Monday, May 27, 2013

Locke and Emerson on Commonplace Books

Lawrence Rosenwald discusses in Emerson and the Art of the Diary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) among other things Emerson's relation to Locke. He gets many of the details right, but his picture as a whole is distorting their relation. He points out that Emerson claimed in his first journal that "these pages are intended at this their commencement ... for all the various purposes & utility real or imaginary which are usually comprehended under that comprehensive title //Common Place book// (JMN I: 3-4)" (30). More specifically, they seem to have been devised in accordance with Locke's method. In this program, the first step consists "of drawing up an index page" of one hundred boxes, "with each of twenty initial letters being allotted five boxes, and each of the vowels by which the initial letters may be followed being allotted one box of the five" (31). When passages are encountered that are thought worthy of being entered into the commonplace book, they are entered on the next empty page, given a subject heading, and this subject is also entered into "the appropriate slot of the index page" (31).

Rosenwald believes that this method implies a certain pressure through "the necessity of devising a subject heading for a passage directly upon entering it. Locke's method, that is, requires rapid classification, it implies that category inheres visibly in the passage itself, not in the use the writer may later make of it." Locke's method eliminates "the circumstantial" (31). It "clearly and efficiently removes the detritus of historical or personal context clinging to the passages we dredge up and leaves them bright, clean, and isolated not only from us who found them, from the context in which they they emerged as interesting, but also from one another" (32). This is, however, not the genius of Locke's method, it is due to the fact that what he collects are common places, or, perhaps better, common ideas. Nor are they as isolated as Rosenwald believes. They re-constitute a world that itself exists quite independently of Locke's efforts.

Emerson's journal consists of "essayistic material" (37). It also gets indexed, but the index comes after the fact. It is a help for memory. It needs an index "of every kind." As Emerson pointed out himself, it is "alphabetic, systematic, arranged by names of persons, by colors, tastes, smell, shapes, likeness, unlikeness, by all sorts of mysterious hooks and eyes to catch and hold, and contrivances for giving a hint (W XII: 93, based on JMN V: 61)" (142). There is no common order here, or an objective world into which each passage neatly fits. The meaning of each note or fragment remains much more subjective. Rosenwald sees this. What is for Locke a "thing" (or better an "idea") becomes for Emerson an "event." Locke has firm categories, Emerson presents "linked facets" that can take on take on different meanings in different contexts. Somewhat like Leibniz, Emerson is convinced that "the World [does] reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires," that every thought is a World (40). The development is from "a commonplace book of parts to a journal of wholes" (43). Furthermore, he claims: "The Lockean commonplace is a stockroom for the writer; it is no more a book than is a scholars collection of index cards." Emerson's journal, by contrast, is essentially a book for Rosenwald.

I believe that Rosenwald goes much too far here. In fact, it is the other way around, Locke's commonplace book is indeed a coherent book, reflecting a more or less coherent world. Emerson's journals are like connected fragments that stand in need of indexing so that connections can be established. He invents categories and does not find them. His journals are much more modern, not to say Romantic. They are "a patchwork of copied and uncopied, revised and unrevised, corrected and uncorrected" fragments, not a uniform draft (68). They are characterized "by very little system" (70).

I think there is no way back to Locke's way of doing things.[1] Nor is Emerson's really a possibility for us. Still, practically speaking, my way of taking notes is indebted to both, being in some ways closer to Emerson's. I do assign titles or subject headings to notes when I take them, but they not represent rigid classifications. Even the categories I assign to these topics are more like tags than they are a system.

1. I say this in spite of the fact that I own a little commonplace book with the Lockean index printed on the first few pages. I like to look at it, but I don't use it. ConnectedText and blank paperbooks support my work more "naturally."


Star Pilot said...

It is quite natural of you to prefer ConnectedText. CT allows you to recategorize topics easily. No mucking about with erasing or striking out in a hand written notebook. CT allows you to pull in all topics in any fashion you like, and this is made even easier if the information is tagged well (allowing you to pull in all topics tagged by author, and/or by period, and/or by subject, and/or by when you entered it, etc). CT allows you to sift whatever you've placed into it. It allows you to reorganize it all with much less effort. You can pull together various topics and display them inside other topics. With all these capabilities (and more), it is little wonder that you prefer CT. An item entered into CT can morph through many classifications and evolutions, while still retaining a copy of your older thoughts on that topic in the history of the item. What physical notebook system could ever compete with that?

If you wanted, you could easily follow a consistant methodology or rigid system for entering your topics into CT. But you don't have to and therefore it is no surprise that you find soft and organic systems much more of a natural fit for the way you work.

MK said...

You are perfectly right, of course.