Ralph Waldo Emerson with his insistence on self-reliance, is probably more of an inspirational intellectual character in terms of the ideals of the Enlightenment than it is the towering giant Immanuel Kant. If anything can be considered a heritage of the Enlightenment bequeathed to us through, it is that ubiquitous individualism, ideally paired with self-reliance. Aspects of the Enlightenment also appear with Virginia Woolf’s characters of „To the Lighthouse“. In order to get a glimpse of her account of Enlightenment, we may reflect upon her characters: as respresentatives of Woolf’s view on it.

Emerson imperative „Trust Thyself“ seems to be exactly congruent with the original Kantian definition of the Enlightenment „Dare to know!“. But whereas Kant makes an appeal to overcome laziness and cowardice, Emerson points at a natural instinct for self-reliance: „Every heart vibrates to that iron string“ (2) – which is observable in children: “infancy conforms to nobody“ (3). According to traditional Enlightenment, man has to be urged to think for himself in order to attain an enlightened society, and the obstacle lies in a natural inclination of the individuals to „gladly remain immature for life“ (4). In contrast to that, Emerson discerns other reasons for why people remain immature: they encounter certain obstacles to live up to their natural tendency of being self-reliant.

He surmises the benefits the individual gains from society – an entity which „everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members“ (5)- , that is, the security provied by society as motivation why be comply with the expectations society imposes on us. Society expects conformity from the individual „for better securing of his bread to each shareholder“ (6). Thusly, it commits us. It is partly this commitment that once we act publicly in a certain way, we consider it as a pledge to act in the same way henceforth. Hence „man … is clapped into jail by his consciousness“ (7), while instead, according to Emerson, he is much better off being free at any moment „to pass again into his neutrality“ (8).

This idea is closely related to Emerson’s concept of consistency as another obstacle to self-reliance. It is rooted in the „reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have to other data for computing our orbit“ (9). That neutrality, that state of being a clean slate, being free to act in new way every moment, is an indispensable precondition for being self-reliant, for acting upon our natural genius. Emerson sees the flame of Enlightenment already burning in each individual, only stifled by the shackles we have donned, whereas traditional Enlightenment strives to implant imperatively and foster it carefully. Emerson wants to overcome the shackles in order set it free: One remedial ingredient is keeping a solitude while being in the crowd.

For the characters in Woolf’s „To the Lighthouse“, traditional Enlightenment and self-reliance is also an issue. Charles Tansley is Woolf’s synthesis of both, ending up in a nihilistic state: Enlightened as to question what he is told and self-reliant as not to believe anything he is told. Hence, he is unable to believe in his own abilities and in those of others. What remains is his faith in hard work. Charles appears as a parody, perhaps a travesty of the traditional ideas of the Enlightenment, also in its aim to advance society. Despite his highfalutin moral claims, he adds nothing constructive to the community. He puts people off and discourages them („Women can’t paint, women can’t write“ (10)), and he ends up preaching in public, hypocritically and contrary to his actions, watched by Lily as Woolf’s alter-ego: „He was denouncing something, he was condemning somebody. He was preaching brotherly love“ (11).

Mr. Ramsay, trusting only knowledge inferred from logic, strives to put decisions on the basis of the latter and rejects hopes contradicting logic as lies. Originally emanating from the Enlightenment, Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy epitomizes its development towards an extreme, with the individual winding up in a different form of dependence: Now it is logic and total rationality dictating the individual, even against a need to connect with loving people: They cannot go the lighthouse, „not with the barometer falling and the wind due west“ (12). Mr. Ramsay, albeit appearing self-reliant, is actually the opposite of that. He is steered by rationality and logic, at the sane time needy for emotional support by other people, and not even believing in himself – “he had no genius, he laid no claim on that” (13) – he surely isn’t self-reliant in Emerson’s terms.

