Self, Responsibility, Intimations of Phenomenology and Intuition in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

February 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it.  For although all things happen according to this Logos, they [men] are like people of no experience, even when they experience such words and deeds as I explain, when I distinguish each thing according to its constitution and declare how it is; but the rest of men fail to notice what they do after they wake up just as they forget what they do in their sleep

 One thing, the only truly wise, does not and does consent to be called by the name of Zeus.

-Heraclitus, Cosmic Fragments 1 and 32

Recent readings of Emerson’s essays focus on the impersonal in relation to his concept of self and his ethics, particularly those implied by “Self-Reliance.”  In “Appreciating the Impersonal in Emerson,” Todd Lekan claims, “taking self-reliance to be about ‘self-assertion’ misses the fact that self-reliance is a method of thinking in impersonal terms more than it is the bold assertion of one’s own particular virtues” (91).  The author of “Self-Reliance” is the same author of “History,” which begins: “There is one mind common to all individual men.”  While Emerson’s conception of self is not necessarily a new or recent topic, any reading of Emerson should consider just what he means by “self.”  To understand Emerson’s self, it is necessary to see how it moves toward the impersonal.  This he does through his conception of intuition; thus, Emerson’s idea of intuition is at the heart of his conception of self identity.  In a way, he is a predecessor to phenomenology of the early twentieth century, and by looking at developments in the way phenomenologists dealt with the idea of intuition, it’s possible to get a clearer look at Emerson’s conception of self.  What one finds is a self deeply informed by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and that the creation of self is intimately bound to ideas about ethical comportment, religious comportment, human history, and time.

The ethics implied in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” assume an identity that wills or intends toward both the impersonal social and the intrinsically virtuous.  In Aristotelian terms, one should pursue and admire the excellence of virtue itself, rather than the way that virtue may be expressed in one individual’s life.  Emerson’s self has the potential to merge with the impersonal while simultaneously seeking intimate recognition by others:

I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way.  I appeal from your customs.  I must be myself.  I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you.  If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. (31) 

Mutual happiness is the end here, but it is partly sustained by the other’s look.  Emerson’s move to stabilize his identity by looking inward and being observed looking inward is for him an ethical move.  It is a performance for the other.  It is a performance of responsibility: response-ability.

Part of fulfilling the responsibility is an inward looking observed by others.  Emerson’s role is not to satisfy the wants of other people but to commune with what is divine in him through introspection.  It is a religious move toward the metaphysical and  impersonal.  While Emerson’s life shows a move away from organized religion, his Unitarianism points him in this direction, and he certainly doesn’t leave it all behind.  It is not accurate to see Emerson as moving away from religious belief; instead, he gets more radical in his beliefs and more ambitious in spreading his message.  William Ellery Channing’s “Likeness to God” sermon clearly communicates the social environment and religious discourse Emerson’s beliefs are rooted in.

Above all, adore [God’s] unutterable goodness.  But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence; that he even summons you to espouse and advance the sublimest purpose of his goodness, the redemption of the human race, by extending the knowledge and power of Christian truth. (13)

Channing’s sermon reads like a motivational speech for Emerson’s life.  One can see Emerson’s move away from organized religion as a continuation the evangelical vocation of which Channing speaks.

To grow in likeness of God, we need not cease to be men.  This likeness does not consist in extraordinary or marvelous gifts, in supernatural additions to the soul, or in anything foreign to our original constitution; but in our essential faculties, unfolded by vigorous and conscientious exertion in the ordinary circumstances assigned by God.  To resemble our Creator, we need not fly from society, and entrance ourselves into lonely contemplation and prayer. (13)

Emerson will attempt this “Likeness to God” in his way of life as a man, which means he will stress emulation of Christ’s virtues, and though Emerson stresses the need for introspection and solitary time in nature, it is not the kind of asceticism Channing believes unnecessary, partly because Emerson’s solitary reflection is a performance.

