Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2023

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



“Pragmatic Ambiguities” reexamines the aphorism as a method of thought in nineteenth-century American nonfiction, especially among the Transcendentalists and pragmatists. Most recent English-language accounts of the aphorism ignore this concept of the form, defining it instead as a short, pithy witticism or proverb. I instead define the aphorism as a style of writing that functions as an open-ended thought experiment, using poetic features like suggestiveness, metaphor, and rhythm to unsettle authoritative interpretations while encouraging new and expansive possible meanings. The aphorism’s inherent ambiguity encourages re-reading, adding layers of meaning through multiple perspectives, thus the form appeals to collaborative discovery—between writer, reader, and text, but also among communities of readers. My dissertation recovers an overlooked style of writing by linking American aphoristic writers with their transatlantic nineteenth-century counterparts, showing how diverse authors from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Emily Dickinson and Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in a way that disrupts systematic thought and the rigid division of literature and science. The American aphorism, I argue, encourages speculative exploration and experimentation within texts, bringing together a wider range of affective experience and knowledge than strict disciplinary boundaries allows. The title of this dissertation refers simultaneously to the lineage of writers included and the methodology of the aphoristic form I uncover. While William James was one of the founders of American Pragmatism, and scholars like Joan Richardson and Cornel West claim Emerson and W. E. B. Du Bois as Pragmatists, I also include Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson in this group. All of these writers follow the Pragmatist interest in the “fact of feeling,” or the empirical significance of emotions and other felt experiences beyond the strictly cognitive. While scholars have already displayed how this dissolves the rigid boundary of science, they have typically overlooked the aphorism’s unique significance in communicating these ideas, with Richard Poirier specifically disparaging the so-called “aphoristic Emerson.” However, I reveal how these writers use the aphoristic form, appealing to ambiguity, undeciphered metaphors and analogies, and the blending of scientific insight with philosophical concepts to create writing that requires an ever-expanding matrix of speculation and creative re-reading. As such, these writers build on the tradition of the scientific aphorism of Francis Bacon, who used the form to avoid too quickly fitting empirical evidence into a rigid scientific theory. Rather than condensing into a gemlike, universal truth, the aphorism forces the reader’s thoughts to spiral outward into new directions, revealing what Beverly Coyle terms its “centrifugal force.” By blending multiple disciplines, which in the nineteenth century were not yet cemented into the “two cultures” of humanities and science, these writers form connections that intuitively feel larger than the texts which contain them.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Steven Meyer Abram Van Engen

Committee Members

Matt Erlin, Ulla Haselstein, Anca Parvulescu, Rafia Zafar,

Available for download on Monday, May 10, 2123