On 8/31/14, we discussed three essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The American Scholar” (an address from 1837): Emerson throws out the image of Man separated out into individual men to enable us to get more kinds of things done. But this division of labor has led to narrowing of minds, so that, e.g. an individual merchant or farmer ends up being focused his whole life on the next sale or harvest and is disconnected from the whole, forgets that he has within him the original, full Man. The scholar, or “Man Thinking,” is in the best position to get at this essential humanity, but he too often ends up a narrow-minded specialist. The point of the lecture is to discuss the state of the American scholar of his day, and Emerson gives a bleak diagnosis (America is too wrapped up in the old, dead cultural artifacts of Europe) and a prescription and hope for the future.
Folks will want to listen to our ep. 94 on Schopenhauer for comparison here. Emerson likewise deplores the tyranny of dead scholarship over live thought, and makes a similar point that truly creative (i.e. individual) work always taps into the universal. While the stunted scholar learns only from books, Emerson says this leaves out two of our essential teachers, which are nature itself (which gives us stimuli that incite us to make connections, which is what science is all about) and action (which engages with material unconsciously that can later be turned into intellectual insight).
“Self-Reliance” (published in 1841, but culled from material in sermons given as far back as 1830): Elaborating the idea of “self-trust” described in the previous essay Emerson urges us to be true to ourselves, as “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Social expectations push us into little boxes, and we’re expected to keep consistent with our past behavior even though human nature is really all about growth. Society uses morality to bully us, when we should be listening to our own conscience. If our concern is truly to build up individuals, we need to change our whole way of living and the structure of our social institutions.
As with the previous essay, Emerson is drawing on a view of the underlying unity of all of our minds, so that being “truly you” is tapping into an Over-soul, a common human nature (or world nature), which gives real, intuitive knowledge a la Plato. As metaphysically and epistemically fascinating as this idea might be, nowhere (not even in his essay called “The Oversoul“) is it explored in even a remotely satisfying way, so the resolution of our “Are we all somehow God?” discussion in #101 will have to wait for another text.
“Circles” (also published 1841): We barely had time to talk about this essay, but it provides an an interesting additional perspective on some of the same ideas as the above. The “circles” described are patterns of ideas: how a new idea encompasses and supersedes another. Just as human nature is growth, so is the nature of everything, though whether this is really growth or just change is a matter of dispute. Note that Emerson doesn’t generally acknowledge “disputes.” His style is evangelical, not argumentative much less expository.
In this essay, however, Emerson at least acknowledges the objection that may well have come to you in reading the previous paragraphs: doesn’t this make Emerson a plain old subjectivist? What if being true-to-myself makes me an ass? Is there really such a thing as substantial intuitive knowledge? If “all virtues are initial,” i.e. ethical insights are superseded by progressive wisdom just like all other knowledge, then what would correct me from following my whims?
Again, to truly address these issues would require giving a systematic discussion of what this objective underlying unity-self we all tap into really is and how it can give us knowledge, but Emerson gives us this passage instead:
I am not careful to justify myself… Lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.
This at once bites the bullet on the charge of subjectivity and challenges each of us to do the same, the implication being that you’ll find if you’re being honest with yourself that you will disapprove of your own actions when they are foolish, rash, petty, or selfish. As Emerson says in “The American Scholar,” the only purpose of books is to inspire, and his own work has that goal self-consciously in mind, so that it would take some creative scholarship to nail down what “the Emersonian doctrine” really is on any given thing, much less to attribute to him a detailed metaphysics or epistemology.