Emerson embraces the Unitarian interpretation that centralizes Christ’s essential humanity.  An interpretation of Christ that emphasizes his humanness also emphasizes his ability to be a role model.  As a role model, one cannot rest in the comfort of Christ’s salvation for humanity as a whole, nor seek God’s Grace or Election through good deeds.  God’s Grace can be seen through Christ’s humanity; if Christ can do it, then we all should try to do it too.  Religion becomes about the intention to be with God, like God, or how God intended us to be.  This desire to be with God, for Emerson, must come prior to all earthly bonds.  For Emerson, his eventual break with Unitarianism then comes through the recognition of everyone’s, but especially his, Christ-like responsibility.  But it is not so much that Emerson wants to be Christ; Emerson wants to be Emerson, and his likeness to Christ would only be the similarity of likeness to God present in Christ himself.  Insofar as Emerson wants to be a fuller version of himself, he must merge with his potential, which means some sort of temporal disruption or temporary disintegration into the personal.  The look and acceptance of those who would “love me for what I am” is something Emerson asks for but does not necessitate.  He does not always need an earthly audience for his performance of merging with the impersonal, so there is ambiguity about the priority of his responsibility.  If Emerson’s responsibility is to merge with the divine through introspection before realizing himself as a citizen of humanity – if he is responsible to God or to be like God is his first responsibility, then he is morally bound to realize himself before any social responsibility to other humans.  But Emerson cannot escape his own sociality or humanness; that is, he will always already be merging with the impersonal divine from a state of human facticity.  It is partly this facticity that the transcendentalist transcends.

To some extent, the merge with the impersonal does mean a retreat from society – a value shared by many of Emerson’s fellow transcendentalists.  Going to Walden Pond a couple miles outside of town, however, is not exactly going to the wilderness for forty days.  While Emerson at times stresses the benefits of solitude in nature, Lekan asserts “it would be wrong to think of self-reliance as involving a retreat from social isolation. Emerson maintains that friendship is vital for sustaining self-reliant living” (91).  Sociality is important for the transcendentalists.  The inward move is something to be witnessed by others.  It is a performance of responsibility, and it is a performance for other humans, not necessarily for God.  It is an ethical rather than a religious performance.  While it’s tempting to write this off as some form of transcendentalist theatre starring Thoreau and Emerson, and also to emphasize the secular in the ethical, there are deep Christian roots to this performance of inwardness.

The Garden of Gethsemane, in the New Testament presents a situation where Jesus asks three of his disciples to watch with him and pray with him as he prays perhaps one of the most human prayers.

Then saith he to unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.  And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? (Matthew 26:38-40)  

Two more times, Jesus repeats the praying and turns to find his disciples asleep.  On the third time finding them asleep he says, “Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (26:45).  The men cannot keep up with Jesus, so even they betray him by falling asleep.  They are, as Judas is, bound to betray him.

From the disciples come the Christian notion of witnessing, or martyring because at the time the Apostles may have been “called upon at any time to deny what [they] testified, under penalty of death”; this concept was later broadened to include devout faith in Christ though one had not seen him in flesh (“martyr” 736).

Modeling, observing, and being observed are all important concepts to the structure of Christianity.  They are all represented in Emerson’s public voice.  Emerson’s “I” is at once individual and social, just as Jesus’ voice is both man and Son of man.  It seeks communion with the divine while simultaneously communicating with humans.  While Emerson did not necessarily believe he was Christ, his voice is prophetic and it intends toward a brighter future.  Emerson models some of his behavior on Christ, who rejected his family and home village for truth when the intimacy of these relations prevented him from living and speaking the gospel: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.  And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:57-58).  Similarly, Emerson left his church to preach a wider gospel.  In “Self-Reliance” he essentially claims that truth must come even before the intimacy of loved ones: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me” (22).

Comparing Emerson’s life to Christ’s model may seem exceptionally progressive for the relatively conservative life Emerson, who does not stray far from Channing’s vision.  Emerson’s tone is full of disdain for his fellow humans.  He chides with advice about how to be an individual. He finds shame in philanthropy, which even he occasionally “succumbs” to (22).  His audience appears to be an ignorant herd.  And yet he performs for them.  Emerson’s writing is an ethical act.  In some ways he models Moses coming down from Mount Sinai to find his people worshipping the golden calf or Jesus saying “O ye of little faith.”  This tone reflects the burden of responsibility.

Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after him we have a Roman Empire.  Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man […] and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout earnest persons. (26)

And Emerson himself wants to achieve his greatness, his potential, yet he is bound to do it in the presence of humankind and, in a sense, for humankind.  The tension for him comes from one side being a pull toward interior potential which necessarily means holding worldly relationships in abeyance and on the other side feeling that even this inward move is for the sake of humankind, not simply himself.  The performance of self-reliance is then a kind of substitution for humanity, yet Emerson wants every person to do the same thing.  In a way he wishes for a world in which everyone was self-reliant.  In such a world no one would feel the burden of responsibility to humankind, everyone would simply be holy.  Such an ethics will fail because people will not always be self reliant, even Emerson himself.

Why, then, do we prate of self reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking.  Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. (30)

Power then comes through a willed self, through agency, through action.  To be self-reliant is to perform obedient actions to self, but the result of such actions is power over other people and thus social responsibility. One maintains obedience to one’s self by keeping in tune with what Emerson calls “Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all other teachings are tuitions” (27).  The way of self-reliance then is through his concept of Intuition, which is mystifying.  But philosophical discussion about intuition exploded shortly after Emerson’s death.

The themes of intuition, self, and responsibility become important places for philosophical inquiry in the twentieth century.  Emerson himself has remained a widely read and discussed thinker, and as such has achieved and maintained a status of “greatness.”  It is thus appropriate that we examine his thoughts about self, responsibility, and the impersonal in the context of a wider tradition.  In the following portion of this discussion, I will situate Emerson’s thinking in dialogue with later philosophers, particularly phenomenologists, and a Judeo-Christian conception of self as it relates to history and time.  By proceeding this way, I hope to open up a discussion about the western “self” through a clearer conception of intuition.


The notion of ethics is bound to discussions of the boundaries of self.  Emerson’s concept of self-reliance is a performance for other humans.  This performance is not just an “act” but an action of a willed self.  For such action to occur one must localize one’s self in that very action.  For Emerson, the Right action moves toward impersonal virtues which are essentially metaphysical.  The merge with the impersonal is a merge with the divine and with Nature.  Such merging for Emerson comes through the wisdom of Intuition, which remains a vague term in “Self-Reliance” We essentially realize our soul, which is constantly becoming, through intuition.  Emerson is clearly in the religious and Romantic tradition here, as Leon Chai distinguishes in Romantic Foundations: “Whereas the earlier theology had posited creation as an externalization of God, Emerson depicts it as a means by which the self shall finally realize its own divine nature, through the symbolic revelations of the external world” (67).  Emerson’s concept of Nature then tries to reconcile materialism and spiritualism.  Whereas Francis Bacon claimed that “man is but the servant and interpreter of nature” (243), Emerson sees man as nature.  It then becomes important in Emerson’s terms to interpret one’s self as divine.  This is especially apparent in Emerson’s admonishment of thematic prayer toward the end of “Self-Reliance”:

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.  It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.  It is the spirit of God announcing his works good.  But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.  It supposes a dualism and not a unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg.  He will then see prayer in all action. (33)

Prayer, for Emerson, is attached to the notion of a willed-self through action.  The action of willing the self is done through intuition, and such an act is performed out of both a sense of personal religious duty and ethical responsibility.  Because the action is a performance for humanity who will not always be self-reliant, where failure is always possible, the intuiting self merging with the impersonal is a sort of substitution or self-sacrifice.

