Monday, February 14, 2011

Emerson "The Transcendentalist" Part II Valentine's Day

Emerson continues that "the whole of ethics" follows from his idealist philosophy, his basic ethics being that one should be "self-dependent" which is to say that "the deity of man is to be self-sustained" and "society is good when it does not violate me."  I find some clarification of this in the following sentence: "All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought...." which is to say that reality is the inner you, which is divine and in fact is God.  This seems to entail an extreme version of belief in free will: "You think me the child of my circumstances:  I make my circumstances."  I change things with my thoughts.  "Jesus [being an example of a genius in the Idealist sense] acted so, because he thought so."  But, he argues, where I come from is something transcendent, a Fact "which cannot be spoken, or defined, or even thought, but which exists."  This leads, again, to belief in miracles, which seems to be defined as "the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influex of light and power" i.e. inspiration, the "spiritual measure of the inspiration" being "the depth of the thought" and not who said it.  That is, we should not concern ourselves with whether it was said by some great religious leader. The ethical position seems to be that although one is not an antinomialist (someone who believes that existing laws do not apply to oneself) one is free to break any law for a higher reason, for example lie as Desdemonda did or pluck corn on the Sabbath if one is hungry.  In this respect, Emerson believes that the Buddhist and the Transcendentalist are one, both being "grand and daring in human thought."  And yet, Emerson insists, no one has really achieved this goal: no one has lived "a purely spiritual life" in the sense of leaning entirely on their own character, although he does see the "lower animals" as living unconsciously in this way.  The idea is somewhat like the Chinese (both Confucian and Daoist) idea of the dao:  if you follow the dao you will be provided for as if by magic. I like to interpret this in a more secular way as that if you achieve a high state of harmony within yourself, through intense work on some project for example, then your surrounding environment will naturally collaborate. Emerson's whole philosophy is almost summarized in the following sentence:  "Nature is transcendental, exists primarily, necessarily, ever works and advances, yet takes no thought for the morrow."  There is a kind of unconscious taking over that happens when you find your true self.

This is all just leading up to what I want to say about this essay which is that it does give us an approach to a specific sort of thing not usually discussed in aesthetics books, i.e. the aesthetic qualities of a person.  The key idea of this essay is the notion of the beautiful person generally, and of the transcendentalist as a specific type of beautiful person.  And what I find myself thinking as I read through this essay is who are the beautiful persons in my life, and how little we search for beautiful persons today or guide our lives by apprehension of personal beauty.  I find myself thinking of George Washington and all his admirable traits:  someone who was seen as a beautiful person in his own time.  We have lost the beautiful person as an ideal.  We don't even think of talking about the beautiful person.  Most people on reading this essay focus on how Emerson gets Kant wrong, and he certainly does.  He thinks that Kant believes that the important class of ideas that do not come by experience are "intuitions of the mind itself" as though he believed in intellectual intuitions, which he did not. 

There is another distraction in this essay, somelike the odd discussion of genius in Schopenhauer, where we are supposed to admire the transcendentalist who betakes himself of "a certain solitary and critical way of living" although nothing solid has come of it.  We are supposed to admire them for preferring to "ramble in the country and perish of ennui" and actually shirk work as they cry out for something worthwhile to do, and even writing an Illiad is not worthwhile enough! 

Enough with distractions.  We are back on track with "if they tell you their whole thought, they will own that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature; that there are persons whom in their hearts they deaily thank for existing....whose fame and spirit have penetrated their solitude - and for whose sake they wish to exist."(88)  What is interesting here is the very idea of basing the meaning of one's existence of the beautiful person.  "To behold the beauty of another character, which inspires a new interest in our own...these are degrees on the side of human happiness to which they have ascended."  There's a Valentine's day comment for you!  Emerson himself admits that this is an "extravagant demand...on human nature."  They see so many imperfections. 

Emerson offers a picture of this experience.  It is in the "quality of the moment."  The example is a character Xanthus who brings home one recollection from the wars, that Pericles smiled on hm. 

So Emerson emphasizes Beauty.  Referring again to the Transcendentalists, he says that they "are lovers and worshippers of Beauty" and indeed prefer Beauty to Truth and Goodness as the head of the three.  So morality is understood in terms of aesthetics.  People often think that Emerson was indifferent to the fate of African-Americans, but what he says here is that "justice which is now claimed for the for Beauty - is for a necessity to the soul of the agent, not of the beneficiary."  His idea is that justice should be grace.  The beautiful is the highest becasuse it escapes "the dowdiness of the good and the heartlessness of the true."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Emerson's "The Transcendentalist" Part 1

