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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (6)

September 8, 2016

By now, the analysis has more or less exhausted the argumentative paths by which Emerson’s reader could potentially draw from Nature a transcendental idealism like that laid out in Kant’s work. At this point, only bibliographical or biographical considerations could present Nature as a preliminary step on the road to a transcendental idealism like Kant’s. If, for example, one allows that Emerson’s understanding of the latter may have reached a deeper appreciation only with the 1842 lecture and essay The Transcendentalist, in which the author lays out his understanding of Kant’s transcendental idealism in the passage previously cited, this allowance all the same encounters considerable interpretive difficulties. Certainly, Emerson takes greater care to anchor matter or nature to actual existence, rather than merely phenomenal or a matter of faith:

The idealist, in speaking of events, sees them as spirits. He does not deny the sensuous fact: by no means; but he will not see that alone. He does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the other end, each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him. This manner of looking at things transfers every object in nature from an independent and anomalous position without there, into the consciousness. (1:313-314; see also 1:315 for a similar statement on consciousness)

Though this translation of matter or nature into those terms on which it is taken up by consciousness rings true for the broad strokes of Kant’s transcendental idealism, it seems not incompatible with a view on which nature’s stability obtains independently of its actuality, as expressed in Nature. (Russell seems to disagree on this, when he notes “Surveying the scene in his 1842 lecture, “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson begins with a philosophical account, according to which what are generally called “new views” are not really new, but rather part of a broad tradition of idealism. It is not a skeptical idealism, however, but an anti-skeptical idealism deriving from Kant.) Furthermore, this view comes bundled with notions seemingly foreign to Kant, as suggested by the author’s talk of “spiritual fact” for which no immediate parallel presents itself in the first Critique. Hence, this rehabilitation of an Emersonian transcendental idealism likewise reaches an impasse or, at least, a position from which it seem implausible to emit any definitive interpretive judgment on his relation to Kantian transcendental idealism. Certainly, echoes thereof remain in the terminology and in certain overall themes, but foreign influences have joined with the Kantian in Emerson’s idealism as of Nature. This melding perhaps comes out best in Emerson’s own remark on Kant’s legacy, cited above:

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)

Interpreted in such broad fashion, “transcendental” is indeed more likely to produce variants in which Kantian theses find themselves radically refitted to entirely new cognitive contexts and conceptual economies. (Russell seems to suggest much the same in remarking: “For many of the transcendentalists the term ‘transcendentalism’ represented nothing so technical as an inquiry into the presuppositions of human experience, but a new confidence in and appreciation of the mind’s powers, and a modern, non-doctrinal spirituality.”) . Thus, without sustained technical argument and definition, it proves difficult to hold Emerson’s idealism up as the direct successor of Kant’s. (Which leads to naturally oppose van Leer’s conclusion that the sixth section sets out from distinctly Kantian premises. Cf. Van Leer, op. cit., pp. 27-46. This is all the more surprising given van Leer’s insistence on the “Refutation”, cf. p. 30.) If Kant did indeed influence Emerson’s writing, this influence must make itself felt in other areas. With this in mind, attention will turn to the faculties.

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