Even though rejecting any universal truth, Emerson promotes the original ideal of Enlightenment, the autonomy of the indivdiual, with his confidence in humans natural ability to act self-reliantly, merely stifled by psychosocial mechanisms, thusly paving its way into an individualistic post-modern society in which individuals are more aware of those mechanisms. Woolf’s account of it rather appears as cautionary tales against the corruption of personal authenticity and self-reliance through a misunderstood Enlightenment as mere logic and rationality in which hope is eliminated, but also in Rousseau’s tradition of pointing out the hypocritical aspects of it.

1) 2) 3) 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) Emerson, Essays First Series, Self-Reliance

4) Kant, What is Enlightenment?

10) 11) 12) 13) Woolf, To The Lighthouse



In a pluralistic post-modernity with a multitude of approaches to identity, finding identity seems to be a task with unbounded creative authorship. Yet, identity is not a free choice among numerous possibilities as it might seem. While for Enlightenment traditionalist R.W. Emerson, gaining authentic identity is still relative straightforward, for Judith Butler it is much more complex. Focusing of the constraints and possibilities of self-crafted identity, the intention of both may be not that different: it is rather the step from modernity to post-modernity which makes for the striking difference.

In order to reason generally, we take gender, the subject Butler is concerned with, as a particular manifestation of identity. Then, she sees identity in general as an improvisational act as opposed to something preconceived, and the cause for the demand of identity is the individual’s need for recognition, taking recourse to Hegel’s claims that only through recognition we become human beings. The norms by which the individual is recognized are provided by the outside and are not fixed; they are “socially articulated and changeable” [1] and make for the personhood of the self: “The ‘I’ that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms” [1]. The individual’s identity is dependent on external norms: one must act accordingly to these norms in order to be an “I” that gains a limited agency for improvisations. “If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact I am constituted by a social world I never chose.” [1]

Hence, identity in the postmodern world becomes not only impossible to design, but also a challenge requiring creativity and the ability of reacting to a social play: it is indeed improvisation. Power resides on the side creating the norms. There is not a single author of those norms, so this power appears what Žižek would call the imaginary “Big Other”. Identity doesn’t feel self-reliant, there is a power out there to be reckoned with. Emerson sees an external power as well, in the form of expectations for conformity, threatening his ideal of self-reliant identity. “At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, – ‘Come unto us’” [2]. Yet, his remedy shuns the intricacies of the social interplay and is very much in the tradition of a modern, enlightened individual. He prescribes the elevated “solitude in the crowd”: “But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” [2].

In contrast, for Butler softening external norms is crucial and ethically necessary: “What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable to some […] the differences in position and desire set limits to universalizability as an ethical reflex.” [1]. Butler sets ethical limits to Kant’s categorical imperative because it potentially encroaches on the individual’s authenticity. In Foucaultian thinking, it is possibly Enlightenment’s downstream normative force for identity. For Emerson, by contrast, a derivative of the CI is the  precondition of self-reliance: the conviction “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” [2] is derived from a divine, universal ideal, present but suppressed in each individual: “But we half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” [2].

Postmodern Butler diagnoses something much less ideal. She recognizes identity as illusionary but nevertheless crucial for recognition and offers some improvisational leeway for self-invention. Due to the “staging and structuring of affect and desire” [1], identity norms have a performative structure, offering a possibility of influence: the sociability of norms exceeds my self-understanding, thusly “sustaining a temporal and spatial field of operation” [1]. Furthermore, the individual’s desire of fitting into a category is subject to a feedback-effect from those norms: “it (the desire) can exceed regulations, taken on new forms in response to regulation, even turn turns around and make it sexy” [1]. Hence, identity is not fatally controlled by norms, but reacts and can even be invigorated by them. Even more so, identity need those outside norms. For Emerson, by contrast, the norm is universally inherent to the individual; for Butler socially conveyed norms are the precondition of identity.

Butler, far from being fatalistic, extends the individual’s agency even towards a proactive role of co-authors. Since categorical terms are “crafted in time” and  work through excluding minorities” [1], and furthermore “social articulation of the terms depends upon its repetition” [1], “its articulation will begin precisely at the point where the excluded speak to and from such a category” [1]: if you keep repeating what constitutes “masculine” while being recognized as “masculine”, you can extend that norm. Identity becomes responsible for more than only oneself.

