerson's all-powerful "moral sentiment" overcomes the skeptical divorce between mind and world by giving the self a secure metaphysical ground in the divine causal continuum.

From Words to Sentences and Paragraphs: Construing the End of "Experience"

I have treated Cavell's omissions of the adjectives in "true romance" and "right endeavor" as examples of misquotation, but they also fit into a larger pattern of misconstrual centering on the crucial closing paragraph of Emerson's "Experience." It is here, in Cavell's epoch-making reading of Emerson's conclusion, that we may observe just how important construal is to sound interpretation. A lack of rigor in basic construal of words and sentences can vitiate even the most brilliant and innovative reading—as Cavell's clearly is—by placing it on a fragile textual foundation.

In his reading of the last sentence of "Experience," Cavell draws a sharp opposition between the conclusion of Nature and that of "Experience," which illustrates the "unsolvability" of skepticism constitutive of the true "Emersonian philosophical voice": "At the close of Nature we are to 'know then that the world exists for you,' and the image of 'the bark of [End Page 567] Columbus near[ing] the shore of America' teaches us that the universe is the property of every individual in it and shines for us. Whereas by the close of 'Experience' we learn that 'the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power,' which says that the world exists as it were for its own reasons, and a new America is said to be unapproachable" (1989, 79; my italics). This is a blatant misconstrual of Emerson's infinitive to realize. Contrary to what Cavell asserts, the world does not exist "as it were for its own reasons" but, rather, to realize the "true romance" that will be "the transformation of genius into practical power." Emerson's syntax simply does not support Cavell's reading. Nature still has an end or purpose that concerns us, just as it did in the earlier essay. Nor is Cavell's inclusion of the phrase "this new yet unapproachable America" any more suitable, since the phrase appears earlier in the very chapter of "Experience"—"Realism"—that puts "moods" and "skepticism" in their proper place, by reaffirming a metaphysical ground for existence and the onward movement of life. Here is what follows that phrase: "If I have described life as a flux of moods, I must now add, that there is that in us which changes not, and which ranks all sensations and states of mind" (3:41–42). The unchanging, organizing principle "in us" is the moral sentiment, which Emerson consistently equates with the "First Cause." Emerson closes the "Realism" chapter on the reaffirmation of the "doctrine of Faith" that we have seen above in the discussion of "as much."

The opposition between Nature and "Experience" is not established by the evidence Cavell provides. His skeptical, antirealist intention seems clear enough: reality is inaccessible or "unapproachable"; the adjective true, therefore, dispensable. Emerson's essay "History" does of course equate romance with skepticism (the "romance of skepticism," 2:18), so we can see why Cavell might want to use the term alone. "True romance," on the other hand, is a conceptual unit that means the opposite of what Cavell claims. We cannot omit the adjective true without distorting Emerson's meaning and obscuring the final, resolutely realist emphasis of the essay (Urbas 2009). Nor can the final line of "Experience" be reformulated by saying that the romance is "human" or that "we are in a state of 'romance' with the universe," for this destroys the deliberate impersonality of Emerson's final words—again, "the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power"—by resubjectivizing the term, by taking us from world back to mind again. In violation of the whole movement of the paragraph, then, Cavell wants to keep us firmly within the [End Page 568] skeptical-Cartesian world of "I think." The world Emerson emphasizes at the end, by contrast, exists to the realist ends of practical empowerment—that is to say, to realize something that is true, something that is not mere romance or a pure fiction of the mind.

To return to Emerson's phrase "right endeavor," Cavell's misreading of the beginning of the final paragraph of "Experience" produces the same resubjectivizing effect. Let us compare Cavell's commentary with the original:

In saying (praying), "Far be from me the despair which prejudges the law [of the discrepance between the world of thought and the world of observation—Kant's two worlds whose simultaneous inhabitation differentiates the human] by a paltry empiricism," Emerson is turning on his essay's prayer for despair, for getting grief near.

I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and shall observe it. One day, I shall know the value and law of this discrepance.


Cavell's interpolated gloss on the word law is a subjectivizing misconstrual of the passage. The opposition Emerson points to is not between "the world of thought" and "the world of observation" but, rather—to get the terms and their order right—between the world of action ("converse with" has the sense of "deal with") and the world of thought. What is known and observed empirically is the discrepancy between these two worlds, not between what I think and what I observe (which would make the whole affair subjective). The distinction is essential, as is the order of the elements, which makes the final paragraph begin and end with the external world and practical action or "power" in it. With the repetition of observe, Emerson is using empiricism's own vocabulary to undermine it, in order to assert the existence of a deeper, unseen law. Emerson's quarrel is with a narrow empiricist philosophy that "observes" the practical world and the life of the mind to be discrepant and then strives to overcome the discrepancy by an act of voluntarism, or through "manipular attempts to realize the world of thought" (3:48). Ultimately, however, a wisdom at once metaphysical and practical—practical because metaphysical—shows us that the two worlds are not separate or irreconcilable but governed by a deeper law or causal continuity. Emerson is supremely confident, as his tone makes clear, [End Page 569] that this principle will be disclosed, that he will indeed move beyond mere appearances to the deeper metaphysical law that governs them: "One day, I shall know the value and law of this discrepance." Cavell hears Kant when he should rather be hearing an Emersonian adaptation of 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." Emerson's serene commitment to the second, deeper form of knowledge reappears in the "Montaigne" essay, where the moral sentiment assures us that "the world I converse with in the city and in the farms" and "the world I think" are not separate: "I play with the miscellany of facts and take those superficial views which we call Skepticism but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes Skepticism impossible. A man of thought must feel the thought that is parent of the universe" (4:103; my italics).

