Ecstatic Rationalism


by Justin E. H. Smith

I have recently been informed that I am “outside of the sociology” of academic philosophy. (The person who said this of me is someone I like and admire, and whose presence on the scene I value, very much.) I think this means, for one thing, that I do not display a number of the shibboleths that are commonly used by members of the clan to identify other members, like Vikings with their brooches. Sometimes this is because I refuse to display them, and sometimes this is because I am unaware that they exist.

One of the most common shibboleths, of which I have been aware since grad school, is that one must ostentatiously grumble about all those times when strangers, for example seat neighbors on airplanes, innocently ask “what [your] philosophy is”. One is supposed to complain to fellow clan members that hoi polloi do not even know that a true philosopher does not “have a philosophy”, all while delicately avoiding use of a term like “hoi polloi” that might make explicit the class-based nature of this disdain.

Here’s the thing though: I do have a philosophy, and I like being asked what it is. So this is two strikes against me in my already contested petition for residence within the sociology of philosophy (a residence I had too casually assumed permanent when I got my Ph.D. and went out into the world and just kept doing philosophy). But when I explain what my philosophy is, rather than simply acknowledging that I have one, that’s when I really risk being taken for an outsider. Here we are not talking about a mere shibboleth or vocational tic, but about which of the historical legacies of philosophy we wish to see carried over into the future.

I recognize that I am on the losing side, that the historical legacies that I value, and that have in some places and times constituted the paradigm for doing philosophy, seem so strange today that I sound as if I must simply not know what philosophy is when I try to defend them. But that is not my problem. My work is to keep forgotten alternatives alive in the hope and expectation that they will one day again be valued.

Part of this work, conceived in this way, is ‘merely’ doxographical, and there are legitimate reasons why we do not think that Diogenes Laërtius or Isidore of Seville are great philosophers, or why we think that people setting themselves up as latter-day Isidores might not be deserving of the highest perks and accolades the discipline has to offer. Yet the line between dead doxography and living traduction of tradition is not so clear, and I would like to think that doing critical editions and translation of past figures is a form of real contribution to philosophy. This form is more valued in Europe than in America, where there is greater awareness of the difficulty of escaping tradition (about this more below) and in at least this one respect I acknowledge that I have been Europeanized.

I am currently in the United States for my longest sojourn here since 2002, and after so many years away it seems to me that my distance from the culture of American academic philosophy is to some extent only a single dimension of my distance from American culture as a whole. My encounter with American philosophy so far, since arriving in late August, might be summed up as follows:

[Scene: a post-conference reception, somewhere in America]

Young American philosopher: “I work on forgiveness, and Louis C. K. trying to make a comeback so soon? That’s not OK.”

American philosophy establishment: Great stuff, great stuff.

Me: I’m, uh, finishing up a critical edition of Pierre Gassendi’s 1657 Syntagma Philosophicum.

American philosophy establishment: How curious. You must be very erudite, but not really part of the sociology of philosophy.

Where, I wonder, is the Henry James of today, who could make sense of this dialogue des sourds, the great novel of manners that would again lay bare the American character through the mirror of the Old World?

In any case what I wanted to do here was to try to show why attachment to currently undervalued or perhaps totally forgotten conceptions of the philosophical project —attachment of the sort that leads a person to spend years of a life plugging away at translating and editing obscure Latin works— might constitute a positive contribution to philosophy, and might be worthy of a place in the contemporary sociology of the discipline.

Some of my guiding lights in philosophy are Aristotle, Petrus Ramus, G. W. Leibniz, Walt Whitman, and Cornel West. Together they help to give shape to a set of enduring commitments, a philosophy, that I have come to think of as “ecstatic rationalism”. I think I can summarize it under four principal headings, all of which overlap with and inform the others in fundamental ways.


Knowledge of universal truths comes through particulars, and adequate attention to any particular can be as useful for coming to know general truths as any attempt to contemplate these truths directly in circumventing the particulars. Thus, to draw an example from Aristotle, a tide pool filled with marine invertebrates is as good a setting as any for doing philosophy, as the structure and diversity of the perishable individual forms found there provides a key into the nature of the divine and eternal (or whatever updated but still basically equivalent terms you prefer). Thus what is sometimes called Aristotle’s “invitation to biology”:

“We… must not recoil with childish aversion from examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.”

