Home » Modern and Post Modern » The Postmodern Everyday-Emerson and Wittgenstein

The Postmodern Everyday-Emerson and Wittgenstein


Readings for the Modern and Post Modern Course this week are from two thinkers from different periods.

Ralph Emerson“Experience” or “Self-Reliance”  . Ludwig WittgensteinSelections from Philosophical Investigations   Full-text and commentary by Lois Shawver:.

My course notes for this week. Again they are taken from Professor Roth’s videos and my readings so not all my work.

Self-Reliance and the Everyday

Emerson (1803 – 1882)  was a great 19th century American essayist, lecturer and poet.  Wittgenstein (1889 -1951) was an Austrian –British philosopher who worked primarily in logic. They are here under the heading “The Postmodern Everyday,” the ideas for which are borrowed from the contemporary philosopher Stanley Louis Cavell (1926 – date), The reason that we are looking at these together is that Emerson and Wittgenstein gave up trying to identify “the really real.” Emerson felt we should be free to discover our own capacities while experiencing more fully, he has some similar views s to the thinking of Nietzsche. Wittgenstein felt we should be free to pay more attention to what’s really going on and here we can see some parallels to Woolf.

Both want us to pay attention to ourselves and those around us without worrying whether we can justify what we do on scientific or philosophical grounds. They continue the theme began in our readings of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, that of the ordinary or the everyday. As with Lily’s character, they are attempting to grasp ‘little illuminations as of a match struck in the dark’, not the grand epiphany but the intimacy with the ordinary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo credit : BrainyQuotes

Emerson was a writer of wonderful poetic sentences, he is one of the most quotable and quoted authors in American history.

Harold Bloom argued that Emerson helped define US identity in the 19th century. Today over 200 years after his birth, his views on power, rejection of old Europe and belief in a personal god are even more influential, pervading American culture and politics.

Stanley Cavell emphasized Emerson’s philosophical contribution to American culture  as an author whose importance rivals that  of Nietzsche and of Heidegger both of  whom he said were influenced by  Emerson.

Ellen Emerson Photo Credit : concordlibrary.org

Emerson was licensed to preach in 1826 although was too ill to become a minister until the following spring. He was a minister in Boston when he married Ellen She died 18 months later of tuberculosis. Shortly after her death Emerson resigned his pulpit. His crisis of faith was not in his belief but in institutionalized religion. He became an essayist and a lecturer and had audiences of thousands around the country following his intellectual excursions.

His departure from the enlightenment tradition as it had been imported into the United States is very interesting. The enlightenment tradition in the United States was very much indebted to the view that all our ideas come from sensations.  We receive stimuli from the world. Our ideas and beliefs develop as we process sensations as a  ‘blank slate’ having impressions made upon us by the world.  Emerson had a different view.  For him, experience wasn’t  just receiving the world but that the mind goes out into the world.  We make our experience in an active way.  This is similar to Kant’s view.  For Emerson humans create experience by actively living in the world. We examined his thinking through various quotes from his essays.

Essay 1- Experience.

At the beginning of the essay Emerson deals with the subject of grief. Shortly before writing this his son Waldo had died at the age of five. In the essay he reflects upon what the meaning of this traumatic event.

There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here at least we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is

Here he is saying that there are times in our lives when we think that we are living a banal existence where everything is routine. We’re depending on our situation, and after a while we realize that we don’t feel, we are ‘going through the motions’. If this continues for too long we feel as though we want a crisis, something big to happen, even if it’s bad because it makes us feel more alive more vital. Emerson cautions us on this when he says, ‘the only thing that grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is’.

When you’re looking to grief to give you ‘the really real’, it will wake you up to the world. He says that’s a mistake:-

An in-navigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,–no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.

Grief will make us idealists.

So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar. It was caduceus. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. The Indian who was laid under a curse that the wind should not blow on him, nor water flow to him, nor fire burn him, is a type of us all.

I love this expression of impenetrable numbness. He is saying that although there are times when we feel detached from the world and hope something will happen so we can feel that we are not apart from it.

I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.”

Photo credit : vimeo.com

We don’t need some wound to make us feel alive, we are alive.

