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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (4)

September 6, 2016

If, thus far, Emerson seems within the broad lines of transcendental idealism insofar as efficaciousness follows from structures peculiar to humanity, more needs be said on the mode of existence of the world without. Naturally, as harmony implies a thoroughgoing relation between two parts, it now becomes all the more important to get into view that between which there here exists a relation. Emerson’s first attempt to set humanity off from nature turns on a twofold distinction:

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. (1:11-12)

At an explicit and philosophical level, Emerson thus breaks universe, understood as totality, down into self-consciousness and everything else. Implicitly, the author also collapses a common distinction between nature, art and human into the philosophical, leaving two different conceptions of nature. Notably, the philosophical distinction appears laden with terms from post-Kantian rather than Kantian philosophy, perhaps Fichte above all.

Regardless, Emerson can proceed with a clearer vision of that to which humanity or, more precisely, a given self-consciousness, stands in correspondence when faced with nature, philosophically considered. Yet with this distinction lurks an old specter concerning the subsistence of nature or the “not me”. This consideration leads Emerson in the sixth section, entitled “Idealism”, to circle back on the ends of nature which he has previously set out and to entertain a “noble doubt” for which the author sees only a highly unKantian resolution:

A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether this end be not the Final Cause of the Universe; and whether nature outwardly exists. It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World, that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations […] In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul? The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end […] or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man? Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses. (1:53-54)

Emerson seems here to formulate a position like the Cartesian or “problematic idealism” from Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism”, on which the human or the “Me” enjoys a privilege of certitude which nature of the “Not Me” does not share. Indeed, in the absence of conditions under which absolute existence might be apprehended independently of human sensation, there can be, so Emerson suggests, no way of settling the question satisfactorily for one or the other. Most strikingly, Emerson judges that the resolution of the question would itself prove of little importance in that nature retains an effective reality for humanity, conceived both philosophically and commonly, whether nature be the spontaneous creation of God from moment to moment or a subsistent entity of its own. From there, the author concludes to its necessary ideality for the human being.

Understood in this way, the passage in question finds itself at odds with much in the “Refutation of Idealism”. Although Kant deems problematic idealism a rational view until outer sense can be established more firmly with regards to inner sense, recall that Kant considers the matter closed as soon as one acknowledges nature or outward things as necessarily actual in order to ground inner sense and self-consciousness. Accordingly, holding either of two solutions to be equally acceptable amounts either to maintaining problematic idealism without regards to Kant’s proof or to contradicting the precise formulation thereof. In the absence of further textual evidence, it seems only natural to conclude to the latter and, hence, proves difficult to countenance a significant Kantian influence therein.

Certainly, it might seem that, given the foregoing, the question of influence at the level of idealism has swiftly reached its end, but the precise formulation of Emerson’s idealism shifts from passage to passage. Thus, there exist passages where the author appears to lean towards a greater stability, perhaps even actuality, for nature and things. Consider that:

The frivolous make themselves merry with the Ideal theory, if its consequences were burlesque; as if it affected the stability of nature. It surely does not. God never jests with us, and will not compromise the end of nature, by permitting any inconsequence in its procession. Any distrust of the permanence of laws, would paralyze the faculties of man. Their permanence is sacredly respected, and his faith therein is perfect. The wheels and springs of man are all set to the hypothesis of the permanence of nature. We are not built like a ship to be tossed, but like a house to stand. It is a natural consequence of this structure, that, so long as the active powers predominate over the reflective, we resist with indignation any hint that nature is more short-lived or mutable than spirit. (1:54)

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