Ecstatic rationalism thus entails what Anne-Lise Rey and I, in reference to Leibniz, have sometimes been inclined to call “rationalist empiricism”: only an apparent contradiction in terms, this holds that our a priori knowledge of the nature of reality is buttressed and enlivened by empirical inquiry, rather than being challenged or abandoned by it. Science is on this view not just good for philosophy, but constitutive of philosophy. Ecstatic rationalism does not excuse itself for taking an interest in jellyfish, nor does it rush to say, “Okay, now that we’ve got some empirical facts in place, let’s move on to the philosophy part.” It says, rather, “Jellyfish!” and it pays attention to them until they reveal themselves to be expressions of the same thing that interests us in everything that is not a jellyfish.


Erudition is necessary for philosophy. In my long experience with the American philosophy establishment, I have noticed that the term “erudite” almost always functions as a back-handed compliment. It is what I hear every time I am turned down for something or other. Erudition is generally held by American philosophers to be a sort of consolation prize for the absence of rigor, and so the people who have rigor do things like studying forgiveness while having only the last few years of celebrity gossip, and perhaps also personal experience, to draw on, rather than studying, say, Renaissance manuals of courtly manners, or wergeld in feudal law, or corporal punishment in pre-contact Huronia. Or people with rigor will argue that human fetuses, rightly understood, have only the same moral status as plants, without knowing anything at all about the way the moral status of plants has been conceptualized in different societies throughout human history (very brief summary: in most places and times, plants do have moral status). In short, you have to know stuff, and no reading you do deserves to be marginalized or neutralized as extra-disciplinary, as mere erudition.

All of this was well understood by Ramus, Regius Professor of Philosophy and Eloquence, though he was derided in his own time for “following no particular route but merely barking at theoretical odds and ends”. And yet the Ramist tradition continues to weave like a fine thread through the fabric of early modern philosophy. In Leibniz in particular the study of language, not least the poetic or literary traditions of oral cultures, will become a cornerstone of his approach to the study of human reason, as something that has diverse expressions but is at bottom always the same. Thus in the New Essays concerning Human Understanding of 1704:<

“When the Latins, Greeks, Hebrews and Arabs shall someday be exhausted, the Chinese, supplied also with ancient books, will enter the lists and furnish matter for the curiosity of our critics. Not to speak of some old books of the Persians, Armenians, Copts and Brahmins, which will be unearthed in time so as not to neglect any light antiquity may give on doctrines by tradition and on facts by history… And if there were no longer an ancient book to examine, languages would take the place of books, and they are the most ancient monuments of mankind.”

When the Swedish explorer and linguist Philip Johan von Strahlenberg sets out for Siberia in the 1720s, he brings with him a list of instructions that Leibniz had composed before his death for the proper method of recording samples of Indigenous languages. This was, as Han Vermeulen has noted, the birth of what would become ethnography. It was also, from Strahlenberg’s point of view, what might be called “field Leibnizianism”: a realization, through collaborative field science, of the philosopher’s deepest metaphysical project of discerning the unity that underlies diversity.

In 1698 Leibniz complains in a letter to another Swedish linguist, Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld, that “people criticize me when I attempt to take leave of the study of mathematics, and they tell me that I am wrong to abandon solid and eternal truths in order to study the changing and perishable things that are found in history and laws.” This plea on the part of a philosopher, for the freedom to pay attention as a philosopher to perishable things, is an echo of Aristotle’s invitation to biology. And the signal of this echo, now greatly faded to the point of being virtually undetectable, is one that it is worth trying to boost in our present age.


Every thing contains every other thing, and every truth about the world can be derived from an adequate understanding of any thing in the world. This is so far really just the standard-fare undergrad module on Leibniz. The difference though is that, while in undergrad courses we are expected to teach it as though it were a mere curiosity of the history of philosophy, I maintain that it is true. (Why we teach it at all, while also presupposing that nobody is actually going to believe it, is something that has long puzzled me.)

In virtue of this condition of universal mutual containment, there is no limit to what you can know, notably of the lives and subjectivities of others. You can get outside of yourself; you can literally experience ecstasy.

