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Lecture: Emerson’s understanding of Kant (12)

September 16, 2016


Regarding the means, the answer proves twofold. Given Emerson’s broad agreement on the workings of understanding and reason, one can suggest that he accepts a broadly Kantian picture of the faculties and the rules for the different faculties set out therein, all the while considering that the picture may remain incomplete in areas. However, one may rightfully wonder what kind of intuition the Kantian picture then leaves out, if it be not intellectual or sensible. The answer seems to lie in an aesthetic or natural intuition which consists most visibly in human power of analogy which links mind and nature in the symbol:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. (1: 33)

Greater engagement with outer world via the symbol leads to greater engagement with the inner. There emerges from this engagement not a direct apprehension but an indirect, which may help to explain how Emerson seeks to surpass Kant’s account of the faculties while remaining within the broad outlines. The outer object comes to stand in for the inner object and thereby allows an intuitive relation to set in between human, outer and inner. Emerson makes such a point more strongly when he writes:

The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass. “The visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible.” The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use (1:39)

By symbol and analogy, emblem and metaphor do we arrive in indirect fashion at those things which stand properly outside of human empirical cognition while nonetheless in relation to human cognition more broadly. Therefore, the access remains at once possible but less secure than that of empirical cognition. Indeed, not all can come to apprehension of such things, for it requires the receptivity of the poet. Yet such receptivity opens a new side of things:

[W]e contemplate the fearful extent and multitude of objects; since “every object rightly seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul.” That which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge,—a new weapon in the magazine of power (1:42).

In other words, there exists a way of seeing things, i.e. by means of symbol and analogy, which allows for propositions of “unconscious truth” to enter, at least for a time, human cognition, understood broadly. If one considers that Emerson may have glimpsed such and attempts to let this indirect apprehension come through in his prose, this consideration may help to explain the author’s knotty imagery and syntax. For Emerson can allow himself no more than to gesture via symbol and analogy at that which stands outside empirical cognition, all the while recognizing that such attempts may open new domains of knowledge up. Indeed, analogy can carry human cognition quite far in the way of new apprehensions and relations:

Not only resemblances exist in things whose analogy is obvious, as when we detect the type of the human hand in the flipper of the fossil saurus, but also in objects wherein there is great superficial unlikeness. Thus architecture is called “frozen music,” by De Stael and Goethe (1:50).

Thus, one can see how Emerson carries out his own resolution of the fraught relation between human cognition and noumena in the positive sense. If the author cannot allow for their apprehension within Kantian bounds and while accepting Kantian faculties, then it suffices to accept Kantian bounds and faculties’ inner workings all the while integrating new faculties.

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