Afterword: Literature and Philosophy 1850–1910: The View from New England

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Abstract

In this afterword I look at the period 1850–1910 from a Transatlantic perspective, focusing on key New England writers whose work spans the disciplines of philosophy and literature: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville and William James. I begin with Stanley Cavell’s claim that America first expressed itself philosophically in the ‘metaphysical riot’ of its literature, which, he argues, pre-existed the disciplinary divides which were extant in Britain of the period. I then go onto suggest that this is a myth congruent with America’s perennial claims to begin things over again. Rather, I contend, literature is a space where disciplinary boundaries can always be overlooked or repressed, whether in Britain or America. I then examine several of the essays in the collection to show how this works. Finally I move onto Darwin’s influence on America in the philosophy of William James, who develops an evolutionary idea of ‘truth.’ I conclude that his pragmatist conception of truth as what works and therefore survives is appropriate to the truths of literature, which survive often more successfully than the truths of science and at least as well as the truths of philosophy.

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