It is this deeper, unseen causal law—and not a "a paltry empiricism"—that ensures the success of virtuous action. The "right endeavor" is one consistent with the deep metaphysical unity of mind and world, not one based on a superficial opposition—the outside world versus my world—that we strive to overcome by arbitrary acts of the will. Cavell is certainly right to say that Emerson is "taking up philosophically the question of practice," but wrong in the stubbornly Kantian way he frames it. Cavell assumes that Emerson accepts Kant's "two worlds." For Cavell, Emerson's question is "Kant's question of how the pure will can be practical": "For Emerson, as for Kant, putting the philosophical intellect into practice remains a question for philosophy. For a thinker such as John Dewey it becomes, as I might put it, merely a problem" (Cavell 1989, 95). In fact, Emerson is much closer to the Deweyan pragmatism Cavell dismisses.9 But Emerson's doctrine is, again, practical because metaphysical. Power rests on Unity, on a firm commitment to one world, not two. As Emerson puts it in "Power": "A belief in causality, or strict connexion between every pulse-beat and the principle of being, . . . characterizes all valuable minds, and must control every effort that is made by an industrious one" (6:29). The doctrine of faith or natural belief in cause and effect is thus a doctrine of action. Emerson replies "polemically" to the question "Why not realize your world?" because it is ill-conceived. There is no such thing as my world. There is only one world, the world, which exists to realize ideas properly aligned with its causal order—however wild they may seem—but not romantic notions we would impose upon it by sheer force of will. [End Page 570]

Generic Mismatch

So Joel Porte was right: "Cavell sometimes gets his Emerson quite wrong—in both small and big ways" (2003, 460). And the two serve the same end. The seemingly trivial omissions, misquotations, and misreadings fit into a larger project of refashioning Emerson in our own secular, free-floating, epistemologizing, postmetaphysical self-image.

My intention in saying this is not to deny the interest or legitimacy of such a project, which has its rightful place among philosophical reengagements with Emerson. Nor do I have a quarrel with "creative reading," which Emerson himself championed in "The American Scholar" (1:58). My quarrel is with cavalier treatment of Emerson's words in the service of unsubstantiated claims about what is really in his writings. It is also with an attitude toward Cavell himself that Porte aptly termed "reverential rather than critical," an attitude of "un-Emersonian discipleship" (2003, 460), which has tended to discourage careful scrutiny of his claims. As a result, misreadings of the sort we have seen above—including howlers that would have seriously damaged the authority of any other interpreter—have gone unremarked, even by Emerson scholars. Given the precarious textual foundation of Cavell's reading, one might well wonder why it has not drawn more criticism. The explanation lies also, I think, in the irresistible appeal of his present-minded style of interpretation.

But herein lies a fatal ambiguity. A reading of Emerson, as distinct from readings after him or inspired by him, should strive to be true to the words on the page. (Even free appropriations, one might argue, must begin here, since they too presuppose a particular textual Emerson as their point of departure.) Cavell's reading sits uneasily between the two genres, corresponding far better to the second while continuing to pass for an authoritative example of the first. This is where the problem lies, in what we might call a generic mismatch.

Cavell is less usefully seen as a reader of Emerson than as a philosopher refashioning him in his own likeness, selecting the things he likes and boldly redefining them away from Emerson's original meaning. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But definitions, as Douglas Anderson (2006b, 194–98) has rightly insisted, are a crucial part of what philosophy is for Emerson. We should heed Emerson's definitions. Skepticism is here again a case in point. Cavell famously redefines it as a "deep" (Putnam 2006, 125) and "unsolvable" part of the human condition and wants us to see it the same way in [End Page 571] Emerson; Emerson himself defines it as "superficial" and sees its metaphysical "solution" in the moral sentiment, which "never forfeits its supremacy" (4:103). Emerson calls skepticism superficial because it is "unbelief in cause and effect," because it has no deep causal ground in reality.

What Do We Want from Emerson?

This counterreading of Emerson will not please philosophers who want "no part" of metaphysics (Cavell 1990, 13), who refuse "grounding gestures" (Lysaker 2008, 87), who prefer "finding" to "founding." It will not please those, like John Lysaker (a much closer reader of Emerson than Cavell), who have a running quarrel with causality, a quarrel that is admirably suited to interpretation of a contemporary poet such as Charles Simic (Lysaker 2002, 139–41, 148–55, 173, 179) but that seems to me misguided and anachronistic in a reading of Emerson, whose metaphysics is, like that of his contemporaries, resolutely "causationist" (Urbas 2016). In "Self-Reliance" Emerson defines causation, accordingly, as the metaphysical and practical ground of selfhood, as "the life by which things exist"—the life we "share" with nature—and as "the fountain of action and of thought" (2:37).

