The Emerson Enigma

By Stack, George J. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Emerson Enigma


Stack, George J., Nineteenth-Century Prose


In "The Emerson Enigma" the thought of Emerson is interpreted as a form of perspectivalism. Three perspectives are examined in detail: transcendentalism, existential individualism, and fatalism. An attempt is made to show that transcendentalism, as Emerson presented it, was based upon a weak foundation and was a distortion of Kant's philosophy. It is argued that Emerson, though referring to it intermittently, continually moved away from it in the direction of an American mode of existentialism that parallels, in some respects, the thought of Kierkegaard and the Heidegger of Being and Time. The fatalism in Emerson's writings is a strong position that is not balanced by a philosophical defense of freedom--the weakest aspect of his thought. Philosophical and psychological interpretations of the man and his philosophy lead to a conclusion that Emerson produced a philosophy of paradox that retains a tension between a philosophical idealism and a realism that emphasizes the contradictions and tensions of existence and philosophical reflection.

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Some of the many controversies that have circled around Emerson concern his relation to philosophy. Is he, in the final analysis, a philosopher? If he is, what is his central philosophical stance? How can a unitary, identifiable, general philosophy be made out of fragmentary insights, images, judgments, pronouncements, and exhortations found dispersed throughout his lectures and essays? What would it mean, philosophically, for someone to claim that he or she is an Emersonian?

The enigma of Emerson is not only within the man himself. He is a poetic thinker who is elusive or bluntly direct, paradoxical, antagonistic to completion or cognitive closure, blissfully optimistic and acutely aware of the tragic and "negative facts," confidently self-affirming and deeply questioning of himself, society, politics, public opinion, homo natura, the way of the world, and existence itself. In his essays he is often in dialectical opposition to himself, always prone to thinking sic et non, as if engaged in a tense internal cognitive-affective struggle. An aborted Hegelian, Emerson never manages to generate a synthesis, always leaving thesis and antithesis in an unresolved dialectical tension.

Emerson was quite aware of his tendency toward self-contradiction, his proclivity to contradict himself in essays, sometimes within paragraphs. In a journal entry from 1838-39 he asserts that "I wish to say what I feel and think to-day, with the proviso that tomorrow perhaps I shall contradict it all. Freedom, boundless I wish." Despite this awareness, the occurrence of glaring contradictions in the essays is such a recurring phenomenon that Emerson seems unable to suppress self-contradiction, as if he is caught by an unconscious drive to undermine himself, to subvert his own authorial authority. The frequency of internal contradictions in his assertions, evocative challenges, doctrines, viewpoints, value-judgments, and heartfelt sentiments seem to attest to the projection of emotional and intellectual conflicts that express his lived-experience, the inward paradoxes of his thinking, his attitudes, feelings and beliefs. His honesty will not allow him to settle in an airtight dogma, a systematic philosophical stance. He is skeptical enough to avoid dogmatism, and he is much too aware of the cognitive effects of shifting moods and alternating insights derived from various angles of vision or perspectives to claim apodictic certainty for one of them. Although he sometimes seems to lose rhetorical control of his writing, it is also the case that Emerson is an inveterate perspectivalist. Given his changing pros and cons, there are may perspectival levels in his works. Despite this, there is no celebration of relativity as an end in itself since core values are fundamentally retained. The first perspective considered will be: transcendentalism seen as not only not based on Kant's thought, but as antipodal to it.

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