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Transcendental Roots

Emerson and Coleridge

Bryan Hileman, VCU

Samuel Taylor Coleridge served as Emerson's primary guide to German philosophy. The philosophy of Coleridge, as it came to America in his popular works, combined "elements of Fichte, of Schelling, and of others superimposed upon Kant" basic distinctions." (Cameron, 92)

Coleridge was the most important influence on Emerson in his pre-Nature years, for "Coleridge is pre-eminent among the teachers of Emerson." (Cameron, 78)  The Friend Web Site and Aids to Reflection, as introduced by James Marsh in 1829, were the first of Coleridge" works to have an important influence on Emerson, in 1829-30 (see selected quotes).  These works hit him like a thunderbolt, giving him words to express his latent thoughts.  From these came the principle "quantum sumus, scimus (the world mirrors our own thought)." (Cameron, 168) Also in these works Emerson encountered the Kantian distinction between Reason and Understanding.  This dichotomy was the puzzle piece Emerson had been searching for to justify and explicate his renunciation of Hume" empiricism.  Coleridge was fairly well versed in Kantian metaphysics.  He grasped their basics, but altered them slightly to make room for emotion, in turn making them more palatable for Emerson.

These notions culminated in the poem Gnothi Seauton, and later, of course, Nature. These primal ideas, mixed with others of Coleridge and a splash of native practicality, formed Emerson" "First Principle," the true genesis of what was to come.

Emerson drifted away from Coleridge and towards Carlyle during the middle 1830", partially because the latter had been far more personally magnetic during Emerson" 1833 visit.  This meant drifting farther away from Kant, for Carlyle was not so great an expositor of Kant as was Coleridge. Shortly before the publication of Nature, Emerson returned to Coleridge and to his Biographia Literaria. Web Site All told, Coleridge was perhaps the single greatest contemporary influence on the development of young Emerson" philosophy.

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