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Transcendental Roots

Emerson and Immanuel Kant

Bryan Hileman, VCU

Emerson’s initial and most important influence was Immanuel Kant filtered through Frederic Hedge, Thomas Carlyle and especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  It granted him a system based upon logic with which to defend his innate optimism.  Kant opened him up to a constructive system by which he could bridge the gap between mind and matter, between noumena and phenomena. Emerson first came in to real contact with Kant through Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and The Friend in late 1829.  His knowledge of German metaphysics was reinforced and expanded by Hedge’s 1833 essay on Coleridge in the Christian Examiner, various articles by Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus Web Site and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Web Site

Though his knowledge of Kant, Fichte and Schelling was primarily second-hand, this does not minimize its importance.  It was, true, translated through a medium, and thus diluted, and altered subtly from its original form.  Emerson did, true, alter it somewhat to coincide with his own primal urges and native influences.  Yet without the seed that traveled across the water from Germany, the germination of American Transcendentalism would not have been.

The transcendental idealism of Fichte was particularly important, though Hedge did not report his notions with complete accuracy.  For Fichte, "consciousness expresses the assertion of a self," whereas Emerson posits consciousness as "an act of pure seeing," a less formalistic and more pantheistic reading (Chai, 32).  Schelling was the closest of the neo-Kantians to Emerson, though it was not so much direct influence as much as parallel development from a Kantian base.

The philosophy of Kant had a decided effect on Emerson’s speculations as to the nature of God, though they then drifted off in Emerson’s particular direction.  Fichte’s conception of the 'I am I', mixed with Jacobi’s emphasis on the intuition form an approximation of Emerson’s vision, though Emerson’s development in this area was essentially personal. God in effect became secularized and revealed religion obsolete.  It was for each man to realize internally the relationship between external nature and his mind and his spirit and the spirit.

There is much to choose from in Kant; why then was the relationship between Reason and Understanding so central to the work of Coleridge, Carlyle and Emerson?  Possibly that "the study of awareness might fulfill the same yearnings that formerly sought fulfillment in the so-called ‘contemplation of higher things.’"  (Harris, 268)  Emerson took from Kant the dualistic system that encompasses Reason and Understanding.  The Understanding senses the phenomena of the world; the Reason senses the noumena.  There can be Understanding without Reason, but not Reason without Understanding.

It seems that Coleridge was better versed in Kantian metaphysics that was previously thought.  He grasped their basics, but altered them to make room for emotion.  Though his understanding was not as deep as that of Coleridge, Carlyle understood the basic concepts and introduced into them an element of action.  Kant is the basis of Nature, though he thought arrived via a circuitous route.  Emerson comprehended Kant in spirit, at least the parts of the Critique of Pure Reason that were most appropriate to his temperament and most satisfying to his desire.  One goal of Nature is to reconcile scientific understanding with faith, and the system employed by Emerson echoes strongly of that of Kant.  Emerson’s fundamental morality of his universe is also quite similar to Kant.  In later essays Emerson drifted away from Kant, establishing his own duality and interplay between illusion and reality, in a sense transcending the dichotomy between Reason and Understanding.

Emerson was simply not essentially a metaphysician.  What he received from the Germans were words for the concepts he was attempting to promulgate.  What Emerson wanted was a language and a system by which he could refute British empiricism, which so disagreed with his nature.  This he derived from Kant, Fichte and Schelling via Hedge, Carlyle and Coleridge.

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