Emerson is the modernist proponent of an ideal behind identity. In contrast, Butler provides a post-modern diagnosis of identity which recognizes intricate psychosocial dependencies without a universal ideal. Pragmatically, she points out possibilities of if not inventing, but improvising on oneself: How much of what I am I have to be to be recognized – and how much beyond it in order to lead a livable life?

[1] Butler, Undoing Gender
[2] Emerson, Relf-Reliance

Appiah, born as what we may denote multi-racial and multi-cultural may have recognized early on how many different people the post-modern human encounters. Appiah considers us responsible for everybody we know and affect. Both let him define a framework for the realization of human responsibility in a highly diversified world: Cosmopolitanism. With its ahistorical responsibility overarching diverse communities, he  reminds of the distinction between ahistorical Kantians and history-and-community Hegelians, to the latter of which Richard Rorty refers. To what extent could Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism call upon both – Rorty and Kant?

To find a negative litmus test we take Appiah’s definition of counter-cosmopolitanism: „Join us, the counter-cosmopolitans say, and we will be all sisters and brothers. But each of them trample on our differences“ [1]. Hence, counter-cosmopolitanism claims that mutual responsibility can only grow on homogeneous soil: you have to be like me if I am supposed to feel responsible for you. But, according to Appiah, without global responsibility there is no cosmopolitanism. Hence, we have two premises rendering a thinker non-cosmopolitan from the outset: responsibility neccessitates a however constituted common identity among humans (premise A), but there is no such thing as common identity on a global scale (premise B).

Appiah offers also a positive definition of cosmopolitanism. Naturally we only feel responsible for a few dozens of familiar and fairly similiar people, whereas in a global world we are responsibly for a vast number of diverse people. Appiah sees cosmopolitanism as the answer [2]: endorsing diversity of local groups as necessary condition, but meeting your global responsibility and “exchanging ideas about what is right and wrong” [2]. For the latter, he does not presuppose any ahistorical meta-narratives like human dignity; knowing and affecting other people is foundation enough.

Richard Rorty doesn’t see any irresponsibility towards a community of which one does not think of oneself as a member. Otherwise runaway slaves and tunnelers under the Berlin wall would be irresponsible.” [3]. Consequently, if there is no irresponsibility to the outside, there cannot be responsibility towards it either. Hence, premise A is met, and whether Rorty isn’t cosmopolitan hinges on the second question. Soe – does he see any universal identify among humans?

Not really. A universal human identity presupposes a relativistic standpoint outside any framework. For Rorty, such relativistic position is a myth; wherever ones stands, he is still within a framework. A universal human identity would hence be a framework itself, For Rorty, human frameworks rely on shared values, beliefs, emotions, contrasting to other groups. So, unless the global community provides such shared enities  – which would constitute a meta-narrative –  human dignity is not global. For Rorty, there are no meta-narrative at all. Case closed?

No yet. We have to consider what Rorty offers as foundation for global responsibility before dismissing him. In his objections to his own sayings [1], he describes the situation of a child in the woods without any cultural affiliations. Rorty concedes that, albeit this child possesses no human dignity, it’s nevertheless to be treated as human, due to our tradition “that the human stranger from whom all dignity has been stripped is to be taken in, to be re-clothed with dignity” [1]. But, he sees this foundation neither as Kantian nor religious meta-narrative: the “existence of human rights … as the existence of God .. has little reference to our treatment of such a child” [3]. Obviously, he counts both facts – a stranger being as well as the local Samarian tradition – as foundation for universal responsibility; sounds close to Appiah.

Still, in his essay, Rorty leaves the question open what would happen if our tradition didn’t have that commandment of “reclothe the stranger with dignity”. Then, there would be no foundation for universal responsibility. Hence, philosophically and with a caveat we classify Rorty as Conditional Appiahian Cosmopolitan.