In light of this, Emerson’s responsibility can, in some ways, be compared to, or considered in cultural dialogue with, the Jewish ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, which is heavily informed by Christian ideas of self sacrifice and social responsibility.  Levinas takes his point of departure from Dostoyevsky’s line in The Brothers Karamazov: “We are all guilty, the one toward the other, and I more than all the others.”  It is important to understand that “it is not in order to recognize itself as more guilty by specific acts committed that the I who speaks here accuses itself.  It is as me, always the foremost one responsible, experiencing the inexhaustible obligations, that the I is in the wrong, and recognizes in this wrong the identity of its ‘I’” (Levinas 112).  Like Levinas, Emerson implies a kind of substitution for the other in his performance of responsibility.

I do not, however, mean to suggest that Emerson and Levinas are ethical cohorts.  Emerson is in some ways much more prescriptive in his ethics than Levinas.  However, Emerson does prescribe subjective engagement with the divine, which is similar to the pluralism Levinas’s ethics suggest.  Perhaps the most important similarity is that they are both religious philosophers addressing secular audiences, which at times make them difficult for those audiences.  In “The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson’s Impersonal,” Sharon Cameron uses a reading of Levinas’s Time and the Other and Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons to critique Emerson’s impersonal:

Emerson’s perspective does not take into account what thwarts the ideal or how it might affect the voice propounding it.  The plea for impersonality has been evacuated of religious content.  Yet there is something evasive, incomplete, and empty about the fact that Emerson does not acknowledge what replaces the idea of a God, as if the idea of God had not actually been dismissed but had rather been transferred to the omniscient speaking voice (hence Nietzsche’s valorization of Emerson). (31)  

For Cameron, Emerson’s impersonal actually replaces God with a romantic poet’s voice into which the self disintegrates.  Emerson essentially implies the horrors that will eventually be called the “death of humanism” a century later because, for Emerson, there is no self, no God, only the over-soul, for which no individual can be accountable.  This is true, however, only if we accept Cameron’s view that Emerson’s impersonal has indeed “been evacuated of religious content.”

Cameron also goes on to argues against George Kateb’s Emerson and Self Reliance, saying, “the very impersonality so crucial to Kateb’s explanation of self-reliance is also, I argue below, inseparable from the religiousness from which Kateb would sever it.  The radicalness Kateb admires depends upon the “religiousness” that he fears trivializes it” (6).  So, confusingly, while Cameron argues for Emerson’s religiousness against Kateb, she ultimately argues that Emerson’s impersonal has lost its religious content.

Cameron also points to Stanley Cavell’s “central” reading of Emerson in “Aversive Thinking: Emersonian Representations in Heidegger.”  She reports that

Cavell understands Emerson’s “moral perfectionism” as specifying a structure within the self that requires constant “martyrdom” (p. 56). In other words, in Cavell’s analysis of Emerson, as in his reading of Nietzsche, the “higher” self is not located elsewhere or other, but is located “within.” In this idea of perfectionism the self is not fixed, but neither is it absent.  Perfectionism, so defined, supposes a structure essentially more conservative than that of impersonality. (6)

Cavell’s argument, as understood by Cameron, also seems to point toward a lack of individual accountability in Emerson’s essays.  What makes this particularly reprehensible to Cameron is the assumption that one person, Emerson, could speak for others.  Cameron’s most poignant observation about Emerson is his willingness to speak on behalf of others when he says, “All loss, all pain, is particular; the universe remains to the heart unhurt….It is only the finite that has wrought and suffered; the infinite lies stretched in smiling repose” (qtd. in Cameron 4).  This passage is, as Cameron notes, an audacious claim in an ethical conversation.  It is not, however, so audacious a claim if it is read as intending toward the divine, in other words as prayer.

The question is really, just how humble or religious is Emerson on a personal level?  Does he think himself a God? Or does he think himself a prophet, a messenger, an Aaron to an unseen Moses?  Ethics are for humans.  Emerson writes for humans, but he is also struggling to thematize the self in relation to other humans and the divine, or at least the Over-Soul.  Simone De Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity writes:

The most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start would be in exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be would have no meaning. One does not offer an ethics to a God. (10)

Does Emerson ever show, like Jesus in Gethsemane, a weakness?  While not necessarily admitting his own faults, Emerson does include a notion of ethical failure in what we feel when we are not properly self-reliant and are “forced to take with shame our opinion from another” (20).

