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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (2)

September 2, 2016

At this stage, one might naturally wonder whether any case can reasonably be made for Emerson’s supposed dialogue with transcendental idealism and critical philosophy. It then falls to the writer to show why and on what grounds such a case remains worth undertaking. Three considerations give reason to believe that Kant figures prominently in Emerson’s philosophical constellation, as it were. First, two references make clear just how Emerson esteems Kant’s contributions to the philosophical canon in both speculative and moral philosophy:

In literature the effect appeared in the decided tendency of criticism. The most remarkable literary work of the age has for its hero and subject precisely this introversion: I mean the poem of Faust. In philosophy, Immanuel Kant has made the best catalogue of the human faculties and the best analysis of the mind. (10: 311)

Morals is the direction of the will on universal ends. He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral,—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant,—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings […]” (10: 95)

The combination of these remarks bring two features out which receive lengthy treatment throughout Emerson’s career: the human faculties and lawfulness in both theoretical and practical dimensions 

Moreover, a third citation underscores that Emerson grasps, at the very least, the basic tenets of transcendental idealism:

It is well known to most of my audience that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Königsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man’s thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcendental. (1:322)

As Russell Goodman reads the passage above:

Emerson shows here a basic understanding of three Kantian claims, which can be traced throughout his philosophy: that the human mind “forms” experience; that the existence of such mental operations is a counter to skepticism; and that “transcendental” does not mean “transcendent” or beyond human experience altogether, but something through which experience is made possible. (Goodman, Russell, “Transcendentalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.)

Weak primacy of mind over experience, antiskepticism, and the bounds of experience: these claims recur throughout Emerson’s work and idealism (these also seem to accord with Michael Rohlf’s breakdown of transcendental idealism’s central elements: Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.). The above suggests that Kant and Emerson shared some common philosophical ground and stands as a second consideration in favor of this survey.

Yet the precise formulation of these broad ideas remains subject to extensive modulation over the thinker’s career, notably their combination with other strands of idealism, classical, early modern and post-Kantian. For, as Goodman rightly recalls, “Emerson’s idealism is not purely Kantian, however, for (like Coleridge’s) it contains a strong admixture of Neoplatonism and post-Kantian idealism” (idem.; but see also Harvey, op. cit., 1-15). This does not, however, rule the possibility of a connection out. Rather, it makes for a delicate undertaking all the while granting an important opportunity to parse out idealisms from monolithic idealism, from its immaterialist to transcendental wordings.

In truth, such an opportunity represents the third and final consideration for which one can deem a study of the Kant-Emerson connection appropriate: Emerson’s approach to the triads above, i.e. skepticism-empiricism-idealism, nature-spirit-humanity, provides just such an occasion for an evaluation of its various resolutions. It will, nevertheless, be necessary to set certain limits out for the present study, particularly given the breadth of the authors’ respective works. Accordingly, this analysis shall, mainly through the lens of Emerson’s Nature, a long 1836 essay originally published as a book, seek to clarify the Sage of Concord’s relation to Kant on three counts: 1.) the precise make-up of Emerson’s idealism; 2.) the functions ascribed to three human faculties, namely understanding, reason and intuition; 3.) the solutions offered by Emerson to the triads. (Further reason to privilege Nature over other works owes to its stronger structure than other works. It comprises eight sections, of which the first serves as introduction, the next four describe various ends of nature, the sixth introduces a notion of idealism, the seventh bounds this notion, and the eight opens onto new possibilities for human knowledge.) This will leave the present analysis in a position to situate these three elements with regards to three leading interpretations of Kant’s influence on Emerson and wherefrom it will be possible to provide some preliminary answers to each interpretation’s plausibility.

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