115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Gospel of Power: Dynamic Gifts in Literary Pragmatism and Philosophical Hermeneutics 

Tae Sung, California Baptist University

This proposal examines the language of gifts found in literary pragmatists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. What their rhetoric of gifts demonstrates is both their anticipation of more recent theoretical discourses about the contradictions of gifts and an alternative framework with which to think about gifts in non-economic terms. 


In his earlier work Sources of the Self (1989), Charles Taylor examines various moral sources that empower and sustain ideals of universal justice and benevolence inherited from the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Whereas grace operated as one such source in the orthodox Christian framework, “something else has to play the role of grace” in a non-theistic context. At times Taylor describes these various substitutes of grace as secular rivals, but he also acknowledges in other parts of his narrative that “the movement out of theism” can be more gradual as in the case of Romanticism, within which exists a number of “intermediate positions.” His one brief example is Ralph Waldo Emerson who “hovered on the borders where theism, pantheism, and non-theism all meet.”

This paper will examine a certain strand of American pragmatism that traces its roots back from William James to Emerson as one such intermediate position between the secular and sacred. In particular, I will focus on what the concept of grace means to Emerson and James and how they translate it into a broader language and rhetoric of gifts. In contrast to more recent theoretical debates about the economy of the gift, this particular language of gifts offers an alternative hermeneutic framework that interprets the gift not merely as material objects circulating in culture, but as dynamic sources of power, agency, and inspiration. This pragmatist rhetoric of dynamic gifts, as I call it, makes possible a non-economic horizon from which to locate a broad range of intermediate positions that open up spiritual or extra-rational dimensions of human agency that exceed the limits of rational calculation and control. My hope is that this approach to the gift will encourage ongoing dialogue between important strands of American Pragmatism and Critical Theory.