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The Transcendentalist Roots of Ralph Waldo Emerson


Although Ralph Waldo Emerson was known largely as a poet, essayist and lecturer, he occupied much of his life absorbed in deep philosophical issues about mind and consciousness. From very early on in his intellectual life, Emerson was always deeply disturbed by the philosophy of Hume. To a great extent, in fact, you could even say that Emerson’s life work was all essentially all a refutation of Hume. When he eventually discovered Kant and his followers, he finally had the strong ammunition he needed to fortify his own intuitions contradicting Hume’s philosophy. There was just something about Hume’s philosophy that never sat right with him. Some of the reasons for this are intellectual while some are based on Emerson’s own personality and psychological makeup – he was predisposed to affirmation. It was the inherent potential for skepticism and nihilism in Hume’s thought that most disturbed Emerson. Although he eventually distanced himself from Christianity and his role as a minister in the Unitarian church, deep in his soul, Emerson was essentially a theist; he was interested in making available to himself and others the sources of power that exist in people and the world. If one were to accept Hume’s assertions, this would negate his strong internal feelings about the religious impulse and man’s place in the universe.

Emerson was particularly offended by Hume’s denial of cause and effect and his assertion that we do not really perceive cause and effect. Hume asserted instead that “We perceive only sequence, one event following another”. We are not “able to comprehend any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connection between it and its supposed effect.” For Emerson, if there is no cause and effect, there is no power, there is no first cause, no God. This leads to a totally disconnected world, without energy to cause or create. To be cut off from a knowledge of a basic, creating power was a state almost of nonbeing; this was not a state Emerson could accept. Hume’s concomitant insistence on the mind being a blank slate and that we cannot perceive anything beyond what the senses tell us also did not sit right with Emerson.

Emerson read Coleridge carefully and found in his “Aids to Reflection” thinking that closely matched and supported his own. In Coleridge, he found a carefully defended argument for an active power in the self that is capable of self-determination. This power, called reason, is higher than the senses and higher than the understanding, which depends wholly upon input from the senses. He strongly believed in a power that resides in the individual soul that links man with the eternal. Man is a power in the universal system of powers. To a large extent, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and his whole philosophy rested upon the notion of the solitary independent thinker, capable of generating moments of extraordinary insight and intuitive “graspings” or moments of direct perception that can be summed up in the word “reason”.

Emerson was also a lifelong friend and colleague of Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s “The State of German Literature” can be seen as a call-to-arms of transcendentalism. He studied Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Cousin carefully and found in it the support that again made faith in religion possible and even inevitable for the scientific mind. To a great extent, one can even say that all post-Enlightenment philosophy was struggling with this very idea. Carlyle said, “Kantians think that Reason discovers truth itself, the absolutely and primitively true, while Understanding discovers only relations.” Carlyle outlined a “Divine Idea” that hints at the conception of the essential unity of all things. There is more in the human mind than simply the accumulation of sensory experience; there is a deep structure in the human mind that goes beyond sensory input and allows it to discover truth itself. Kant helped people understand that reason is the highest faculty of the soul. The soul doesn’t reason, it simply perceives. The Understanding toils away, comparing, contriving, adding, dwelling in the present, and the customary. Emerson’s gut sense about reason also lead him to be attracted to Quakerism, which was blossoming at that time. Reason, for Emerson, was essentially another name for what the Quakers recognized as the inner light.

In Emerson’s great essay “Nature”, which can be seen as a modern American version of Plato or Kant, he argues for the priority of law over fact, aim over action, intent over outcome, pattern over print. For Emerson and his intellectual predecessors, plan or idea is more real and more important than the physical product. This is the “mainmast of idealism and Emerson lashed himself to it for life.” He makes a modern case for the idea that the mind common to the universe is disclosed to each individual through his or her own nature. Hearkening back to the Allegory of the Cave, Emerson, like Plato, saw ideas as the realities of which sense impressions are merely the shadows. He brought life to Kant’s acceptance of authority of subjective knowledge by connecting it with experiences of the great religious mystics and enthusiasts and with the passions and raptures of great poetry. He makes a modern case for the idea that the mind common to the universe is disclosed to each individual through his or her own nature.

Notes from Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

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