116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Words Are Finite Organs of the Infinite Mind": Emerson's Paradoxical View of Language

Shu-Ching Wu, Harbin Institute of Technology, Shenzhen

The focus on Emerson's personal aura sometimes takes readers' attention away from his writing itself. Emerson's writing is not only about the content but also about his language. In this essay, I will argue that what Emerson claims about words contributes to how he performs with words; nonetheless, his performance might end up challenging his claim of the incapability, the finitude, of words.

Proposal: 

Ralph Waldo Emerson often appears as an authority figure against the backdrop of the historical context and literary movement at his times. The focus on his personal aura sometimes takes readers' attention away from his writing itself. As Joel Porte points out, Emerson “has manifestly not been accorded that careful scrutiny of his work as writing” because there has been too much “emphasis on Emerson’s personal authority, his example, his wisdom, his high role as the spiritual father and Plato of our race” (683). Porte's call is important because Emerson's writing is not only about the content—such as his perspectives on society, his philosophical thinking, and his thoughts about nature—but also about his language. In this essay, I will discuss and examine Emerson's paradoxical ideas about language and how these ideas are related to the way he writes.

While he emphasizes how “finite” words are, Emerson suggests that wise men should use them appropriately in order to be “in alliance with truth and God.” Emerson thinks that natural objects easily slip away from our grasp and are thus lying beyond our pursuit; nonetheless, without considering the possibility that words might also easily slip away from our clutch, he claims that language is incapable of embodying the mind and soul. However, Emerson might have shown and perform this possibility of language—its escape from out clutch and thus its slipperiness—even though he considers this possibility as its incapability in his writing. Thus, what he claims about words contributes to how he performs with words; nonetheless, his performance might end up challenging his claim of the incapability, the finitude, of words. At the end, what Emerson says about language sometimes might not explain how he writes—i.e., what he proclaims about language might not be what he actually does with language.