Philosophy of the Essay: You Got a Problem with That?

We have been thinking about and reading examples of the essay as a dynamic form of thinking and writing–a genre with a philosophy (and rhetoric, and poetics) that moves and responds to other arguments, other essays. In what ways does this philosophy of the essay fit with more academic-sounding conventions of argument–particularly if the  essay in question–for example, Emerson’s “Experience”–looks nothing like a typical argument, no thesis statement?

Argument need not mean merely or conventionally a thesis statement (though there might be one expected in an academic essay). An essay about personal experience, or informed by autobiographical perspective, is still a type of argument, if we think of the writing of experience to be, as Patricia Hampl puts it (by way of David Shields), “consciousness contending with experience.” Or as Shields later writes–borrowing from John D’agata, the essay is a “pursuit of solutions to problems” (#612).

So, as we recall from our experience with Emerson and Montaigne, among others, the very idea of thinking is contentious, a matter of argument. If the essay is “thought thinking,” it is largely because thought is thinking contending with the experience of other ideas and thoughts, ours and others. Here I agree with Joseph Harris, the author of Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts: this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) academic writing, and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” As Emerson reminds us, “there is then creative reading as well as creative writing.”

Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument; it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer–it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static. An argument essays.


To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem/Disturbance/Question/Conflict [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, upsets the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Response [in film–the turning point, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Think of how the essay has been defined, as a genre, in much these terms: a recognition of something new or unfamiliar in the familiar. The transcendentalism, as Emerson puts it in “Circles,” of common life.
So, what any academic argument/essay/book needs is what every good essay seeks to do: rethink. Consider this listing from Harvard University Press regarding what they expect a book project to do. These are questions relevant to your writing project as well:
Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?
For a view of the essay as an argument with oneself, recall Philip Lopate’s, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt”

The Philosophy of Recomposition: David Shields

We saw Emerson argue for a philosophy of “recomposition” in his essay “Quotation and Originality.” David Shields takes up the charge in Reality Hunger. In what ways is Shields’s project Emersonian? In what ways does his book work like an essay–at least in the senses of essay (as verb, as experiment) that we have been exploring? What is Shields’s philosophy of the essay?

Here are some clues to what Shields has in mind, and some links for further reading.

An interview with Colbert.

An interview where he name drops Emerson.

Here is an interview with Shields on Reality Hunger. In the interview, he discusses his interest in the ways nonfiction, in contrast to fiction, focuses on ideas and contemplation:

I love ideas and contemplation. The energy of the word as the writer wrestles with some personal or cultural cataclysm. Take Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a very short book composed of nothing but discreet paragraphs, ostensibly about her breaking up with this guy. Lots of memoirs and novels would just trace the relationship…but what she does in a series of beautifully far-ranging paragraphs is explore why the human animal is so melancholy…why are we so blue? And she explores…she flies all over, and for me that is a far richer meditation…whereas the traditional approach would be unending chapters about how this couple broke up. So many novels are hamstrung by the formulaic execution of scene, setting, dialogue, character development, back story, narrative, momentum, epiphany, closure…there are exceptions, but the books I love tend to be anti-novels. They foreground contemplation.

Shields’s website.

Shields’s essay is highly paratactic–a vivid and perhaps extreme example of parataxis, this way of structuring thought (and specifically, a sentence or a group of sentences) that has long been associated with the essay. Recall that Jeff Porter identifies parataxis as a key element of the poetics of the essay. For more on parataxis (and its contrast with hypotaxis), read here.