Time after Time

Stanley Cavell on the Future Today

Keep in mind that I come from that part of the world for which the question of old and new – call it the question of a human future – is, or was, logically speaking, a matter of life and death: if the new world is not new then America does not exist, it is merely one more outpost of old oppressions. Americans like Thoreau (and if Thoreau then Emerson and Walt Whitman, to say no more) seem to have lived so intensely or intently within the thought of a possible, and possibly closed, future that a passage like the following would be bound to have struck them as setting an old mood: ‘Everything is worn out: revolutions, profits, miracles. The planet itself shows signs of fatigue and breakdown, from the ozone layer to the temperature of the oceans.’[*] Compare a sentence from the opening chapter of Thoreau’s Walden: ‘Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are [themselves] as old as Adam.’ This is, I think we might say, a compounding or transcendentalising of the sense of the worn out, showing that concept of our relation to the past to be itself nearly worn out. And this recognition provides Thoreau not with compounded tedium and ennui but with an outburst of indignant energy. He continues: ‘But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.’ This is why he can say, when he appeals to sacred writings and defends them against the sense that they are passé: ‘We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.’ As if to say: Beware of the idea of The Future Today – that is, of Today’s Future; it may be a function of Yesterday’s Today, and you will discover that Today was always already Tomorrow, that there is no time for origination. Yet Thoreau’s idea is that time has not touched the thoughts and texts he deals in. What chance is there for us to share his faith today, now? When is now?

An intricate intersection of old and new is also the burden of Emerson’s great essay ‘Experience’. Indeed it should not be surprising that America found its philosophical voice in thinking, and having to think, about the future – if you grant me the claim that Emerson and Thoreau represent the founding of the American difference in philosophy. Emerson writes in ‘Experience’: ‘In liberated moments we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible ... The new statement will comprise the scepticisms as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be found ... The new philosophy must take [these scepticisms] in and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.’ This demand for integration sounds like a beginning of that American optimism or Emersonian cheerfulness to which an old European sophistication knows so well how to condescend. But it has never been sure, even where I come from, that Emerson’s tone of encouragement is tolerable to listen to for very long – as if it expresses a threat as much as it does a promise. I note that his words about finding a creed out of unbeliefs, unlike those of his familiar followers as well as detractors, contain no word of hope. What occurs to us in liberated moments is that we know. That ‘we’ claims to speak for us, for me and for you, as philosophy in its unavoidable arrogance always claims to do; and moreover claims to speak of what we do not know we know, hence of some thought that we keep rejecting; hence claims to know us better than we know ourselves. I suppose Emerson is claiming to know this, as we do, only in liberated moments. Then presumably his writing the thought was one such moment – as if something about such writing tends to such moments. Does reading such writing provide us with further such moments? If – or when – it does not, how could we fail to find Emerson’s claims intolerable?

Let us provisionally surmise just this much from Emerson’s passage: if we are to think anew it must be from a new stance, one essentially unfamiliar to us; or, say, from a further perspective that is uncontrollable by us. If we formulate this by saying that to think the future one would have to be in the future, this sounds like a way also of summarising Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, whose subtitle is ‘Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future’. This is as it should be since that text of Nietzsche’s – like so many of Nietzsche’s texts, early and, as in this case, late – is pervasively indebted to Emerson’s Essays, ‘Experience’ pivotally among them. But unlike his reiterated, implicit rebuke to Wagner’s Der Kunstwerk der Zukunft, Nietzsche’s continuous invocation of Emerson is something we will know only intermittently, in liberated (vanishing) moments.

Beyond Good and Evil speaks, as Emerson does, of thinking through pessimism to affirmation. Nietzsche specifies pessimism as what is most world-denying; Emerson’s name for this, in the passage I quoted, is scepticism; its opposite Nietzsche specifies as world-affirmation, which is precisely what Emerson understands the new world to be awaiting. Nietzsche specifies the world-affirming human being as one who, reconceiving time, achieves the will to eternal recurrence; Emerson as one who finds the knack of liberation in moments. Since Nietzsche’s thinking through pessimism is his articulation of nihilism, the philosophical stakes he puts in play are not alone the national existence of the so-called new world, but the continuation of old Western culture, of what it has so far told itself of the human.

Emerson and Nietzsche are variously explicit in saying that philosophy as such is thinking for the future – so that their sense of going beyond philosophy in what they say about the future is at the same time a claim to the stance of philosophy. In Beyond Good and Evil: ‘More and more it seems to me that the philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to today ... By applying the knife vivisectionally to the chest of the very virtues of their time, they betrayed what was their own secret: to know of a new greatness of man, of a new untrodden way to his enhancement.’ We might think here of Plato, who is explicit in his Republic in staging the moment of philosophy, specifically of philosophy’s entrance into the public world, as in some future that is now datable only paradoxically, as when philosophers will become kings; in the meantime we (re)construct our city only with words, as with the text of the Republic. Or we may think of Kant, for whom moral sanity depends on a reasonable hope for future justice, and his necessary positing of the good city as a Realm of Ends – where each of us is legislated for in legislating for all. Unlike Plato’s Republic, Kant’s good city is essentially unrepresentable by philosophy: if we could represent it we could claim to know it, but that would leave room neither for genuine faith in our effectiveness toward a future nor for genuine knowledge of the present. (Among the choices we have for dating the modern, one may choose Freud’s discovery that anything I think, except negation, I can dream, and anything I dream is a work of representation, hence a guide for myself to what I all but inescapably already know.)

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] These sentences are taken from the introduction to last year’s Le Monde/Le Mans conference on ‘The Future Today’. A version of Stanley Cavell’s essay was read (in French) at the conference.