Stanley Cavell: Philosophy's Recounting of the Ordinary

By Stephen Mulhall | Go to book overview

II
Emerson: Perfectionism, Idiosyncrasy, Justice

Given that so much of what Cavell attributes to Thoreau is now something he wishes to find in Emerson, it is startling to recall the briskness with which, in The Senses of Walden, Emerson's own claims as a philosopher of redemptive reading were dismissed, and dismissed primarily because they were seen as standing in stark contrast with Thoreau's views. We are there told that Emerson's tone is too consoling, that he offers no warnings and so no hope, and that his choice of the sermon as his literary mode is a false start ( SW31); and his readings of philosophers (particularly Kant) are -- unlike Thoreau's -- taken to be misreadings ( SW95). However, by the time of the Expanded Edition of that early work, Cavell had changed his view, and appended to it the first two of a series of essays and lectures which attempt to reclaim Emerson as the founder of the mode of thinking which Thoreau exemplifies; and in the rest of his work, the two thinkers are now always linked together -- although (perhaps partly as an act of reparation) Emerson's work is more often foregrounded.

Although it may open my own account to accusations of repeating Cavell's earlier neglect, I will spell out the central features of Emerson's general position only in brief and primarily in terms of their similarity with features of the work of Thoreau and others -- in the belief that those features have been examined in some detail in relation to Thoreau in Chapter 10 and in even more detail with respect to other thinkers in previous chapters. In effect, Cavell identifies Emerson as proposing a practice of philosophical reading as a means of overcoming sceptical despair -- an essentially Romantic practice in which recounting criteria forms the central part of a more general attempt to allow oneself to be read by words and the world, and thereby to restore their life in all its relative autonomy (see "The Philosopher in American Life", in IQO). His essays are seen as a contribution to that enterprise, and as constituting a very particular genre of writing; they diagnose their readers as lost, frozen, and fixated, in need of rebirth -- but of a rebirth which

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