Emersonian Strategies: Negative Liberty, Self-Reliance, and Democratic Individuality

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Emersonian political thought subjects the term “individualism,” which was invented in Europe as a description of the defects of Enlightenment thought and used by Tocqueville pejoratively as a critique of American democracy, to a process of idealization that enables it to appropriate concepts that might other-wise be conceived as oppositional to it. Emersonianism inherits Locke’s negative conception of freedom as freedom from restraint, but claims that negative liberty inevitably transforms itself into a form of positive liberty that nurtures communal institutions. From Emerson himself to George Kateb today, Emersonians have relied upon a methodological individualism in which they shift the ground of inquiry from culture and society to the individual and traslate moments of social choice into moments of individual choice. This methodological strategy is a literal application of the motto e pluribus unum, which expresses the idea that the American nation is formed through the union of many individuals and peoples. In the hands of the Emersonians the customary sense of this motto is reversed: they move from the many to the one, to the single individual, paring away differences in order to reach a common denominator that will allow them to make claims about all individuals. At the heart of their endeavor is the belief that the health of the nation depends on its ability to respect and protect the individuality of each of its citizens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)440-479
Number of pages40
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Volume48
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - 1994

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory

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