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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (1)

September 1, 2016

Given the setting, it may first be necessary to consider a moment the theme which brings us together: Kant and the Anglo-Saxons. If the theme’s namesakes present little in the way of interpretative difficulty, the conjunction “and” may nevertheless remain of a certain unclarity. For “and” can connote anything from sequence to causality or even mere juxtaposition. Though the question may appear trivial in and of itself, it is especially worth asking of the relation between Immanuel Kant and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the subject of our contribution. More specifically, it is our intention to trace what obscure connections may be drawn between the two figures and illustrate to what extent relations of sequence, influence or causality may arise therefrom.

The fact of a connection of any kind between the philosopher of Königsberg and the Sage of Concord may reasonably come as a surprise to some readers. For, were one to ask a group of philosophers about the existence of a recognizably American strain of philosophy, most would likely gesture to the early 20th century pragmatists or the analytic school of the second half of the 20th century (cf. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, p. vii) . If few would likely point to the Transcendentalist Club as a locus of serious philosophical discussion, this omission would be overlooked in that its ranks, counting such luminaries as Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, amongst others, have in the intervening years most often found their place in literary discussion, notably with regards to the American reception of European Romanticism (cf. Goodman, American Philosophy, pp. vii-vii). Their place within American universities confirms much the same; one would be hard-pressed to find them within the philosophy department. My own exposure thereto came in high school English courses and a university History seminar.

In light of this academic context, one may rightfully wonder as to why a serious-minded philosopher would link Emerson and Kant. As it happens, Emerson’s work, previously considered more literary, has undergone an important rehabilitation since 1970, thanks in large part to Stanley Cavell, and has yielded contain considerable engagement with serious philosophical issues of the author’s time (cf. Cavell’s Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes). Of particular importance have shown themselves Emerson’s contributions in epistemology, notably his attempt to navigate the murky debate between skepticism, empiricism and idealism (as well as the “Romantic triad” of nature, spirit, humanity as in Harvey’s, Transatlantic Transcendentalism, pp. 119-140). In that attempt, certain commentators have found a strong Kantian orientation and even the makings of a distinctly American extension of transcendental idealism and the critical philosophy.

Yet contributors to the secondary literature diverge on the extent to which Emerson’s professed idealism remains within the lines of the Kantian critical philosophy. Views range from those on which Kantian premises underlie and structure the essays (David van Leer) to those for whom Emerson’s work betrays interest in overall Kantian themes (Stanley Cavell) and even to those who consider Kant’s influence on Emerson to have been negligible. If the academic consensus on Emerson’s Kantian allegiances proves so equivocal, this owes in great part to the peculiar character of Emerson’s work, hence the mark above that what connections may exist seem “obscure”. That character, and Kant’s place in it, may be captured in the following observations: 1.) Emerson’s writing style; 2.) Emerson’s philosophical methodology; 3.) a paucity of references to Kant in the published works.

Of 1.), it is important to note that Emerson’s most important philosophical contributions appear as essays in which the genre’s beginnings as an “attempt” come to the fore (as per the etymology of “essay”). Therein are mixed philosophical claims, daily life observations, anecdotes and quotations from disparate sources, Classical and contemporary as well as Buddhist and Hindu. At the level of content, this lends the text a rather piecemeal appearance, an effect further heightened, at the level of structure, by Emerson’s habit of piecing his essays together from sentences and fragments scattered in his journals. This piecemeal approach led one contemporary reader, Bronson Alcott, to opine that one could just as easily read them backwards as forwards.

To some extent, 2.) follows naturally from 1.) insofar as more traditional philosophical argumentation, roughly, an argument advanced on the basis of a number of claims, each provided with justificatory warrants, which argument may then serve as a claim within the next step or argument of the overall argumentation. Seldom does Emerson proceed in this way, for both personal and methodological reasons. While he professed a lack of talent for sustained argumentation, it bears mentioning that Emerson’s conception of human faculties led him to privilege modes of discourse more likely to induce a state of inspiration, insight or intuition (in a non-Kantian sense). When one adds to this the writer’s views on logical consistency, Emerson’s position proves more tenable than at first glance (cf. his take on consistency in “Nominalist – Realist”, as well as discussion of the different Emersons before and after “Method of Nature”).

This leaves us, at last, at 3.). Indeed, of Emerson’s essays and booklength works, few make explicit reference to Kant or his work. A mere eighteen mentions appear therein, without extended treatment, and of which a significant portion group the philosopher of Königsberg with earlier Rationalists or contemporary Idealists or count his work as an instance of genius, in Emerson’s narrower sense, and leave it at that. This dearth may be attributed to Emerson’s reading, which is known to have included expositions and reviews of Kant’s work by his English translators and readers, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but more rarely the works themselves in translation (cf. Goodman, “Transcendentalism”, Wellek, “Emerson and German Philosophy”, pp. 41-42, Harvey, Transatlantic Transcendentalism, 1-23). Nor is Kant, despite his “genius”, one of the titular “representative men” of Emerson’s essay collection of the same name (cf. “Representative Men”) wherein Plato, Montaigne and Swedenborg each find a home in one of the constitutive essays.

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