The Approach to the Ordinary: A Short Comparison of Emerson and Wittgenstein’s Views

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, life is a succession of different moments in which we must try to “insist on [ourselves]; [and] never imitate.” In order to live his (ordinary) life, man must follow his own thinking, forgetting conventions: “Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” By conformity, Emerson means the preconceived ideas that man takes for granted from society, without filtering them through his own mind. Emerson wanted man to be free by letting go of his “consistency.” Man must allow himself be free to be different from one situation to another, from one moment to another, because this is his true nature: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines… Every situation man experiences is different, every second of his life is different, so how can he be the same every day of his life? As Emerson states, “[w]ith consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” The reason why we, as human beings, are in this current state, it’s because “[w]e are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other. Our age yields no great and perfect persons.” His ideal man is the one that manages to keep his mind independent from other influences in any situation, being completely self-reliant: “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein has a more hands-on approach. If Emerson loved to theorize and express his thoughts in a stylized language, Wittgenstein, is, from this point of view at least, his opposite. He is not interested in constructing theories about the world, or about humanity. What he tries to do is draw our attention on the actual medium that is used to transmit these theories: the actual language. He asks us to consider how language shapes our thinking, and consequently, our world. But, as he put it, “[t]he difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.” We are so used to not think about the actual language we use, taking it for granted, that we are not aware of the actual meaning of the ordinary words we use. Just as Emerson believed that man was a sort of slave to conventions, Wittgenstein also believes that we must get rid of our stale, old thinking, and look at the ordinary words as they are used in the actual real life. He thinks that “[a] meaning of the word is a kind of employment of it. For it is what we learn when the word is incorporated into our language.” What man needs to do is to re-learn the meaning of words by observing them in their natural habitat, just as Darwin observed the animals that helped him create his theory of evolution. But what is most important for Wittgenstein is that man must learn by practicing language, not by simply observing it. By using an analogy, he states, “We got to know the nature of calculating by learning to calculate… This is how one calculates. Calculating is this. What we learn at school, for example. Forget this transcendent certainty, which is connected with your concept of spirit.”

Emerson approaches the ordinary by teaching us to be “inconsistent” in our everyday lives, encouraging us to be self-reliant and different. Wittgenstein’s tactic is to approach the very language that so far we thought it to be so ordinary. Both thinkers aim to free us from our old misconceptions and prejudices by pointing out the very things that we are so used to ignore and/or take for granted.

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Works cited:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo – “Self-Reliance”
Wittgenstein, Ludwig – Selections from Philosophical Investigations Full-text and commentary by Lois Shawver:


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