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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (3)

September 5, 2016

II: “As I Am, So I See”

Before delving into Emerson’s Nature, it will prove useful to recall the most important traits of Kant’s transcendental idealism as laid out in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” and refined in the “Refutation of Idealism”. Kant’s “General Remarks” in the former open by summarizing:

We have therefore wanted to say that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things that we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them to be, nor are their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us; and that if we remove our own subject or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, then all constitution, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed space and time themselves would disappear, and as appearances they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them […] (A42/B59).

In a word, human knowledge of outer world is intricately bound up with the means by which humans come to know that outer world as appearance, such that humans know best that by which they are so acquainted, i.e. the forms of the intuition and the faculties.

For his part, Rohlf spells the above out in more detail when he notes:

[S]cholars generally agree that for Kant transcendental idealism encompasses at least the following claims:

[1.] In some sense, human beings experience only appearances, not things in themselves.

[2.] Space and time are not things in themselves, or determinations of things in themselves that would remain if one abstracted from all subjective conditions of human intuition. […].

[3.] Space and time are nothing other than the subjective forms of human sensible intuition. […].

[4.] Space and time are empirically real, which means that “everything that can come before us externally as an object” is in both space and time, and that our internal intuitions of ourselves are in time […]. (Modified from original; bullet points replaced by numbers. As textual support for the above claims 2.), 3.), and 4.), Rohlf cites: 2.), A26/B42, A28/B44, A32–33/B49, A35–36/B52; 3.) A26/B42; A33/B49–50; 4.) A28/B44, A34–35/B51–52).

Notably, 2.), 3.), and, in particular, 4.) will find further extension in the Critique of Pure Reason‘s “Refutation of Idealism”, an important addition to the second edition, wherein Kant sets transcendental idealism apart from what he dubs “material idealism” and the two most important formulations thereof, “problematic” and “dogmatic” idealism (see B274-275). The former, which Kant associates with Descartes, holds “the existence of objects in space outside us to be either mere doubtful and indemonstrable” and so “professes only our incapacity for proving an existence outside us from our own by means of immediate experience” (idem.). In contrast, the latter, linked to Berkeley, takes the outer existence of objects to be “false and impossible” in that space is “impossible in itself” and objects in space “merely imaginary” (B274). To the latter, Kant deems his formulation of transcendental idealism sufficient response as space is no longer “a property that is to pertain to the things in themselves” but rather frames experience of things qua appearances (idem.). While the former “is rational and appropriate for a thorough philosophical manner of thought” in need of proof, Kant thinks to provides just such a proof by deriving the certitude of (Cartesian) inner experience in time from the determination of existence by outer things in space (for the full proof, see B275-279).)

From the foregoing emerges a well-defined transcendental idealism distinct from its idealist kin: time and space are forms of intuition rather than properties of objects within or without; the determination of experience by objects in space grounds inner experience in time; the combination thereof leaves the experience of things to be determined by human cognition without thereby withdrawing their empirical reality or actuality necessary for self-consciousness.

Attention can, at this point, turn to Emerson’s Nature and measure the proximity of the idealism exposed therein to Kant’s. The essay’s opening section takes up the question of teleology in nature:

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put […] In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature? (1:10-11)

Having judged that human experience of nature gives rise to no question which nature cannot at length answer, Emerson turns, in the next four sections, to the varieties of ends which nature may provide humanity in the form of commodity, beauty, language and discipline. Moreover, in each of these is at work a correspondence or analogy between humanity and nature such that humanity can act efficaciously upon nature. That said, nature is likewise able to produce effects in humanity, which consideration leads Emerson to speak of a harmony:

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right. Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight, does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both. (1:17)

Certainly, such a harmony would prove part and parcel of a teleology. This consideration will, however, be left aside for the moment so that further attention can be given to the distribution of power within this relation. For, as Emerson suggests, said harmony derives from the human side of the equation. In other words, humanity’s and nature’s ability to produce such effects one upon another owes to humanity’s particular constitution or make-up rather than the independent existence of certain structures within nature.

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