Cavell’s “Moral Perfectionism” or Emerson’s “Moral Sentiment”?

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Abstract
What is properly Emersonian about moral perfectionism? Perhaps the best answer is: not much. Stanley Cavell's signature concept, which claims close kinship to Emerson's ethical philosophy, seems upon careful examination to be rather far removed from it. Once we get past the broad, unproblematic appeals to Emerson's “unattained but attainable self,” and consider the specific content and implications of perfectionism, the differences between the two thinkers become too substantive – and too fraught with serious misunderstandings – to be ignored. It is above all Cavell's complete disregard for the Emersonian “moral sentiment” that jeopardizes his claim to be a continuator of Emerson's legacy in ethical philosophy. I would not deny that Cavell's own work stands as an extraordinary contribution to contemporary ethics. Nor would I dispute his title as the living philosopher who has done more than any other to restore Emerson to his rightful place in the history of American philosophy, as a thinker worthy of the highest consideration. Still less would I discount the boldness and originality of Cavell's readings of Emerson. What I am contesting, rather, is the propriety of attaching the label “Emersonian” to the notion of perfectionism, especially in view of its strong anti-metaphysical bias. The Emerson canon provides ample grounds for rejecting Cavell's claim as largely unsubstantiated and in a number of crucial ways inconsistent with the moral sentiment's firm grounding of ethics in ontology.
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Archival date: 2015-11-21
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