If you ever sign up for a class on Pragmatism, there’s a good chance you’ll find Emerson on the syllabus. In fact, you’re likely to find “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” among the earliest reading assignments. Emerson was a poet and a prophet rather than a philosopher but his vision deeply informed American Pragmatism, particularly the Pragmatism of William James. Emerson was James’ godfather and often dined with the James family but Emerson’s influence on the American psyche is much broader than this bit of historical trivia might suggest.
What is the Emersonian vision? As I read him, he describes reality as essentially dynamic and, as part of that reality, we are fundamentally creative beings. As Dylan points out about 90 minutes into the latest PEL podcast, Emersonian souls “are an act in progress.” Or, as Emerson himself put it, “the soul becomes.” If Dylan is right, this is as close as Emerson gets to giving us an ontology of the self and Emerson was doing a kind of process philosophy. Similarly, Mark’s treatment of “Circles” about 105 minutes into the podcast reveals a picture of the Emersonian soul in a constant state of growth wherein the aim is to overcome the self or transcend it over and over in ever-wider orbits. I like to imagine this as something like Maslow’s developmental hierarchy transposed onto a series of nested spheres or concentric circles.
The American Scholar could rightly be taken as Emerson’s attempt to summon a young nation, as if he were encouraging the country to stand on its own cultural feet. “In the right state,” Emerson says of the American scholar, “he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson was trying to help a newborn country overcome its cultural inferiority complex, so to speak. But this call to creativity and originality can also be read at a more visionary or philosophical level so that “Man Thinking” is understood not in terms of national pride but as the Emersonian soul, that fundamentally creative self existing in an essentially dynamic reality. There’s a key moment in “The American Scholar” wherein this call for originality seems to be elevated or vastly enlarged. “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments,” Emerson says. “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” On one level he’s just talking about the relative importance of books, as opposed to something more directly read and something more “precious.” But what does it mean to say that Man Thinking “must not be subdued by his instruments” or to say that a person “can read God directly”?
It’s not easy to say what Emerson means by “God.” Plausible interpretations could construe it as the God of the Unitarians (a term of abuse coined by Trinitarians), a Platonic God, Spinoza’s God, a Hegelian God, the supreme deity of Hinduism, the Tao of Taoism, or as the all-pervasive presence of pantheism. The array of possibilities can be frustrating and one might be tempted to conclude that this lack of clarity is a result of Emerson’s religious zeal, his poetic excesses, or even his weakness as a thinking man. Should we dismiss his preaching as a quaint (and slightly embarrassing) antique or otherwise bracket out this part of Emerson’s work? I think it wouldn’t be too far-fetched or too generous to read Emerson as a mystic, in which case there are some very good reasons why Emerson’s God would be so hard to pin down. Even further, if we read him as a philosophical mystic, his vision doesn’t necessarily entail any kind of theism. In that case, his preaching doesn’t need to be bracketed out but rather read as a poetic form of expression that’s not to be taken literally. As Robert Pirsig writes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals,
Some of the most honored philosophers in history have been mystics: Plotinus, Swedenborg, Loyola, Shankaracharya and many others. They share a common belief that the fundamental nature of reality is outside language; that language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is undivided. Zen, which is a mystic religion, argues that the illusion of dividedness can be overcome by meditation. The Native American Church argues that peyote can force-feed a mystic understanding upon those who were normally resistant to it, an understanding that Indians had been deriving through Vision Quests in the past.
A common belief among mystics (that reality is outside of language) needs to unpacked but first I’d offer an informative little digression. It’s worth mentioning that Plotinus is a favorite for both Emerson and Pirsig and that Emerson and William James’s father, Henry Sr., were both Swedenborgians. (It’s easy to imagine that William James was exposed to Swedenborgian mysticism at the family’s dinner table.) Swedenborg is probably the most influential person that you never heard of. As Wikipedia tells it, people influenced by Swedenborg include Blake, Borges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emerson, Jung, Kant, Helen Keller, D.T. Suzuki, and Yeats. His philosophy was also ridiculed as foolishness, insanity and blasphemy. A heresy trial was initiated against his writings and against two of his followers in 1768. Eugene Taylor barely mentions Emerson but paints a picture of Swedenborg’s influence on Pragmatism in his essay “Swedenborgian Roots of American Pragmatism: The Case of D.T. Suzuki.” As was mentioned in a previous profile, the late Eugene Taylor was considered to be some kind of reincarnation of William James. A person could spend an entire career exploring all the connections suggested by all this but let’s return to this assertion of mysticism. What does it mean to say that reality is outside of language?
Is there a way to talk about this notion without sounding like a preacher, a Zen meditator, a peyote eater, or a vision quester? Yes, and that’s what the Pragmatism of James and Pirsig is all about. As James writes in Some Problems of Philosophy, “there must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality, because the former are static and discontinuous while the latter is dynamic and flowing.” Pirsig quotes this line from James as a summary of his own view and explains how he was pleasantly surprised to discover that “James had chosen exactly the same words” for this distinction as he had. On this view, the philosophical mystic is saying that reality is too big and rich and ever-changing to be adequately captured by our thought categories or to be adequately described in words. Man Thinking, Emerson says, “must not be subdued by his instruments” (language and concepts) but should instead “read God directly” (have direct acquaintance with pre-verbal, pre-conceptual experience). From this perspective, Emerson, philosophical mysticism, and Jamesian pragmatism are all making the same basic assertion about the relation between concepts and the immediacy of lived experience.
I think that theologians often construe this notion to mean that it’s a sin or a moral violation to utter the name of God and this prohibition is sometimes expressed in terms that suggest humans are simply unworthy of speaking the name and must cower before the majesty of the divine Creator. But as James and Pirsig present it, the ineffable reality is not a divine being or a supernatural entity at all and the reason we cannot speak of it is based on what we might call epistemic humility: an acknowledgement that words and concepts are limited in their power to capture truth. The ineffable is ineffable not because of its majesty or magical powers but because it is more basic, simple, and direct than language. From this perspective, Emerson’s “God” is what Pirsig calls “a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”
If Emerson’s “God” is taken as poetic or metaphorical reference to this mystic reality, then its vagueness and openness to interpretation can be seen as fitting and proper. He’s not going to offer any precise definitions because he’s convinced that none are possible. This is what James says about his own “pure experience” and what Pirsig says about his own equivalent term, “Quality.”
Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates.This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate, and direct.
Pirsig had some pretty interesting things to say about Emerson and Transcendentalism, things that have never been published or otherwise shared with anyone. But that deserves a post of its own. Until then, go tell your instruments that they work for you and not the other way around.