Philosophy has been closely linked to the essay since the genre’s inception. Both of the essay’s founding fathers, Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon, attempted to endow it with a philosophical status despite the diametrically opposed stances they took in their treatment of the genre. Montaigne was the first to use the term “essay,” in the title of his Essais (1580, 1588), not only to designate a literary composition but also to stress the significance of the term’s original meaning, “trial” or “attempt.” Montaigne saw the essay more as an ongoing process of discovery, while Bacon saw it more as a didactic, finished reflection—the subtitle to the latter’s Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625) being “Practical and Moral Advice.” Nonetheless, both conceived of the essay as fundamentally philosophical in nature.
This shared conception was at least in part a result of their times, which introduced extreme philosophical doubt about human nature and man’s place in the universe. The end of the 16th century was marked by great political and social unrest, which saw the collapse of scientific doctrines long accepted as truths—notably, Copernicus’ toppling of Ptolemaic astronomy. From the beginning, then, and indeed throughout its history, the philosophical orientation of the essay has been fundamentally a skeptical one. Not surprisingly, both Montaigne and Bacon were attracted to the philosophical doctrine of skepticism, which can be traced to the ancient philosopher Pyrrhon of Elis (c. 365–0. 270
BCE) and his disciple Sextus Empiricus (fl. c. 200 CE), whose works were published with a Latin translation by Henri Estienne in about 1560—well within the lifetimes of both Bacon and Montaigne. The skeptics developed a systematic demonstration that man is deceived by both empirical evidence and reason. Unlike the nihilist, the skeptic reserves judgment and describes the world as a detached observer. While Montaigne’s subjective presence is felt often in his practice of the essay, his fundamental skepticism led him to question human nature and the solidity of the self or a central “I”—what
Descartes later called cogito.
According to Stanley Cavell (1988), skepticism’s fundamental tenet—which underlies the philosophical essay—is paradoxical: it implies the quest for the “ordinary,” the “everyday,” and the “human,” which at the same time it seeks to deny and transcend.
With the German Romantic Jena School’s conception of “fragment” as an
unsystematizable form of writing, the essay becomes even more closely associated with skepticism’s contradictory tendencies. German Romantics, notably Friedrich Schlegel, wrote extensively on skepticism and the fragment. Indeed, Schlegel’s notion of “fragment” bears a striking affinity to the essay. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy (1988) maintain in their reading of Schlegel’s Athenäum fragments (1798–1800) that the fragment, like the essay, reflects a similar paradox: “subjective” and “objective” modes are virtually inextricable. This conflation of opposites has its roots in the Romantics’ notion that writing is meant to enact its subject.
Writing in the mid- to late 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche were heavily indebted to the Romantic Jena School tradition, and both continued to link the essay with the fragment and with unsystematic philosophy.
According to Emerson, every superior being “belongs” to the skeptical class which Montaigne represents. Like skepticism, which attempts to maintain a “middle ground” between extremes, transcendentalism aimed to find a balance between realism and idealism, and thus fuse the everyday with the sublime. Much influenced by Emerson’s “skeptical” spirit, Nietzsche’s aphoristic writings bear striking similarities to both the fragment and the essay. Indeed, Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s “alter-ego,” seems to embody skepticism with his Ja-sagen, which is neither affirmation nor negation, but which belongs to a paradoxical third category that shuns extremes as well as definitions.
Following the German Romantics’ example, both Emerson and Nietzsche conceived of content and form as a single entity, and their writings as the very enactment of their lives.
For Emerson, the essay was “essaying to be”: it was the enactment of the process of accommodation between the world and the “I,” and thus it became the act of consciousness realizing itself. Similarly, in Nietzsche’s work, form and content remain inextricable, and the writer/philosopher becomes inseparable from Zarathustra.
In the 20th century, the philosophical essay has moved further away from ideas of the self, and become more critical and more self-conscious, in so far as it is obsessed with language, discourse, and methodology. The broader intellectual context of the modern essay is no longer that of Montaigne’s times, nor even that of Emerson’s and Nietzsche’s.