We animate what we can and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong only to the eyes that see them.

Kant said, “We only know what we make with our minds.” Our minds construct the world in a reasonable form so that we can know it. Our sensation comes from an activist mind in the world. What Emerson is looking for is what he calls a ‘joyful presentness’.  We need to wake up to the fact that we animate the world

Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real, perhaps they are.

Photo credit : DClemm

Photo credit : DClemm

Emerson wanted us to act in such a way that everyone’s reality would be disclosed to us because of the way we act in the world.

The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway.

In other words, don’t try to analyse whether people are real, whether an experience counts, whether someone is authentic or honest. Take to the road, take to life. The notion that ‘everything good is on the highway’ inspired many travellers.

One of the enemies of this kind of experience, for Emerson, is memory. He talks of how the focus on the past inhibits our ability to live fully in the present.

Life has no memory. That which proceeds in succession might be remembered, but that which is coexistent, or ejaculated from a deeper cause, as yet far from being conscious, knows not its own tendency.

Worries about yesterday are a debt that we can never repay and, and keep us from fully engaging in the present from animating the world around us. Nietzsche thought that our obsession with history, our cultivation of memory, was also a cultivation of guilt. There are echoes of Freud here too in that our inability to let go of the past causes us to suffer from reminiscences. For Emerson learning from the past is a way of avoiding the present.

Essay 2 – “Self Reliance”

Photo credit : quotesloveandlife.com

This essay contains one of his most recurrent themes – that of the need to avoid conformity and to follow instinct.

Here he argues that we are subservient to other people’s thinking and so acculturated into modes of being that have nothing to do with our hearts. We need to liberate ourselves from those dependencies. Emerson is trying to turn us away from history, argument and scepticism toward experience, toward animating the world.

To believe that what is true for you is, is true for all men,- that is genius.

Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.

He wrote a poem entitled “Γνώθι Σεαυτόν”, or Gnothi Seauton (‘Know Thyself’), on the theme of ‘God in thee.’ The poem was an anthem to Emerson’s belief that to ‘know thyself’ meant knowing the God which Emerson felt existed within each person. He wanted to liberate us to follow our, our own hearts.  

 Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself.

A little way into the essay he asks how we can leave our consciousness or filters behind. He talks of man being “clapped into jail by his consciousness.” As adults we are imprisoned by our thinking, so we don’t engage with the world

As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah that he could pass again into his neutrality!

Here he is saying that, when we act, people expect us to act that way again. For Emerson, this is terrible, because we shouldn’t have to stay the same. ‘There’s no Lethe for that’. The River Lethe is the river from which you drink to forget everything. He thinks it would be great if no one had any expectations of us, nor us for ourselves.

Still further into the essay he talks about independence in the crowd.

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion. It is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

This certainly reminded me, as Prof Roth said it would, of Baudelaire.  The poet alone in ‘un bain de multitude’ as Baudelaire called it. To be in the crowd but not subsumed completely by it.

The line “It is easy to live in solitude with your own opinion” is a little dig at his friend Thoreau who in order to be at peace with his own way of thinking went into the woods. Emerson said ‘the great man is he in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude’.

Emerson thought historical consciousness got in the way of creativity and experience. He asked,

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day.

Nietzsche’s ‘use and abuse’ of history follows this very closely. One should not be constrained by what they have done but empowered ‘to live ever in a new day’. If you are encumbered by your memory or by the crowd you will conform more and more to someone else’s way of life or to the status quote or the dominant majority or even an aggressive minority, but you will be conforming to someone else’s mode of life.

Conformity for Emerson was the great enemy, it is the opposite of self-reliance. This is probably the most famous Emersonian sentences.

Photo credit : quotesnack.com

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

A foolish consistency, not at all consistency, but a foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines, petty people.

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

You make the world new every time you act in it, and you act in it when you experience in it. Your genuine action will whereas

Your conformity explains nothing.

Photo credit : Fabquotes

When we conform to other people’s opinions, expectations and lives, we lose ourselves. Losing ourselves means we no longer have experience, we don’t learn from the world and we teach no one anything at all.

