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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (11)

September 15, 2016

Yet Emerson, for his part, seems to take Kant’s earlier talk of reason’s “propensity of its nature to go beyond its use in experience, to venture to the outermost bounds of all cognition by means of mere ideas in a pure use, and to find peace only in the completion of its circle in a self-subsisting systematic whole” (see above) as an experienced need and cognitive function which human mental might fulfill by other means. One need only remember perhaps the most famous passage from Nature in which the author seeks a view of just such “a self-subsisting systematic whole” through faculties other than reason:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty (1:16-17).

Stripped of its ornament, the passage amounts to an account of a heightened receptivity to nature and mind. In this way, human mental economy manages to apprehend something of what Emerson has above termed “Reason” or “Spirit”, i.e. a universal animating power. In a later passage, the author describes a similar movement which seemingly steps over the bounds which Kant fixes for human mental economy, including reason:

Whilst we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth, we learn the difference between the absolute and the conditional or relative. We apprehend the absolute. As it were, for the first time, we exist. We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that, with a perception of truth, or a virtuous will, they have no affinity. (1:62)

Indeed, Emerson speaks of apprehending the absolute independently of empirical cognition. Moreover, this apprehension appears to surpass even what reason may hold as to the regulative status of certain ideas or postulates, insofar as these remained conditioned on the immanent structures of reason. In other words, it seems that Emerson desires not only to leave room for the apprehension of noumena in the positive sense set out above, i.e. as an entity lying outside human cognition, but, simultaneously, to secure an access thereto through human mental economy. The question then becomes that of why and by what means Emerson seeks to do so.

As to the first of these questions, one might reasonably suppose that Emerson finds the Kantian description of human mental aspirations to be accurate but the means of securing them insufficient. After all, in passages like the following, the author deems access to the laws governing “a self-subsisting systematic whole” necessary to human progress and advancement:

How calmly and genially the mind apprehends one after another the laws of physics! What noble emotions dilate the mortal as he enters into the counsels of the creation, and feels by knowledge the privilege to BE! His insight refines him. The beauty of nature shines in his own breast. Man is greater that he can see this, and the universe less, because Time and Space relations vanish as laws are known (1:45-46 – see also 1:28-29).

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