Student Work for Philosophy 3387

American Philosophy

Notes on Emerson and Rorty

Aaron A Smuts

Phil 3387

for: C. Freeland

While I was reading Emerson's "Circles" again, I happened to also be reading Richard Rorty's book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which seemed to repeat many of the ideas presented in "Circles" in the modified form of the liberal-ironist intellectual. Moreover, Rorty's mention of Harold Bloom's idea of the "anxiety of influence" (unfortunately presented by Bloom in a partiarchal manner -- all authors sufffering from an Oedipal complex of sorts), which in its de-genderized form is, in an abstracted sense, almost a direct restatement of much of "Circles."

For the comparison with Rorty, we shall focus on the ironist aspect of the rubric, and view it as an outgrowth of the major concerns of "Circles." First, Rorty identifies what he calls a person's "final vocabulary": the set of words used to justify their beliefs, actions, and lives. Think of a final vocabulary as a circle or circles. They contain words such as "true," "good," and "right," as well as terms such as "Christ," "the Church," "proffesional standards," and "creative." These are like what Emerson calls circular waves of circumstance: "an empire, rules of art, a local usage, a religious rite." The three most essential features of an ironist are (1) "she has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses . . . (2) she realizes that arguments phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor disolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself." On the first of these Emerson most certainly agrees that fixedy in any final vocabulary is a deffect: "only as far as they are unsettled is ther any hope for' people. The second point, we also find stated in "Circles": "Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretend to settle any thing as true or false." Also on the third criterion, an outgrowth of the second, we find Emerson in agreement: "No facts are to me sacred; none are profane."

For Bloom the poet suffers from an "anxiety of influence," a fear of never being more than a copy or a replica of her or his predecessors. Bloom suggests that every "poet" creates as a response to her or his predessossors, and that every work in turn must appropriate and incorporate those that came before. The poet, or we can read creators in a general sense, "begins (however 'unconsciously') by rebelling more strongly against the fear of death than all other men and women do." We can see this as Rorty does, as the fear of the failure to have created. The stong poet" seeks toredescribe the world and the past in a project of self creation, but this project can never avoid being parasitic on the past and those who come in the future, for the language used was composed to a large extent by one's predessessors, and the novelties will die without future readers to keep it alive: thus, the poet can never achieve autonomy. This is explained in "Circles" when Emerson writes "that every action admits of being outdone . . . around every circle another can be drawn." The first speaker in an argument (read: poet) becomes encircled in the argument of his or her opponent. Emerson writes "the new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism."

The comparisons I have just drawn rest at times upon general themes and ideas, and even though the similarities lessen in the particularities of the aforementioned ideas, they converse with Emerson drawing him into the present discourse, making him more relevent all the while.

© Copyright 1996 Aaron A Smuts

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