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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (5)

September 7, 2016


But whilst we acquiesce entirely in the permanence of natural laws, the question of the absolute existence of nature still remains open. It is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind, not to shake our faith in the stability of particular phenomena, as of heat, water, azote; but to lead us to regard nature as a phenomenon, not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit; to esteem nature as an accident and an effect. (1:55)

Yet neither passage quite manages to close the doubt which Emerson has let back in. Although nature exists as phenomenon rather than substance and enjoys a well-grounded permanence, Emerson nevertheless dubs it accident and effect with regards to humanity or self-consciousness. This may lend credence to the view that, in the most important way, there can be no question of a properly transcendentalism idealism but rather of an effectively immaterialist idealism, if not an outright subjectivism (cf. Van Leer’s contrary interpretation of first section at p. 30).

At this juncture, one interpretive route seems left to a Kantian reading of Nature‘s sixth section: taking Emerson’s assertions as the preliminary step of a reasoning beginning with the exposition of materialist idealism, next showing its insufficiency whether theoretical or practical, and, at last, ending in a Kantian transcendental idealism. As this first step, Emerson might reasonably be seen as linking the formulation of a noble doubt to a natural movement of the intellect:

Intellectual science has been observed to beget invariably a doubt of the existence of matter […] It fastens the attention upon immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, upon Ideas; and in their presence, we feel that the outward circumstance is a dream and a shade. Whilst we wait in this Olympus of gods, we think of nature as an appendix to the soul. (1:61)

On such a reading, this passage would isolate the tendencies of the intellect or pure reason as that for which a transcendental idealism must correct. Then, a further passage, not unlike the following, could point to certain failings of the materialist idealism under discussion:

Three problems are put by nature to the mind; What is matter? Whence is it? and Whereto? The first of these questions only, the ideal theory answers. Idealism saith: matter is a phenomenon, not a substance. Idealism acquaints us with the total disparity between the evidence of our own being, and the evidence of the world’s being. Yet, if it only deny the existence of matter, it does not satisfy the demands of the spirit. It leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions, to wander without end. Then the heart resists it, because it balks the affections in denying substantive being to men and women. Nature is so pervaded with human life, that there is something of humanity in all, and in every particular. But this theory makes nature foreign to me, and does not account for that consanguinity which we acknowledge to it. (1:66-67)

Of the problems above, material idealism can only give the “what” of nature: mere appearance or phenomenon. More specifically, it fails on two counts. On one hand, its relegating nature to mere appearance casts doubt on human practical orientation, in particular its natural faith in the solidity of matter and existence of nature, a position to which Emerson holds despite a (preliminary) problematic idealism. On the other, material idealism leaves up in the air a teleology of nature capable of making sense of that felt “consanguinity” with nature. In the end, the author finds the account put forward by materialist idealism doubly unsatisfying and sees the need for an overarching explanation. On this last point, it is not farfetched to imagine Emerson of a piece with Kant on the need for such an explanation.

Nonetheless, a further passage would be required to complete the transition from the insufficiency of materialist idealism to a fullfledged transcendental idealism, but that passage simply is not forthcoming. Nor, in truth, is transcendental idealism, as presented within The Critique of Pure Reason, suited to fulfill that need. Only with the publication of The Critique of the Faculty of Judgment does such an explanation emerge.

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