Lekan discusses notions of vulnerability in Emerson’s essay, “Friendship,” saying, “Emersonian friends are prepared to goad each other for the mutual development of excellence” (100).  They goad each other out of the shame the one feels when he or she has conformed to the thoughts of others rather than to the divine light within.  This kind of friendship is borne out of mutual admiration of virtues that cannot be held entirely by one individual.  Friends may be inspiring, but “when friends no longer serve the purpose of promoting ideals, they should be abandoned without regrets” (Lekan 101).  However, Lekan goes on to suggests that Emerson’s account of friendship would be “more plausible, and in fact more consistent with his overall philosophy, if it acknowledges the fact that we need friends because of the sheer vulnerability of human ideals. Such vulnerability is, after all, the reverse side of the possibility of human ideals” (103).  While I agree with the implications that Lekan suggests about an underlying social-reliance in Emerson’s discussion of friends as sources of inspiration to be one’s self, I also think that Emerson’s concept of shame in not being one’s true self can be connected to a long tradition of Judeo-Christian conceptions of guilt and sin.  For Emerson, indeed, the most shameful act is to not be one’s true self.

Guilt, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is fundamentally tied to the idea of original sin.  While many transcendentalists questioned the notion of original sin, I see this as more of a cultural reaction to Calvinist religious conceptions present in New England in the early to mid nineteenth century.  Emerson’ tone in “Self-Reliance” suggests that he is speaking to the sinners of conformity.  Sin is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition because it informs a particular conception of time and being by locating a supplicating self which gestures toward the divine.  While Emerson does not spend a lot of time discussing sin, the concept is inextricable from Christian notions of the self’s being in time.  Since Emerson’s ethics do imply a merging with the impersonal as a sort of ideal, he implies a certain kind of perfection through right action, right thinking and right prayer.  It becomes necessary to explore the individual’s relationship to the divine, and one way to do this is by understanding Judeo-Christian conceptions of prayer.

The etymology of genuflection reveals on original conception of difference. To sin may simply be to know one is separate from God.  To fully understand the notion of genuflection

Genuflect: Latin: genu = knee + flecture = to bend

1.  To bend the knee in a kneeling or half-kneeling position, as in worship

2. To exhibit a deferential or obsequious manner or attitude

Deference: Courteous respect or submission to another’s opinion

Defer: Latin: differe

1. To put off until a future time: postpone

2. Delay or procrastinate

Differe: Latin: dis = apart + ferre = to carry

1. To be disimilar in nature, quality, amount, or form

2. To be of a different opinion: disagree

3. To dispute or quarrel

Defer: Latin: deferre: de = carry + ferre = away –> to bring to or to carry away

1. To comply with or submit to the wishes, opinion, or decision of another

Obsequious: Latin:  ob = to + sequi = follow

1. To comply, follow, fawning: servile

The original separation from God is perhaps both a difference and in form and a quarrel.  The difference is then overcome by a combination of genuflection and forgiveness.  Genuflection is a performance for the metaphysically Other, but it is an act of will.  Only through establishing myself as a being different from God, which is the source of my guilt, can I enact willful submission.

But, of course, the Judeo-Christian Bible was not written in Latin.  According to Strong’s Biblical Concordance, there are about ten different words for “pray,” most of which have Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek meanings.  In Hebrew / Aramaic, the three most common uses for the word pray are the following:

  1. na:  a primitive particle of incitement or entreaty, which may be rendered I pray, now, or then; added mostly to verbs (in the imperative or future), or to interject, occasionally to an adverb or a conjunction. – I beseech (pray) thee, go to, now, oh.[1]
  2. anna: oh now! – I (me) beseech (pray) thee. O; anah: I, me, mine, myself, we, which, who; an: where?; hence, whither?, when?: also hither and thither.
  3. palal: a primitive root; to judge (officially or mentally); by extension to intercede, pray: – judge or make supplication.

