In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

THE USES OF EMERSON Stanley Cavell. ConditionsHandsomeand Unhandsome:The Constitutionof EmersonianPerfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. xxxix + 151 pp. Linda Munk Len Gougeon. Virtue'sHero:Emerson,Antislavery,and Reform. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. xiii +408 pp. Albert J. von Frank, ed. The CompleteSermonsofRalph WaldoEmerson,Vol. 1. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. 415pp. Teresa Toulouse and Andrew Delbanco, eds. The CompleteSermonsof Ralph Waldo Emerson,Vol. 2. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. xv +413 pp. Eleanor M. Tilton, ed. The LettersofRalph WaldoEmerson,Vol. VII. NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1990. xviii + 623 pp. To his Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, the Carus Lectures of 1988, Stanley Cavell appends an address of 1985titled 'Hope against Hope." There Cavell speaks of two "unhappy things": the issue of nuclear war (a matter held "in common with every thinking person on earth"); and the somewhat obscure matter of "the inability of our American culture to listen to the words, to possess them in common, of one of the founding thinkers of our culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson ... " (129). Emerson's detractors (John Updike is one) refuse him the title of philosopher, as does his supporter Harold Bloom, who praises Emerson, not so much for the wrong reason, as for what Cavell terms "a stinted reason." Bloom's form of praise, Cavell says, "helps to keep condescension towards [Emerson] in respectable orbit. It helps to keep our culture, unlike any other in the West, from possessing any founding thinker as a common basis for its considerations" (133). Our current estimate of Emerson, according to Cavell, depends on an "endlessly repeated rumor that Emerson was not much of a thinker." And he adds parenthetically: "How eager his culture has been, top to bottom, to nourish this rumor! What's in it?" (138). Cavell's In Quest of the Ordinary (1988), This New Yet Unapproachable America (1989) and now, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, circle in one direction or another on Emerson, placing him with Kant, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Dewey, Saul Kripke, John Rawls and, more problematically, with 84 Linda Munk Heidegger. Convinced that Emerson "is a thinker with the accuracy and consequentiality one expects of the major mind" (1), and convinced that in his essays, Emerson is "thinking about the idea of thinking," Cavell sets out in the Carus Lectures "to recommend Emerson, despite all, to the close attention of the American philosophical community" (33). For Cavell, Emerson's "achievement is essentially a philosophical one" (137). These lectures require from the reader, not just background in European and American philosophy, but an intimacy, even a sympathy, with Emerson's uncanonical form of argumentation in Nature, in his Essays, and in later works such as Representative Men and The Conduct of Life. Emerson's works underwrite a "moral outlook" (1), termed by Cavell "Moral Perfectionism" or "Emersonian Perfectionism." Perfectionism, Cavell explains, "concerns what used to be called the state of one's soul"; it is a tradition of the moral life that insists upon "the possibility or necessity of the transforming of oneself and of one's society" (2). Emerson's process of thinking, Cavell argues, can be named "transfiguration" and also "conversion"; for Emerson, transfiguration was a rhetorical operation--the conversion of words that often took the form of wordplay. Put otherwise, "the conversion of the world" (a phrase taken from "The American Scholar") begins with a conversion of words; Emerson's writing recognizes the necessity of transformation while at the same time participating in it. If Cavell is concerned to recommend Emerson to philosophers, I am concerned to commend Cavell's Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (particularly the lecture titled 11 Aversive Thinking") and also to recommend it, most particularly, to scholars who consider Emerson's essays illogical, foggyand an offence to philosophical thinking. ''Almost everyone gets around to condescending to Emerson," Cavell remarks (59). Len Gougeon is an exception. Virtue's Hero is an exemplary study of Emerson's commitment to the cause of anti-slavery and to the abolitionist movement. A professor of American literature at the University of Scranton, Gougeon spent ten years evaluating more than one thousand primary documents relating to Emerson as a social activist. What emerges from his study is "a concerned...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 83-89
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.