I am sorry if this departs a bit from aesthetics, but then maybe whatever I do I am essentially an aesthetician.  I am teaching Emerson to my American Philosophy class and I assigned "The Transcendentalist."  Idealism is not a popular philosophy in the 21st. century and yet this is what Emerson advocates here.  The opposition he proposes is between Materialists and Idealists.  My most natural tendency is to Materialism.  But let's see what Idealism, as Emerson conceives it, has to offer.  Materialism is founded on experience, Idealism on "consciousness." The first thinks "from the data of the sense," the second says "the senses are not final."  Emersons' best sentence is, "The materialist insists on fact, on history , on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture." (81)  Let's assume for now that the dichotomy is not false.  What then is to be said for the Idealist side. Don't we want to care about Thought, Will, inspiration, miracle, and the individual?  Well, these are big words and hard to define. It might be hard to figure out what "Thought" is if it is not "thought" as in what goes on in the brain.  The same would go for "Will" which must be conceived as something more than just another set of things happening in the brain (something like Kant's free will).  Emerson's mention of inspiration points to going beyond the senses:  intuition or perhaps discovery.  I have had the experience of inspiration, perhaps very minor ones on a daily basis.  So my interest is piqued.  If Materialism excludes inspiration then perhaps there is something wrong with Materialism.  Although I do not accept that there are miracles in the sense of things happening in the world that are beyond the laws of nature (see Hume for an excellent refutation of the very existence of such things) there are events that seem to overflow with meaning, that have mystery, and that give profound experience.  Can we call those miracles? Again, if sense-data excludes such things, and if we associate such things with the word "miracle" then there might be something to Idealism.  Some of what Emerson requires seems absurd:  for example that the Idealist requires of the Materialist "his grounds of assurance that things are as the sense represent them." No Materialist has ever held that things are as the senses represent them - in fact the first Materialist, Democritus, insisted that the senses delude us:  the real, he believed, consists in atoms and the void, neither of which we can sense.  What Emerson believes the Idealist has to offer are special facts "not affected by the illusions of sense" and "not liable to doubt" and superior to material facts and requiring "retirement from the senses."  Hoo-boy that's going to be a hard one to defend.  But then I come to the second paragraph where he says the the Idealist "does not deny the presence of this table, this chair, and the walls of this room, but he looks at these things as the reverse side of the tapestry, as the other end, each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact which nearly concerns him."  So Idealism is a way of looking at things -- the same things Materialists are looking at.  It is perhaps distracting for the Idealist to simply say "it is our own thoughts that we perceive" (82)  He seems to be saying more that the reality of what we perceive is its meaning-content.  This is an Idealism based on phenomenology, perhaps much like that of Edmund Husserl.  The third paragraph of the essay seems to me to be more distraction.  The Materialist is compelled to recognize that he is a "phantom walking and working amid phantoms" since even though he thinks his banking-house, for example, is solid, it really rests on a spinning earth on the edge of emptiness.  That sort of thing does not tempt me to Idealism.  After all, these are just scientific facts based on empirical evidence.  Emerson seems to himself to cinch the argument when he says "But ask [the Materialist banker] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on" strange foundations.  This move, based perhaps on Hume's skepticism, can also be replied in a Humean way:  namely, nature compels me to go on and overcome these skeptical doubts.  The fourth paragraph recovers the momentum however.  We find that the idealist "takes his departure from consciousness, and reckons the world an appearance" and that he uses as his measure the "rank which things themselves take in his consciousness; not at all the size or appearance."  It is not just the meaning that lies behind things that gives their ideal dimension but the meaning for the person perceiving them, and the meaning in terms of value ranking too.  And it is true that if we look at the world from the standpoint of our own consciousness, things are value-ranked by us, and this looms large in our experience of those things.  The next passage confuses this a bit though:  "Mind is the only reality, of which men and all other natures are better or worse reflectors.  Nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena."  That doesn't seem too helpful.  I feel like I am back on track when I read that the Idealist "does not respect labor, or the products of labor, namely property, otherwise than as a manifold symbol...[of] the laws of being."  It does seem worthwhile to look at property as a symbol, although to look at the labor that produces the property as a symbol is perhaps to deny the experience of the laborer (I think of Marx, a Materialist, here.)  All of this paragraph seems to be just a chance for Emerson to show he is against establishments in society, and that he really looks for something deeper, and also more personal for him, behind these manifestations, i.e. "he does not respect government, except as far as it reiterates the law of his mind."  However, this leads up to a fairly powerful sentence:  "His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them" everything being relative to this Unknown Centre.  My first response to this is that I can imagine someone seeing the world this way:  although it might take some practice!  The idea of course is similar to Plotinus, with the notion of flow from the One, and also to Vedanta philosophy with its notion that my innermost self, Atman, is Brahman.  I cannot accept that this is literally true, but I can accept that it might be valuable to see the world this way, or to pretend to see the world this way, or to experiment with this kind of consciousness.  Can I relate this to aesthetics?  Well, an aesthetician is going to look at the world a bit more phenomenologically, focusing on meaning and value in the things perceived, the ways they go beyond being mere sense data, and the ways that they relate to the consciousness within which they appear.  And also of course there is a certain faith in inspiration, in genius, in the possibilities of creativity.  So perhaps aestheticians should consider Idealism as, although not a viable option, at least a contemplative object. That's enough for today.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Emerson American Scholar Part II