These three Hebrew / Aramaic words for “pray” point to a particular kind of utterance: interjection.  They locate this utterance in time: now, then, toward the future, when?  They locate place: where? And they locate perspective: I, me, mine, judge, etc.

Greek definitions and translations of the previous Hebrew and Aramaic words for “pray” add more layers of meaning.

  1. sophronizo: to make of sound mind, (figurative) to discipline or correct.  Teach to be sober. From sophron: safe (sound) in mind, i.e. self-controlled (moderate as to opinion or passion) – discreet, sober, temperate. From sozo: to deliver or protect (literal or figurative); heal, preserve, save (self), do well, be (make) whole.  AND phren: probably from an obsolete phrao (to rein in or curb): the midriff (as a partition of the body) i.e. (figurative by implied sympathy) the feelings for sensitive nature – understanding.
  2. apoballo: to throw off (figurative) to lose: cast away; from apo: off, away (from something near) in various senses (place, time, or relation) usually denotes separation.

The Greek meanings add more explicitly ethical layers to the word by locating it within teaching, the self, the body, understanding, and sympathy.  The Greek meanings, like the Latin and Hebrew, also denote instantiation in time and difference through separation of being.

The way one languages prayer is an instance of making meaning through intention.  However, the moment I arrive at myself, on the hither side of the prayer itself, I am immediately instantiated again as a being whose difference is a quarrel with the divine.  It is this instantiation of self, this instance, that creates my existence in time.  Descartes’ cogito, viewed historically as a subjective turn, is a turn not so much toward self-creation as it is a turn toward accountability of one’s self as both thinking subject and thinking object.

Emerson claims that the “aboriginal” self is a “science baffling star, without parallax,” a movement of light without form (27).  The self is then found in a movement, an action which Emerson calls “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.  We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all other teachings are tuitions.”  Tuition here reveals its Latin root: “to look.”  To teach is to teach a way of seeing, which requires perspective.  But if the true self is “without parallax,” it is an all-encompassing light – it is not really an “it” at all; it is an experience without reference to a subject, it’s entity is held in its object-ness to a transcendent entity.  Who can “view” my true self?  Emerson says we find the true self through Intuition: an inward looking.  What then, is this act of intuition?

Intuition has been intensely studied by philosophers after Emerson’s death.  In phenomenology, Edmund Husserl’s work has shown that consciousness is always consciousness of something.  But it is not the moving of intentionality toward an object that establishes the relationship: the relationship itself is prior and un-thematic.  The relationship is transcendence.  I intuit before I know.  Knowledge is only known through reflection which occurs after the event of experience, but the event, the world, the temporal situation, the other, always already situate the conditions for the possibilities of my reflection.  Intuition precedes consciousness, but we can only thematize this through consciousness.

Levinas sees in Husserl’s theory of intuition the terms of a fundamental relationship with Otherness that cannot be thematized.  It is not that the existence of the self is simply defined as a sort of reaction formation to other beings in the world; it is the pre-existing relationship between the two which cannot be conceptualized until after the self recognizes itself that is fundamental.  For Levinas, this is an asymmetrical and metaphysical. And as Howard Caygill notes in Levinas and the Political, Levinas also finds the roots of Freedom in Husserl:

For Husserl, meaning consists in a transcendent freedom, it has ‘never been determined by history’, and indeed, ‘time and consciousness’ themselves issue from freedom or ‘the passive synthesis of an inner deep constitution that is no longer a being’ (DH, 87). Freedom, in other words, is a transcendence that can never be thematised; it is beyond ontology, otherwise than being.  Unlike platonic transcendence, this version is traumatic, emerging from the foreign that lives in the same. (28-29)

Emerson’s idea of intuition, which is the way the self gets at its fundamental duty, is a move toward the impersonal.  But once he moves toward the impersonal, his ethical responsibility to humanity in comes into question as he transcends from Emerson the person to Emerson the sacrificial substitution.  Emerson’s response is to write an ethical treatise on how he should be left alone, that everyone should be left alone, to fulfill their true potential.  Emerson’s often frustrated sounding tone is marked by others who obstruct his ability to disintegrate into the impersonal by grounding him in responsibility: “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother because he has shut his temple doors, and recites tales merely of his brother’s, or of his brother’s brother’s God” (33).  Emerson wants to live freely, but in a sense he needs others to do the same because others constantly disrupt his intuition, his spontaneity, and his freedom.