Whereas Montaigne refused to separate himself from method, or the living subject from the experienced object, the modern essay is much more fragmented and attenuated.
Schooled in the German Romantic tradition, and writing before and after World War I, Central European writers such as Robert Musil, Rudolf Kassner, Georg Lukács, and Georg Simmel conceived the essay as the perfect synthesis of seemingly contradictory elements such as form and content, science and art, and ethics and aesthetics. To them, the essay had to fulfill a “sacred” mission: to provide the world with a spiritual orientation it had long been lacking. In Die Seelen und die Formen (1911; Soul and Form), written before he joined the Communist Party, Lukács maintained that the essayist is by nature a precursor to a greater figure or system, a John the Baptist who goes out to preach in the wilderness about another who is yet to come. According to Lukács, the modern essayist can no longer pose his questions directly, as Montaigne did, but must necessarily use a “mediating medium.” In other words, he must consider all the ways others pose their questions before formulating his own. By underlining this preoccupation with style and methodology, Lukács linked the modern essay with criticism, and raised a debate that continues today—between those who view the essay as art and those who view it as criticism.
This debate on the status of the essay has, in turn, stimulated two divergent schools of thought—the Frankfurt School of the mid-20th century, and the French poststructuralists of the late 20th century. Both groups reject Lukács’ HegelianMarxist validation of totality and system, and conceive the modern, philosophical essay more as a fragmentary mode that refuses the ontological priorities of systems and their privileging of the timeless over the historical, and the universal over the particular. Although the two schools continue the essay’s philosophical tradition, they diverge mainly in their respective views of essayistic “fragmentation.” For the German theorists, such as Walter
Benjamin and Theodor W.Adorno, still working, in a sense, within a humanist-idealist tradition, the fragmentary nature of the essay serves to decenter the self, so that the subject may experience the object without dominating it. For the French poststructuralists, however, who take this process a step further, essayistic fragmentation serves to eliminate all vestiges of Cartesianism and humanism from the text. Indeed, they pronounce the subject anachronistic, and the author dead.
While the German thinkers ascribe to the essay the heroic role of defending critical and creative thought against reason, as embodied in systems, the French have resisted identifying their writings with any established genres, questioning even the very notion of genre. Indeed, they have at times distanced themselves from the essay especially, mistrusting a discourse that encourages self-representation, whether in the traditional role of the Cartesian cogito, or in the more congenial guise of Montaigne’s essays. Despite such objections, the French theorists, as well as the Frankfurt School thinkers, still belong in the tradition of the philosophical essay. Indeed, it is revealing that both Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, who criticized bourgeois individualism in their early works, made the self a central concern in their late works. Both paid a final homage to the essay as well. Foucault, for example, describes the essay, in L’Usage des plaisirs (1984;
Use of pleasure), as the “living substance of philosophy…an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought.”
With its avowed fragmentariness and its unmethodological method, the philosophical essay is inherently a pluralistic and interdisciplinary genre. At once art and criticism, literature and philosophy, imagination and reason, its task is not to stay within wellcharted boundaries, nor to shuttle back and forth across these boundaries, but rather to reflect on and to challenge them.
Adorno, Theodor W., “The Essay as Form,” New German Critique 32 (Spring 1984):151–71 (original German article published 1954)
Atkins, Douglas G., Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992
Butrym, Alexander J., editor, Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Cavell, Stanley, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988
Harrison, Thomas, Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Jay, Martin, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950, Boston: Little Brown, and London: Heinemann, 1973
Joeres, Ruth-Ellen Boetcher, and Elizabeth Mittman, editors, The Politics of the Essay: Feminist Perspectives, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993
Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988
Lukács, Georg, Soul and Form, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1974 (original German edition, 1911)
Snyder, John, Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay and the Theory of Genre, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991
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