I gave myself the assignment of talking about the duties of the scholar for my students in my American Philosophy class.  The central idea here is self-trust.  This idea makes a lot of sense to me.  I can see how I have a duty to be true to myself and also to trust my intuitions.  But to what extent do I want to follow the philosophical path Emerson sets out for me?  Emerson strangely puts this in terms of showing others "facts" amidst appearances.  I say this is strange since the idea of "facts" seems to imply something more science-like than Emerson really has in mind.  For example he contrasts the scholar's task with that of astronomers. Rather he has something more Platonic in mind, something like the story of the philosopher- king leaving the cave and returning to it again.  This is no doubt a description of his own experience as a scholar, his own search for and cataloging of "nebulous stars of the human mind."  That is, he sees himself, and the scholar more generally, as a kind of phenomenologist.  To do this kind of psychology/philosophy requires some sacrificing, some relinquishing of immediate fame, some ignorance of the popular, some disdain from others, some stammering in one's speech, and even some poverty and solitude.  Emerson even admits to self-accusation and frequent uncertainties.  Also, as one becomes more self-reliant and self-directed one ends up in hostile relation to society, especially to educated society.  The consolation, however, is in "exercising the highest functions of human nature."  Also somewhat surprisingly, all of this opposition to society is actually quite social, or at least directed to the public. The scholar as philosopher/intellectual "raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts."  He becomes the world's eye and heart.  By opposing educated society and trusting himself  he speaks for all.  He gives the pronouncements of Reason (which Emerson sees as a mysterious inner force of nature that speaks through the genius) on the "events of today."  This is a point, however, where Emerson comes off as quite a bit different than Plato since Plato would only allow commenting about that which is eternal. Whereas Plato encourages the philosopher to reject the beauties of everyday life in search of Beauty itself Emerson calls on the scholar to focus on the way that everyday things help us to transcend ordinary experience.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Emerson on The American Scholar Part I

As I read in the Mercury News that high schools are eliminating electives, which includes the arts and the sciences, in order to meet expectations of "no child left behind" I find myself thinking that in trying not to leave behind individual children in math and English scores we are actually eliminating the prime motive for learning these things:  the joys of culture itself, and so we are really going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We become what Emerson calls "monsters" because we learn without going into the spirit of the thing, without connecting.  We learn math without its connections with science, and English without its connections to English literature and the rest of literary culture.  So in thinking about the American Scholar (the American student), rather than believing, as Emerson did, that we need to overcome our dependence on Europe and our overly mechanical interests (which are perhaps still present in our self-destructive obsession with rote learning), I find that today we need to somehow find a way to recover a true interest in culture, or as Emerson would put it, true scholarship. So our current position might be another chapter in what Emerson called the biography of the American Scholar.

Emerson has a unique notion of the whole Man, or what is is to be a whole man. "Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all...the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor and embrace all the other laborers"...otherwise we are "walking monsters."  The alienation of oneself from the other human disciplines that we suffer today means that "the planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry.."  The tradesman is similarly "ridden by the routine of his craft" and "the scholar...tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking."  Although the connection may seem distant I cannot but help to see something in here related to aesthetics, not simply to the discipline of aesthetics, which all too often does seem to descend into the quality of the "mere thinker" but to the way that we experience our lives, whether richly and deeply (in terms of its overall organic relations to all aspects of society) or in a shallow way as simply having to do with the tools and goals at hand.  As we lose the Man within us (for example in no longer recognizing that the artist must also be a poet, a farmer, a judge and so forth) we lose any intensity in the aesthetics of our everyday lives.  This of course is something that Dewey would say.

In talking about the influence of nature on the scholar, Emerson writes "what is classification but the perceiving that [the objects classified] are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?"  I find it difficult to take seriously Emerson's concept of affinities between man and nature except as something metaphorical.  Of course part of his point is pure Kant, as when he says "The astronomer discovers the geometry, a pure abstraction of the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion."  Wow, isn't that magical.  As the same time, I think that we and the planets are both part of the universe:  we are closely related, and there must be something we share in common.  The problem is to tease out the metaphorical truth here.  When Emerson says that the beauty of nature "is the beauty of his own mind" (45) he seems to be going even further than Kant, who limits this kind of anthropocentrism to his concept of the sublime.   Heraclitus similarly implied that in searching out himself he understood the underlying logos.  Emerson thinks that in studying nature one searches out one's own self (by becoming Man?).  I do think that any deep search for the truth is one that finds the self within the subject matter and the subject matter within the self:  the subjective/objective distinction dissolves.  Perhaps this is the metaphorical meaning behind what appears to be scientific nonsense.