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Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Dual Economy of Recognition

Johannes Voelz

Pages 553 - 580


Combining a historical with a theoretical perspective, this essay begins by reconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s evolving theory of recognition and the central role it played for his concept of ‘self-reliance.’ Initially having adopted the theorizations of recognition developed by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Emerson came to articulate the idea of self-reliance by way of developing an alternative approach to recognition, in which the source allocating recognition is neither society nor an inborn moral sense, but rather the transcendentally conceptualized self. Emerson’s shift towards self-recognition poses questions seldom asked in the contemporary debate on recognition. Moving beyond a reconstructive aim, one such question is considered in the article’s second part: What role does recognition come to play in the act of reading? Taking Emerson’s own essays as a case in point, the author argues that the aesthetic experience afforded by non-fictional texts can be understood as a facilitator of self-recognition—as a continuous process of imaginarily experiencing the enlargement of the self. This process intersects with dynamics of social recognition, producing a ‘dual economy of recognition.’ The article concludes by challenging the assumption found in currently dominant paradigms of recognition which assumes that recognition can come to successful completion. Conceived as a dual economy, the article argues, recognition is to the contrary constitutively open-ended.


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