Herwig Friedl, Thinking in Search of a Language: Essays on American Intellect and Intuition (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 400 pp.
Since the mid-1980s, Herwig Friedl has mapped the emergence of a modernist “post-metaphysical” philosophical tradition in a series of essays, beginning with the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and further elaborated by Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, and John Dewey. Friedl has now brought these essays together in an impressive volume, arranging his work into a discerning case for Emerson’s innovative philosophical influence, and providing a fresh analysis of the American pragmatists and their pre-linguistic turn in modern thinking. Friedl’s reading is grounded in Heidegger’s discourse on “Being,” and takes as a given that Being is “the essential a priori before and beyond all conceptual knowledge or talk about it” (67). The recognition that experience precedes analysis, Friedl argues, is the grounding of “the radically intuitive basis of Emerson’s work” (61). This imaginative or inventive inclination, a refusal of systematics, has made Emerson unwelcome in academic philosophy. Friedl’s view of Emerson as an original and influential philosopher coincided with Stanley Cavell’s turn to Emerson in the 1980s. While Friedl and Cavell see Emerson’s value from different perspectives, their work has been central to the late twentieth-century revival of Emerson’s continuing relevance. As Friedl notes, Cavell’s sense of Emerson’s “open-ended or onward thinking,” reaching back to ancient sources, is essential in the directions modern philosophy has taken. “Thinking that is certain of its mystical origin, of its beginning in the immediacy of intuition, this mode of thinking that knows itself as a never-ending task is radically revolutionary” (79).
Emerson’s deep impact on Nietzsche is perhaps the key link in Friedl’s concept of the emergence of a radical break in modern philosophy. Nietzsche’s interest in Emerson, long overlooked by American scholars, suggests that Emerson was more than a product of Unitarian liberalism meeting the British romantics. Friedl contends that “Emerson and Nietzsche stand for the beginning of one of the most dramatic changes in the history of thinking” (151), and locates their shared “ontological revelation” (152) in Emerson’s “American Scholar” vision of an endless “circular power returning into itself” (153). With this image, Emerson captured nature’s perpetual series of revelations to the Scholar’s mind, the continual yet never complete work of knowing. Nietzsche, dazed by this, eventually came to see this ever returning energy as the raw and overwhelming force of the elements, always newly confronting the capacity of human understanding. This vision posed, Friedl writes, “a severe threat to any metaphysical and substantialist ontology” (154). Being, in this sense, is never settled or resolved. In this modernist ontology, stabilities and absolutes can never abide. The only response is to become part of this ever-transforming energy. Friedl finds the precise expression of this merger in Emerson’s “Power,” from the 1860 The Conduct of Life: “All power is of one kind, a sharing of the nature of the world. The mind that is parallel with the laws of nature will be in the current of events, and strong with their strength.” For both Emerson and Nietzsche, “power is obviously seen as the Being of all beings, as that which saturates and permeates every single being” (163).
While Nietzsche could regard Emerson as a liberating voice from the new world across the ocean, William James’s relation to the Emerson legacy was more complex. Emerson was a figure of deep respect in the James family, a friend of the elder Henry James. In an 1842 visit, Emerson blessed the newly born William, making him a godson. As if this paternal burden was not heavy enough for James, Emerson’s philosophical idealism and his evocation of concepts such as the “Over-Soul” were theoretical absolutes that, in his long journey toward pragmatism, James found intolerable. James, however, found his way as a thinker, Friedl argues, through a focus on “pure experience” (205), the consciousness of being that precludes language and its resulting concepts. Attention to this primal perception requires a philosophical stance in which “all dogmatic positions and all judgments are suspended” (204), an open and fluctuating stream of thought that defies finality. The better-known transcendental Emerson was always accompanied by this Emerson of transition and unceasing new event. Emerson’s most striking expression of this philosophy of transition appeared in his 1841 essay “Circles,” a work that in some ways anticipated Alfred North Whitehead and his ontology of process. Emerson’s closest link to James arose from their recognition of the ever moving and shifting stream of primal experience, the insight that Friedl terms “the modernist turn away from metaphysics” (321).
John Dewey is the third important figure in Friedl’s description of the shift toward an intuitive and constantly transitional philosophical stance. “Dewey celebrates Emerson’s poetical thinking as a radically new beginning” for philosophy. Friedl explains that in the work of Emerson and Dewey, the ontology of the ideal and the real is superseded by “the enactment, the process” of things. “It is not the essentia of things but rather their dynamic way of being, their existentia, which is significant” (175). In the 1903 essay “Emerson—The Philosopher of Democracy,” Friedl finds the text in which Dewey claimed Emerson as “the initiator of a shift from a conception of truth as a representation to an idea of truths as strategies of possible conduct” (174). Reading Emerson as a “proto-pragmatist” and a “precursor of his own instrumentalist works to come” (176), Dewey saw Emersonian thinking as “not a metaphysical, a transcendent or transcendental” exercise, but a “radically temporal” approach to the perception of Being (177). In this light, Dewey could regard him as a forerunner of a “pragmatic theory of truth” that pointed to “the emancipation from all pre-established authorities” (177). In the realm of philosophy those authorities were the metaphysical concepts of the European tradition.
Throughout Friedl’s work, the role of language in the act of thinking is a crucial issue. To think “in search of a language” is to say that thinking precedes language, and is the creator of it. Emerson experienced “mystical intuition in its genuine trans-subjective facticity waiting for language to—however inadequately or approximatively—say it” (70). This sense of the inadequacy of language also troubled James and Dewey. Commenting on James’s attempt to express the “stream of consciousness” Friedl describes the way that James “visualizes pure experience, the primary there” in several differing ways—“as stuff, as a field, and as a stream or flux,” efforts that inevitably confirmed that Being was ultimately “beyond conceptualization” (347). Yet the conceptualization of being and experience is surely a central goal of philosophy. Struggling to save philosophy from its own demise, James and Dewey found in Emerson an open and fluid perspective that offered a path to a more pliable modernism. “Pure experience is envisioned by James,” Friedl explains, “as a mere presence of unstructured flux, out of which substantive, relational, and qualitative fixations or facts emerge” (348). Such fluctuations, of course, lack permanence, and do not hold the absolute authority of a metaphysical structure. These were the waters that Emerson navigated in essays such as “Circles,” “Intellect,” “Experience,” and “Fate.” They are not essays that move entirely toward finality, but efforts to illustrate or perform the act of thinking. Referring to Emerson’s closeness to the Pre-Socratics, Friedl named him “a thinker of the first age” (35). The remarkable impact of this poetic and anti-systematic thinker, usually held outside the realm of established philosophy, continues to be confirmed in our era. Friedl’s perceptive new reading of Emerson and those he influenced, gathered in this lucid volume, will prove to be of great and lasting importance.
David M. Robinson (Corvallis, Oregon)