Kant, in “What is Enlightenment?” recognizes diversity in form of institutions and nations. He does not want those local communities to fall apart, mostly because they embody the “interests of the commonwealth”. For Kant, the individual is responsible for the local commuity of which he is part, and in those confines, he is only permitted to a “private use of reason” , but is also globally responsible for a public reasoning – for the sake of the progress of universal values, eventually benefical for the local community:

“… it would be very harmful if an officer receiving an order from his superiors were to quibble openly, while on duty … He must simply obey. But he cannot reasonably be banned from making observations … on the errors in the military service, and from submitting these to his public for judgment …“ [4]

Kant, however, puts global responsibility on an ahistorical, meta-narrative basis by proposing human dignity, for the sake of which local communities eventually have to adapt: “…it [intellectual freedom] ] even influences the principles of governments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man in a manner appropriate to his dignity” [4]. Locally, he grounds human responsibility on a Hegelian history-community basis, comparable to Appiah’s understanding that responsibility comes from us knowing and affecting each other. Considering both aspects of Kant’s, we may consider him an Ahistorical Appiahian Cosmopolitan.

[1] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, The Counter-Cosmopolitans
[2] Appiah, ‘Examined Life’: http://youtu.be/VjMnyP142b8
[3] Rorty, Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism
[4] Kant, What is Enlightenment?

Schubert's Brille

By SCHUBERTcommons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Era

Schubert’s String Quartet No. 9 in g minor, D. 173, is one of his early works. Among his string quartets it is the very first in a minor key – and probably one of the most underperformed string quartets amongst his great ones.

Written in 1815, when Schubert was only eighteen years old, it fell into a political atmosphere which was a fertile soil for chamber works to be performed in domestic venues. The defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and the resulting Vienna Congress in 1814/1815, was exactly the time while young Schubert was composing prolifically and created this quartet. The eyes of Europe were on Vienna while the Congress was held, “and native pride, wit and fashion rose to the occasion”[6]. “Romantic Bourgeois values, as national cultural heritage, were held in high esteem, and music was an intrinsic part of it. Almost everybody sang and plaid or listened to music”[6]. As a result, notwithstanding the high demand and the huge popularity of Opera, in particular Italian Opera, music was predominantly performed in private circles. Chamber music was ubiquitous and coveted as means of acting out Bourgeois values.

This became even intensified during the post-Napoleon Metternich Era, in a climate of suspicious surveillance and drastic measures against potentially revolutionary motions – a model  of a surveillance state. People withdrew into the security of their private homes, expressing themselves in politically innocuous arts. Romantic chamber music was amongst it.

The Composer

Born on January 31th, 1797 in Vienna, Austria and died on November 19th 1928, Schubert’s short life fell almost precisely in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic period. His childhood started in Beethoven’s middle period, at time at which the great German composer  had  already changed the classical sonata form into something more subjective and emotional.

Franz Schubert was the son of a schoolmaster. He got basic musical training from his father and his brother and was an extraordinary talented choir boy. He received an excellent education in a convent and got musical tuition from prominent teachers, like Antonio Salieri.

The most interesting fact about his life as a composer is that he was the first Western composer who actually earned his living without any patronage. In dire times without income he was sometimes supported by his friends. An ephemeral income came in 1818, when he was offered the position of a music tutor for the daughters of the Esterházy family in their Hungarian summer home. Later, a more stable source of income came. After his friends had already made Schubert’s manuscript known to him, Vienna’s most significant music publisher, Anton Diabelli, began to publish his works sporadically. Alas, this string quartet was not among those.

The Background

String Quartet No. 9 belongs to Schubert’s legacy of 30 chamber works, among them 15 string quartets which survived, some missing and one fragmented string quartet.

The piece emerged in a period in young Schubert’s life in which he had, on the one hand, financial security, but, on the other hand, found himself in a personally unfulfilling job towards he was indifferent. He had finished a two-year training as school teacher in 1913/14, and after that became a tutor for little boys in his father’s schoolhouse – his only option for making a living.

Musically, the period of 1814/1815 was a very prolific time. Schubert’s created a score of works, more than 200 in total, among them two symphonies, two piano sonatas numerous songs and pieces for the stage – but also two string quartets in a series of six, in the timespan from 1813 to 1816. String Quartet No.9 occupies a special role among his string quartet insofar as it is the very first string quartet centered in minor key.

