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.