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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (9)

September 13, 2016

Like Kant, Emerson considers the understanding incomplete without a higher faculty to which it is subordinated. In speaking of the failings of empirical cognition, the author suggests that “in the thick darkness, there are not wanting gleams of a better light,—occasional examples of the action of man upon nature with his entire force,—with reason as well as understanding” (1:77; see also “At present, man applies to nature but half his force. He works on the world with his understanding alone. He lives in it, and masters it by a penny-wisdom; and he that works most in it, is but a half-man” (1:76)). Likewise, the Sage of Concord foresees a twofold distinction of reason into speculative and practical branches:

The advantage of the ideal theory over the popular faith, is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind. It is, in fact, the view which Reason, both speculative and practical, that is, philosophy and virtue, take. For, seen in the light of thought, the world always is phenomenal; and virtue subordinates it to the mind. (1:64-65; presumably, the “ideal theory” under consideration here remains a “problematic idealism”. The fact remains that the distinction roughly corresponds to Kant’s.)

Furthermore, reason has no direct interface with time and space, as Emerson notes when he writes of “Reason’s momentary grasp of the sceptre” in its achievement of principles as “the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous in-streaming causing power (idem.). If, to this point, Kant’s and Emerson’s versions of reason seem to coincide on their necessity to complete the understanding and their a priori status, talk of an “in-streaming causing power” may give some pause. For, though Kant deems pure practical reason the condition of human activity and, charitably, a causing power, it seems less clear that Kant would consider this power in-streaming. Given reason’s self-conceit, immanent exercise, it indeed appears unlikely that the latter would consider this power to issue from elsewhere.

In an earlier Chapter of the essay, Emerson provides insight into why reason, on his view, warrants talk of an “in-streaming” power:

Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. (1:34)

It is perhaps useful to recall here that Emerson earlier spoke of correspondence or analogy between mind and nature, the former having weak primacy over the latter. Now, to the mind-nature distinction Emerson adds a further distinction between reason and spirit which both mirror each other and stand over their respective counterparts as universal animating powers. Accordingly, reason both stands over mind as an in-streaming causing power and possesses weak primacy over spirit. Whether Kant could accept such a portrayal of reason turns on the precise orientation of the “in-streaming” as either “within” or “behind”. If “within” and reason qua condition of free activity streams into human mental economy, little seems objectionable aside from a difference in terminology. After all, reason would remain immanent on this view. If “behind” and Emerson intends a realm or power over and above human mental economy into which that realm’s content then streams, Kant seems likely to denounce this as overly substantialist, even Platonist, much as Emerson’s listing of Ideas would seem to suggest. (For her part, Harvey sees the passage above as surpassing the bounds which Kant sets for reason and which Coleridge qua reader of Kant further expands. Cf., op. cit., p. 129.)

All the same, provided that the evaluation remain at the strict level of pure practical reason, Emerson’s reason seems of a chord with the function ascribed by Kant to those “positive cognitions” and “presentiment of objects of great interest to [pure reason]” (A795-796; B823-824). Despite differences of terminology and style, the thinkers seem aligned on the need for positive cognition surpassing the strict bounds fixed to the understanding and reason by The Critique of Pure Reason. That which Emerson seeks to bring of the new to this cognition consists in the idea of analogy:

Sensible objects conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience. All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature (1:47).

Precisely how this analogy comes about in human mental economy will prove to be a retooling of the intuition.

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