Emerson and the philosophy guru

On Facebook, Clayton Littlejohn posts this question:

Imagine there were a philosophy guru. You could ask the guru questions, get the guru’s answer, the answers would always be right, but the answers wouldn’t come with arguments or explanations. … If you wrote those answers down … would you be doing philosophy?

Numerous respondents say NO, on the grounds that philosophy involves giving arguments. It’s the game of giving and asking for reasons. Mere answers aren’t reasons.1

I’ve been mulling over related issues because I taught Emerson last week in my pragmatism seminar. As I read him, Emerson does not give any arguments for his central claims. Instead, he elaborates a worldview according to which one ought to be self-reliant because one’s truest self is the Over-soul. The Over-soul is “that Unity… within which every man’s particular being is contained and made up one with all other.”

To put it differently: One should act on one’s immediate impulse because that is to act as the divine universe itself.

Emerson is not as laconic as Littlejohn’s oracle. He does not, in response to the question of whether one out to conform or be consistent, just answer no. There is a structure to the worldview he is portraying, and the pieces fit together. Appreciating that interconnectedness is why I assign “The Over-Soul” together with “Self-Reliance”. Without the metaphysical picture, the call to self-reliance can too easily be read as a paean for egoist hedonism.

Nevertheless, Emerson does not that I see offer any arguments for believing in the Over-Soul. So one might argue that it’s sermonizing rather than philosophy.2 At the very least, he’s not doing what we academic philosophers readily recognize as philosophy.

Preparing to teach Emerson this time, I realized that there’s a different way of reading Emerson.

A brief digression: When I teach existentialism, students sometimes object to phenomenological arguments because the conclusions just don’t follow. Heidegger or Sartre appeal to the structure of some experience and seem to just assert that it has such-and-so significance. I encourage students to see that the significance isn’t bald assertion, but neither is it a conclusion from an explicit premise. Instead, the student is tasked to reflect on the significance in the course of their own lived experience. Do situations like the ones described have the structure that the authors assert them to have? If so, then students have the evidence readily available to them, and there would be no point in also deriving it from some other premises. If not, then the author’s account fails as a description of the student’s experience, and there would be not point in posing premises that entail otherwise.

There is a kind of giving and asking for reasons here that isn’t providing premises and drawing conclusions. Instead, it is pointing to the evidence itself which is (if the account is correct) available to the reader. This is what phenomenologists are doing, at least at their best.3

Perhaps Emerson is best read as giving a phenomenological or descriptive argument. As a reader, I am supposed to consult my own experience and (Emerson thinks) I will find that I am indeed part of the Over-soul. That I am part of the Over-soul is a metaphysically wilder claim than that the objects of everyday experience have the structure of equipment-for-purposes, but the rhetorical move is parallel.

This doesn’t get at Littlejohn’s question directly, because the answers of an infallible guru don’t point to any lived experience.4 Since there are no infallible gurus, though, we can leave that puzzle for another day.


  1. At least one respondent mutters something about Heidegger, but more about him in a moment.
  2. His view even seems to rule out the possibility of any convincing arguments. Your accepting my premises and drawing my conclusions would mean kowtowing to me and failing to express the divine in yourself.
  3. There are also moments like this in Wittgenstein, both early and late.
  4. It’s odd that Littlejohn calls it a “philosophy guru”, since one might ask the guru questions about (e.g.) next week’s stock market. Copying down stock tips from the guru clearly wouldn’t be philosophy.

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