Walt Whitman, developing a tendency already there in early American transcendentalism and pushing it to its (rational) extreme, went so far as to assert that he contains within him the whole history of life on earth and of the formation of the cosmos:

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If we can go along with Whitman this far, and imagine that we know dinosaurs and minerals and so on because their being is a part of the being of our own souls, then a fortiori we will find the contemporary demand to “stay in your lane”, epistemologically speaking, offensive and strange.

Obviously, standpoint epistemology is usefully invoked in certain pragmatic contexts, as a check on our tendency to casually assume we know what another’s experience is like without really thinking about it. But the transformation of this pragmatic principle, mostly a matter of basic respect, into some kind of deep ontological divide between people who in fact share quite a bit, into a metaphysics of windowlessness minus the doctrine of universal mutual containment, is offensive to reason and to imagination at once. You think you do not know what it is like to be a person born into a different situation? Imagine harder. You think you do not know what it is like to be a factory-farmed calf being prodded down the gauntlet to its death? How convenient for you, but you’re not imagining hard enough. Ecstatic rationalism despises the idea of “allyship”, which is the more overtly political expression of the ontology of windowlessness without mutual containment. I do not want to be your ally. I want to be your kin. Anything less is a waste of your time and mine.


I have been using “ecstatic” mostly in its literal sense, that of being outside of oneself. There is another more common usage of it in which it overlaps with something like “histrionic”, and I mean at least to suggest this too. Leibniz was ecstatic only in the first sense, while Whitman is ecstatic in both senses. It is the possibility of this sort of Whitmanian ecstasy that I think is the greatest legacy of American philosophy. It is embodied for example by Cornel West, who understands his own philosophical work on the model of jazz improvisation, and traces this as much to the literature of the so-called American Renaissance as he does to jazz itself. (He has also found himself in career trouble at various times as a result of his insistence on engaging with philosophy in this mode, but in his case it was both a prejudice against a certain style of thought, as well as simple racism, that created the perfect cocktail of controversy; I only have to worry about the first sort of hazard.) Here is West, speaking on the figure of Black Guinea in Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857):

“You have to understand, that grotesque Negro cripple… is part of my own heritage. Because what you actually have there is a jazz-like figure, an improvisational figure on the ropes, a figure who’s able to use smoke and mirrors not just to survive catastrophe but to try to maintain a certain kind of sanity and dignity, a certain kind of compassion, and a certain kind of hope… That’s why Black Guinea inspires me to try to be a blues man in the life of the mind, to play jazz in the world of ideas. And Melville? He’s my agnostic comrade and democratic companion!”

Whitman and West, and indeed Melville too, embody the free-wheeling engagement with learnedness that erudite Europeans can easily read as superficiality. But it is important to interpret this new American position on “book-learning” correctly. Whitman, as usual, does so with remarkable clarity:

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The poet does not despise learnedness, but only insists, very much against European sensibilities, that in reading we are making books our own rather than submitting to them, and that the proper form of engagement with tradition for an American is to take what we want from it, and then to “stand in my own place with my own day here.”

There is a remarkable scene in Henry Clay Brockmeyer’s journal of his life as a frontier Hegelian in Missouri in the 1850s, published as A Mechanic’s Diary. He is sitting in his cabin trying to read Spinoza’s Ethics, when he hears some critters scuttling outdoors and he can’t resist the urge to grab his rifle and go shooting at them, hoping to get some more squirrel broth to carry with him in a portable jug when he ventures into St. Louis to meet his peers. This little exemplum seems to get at something deep about the condition of philosophy in these United States. And in spite of the suggestion that I am too Europeanized to know what’s going on in American philosophy, Brockmeyer’s is a condition that I know well. I do not go chasing after squirrels, but mutatis mutandis his experience is my own, and it is a fundamentally different experience from that of my Parisian colleagues.

Whitman embraced the difficulty of achieving sustained attention towards anything in this setting, but also was bold enough to make largely self-generated improvisational thinking the basis of a new and proud American style. This sort of improvisation is not at odds with erudition, even if it seems reckless, insufficiently staid, indeed histrionic, from the perspective of the Old World and its decaying kingdom of customs. Whitman and West both, though, in representing what is best in the American style of thought, are at odds with the spirit of current American philosophy, which simply does not allow itself enough source material to riff on or improvise in any compelling way, and so pursues answers to philosophical questions from within the bubble of the small sector of contemporary American culture that it takes for reality itself.

Piece originally published at