Emerson was a very anti-conformist thinker or what Stanley Kovel called an ‘aversive thinker’, that is against the grain. His lesson for us is ‘never imitate’.

Towards the end of the essay he writes,

We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons. Our age yields no great and perfect persons.

Photo credit: inquisitiveelks.blogspot.com

He feels that we have become a culture of conformity. Even while we celebrate individualism, we have this tendency to create a situation where individualism, results in everybody trying to be an individual in the same way.  Stanley Cavell has shown that rejection of conformity doesn’t have to lead us into solitude but can actually be a pursuit of happiness, when it is bound-up with conversation, with friendship, and with love. Thoreau knew that in certain places and at certain times we can aspire to another kind of life, another kind of society.

The rejection of conformity can mean, as in the work of Richard Winslow, an embrace of the sounds and the silences that have come to be valued by people whose commonality with us must be discovered, not presumed. The rejection of conformity can be, Covel teaches, a refounding of community that has a space for each of us to find our paths to individual genius through conversation and moral intimacy with others. Emerson who was a preacher, a lecturer and an inspirational writer who tried to give inspiration to that people would not follow him, but to follow themselves.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ludwig Wittgenstein was a writer from Austria. He came from a wealthy, talented, and very troubled family, 3 of his brothers committed suicide and he was  a very troubled man. He was also a man of genius and commitment who came upon Philosophy as possibly a rigorous science which he thought would lead through logic to understand the Foundations of language and mathematics.

Wittgenstein left Vienna which at that time was the capital of culture and headed to England to work with Bertrand Russell. Russell was investigating the systematic foundations for language and mathematics and for philosophy.  Hesaw in Wittgenstein an extraordinarily powerful mind, someone who he admired greatly and who scared him as well with his intensity and commitment, and possibilities for intellectual domination as he said.

He was queer, and his notions seemed to be odd. So that for a whole term, I could not make up my mind whether he was a man of genius or merely an eccentric. At the end of his first term at Cambridge, he came to me and said Will you please tell me whether I am a complete idiot or not? If I am a complete idiot I shall become an aeronaut  but if not, I shall become a philosopher. I told him to write something during the vacation on some philosophical subject. And I would then tell him, whether he was a complete idiot, or not. At the beginning of the following term, he brought me the fulfilment of this suggestion. After reading only one sentence, I said to him, no, you must not become an aeronaut, and he didn’t.

Quite early in his life Wittgenstein produced “The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ” (a 75 page paper) trying to show in detail what we can say sensibly using language. If it doesn’t make sense then –

credit : quickmeme.com

At the beginning of the First World War, Wittgenstein left philosophy and England to drive ambulances, teach in an elementary school and various other activities for a while. He returned to England later to study philosophy once more. This later part of Wittgenstein’s work is quite different from that of  many philosophers. He had a  more general view of how we use language. Not how a language should be founded or how its basic system works, but on how we use language.

Early Wittgenstein emphasized the logical structure of what can be sensibly said whereas later Wittgenstein emphasized a commitment to understanding ordinary language and how we talk to each other. Some philosophers try to think of these two things together.

Looking at the texts we can see how Wittgenstein talks about how language works when someone asks for “five red apples” (1) or later on in the more detailed construction project (starting at 8), he talks about how we learn languages and how to understand the ways in which our words get meaning.  I liked looking at the five red apples particularly about ‘red’ later, at reference 57 he says

Something red can be destroyed, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word ‘red’ is independent of the existence of a red thing.

On Certainty”, a book composed of notes written just before his death, looks at  G. E. Moore’s Response to the sceptic.  Moore’s ‘here is one hand ‘ argument  goes like this:-

Here is one hand.

And here is another.

There are at least two external objects in the world.

Therefore an external world exists.

Wittgenstein was intrigued by this presentation of Moore’s opposition of scepticism. He questioned what it means to say “I know I have a hand” and if that is really knowledge. This question led Wittgenstein to consider what we mean by using certain words. Words like the verb “to know” and how does that verb acquire meaning in what particular context. Here is an important point about his contribution, to the modern and the post-modern for this course.