Finally it all comes down to the question of what we want from Emerson. Or perhaps I should add: of what we want from Emerson and whether or not it is there. This seems to me crucial. One way or another, we have to deal with Emerson's words and definitions, even—perhaps especially—in their otherest forms. Eliding them, redefining them, rearranging them, or undoing them through appeals to irony or the free play of signifiers all seem to me unsatisfactory options, however pleasing or reassuring the results may be to our sensibilities. There are words on Emerson's pages that will not go away, that remain obstinately there, whether we happen to want them or not.

Joseph Urbas
University of Bordeaux


. This article is a much-revised version of a paper delivered at "The Return of the Text: A Conference on the Cultural Value of Close Reading," Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, September 26–28, 2013. I would like to thank the organizers of the event and participants who commented on the original paper.

1. I am drawing on Abrams's (1991, 349) distinction between basic "construal" (making out what the words and sentences on the page mean, in the order in [End Page 572] which they appear) and the higher-level "interpretation" or "explication" that depends on it.

2. I borrow the phrase from Buell 1984, 135.

3. Emerson's essays in Emerson 1971–2013 are cited parenthetically in the text by volume and page numbers.

4. Cavell's editor Hodge calls attention to the misquotation: "Cut these sentences and they bleed" (Cavell 2003, 256 n. 2, for chap. 7). Emerson actually wrote: "Cut these words, and they would bleed" (4:95). Cavell's exact wording suggests that his source may be Robert Frost's identical misquotation in the 1959 essay "On Emerson" (1995, 861). Hodge also signals a misquotation of "Self-Reliance" in "Finding": "Self-Reliance is the aversion of conformity," which is another Cavellian compression of "two of Emerson's sentences into one" (see Cavell 1989, 92; 2003, 121, 256 n. 8, for chap. 6; for the original, 2:29).

5. See, for example, Sermon 56 (1829), where Emerson asserts that "religion has the advantage over every form of skepticism in the world" (1990, 90).

6. For an exception, see Cavell 1988, xii.

7. Emerson appears to have invented the term causationist. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes him as its sole source.

8. I borrow the terms from Strawson 1985, 3, 33, 39. See Emerson's own reference to this duality in one of his student prize essays at Harvard, in Emerson 1896, 67.

9. On the consequences of Cavell's aversion to Dewey, see Anderson 2006a.

works cited

Abrams, M. H. 1991. Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory. New York: Norton.
Anderson, Douglas. 2006a. "American Loss in Cavell's Emerson." In Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture, 206–20. New York: Fordham University Press.
Anderson, Douglas. 2006b. "Emerson's Platonizing of American Thought." In Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture, 188–205. New York: Fordham University Press.
Bartol, C. A. 1850. "Modern Skepticism." Christian Examiner 49 (November): 317–41.
Bowen, Francis. 1849. Lowell Lectures, on the Application of Metaphysical and Ethical Science to the Evidences of Religion. Boston: Little, Brown.
Buell, Lawrence. 1984. "The Emerson Industry in the 1980's: A Survey of Trends and Achievements." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30: 117–36.
Buell, Lawrence. 2003. Emerson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1981. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. San Francisco: North Point Press. [End Page 573]
Cavell, Stanley. 1987. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1988. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1989. This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures After Emerson After Wittgenstein. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 1990. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cavell, Stanley. 2003. Emerson's Transcendental Etudes. Edited by David Justin Hodge. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1896. Two Unpublished Essays. Edited by Edward Everett Hale. Boston: Lamson-Wolffe.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1971–2013. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols. Edited by Albert R. Ferguson et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1990. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 2. Edited by Teresa Toulouse and Andrew Delbanco. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Frost, Robert. 1995. Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. Edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. New York: Library of America.
Hume, David. 1999. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hume, David. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lysaker, John T. 2002. You Must Change Your Life: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Birth of Sense. University Park: Penn State University Press.
Lysaker, John T. 2008. Emerson and Self-Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Porte, Joel. 2003. "Emerson and Thoreau in France." The New England Quarterly 76 (September): 456–66.
Putnam, Hilary. 2006. "Philosophy as the Education of Grownups." In Reading Cavell, edited by Alice Crary and Sanford Shieh, 119–29. London: Routledge.
Rorty, Richard. 1980. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. London: Basil Blackwell.
Strawson, P. F. 1985. Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties. London: Methuen.
Urbas, Joseph. 2009. "'True Romance': Emerson's Realism." Southwest Philosophy Review 25 (Summer): 113–47.
Urbas, Joseph. 2010. "Cavell's 'Moral Perfectionism' or Emerson's 'Moral Sentiment'?" European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 2 (2): 41–53.
Urbas, Joseph. 2016. Emerson's Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. [End Page 574]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.