Philosophy, Literature, America

University College Dublin, May 30th and 31st 2014

1.Intellectual Rationale

Stanley Cavell has spent a philosophical career urging that American philosophy and American literature have always called for and communicated with each other, that in a romanticized New World literature for philosophy is neither “arbitrary embellishment” nor “necessary other”. Most creatively in readings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, he follows this entangled thread to find and found an intellectual tradition as naturally redemptive as it is natively American. Of course, Cavell works not to collapse but to interrogate the boundaries between the philosophical and the literary. From the 1960s to the present, his is a guiding intuition that the relationship between American literature and American philosophy stands in need of questioning, of opening, of unsettling – with all the latter’s evocation of anxiety as well as movement. This two-day international conference takes these pronouncements as guide and provocation. Opening beyond Cavell’s particular exemplars, and appealing to researchers not only in philosophy but in intellectual history and literary studies, we welcome contributions that explore the deep synchronicity between philosophy and literature in the American grain. 

2.Historical Scope

Ranging in historical scope from the writings of the first settlers to the fiction, poetry and drama of modernist and contemporary America, we challenge Cavell in his foregrounding of transcendentalism as the originary expression of a natively American philosophy. Cavell is understandably keen to rescue transcendentalism from perceived cultural and philosophical repression but we suggest (partly in challenge and partly in continuation of this project) that the philosophy/literature conversation can be heard in America as far back as the Puritans. Equally, we wish to understand this conversation as fully alive and fully evolving. In the fictional experiments of David Foster Wallace and Siri Hustvedt, to offer just two suggestive examples, we propose a coincidence of concern with the “literary turn” as variously encapsulated in the writings of Cavell, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum and Cora Diamond. 

3.Central Questions

These clashes of the philosophical and the literary in mind, a cluster of intellectual issues emerge. Firstly, in reading American philosophy with American literature, is there a critical temptation always to put the philosophy/theory first and the literature second? Does American literature and literary criticism pay attention to developments in American philosophy? Can American philosophy welcome American literature and still lay claim to methodological rigour? Have contemporary American philosophers characteristically restricted their analysis to a particular set of literary texts? And how might these same analyses be affirmed or troubled in acts of critical reading? These questions are not intended as exhaustive but as indicative of the broad range of our theoretical and methodological concern. 

4.Potential Contributions 

We hope for an innovative interdisciplinary debate building on literary as well as theoretical expertise. Contributions may include but are not limited to: 

1.The Puritans and Philosophy

2.Transcendentalism and Literature 

3.Pragmatism and Literature 

4.The American Renaissance and Philosophy

5.American Modernism and Philosophy

6.Philosophy and Literature in Contemporary America


Philosophy, Literature, America Conference Poster







The American Voice in Philosophy project is supported by:

  • The IRCHSS (“New Ideas” Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences)
  • UCD School of Philosophy
  • The International Journal of Philosophical Studies
  • UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies.
  • Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy
  • UCD Seed Funding

Principal Investigators

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