Not Following Emerson: Intelligibility and Identity in the Authorship of Literature, Science, and Philosophy

By LaRocca, David | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Not Following Emerson: Intelligibility and Identity in the Authorship of Literature, Science, and Philosophy


LaRocca, David, The Midwest Quarterly


The case of Emerson's reception--or the points of resistance it reveals--in the intellectual culture he helped found reminds readers in any discipline that criteria frame an interpretation even while it is being made. The diversity of opinion about the nature of Emerson's writing prompts a reader's wider concern about the intelligibility and identity of the text under examination. Do I understand it? And what is it, anyway? As shown Laura Otis's anthology of works in literature and science pressed up beside one another, there are times when the negotiated boundaries of thought are meaningfully apparent. Emerson's nineteenth century, was such a time, and Emerson's writing was such a space for exploring those boundaries and definitions. When those liminal spaces are filled and sometimes ossify, possibilities for reading are narrowed or confounded. If the ongoing dominance of natural science, mostly by reason of its empirical success, has eclipsed innovations in the literary, historical, and philosophical arts, the varied reading of Emerson's work by critics--even up to the present day--suggests that we still inhabit an age of negotiation and discovery.

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IN THE INTRODUCTION to her masterfully curated anthology, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Laura Otis usefully describes how the nineteenth century was a time when the disciplinary boundaries between literature and science were still permeable, still under negotiation. She emphasizes that "the notion of a 'split' between literature and science, of a 'gap' to be 'bridged' between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon" (xvii). It was a period, as she notes, when "the two commingled and were accessible to all readers." "Science," says Otis, "was not perceived as being written in a 'foreign language'--a common complaint of twenty-first century readers. As a growing system of knowledge expressed in familiar words, science was in effect a variety of literature.'" If only this were still the case! In the contemporary scene, the methodologies and modes of expression in natural science are largely assumed to be remote from--and often at odds with--poetry, literary art, history, politics, and philosophy. In short, science has been "professionalized" in ways that have alienated both its practice and its comprehension by a lay public. And in recent decades, the contours of literary criticism--for example, in deconstruction--have left otherwise committed and competent readers feeling abandoned and excluded. For this reason, it is worthwhile to look back for a moment, perhaps as a way of finding a way forward.

There are few figures in the nineteenth century whose work better reflects the evolution of literature and science as disciplinary activities--and their attendant impact on philosophy, religion, history, and politics--than Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because his work forms such a useful and rare specimen of written material in which to explore and understand what Otis emphasizes--the negotiated borders of disciplinary definition, practice, and crucially, demarcated fields of investigation--I spend some time in what follows trying to assess how this nineteenth-century development in literature and science informed the inheritance of Emerson's writing. Part of what the inheritance of Emerson's work highlights for us that is, for everyone thinking about or contributing to the range of humanistic and scientific endeavors; for poets and physicists, literary critics and philosophers, technology theorists, historians, artists, and educators--is how discerning radical variability is not necessarily at odds with the continuity of inquiry.

Giving lectures with titles like "Natural Method of Mental Philosophy," "The Powers and Laws of Thought," and "The Relation of Intellect to Natural Science," Emerson was registering the effects of his reading in works by scientists such as John E W. Herschel (e.g., in his A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy [1831]) and philosophers of mind like Sampson Reed, in his Observations on the Growth of the Mind (1826).

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