The Modern and the Postmodern 5th assignment {Coursera /Wesleyan}


The Kantian echo in the works of Emerson

The Age of Enlightenment bequeathed Europe with challenging ideas. The predominance of faith and kingship were highly disputed, whereas doctrines gave rise to sciences and intellect. Nevertheless, not all of those “enlightened” reached common ground. Delving further into a quest for the philosophical “truth”, men of logic proclaimed different versions for it. 

John Locke’s theoretical approach of knowledge was one of empiricism; we are born as “tabula rasa”, we perceive the world with our sensors from then on, a posteriori. Thus, a child is born without innate thinking but rather the predisposition to imitate his immediate surroundings. He dictates parents as regards their offspring’s upbringing:

Let me give two cautions. 1) The one is, that you keep them to the practice of what you would have grown into a habit with them, by kind words, and gentle admonitions, rather as minding them of what they forget, than by harsh rebukes and chiding, as if they were willfully guilty. 2) Another thing you are to take care of, is, not to endeavor to settle too many habits at once, lest by variety you confound them, and so perfect none. When constant custom has made any one thing easy and natural to ’em, and they practice it without reflection, you may then go on to another”.  [Locke 1693: Sec. 66]

Emerson’s views upon the matter are initially introduced with the phrase: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, —that is genius.”  [Emerson 1847: §1] Individualism, according to the great American thinker, is astoundingly more profitable in terms of personal thought and self-development; emulating others is simply redundant repetition of second-hand notions, hardly allowing room for personal growth. Indeed the Transcendentalism movement, which Emerson upheld, seems at odds with John Locke’s theory of Empiricism. So how does one define Emerson as a figure of Enlightenment?

Emerson’s “self-reliance” is expressed in his Kantian motto “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself”. [Emerson 1847: §50] Arts, religion, society or anything devaluing individualism is falsified.  Having given the very definition of the “Aufklärung”[ Kant 1784], Kant instructs the exodus of man from role models imposed upon him. We begin our lives with our sensory organs, we continue with the use of reason but neither experience nor pure thought is above one another.  “Sapere Aude” [Kant 1784] is exactly what Emerson demands of his fellow Americans:

 Our age yields no great and perfect persons. We want men and women who shall renovate life and our social state, but we see that most natures are insolvent, cannot satisfy their own wants, have an ambition out of all proportion to their practical force, and do lean and beg day and night continually. Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. [Emerson 1847: §33]

The transcendental idea of Enlightenment– first mentioned in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – is portrayed in Emerson as Intuition versus Tuition [Emerson 1847: §21ff]. A difficult task – even for the thinker himself – to fully understand the metaphysics of the soul, yet one can be sure whether such is present in a man or not. “Here is the fountain of action and of thought” [Emerson 1847: §25], after all.

Emerson understood that perhaps an application of the transcendental idealism version of Enlightenment might not be practically applicable. Nevertheless he preached perfection in an imperfect world, citing Kant as his primary inspiration.

It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man’s thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent, that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcendental.

Although, as we have said, there is no pure Transcendentalist, yet the tendency to respect the intuitions, and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience, has deeply colored the conversation and poetry of the present day; and the history of genius and of religion in these times, though impure, and as yet not incarnated in any powerful individual, will be the history of this tendency.[Emerson 1842]

Works cited:

Emerson Ralph Waldo: The Transcendentalist  (1842)

Emerson Ralph Waldo: Essays: First Series. Self-Reliance (1847)

Kant Immanuel:  Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

Kant Immanuel: What is Enlightenment ( 1784)

Locke John: Some thoughts concerning Education (1693)


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