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Recent Political and Cultural Interpretations of Transcendentalism:

A Pragmatist Critique

Herwig Friedl

Pages 473 - 489


Four major and sophisticated analyses of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s political thinking – Neal Dolan, ‘Emerson’s Liberalism’ (2009), Alex Zakaras, ‘Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship’ (2009), Shannon L. Mariotti, ‘Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity’ (2010), and Jack Turner, ed., ‘A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau’ (2009)—are critically analyzed from the point of view of pragmatism as a political belief system and a philosophical method. A reading of Emerson and Thoreau in terms of the pragmatist consequences and continuities of their thinking reveals the necessary limitations of, on the one hand, historicist interpretations and, on the other, of merely modernist actualizations of transcendentalist political thought which predominate in these publications of the recent past. This review essay argues that a pragmatist hermeneutics would add to and considerably deepen and enrich our appreciation of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s open-ended and effectively continuing political and philosophical experimentalism.


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