Moving From the Obvious to Theoretical/Hypothetical


Observations: An empirical or practical observation about the text that is obvious, conclusive and not debatable. Generally, observations recap the “what” of a text: what the author says or believes, what happens, so forth, writing that lends more to summary than analytical development.


Claims: Claims are theoretical statements (derived from a hypothesis or driving theoretical question) that are debatable, matters of interpretation, and therefore require justification and elaboration. It is your job to convince readers of the legitimacy of your claim / driving theoretical idea (presented as the thesis).


Exercise: Determine which of these statements are claims and which are merely factual observations.


1)       Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is a highly debatable piece that continues to shape and influence our thinking today.

2)       Emerson states why people should be more self-reliant, what’s generally stopping them, and how to overcome these barriers.

3)       Although it’s easy to disagree with some of what Emerson has to say, most of his ideas are very intelligent and should be considered.

4)       According to Emerson, people live through the world around them because they are taught to conform to the names and the customs society practices.

5)       Emerson, nineteenth century poet and writer, expresses a philosophy of life, based on our inner self and the presence of the soul.

6)       “Do not seek answers outside yourself.” This is one of the main ideas of Emerson’s philosophy.


KEY: You want to move beyond the obvious (i.e., “Emerson exhorts people to not conform and to embrace their individuality”) to say something about the text that isn’t readily obvious to the reader and therefore a matter of persuasion. In other words, you must do more (substantially more) than simply tell me what the author is saying and what he/she means. You must draw conclusions and form interpretations about the significance, meaning, and/or impact of the work (and its philosophy)—see handout on “Interpretive Questions” for guidance.


Here are some protocols for developing a strong theoretical thesis:

?           It must be speculative (it necessitates further discussion/argument)

?           It should involve a certain complexity; it cannot be obvious (i.e., restating plot)

?           It must be specific (avoid broad and vague statements—“Emerson’s philosophy of individualism teaches us overcome many struggles” or “Emerson’s essay deals with many life questions”)


Avoid Vague, Generalized, and “Preachy” statements:

People need to practice aversion and escape the conformity that society strives on.


Being yourself will help you to solve the problems of your life. We need to trust ourselves in order to improve our life, like all great men have done.


Avoid Responses of Personal Narrative

After reading the ideas expressed in “Self-Reliance,” I have come to believe that self-reliance is the most important factor in my past and future life.


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Emerson's Self-Reliance
The Explicator; Washington; Winter 1997; Mitchell, Verner D

Conflicting modes of thought on Emerson and slavery continue to prove especially vexing. While I will refrain in this note from engaging the ongoing debates in any depth, I offer what I trust is a relatively new look at the comments Emerson makes about blacks and abolitionists in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.”

At first glance, Emerson seems insufficiently sensitive to the plight of African peoples held in captivity. Rather than join with abolitionists and combat slavery, he apparently chooses to embrace “nearer duties.” He writes concerning abolition:

If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes [sic], why should I not say to him, “Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off.”

We could certainly read this passage as a rather harsh revision of Candide’s “we must cultivate our [own] gardens.” Or put in more contemporary parlance, since charity begins at home, let’s forget about those black folk enslaved a thousand miles away and care for our own. However, a more valid assessment of Emerson’s language comes when the lines are read within the context of the essay as a whole. As with preceding biblical allusions, Emerson echoes the apostle John’s assertion that “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4.20). Similar to the apostle John, Emerson hears a man claim to love people living thousands of miles away whom he has never seen, yet the man shuns his infant and shuns his brother wood-chopper whom he sees daily. It is within this context that Emerson asks, “Why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant....’”

Viewed from this perspective, the passage is clearly not a call for selfishness at the expense of the enslaved. Instead, Emerson is seeking to guide the disingenuous philanthropist inward to a keener perception of his own duplicity and selfishness. In addition to hearing the philanthropist trumpet the latest news from Barbados, a perceptive Emerson notices that he ignores the cries of the impoverished and enslaved at home in “civilized” America. This much-debated passage demands, in short, that the philanthropist (and the essay's readers) gaze, as did Emerson and the apostle John before him, beneath the surface tenderness to see the poor both within and without. 

Exercise: Identify the author’s claims.




































In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson at first glance seems insufficiently sensitive to the plight of blacks held in slavery. A more valid assessment, however, comes when certain lines are read within the context of the essay as a whole.