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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (7)

September 9, 2016

III: A God in Ruins

In the interest of precision, three faculties were previously put forward as the locus of attention in this study: understanding, reason and intuition. Their selection over other faculties follows from the prominent place which Emerson gives them in Nature, particularly in Chapter 5 in which Nature qua Discipline educates understanding and reason in their highest uses. To each will now be devoted a short treatment to see whether one can withhold or abstract Kant’s faculties from their transcendental idealist framework.

a. Understanding

When speaking of empirical knowledge about objects, Kant is quick to distinguish two distinct powers at work but ever in tandem: intuition and understanding. So joined are they that it proves difficult to introduce one without the other. If human apprehension of a given object passes through sensibility, human thinking about that same object comes through the understanding. This combination of representations and concepts, respectively, issues in a judgment or instance of empirical cognition or knowledge. More schematically, these human faculties consist in the passive representation of objects but active production of judgments.

Objects are therefore given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone affords us intuitions; but they are thought through the understanding, and from it arise concepts. (A19; B33)

[T]he faculty for bringing forth representations itself, or the spontaneity of cognition, is the understanding. It comes along with our nature that intuition can never be other than sensible, i.e., that it contains only the way in which we are affected by objects. The faculty for thinking of objects of sensible intuition, on the contrary, is the understanding. (A51; B75)

More particularly, understanding has a two-tiered function, as per the following passage: “The same function that gives unity to the different representations in a judgment also gives unity to the mere synthesis of different representations in an intuition, which, expressed generally, is called the pure concept of understanding” (A79; B104-105). More simply, understanding intervenes first at the level of bringing together diverse representations into an intuition of an object or objects as such; only then does understanding deploy concepts to arrive at a judgment or empirical cognition thereof. At its root, understanding consists in the organization of diverse representations in preparation of and execution of empirical cognition.

As per this overly simple view, Emerson and Kant do not find themselves far apart on the faculty of understanding. Three passages in particular suggest this proximity. First, understanding betrays an empirical orientation: “His relation to nature, his power over it, is through the understanding” (1:76-77). Secondly, understanding consists in a faculty of organization:

Nature is a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths. Our dealing with sensible objects is a constant exercise in the necessary lessons of difference, of likeness, of order, of being and seeming, of progressive arrangement; of ascent from particular to general; of combination to one end of manifold forces. (1:43-44; of this ascent from particular to general, consider also the general organization of the essay, as suggested in Harvey’s remark “In addition to each chapter moving upward in Nature, sub-sections within the chapters established further ladders of ascent” (Harvey, op. cit., p. 10-11)). In this second remark, one can read the work of the understanding on combining different representations in judgments.

Lastly, Nature teaches that understanding, and the deployment of concepts therein, is intimately related to Time and Space:

The whole character and fortune of the individual are affected by the least inequalities in the culture of the understanding; for example, in the perception of differences. Therefore is Space, and therefore Time, that man may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual. (1:45)

On the basic outlines, Emerson falls in step with Kant’s understanding: a organizing faculty bound to the empirical world through Space and Time. (Goodman also posits a Kantian lineage for the Emersonian faculties, through Emerson’s appropriation of Kant and post-Kantian terminology, through Emerson and James Marsh. Cf. Transcendentalism: “James Marsh (1794–1842), a graduate of Andover and the president of the University of Vermont, was equally important for the emerging philosophy of transcendentalism. Marsh was convinced that German philosophy held the key to a reformed theology. His American edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1829) introduced Coleridge’s version—much indebted to Schelling—of Kantian terminology, terminology that runs throughout Emerson’s early work.”)

As to the understanding’s development, Emerson sees nature as primarily responsible therefor. For, if nature provides the material on which the understanding will go to work, in combination with sensibility and intuition, engagement the material thus provided allows the understanding to unfold its abilities and reach its full development. Strikingly, for Emerson, reason likewise finds itself caught up therein:

Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding,—its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind. (1:43)

With the introduction of reason into the picture of the faculties, attention must turn to Kantian reason.

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