Monday, February 7, 2011
Emerson American Scholar Part II
I gave myself the assignment of talking about the duties of the scholar for my students in my American Philosophy class. The central idea here is self-trust. This idea makes a lot of sense to me. I can see how I have a duty to be true to myself and also to trust my intuitions. But to what extent do I want to follow the philosophical path Emerson sets out for me? Emerson strangely puts this in terms of showing others "facts" amidst appearances. I say this is strange since the idea of "facts" seems to imply something more science-like than Emerson really has in mind. For example he contrasts the scholar's task with that of astronomers. Rather he has something more Platonic in mind, something like the story of the philosopher- king leaving the cave and returning to it again. This is no doubt a description of his own experience as a scholar, his own search for and cataloging of "nebulous stars of the human mind." That is, he sees himself, and the scholar more generally, as a kind of phenomenologist. To do this kind of psychology/philosophy requires some sacrificing, some relinquishing of immediate fame, some ignorance of the popular, some disdain from others, some stammering in one's speech, and even some poverty and solitude. Emerson even admits to self-accusation and frequent uncertainties. Also, as one becomes more self-reliant and self-directed one ends up in hostile relation to society, especially to educated society. The consolation, however, is in "exercising the highest functions of human nature." Also somewhat surprisingly, all of this opposition to society is actually quite social, or at least directed to the public. The scholar as philosopher/intellectual "raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts." He becomes the world's eye and heart. By opposing educated society and trusting himself he speaks for all. He gives the pronouncements of Reason (which Emerson sees as a mysterious inner force of nature that speaks through the genius) on the "events of today." This is a point, however, where Emerson comes off as quite a bit different than Plato since Plato would only allow commenting about that which is eternal. Whereas Plato encourages the philosopher to reject the beauties of everyday life in search of Beauty itself Emerson calls on the scholar to focus on the way that everyday things help us to transcend ordinary experience.