Credit : paulgerhards.com

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.  It is this: the individual words in language name objects-sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning.  The meaning is correlated with the word.  It is the object for which the word stands. (Paragraph 2).

Can we actually make sense of the claim that ‘I doubt that I have hands’, is that something that would mean anything outside of a philosophy class? Can I really make sense of the word ‘know’ in a sentence? I know that I am a human being. Is that a question of knowledge, Wittgenstein is asking.

What he decides is that we come to understand a word by its repetitive use in ordinary situations, just like we learn how to calculate in mathematics. Wittgenstein said that we learn language by using words, not by studying the use of words.  For example, he says, “We got to know the nature of calculating by learning to calculate” His premise is that meaning is use.

A meaning of a word is a kind of employment of it. For it is what we learn when the word is incorporated into our language.

Words don’t get us closer to or further from reality. Words get meaning through use. There’s no transcendent, no framework for understanding if it’s the right perfect foundational word. It just doesn’t work in the game you’re playing or the task you have.  The game you’re playing is particularly relevant because the concept that Wittgenstein uses in this regard is the concept of a language game in which all the meanings of utterances are created by the moves people make in a language game.

I think this video, where Wittgenstein considers committing suicide because of a V-sign that has no philosophical meaning and apparently destroys his language theory, is brilliant. This shows that language can be visual as well as spoken.

There is a language game of philosophy in which words have meaning. It makes no sense to ask whether that game is real or whether that game is closer to reality. If somebody comes along and says,  I want to learn to play football you don’t give that person a book about football. You kick the ball to them and if they’d pick it up with their hands you tell them that’s not how we play this game. The game gives meaning to the moves in the game, or to the players playing the game.

Wittgenstein’s response to the sceptic is not that words actually have a foundation in the world, but that within the game we’re playing it makes sense. If a sceptic comes to a basketball game, and says why are you guys throwing the ball in the hoop? The hoop isn’t real. You just don’t listen to him. In order to have doubts, you also have to have some belief. If you want to ask, ‘Is it good to stand in the, right next to the basket for a really long period of time, should we have a rule against that?’ You have to be a part of the rest of the game.

Everything is connected by action. Nothing is given a total foundation. That’s the point of this emphasis on use and emphasis on language games.

 Must I not begin to trust somewhere?

We must begin somewhere with not doubting, Wittgenstein writes. That is part of how we learn. The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing. In other words when we’re engaged in a use of language it is because of its ongoing practice, not because it has a foundation. We believe in the practice not because it is closer to reality but because of the game we’re in. Any evaluation of that game, of that situation, is in another situation. Our use of language is always context-dependent and it’s the context, it’s the use that gives meaning to our utterances.

Richard Rorty, in his book “Philosophy in the Mirror of Nature”, argues that all western philosophy, from Plato into the twentieth century, had been an attempt to figure out how we get closer to nature, or mirror nature and that Wittgenstein was one of those thinkers who helped to liberate us from this question.

Kant wanted philosophers to study thought rather than reality, Wittgenstein wanted them to study language, because language and its use is what philosophy can understand.

Wittgenstein’s helped us out of our Cartesian, Lockian mindset and to overcome the question or the temptation to ask, ‘Which pieces of our language lock onto reality, and which do not?’ This is a pragmatic view of his achievement, he did not show metaphysics to be nonsense, he showed it to be a waste of time. It is not interesting to spend your time worrying about whether language hooks on to reality, it’s more interesting and productive to study what we do with language. Because what we do with language is what makes meaning. There is no foundation for it, there are no tools for it. We can engage in those practices with enthusiasm, with rigour  with passion, with thoughtfulness because the practices help us to cope with reality to cope with our opportunity. If we don’t have to play

I really enjoyed reading about Wittgenstein. I am very often faced with a word that supposedly means the same in English and the language of the person I am teaching but we use the word very differently. I wrote a post recently about whether Descartes meant “I think therefore I exist” or “I am thinking therefore I exist” and what would change about that sentence if it did. Not that it really matters but you can see how translation can change the meaning of things.


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  1. […] The Postmodern Everyday-Emerson and Wittgenstein (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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