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”

More Metonymy: the thread of quotation

The second paragraph in “Quotation and Originality” provides a good example of Emerson’s use of, and philosophical interest in, metonymy–as well as its difference from metaphor. Here is the paragraph:

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws ; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. The Patent-Office Commissioner knows that all machines in use have been invented and re-invented over and over; that the mariner’s compass, the boat, the pendulum, glass, movable types, the kaleidoscope, the railway, the power-loom, etc., have been many times found and lost, from Egypt, China, and Pompeii down; and if we have arts which Rome wanted, so also Rome had arts which we have lost ; that the invention of yesterday of making wood indestructible by means of vapor of coal-oil or paraffine was suggested by the Egyptian method which has preserved its mummy-cases four thousand years.

Metaphor: the warp and woof of every moment, a metaphorical image of weaving, picked up by “thread” and strands–a metaphor we use all the time: the ‘thread’ of an idea in a book or discussion. Emerson’s “thread” here–or as we also could call it, his philosophy, his thesis–is that all ideas and thoughts are effects of quotation because “all minds quote.”

However, the idea of quotation is further elaborated with metonymy, where an idea is represented or discussed by way of language and image that are directly associated with the idea.

Metonymy: the various actions and materials associated with quotation: books, reading, writing. And of course, these metonymic associations are particularly relevant to the essayist, certainly Emerson, who spends his life engaging with books as a reader and writer.  Emerson further extends the metonymy to the invention of machines he discusses, reinforcing the idea that all inventions are quotations of previous machines–and the ideas that those machines are based on. In this way Emerson stretches the metonymy (various things associated with the idea of quotation) to the point of metaphor (quoting a chair). But in Emerson’s philosophy of quotation, the invention of a machine or a chair is a real act of quotation (not just a metaphorical one), since ideas circulate through our thinking, reading, and writing.  In fact, I would argue that the very word “invention” here is being directly associated with writing and reading.  We can imagine inventors getting their ideas from books and other texts (blueprints, documents). But even further, I hear Emerson quoting his way back to a much older sense of “invention” from classical rhetoric: to invent means to discover, to come upon an idea. And in the rhetorical tradition, the “invention” of an argument emerges not with an original idea, but through the process of finding it already existing in previous models of thinking and writing that one studies, imitates, adapts.

How can a better grasp of metonymy help us in studying nonfiction and the essay? Metonymy is a figure of speech, just as metaphor is. But in the ways this figure focuses on details and real things associated with the idea, proximate to it (a book and its relation to the act of quotation), we can think of it as both figurative and literal at the same time. The figurative literalism or realism of this rhetorical figure will therefore be of interest in a genre (nonfiction) that wants to represent the world non-fictively. Think of it like a close-up in film. You are looking at the real thing–but in looking that closely, you might also be looking at something you haven’t seen before, something unfamiliar, surprising. This is how metonymy can work in an essay.

We will see more of this at work in Annie Dillard’s writing, a writer who reads and quotes from Emerson.