The short time in which it was composed – scant eight days – reflected the compositional productivity of this period of Schubert’s life. This striking productivity may have been due to his youth combined with the fact that in those years he did not have the rich social life he would have later, after becoming acquainted with his cosmopolitan friend Franz Schoenberg. Furthermore, a dispute about his fervent love to a local girl, Therese Grob, having added to his compositional outburst in this years endures.

String Quartet No. 9, of which no dedication is known, appears originally intended to be performed in more more than just private venues – unlike many of Schubert’s pieces, in particular his “Lieder”, which where meant to plaid in private homes and by hobbyists.

Nevertheless, for a long time  it never transcended domestic use. The first performance after its creation was privately by Schubert’s family – like many of his others works. After that, the piece had been neglected by the musical community until half a century later, posthumously in 1863, it was premiered in public at last, and finally published in 1871. Little is known about the back then public reception.

A Closer Listen

String Quartet No. 9 features a classical four-movement structure

I. Allegro con brio (ca. 7 minutes)
II. Andantino  (ca. 7. minutes)
III. Menuetto. Allegro vivace (ca. 4 minutes)
IV. Allegro (ca. 7 minutes)

with the first two movements in sonata form, the third one a minuet and the last one in rondo form.

In the first movement, a fast and brisk sonata movement, features two themes making for a contrast between a dramatic minor key theme -in the home key G-minor- and a brighter major theme in B-fat major. It is a contrast between heaviness and lightness, between menace and cheerfulness. This contrast is plaid out twice in the exposition and recapitulated in reversed tonality in the last part of the movement. This consistent play is only briefly interrupted in an unusually short development section, which leans towards the menace: look out for some tremors and crescendi (swelling notes) in the cello, viola and the second violin, while the first violin repeats a short melodic motif. Apart from this short interlude, the chase between dramatic menace and melodic cheerfulness determines the bulk of first movement.

Equally salient is the symmetric trajectory in terms of tonality. We are lead from a gloomy minor key to a cheerful major key during the first four minutes, as a once repeated exposition, and are lowered back to the minor key in the recapitulation, when the same thematic play is resumed in the last three minutes of the movement.

The slow second movement features a sonata form as well, and it takes up the rope of the previous B-flat major, thereby cleverly ushering in its contrasting character. The second movement is more melodic and cheerful, and it presents a neat, almost danceable main theme, in contrast to a more sentimental side theme, which nevertheless appears almost like a variation of the major theme. This movement has a thematic and emotional consistency, and the also very short development section, creating a hovering atmosphere and lasting only for a few measures, only adds to this impression. The already extremely short development section has no character of its own, being merely a transition between the exposition and the recapitulation of the interaction between major and side theme.

The buoyant minuet movement is reminiscent of the corresponding movement in Mozart’s G-minor symphony and is actually a tribute to it. Along with Schubert, we pay respect and admiration tor Mozart’s influence.

The fast last movement presents itself traditionally in Rondo form. The rhythmic refrain in which the violin does most of the work is presented four times. The sections between them appear in part like variations or developments of the refrain material and is interspersed with short Baroque passages. As unusually usual as this might seem for a last movement, in particular against the background of Beethoven’s revolutionary middle period, with its penchant for withholding the emotional climax to the last movement, this shows Schubert’s reverence to the classical period and a precocious matureness already in this younger years.


Curtis Performes, Schubert Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173

[1] Composer Biographies, GroveMusic

[2] Wikipedia, Franz Schubert

[3] AllMusic, Franz Schubert String Quartet No. 9 in G minor, D. 173

[4] Kammermusikkammer, Franz Schubert: Die Streichquartette

[5] Franz Schubert – String Quartets

[6] Famous Composers, Franz Schubert, Documentary
Part 1: http://youtu.be/QOeS93VATck
Part 2: http://youtu.be/dpBcnPUkLmU
Part 3: http://youtu.be/CIWLIQVSNmA