In arguing that the American Transcendentalists represent a turning point within the history of disputatious reason, this dissertation finds in their texts a variety of alternatives to argument as a way of thinking, writing, and reading. These alternatives are discussed in chapters on Emerson's “provocation,” Alcott's “conversation,” and Thoreau's “obscurantism.”
In the controversy following his “Divinity School Address,” Ralph Waldo Emerson was challenged to expand on the “arguments” behind his controversial ideas by his former mentor, Henry Ware. He replied: I could not give account of myself if challenged. I could not possibly give you one of the “arguments”…on which any doctrine of mine stands. For I do not know what arguments mean, in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling what think; but, if you ask me how I dare say so, or, why it is so,…I do not even see, that either of these questions admits of an answer. The controversy was not the point of the address for Emerson, as it might have been for another thinker. And arguing for his beliefs was out of the question. Emerson's visions of the university and the nation as discursive spaces are exhortations for a new kind of intellectual activity, and calls for a new philosophical method. Emerson's writing casts “provocation” rather than argument as the thinker's proper role, and describes a model of reading based upon identification and the sympathetic attempt to believe, rather than one based upon doubt or falsification.
Bronson Alcott's short-lived Temple School employed a conversational pedagogy; he elevated the use of questions to central importance, and in so doing cast aside argument. Alcott's teaching evolved alongside Emerson's thought, and his pre-progressive version of democratic pedagogy is a crucial part of the Transcendentalists' legacy. In one classroom transcript, Alcott exposed his own view of argument to a student, telling him “I have not sought in these conversations to present my own views of truth, but to call forth yours; and by so doing make you conscious of your own powers of finding it.” Though he was mocked by his contemporaries and the school closed after slow attrition, Alcott continued his emancipatory vision of education, popularizing the Conversation as an alternative to the lecture form for adult teaching and intellectual exchange. Alcott's work is an underrecognized and still useful political and philosophical legacy, and a predecessor both to progressive education and to psychoanalysis.
In Thoreau's work, there is a complicated negotiation between an egalitarian politics and an aesthetic of obscurity that seems anything but egalitarian. Thoreau's uncompromising calls for style at the expense of comprehension closely resemble Adorno or Nietzsche; yet he also calls for a society in which everyone is learned, and for villages to become universities. Thoreau's brand of utopianism is premised on the absolute dissolution of the boundary between academy and society, between the republic of letters and the republic itself. This raises the question of the politics of incomprehensibility, and the style which results from risking it. Thoreau's prose style, vacillating between essay and aphorism, shows a willingness to risk discomprehension, to abandon easy understanding, in the service of truth - this risk is a question of style, and forces on its adherent an unceasing struggle with form. But Thoreau's affinity for the incomprehensible is not the elitist conception of aesthetic difficulty.
Nietzsche's rejection of dispute and his sententious style, in this context, can be read as inheritances from the American Transcendentalists rather than wholly novel inventions. Like Thoreau, Nietzsche is best described as a post-Emersonian thinker, whose writing works on the boundary between essay and aphorism. If he is at times content to appear self-contradictory, this is a token of Nietzsche's anti-systematic impulse, his critique of contradiction, and his preference for affirmation. All these aspects of Nietzsche's thought can be seen afresh in this context as continuations and adaptations of the Transcendentalists' critique of disputatious thought.
The dissertation's conclusion discusses the current state of argument in the literary and theoretical academy. If the word argument still serves as a token of disputation as a mode of reason, its continued centrality in philosophical writing - and academic writing more broadly - may still occlude the possibility of other ways of thinking. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)