For Henri Bergson the transcendent relationship (duree) cannot be reduced to spatial geometry.  In Time and Free Will, Bergson describes the difference between duration or “lived experience” and reflective consciousness, particularly with the inability to reduce qualitative sensation to quantifiable descriptions.  The mind must step away from the lived experience in order to account for it.  Duration is famously concisely described in the following passage from Creative Evolution.

Though our reasoning on isolated systems may imply that their history, past, present, and future, might be instantly unfurled like a fan, this history, in point and fact, unfolds itself gradually, as if it occupied a duration like our own.  If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, wily nilly, wait until the sugar melts.  This little fact is big with meaning.  For here the time I have to wait is not that mathematical time which would apply equally well to the entire history of the world, even if that history were spread out instantaneously in space.  It coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like.  It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. (7)

When we represent time spatially, we disrupt the continuity that life is always emerging in.  Our moments of reflection, our critical gaze, brackets our life experience just as the lens of a camera or a microscope bracket their subjects.  And even as our consciousness brackets, we go on living, changing, unable to repeat a past.  We endure constant change.  Bergson’s constant flux can also be seen in Emerson’s combining of intuition and “Spontaneity” (27).

Subjective consciousness – intuition – becomes the way of getting at experience, but consciousness for Bergson is not simply “awareness.”  For Bergson, consciousness has two modalities: first is lived experience, or duration; second is reflective awareness, constituted by our ability to bracket our attention by disrupting the constant flow of lived experience.  Memory, scientific method, and analytical thinking all belong to reflective consciousness.  We cannot access our experience of the world without intuiting the world.  Duration, for Bergson, like intuition for Husserl, precedes consciousness but can only be discussed from the hither side of consciousness and is for that reason problematic.  While Bergson believes the world exists outside of human consciousness, we move toward it as if it were virtual.  The world is not a product of consciousness.  The structure of consciousness and intuition affects and already filters any sort of experience of the world.  We can only get at the world by way of intuition.

At first glance, Bergson and Emerson seem to be talking about opposites: Bergson is looking for a way of getting at the world; Emerson is trying to get at the Self by looking inward.  However, experiencing the world is already metaphysical for Bergson.  In this sense Bergson brings together the empirical and the invisible, similar to Emerson’s conception of Nature and the non dualistic nature of the soul in proper prayer (Emerson 33).  Bergson’s philosophy also accounts for this metaphysical move, but for him, even the movement toward the world is a metaphysical act, not that the world doesn’t exist, but that we move toward the world through intuition and recast the world through reflection.  Élan vital, for Bergson, is the creative force existing in consciousness that allows for consciousness to play a part in evolution.  Life, for him, is not determined by material collisions, cause and effect, and coincidence alone.  Intentionality must play a part.  To combine Bergson’s thinking with Emerson’s intentionality, the instantiation of a self is necessary as the locus of intention.  Life, in other words, requires form, or at least a perspectival point.

However, Emerson’s philosophy is essentially an ethical philosophy, and so it is not enough to merely describe the parameters of existence; it also suggests ways of comportment.  Ethical philosophy implies relationships and communication; therefore, language becomes necessary as a form of communication, particularly with other humans. Emerson’s text is an artifact of his ethical attempts to communicate with humans.  God does not need essays on ethics.  The metaphysical is not a relation I produce in thought.  It is the environment of that thought.  Just as Emerson sees that

Life only avails, not the having lived.  Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of a gulf, in the darting to an aim.  This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that ever degrades the past, turns all riches into poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. (29)

The soul is, for Emerson, beyond the historical.  The merging with the impersonal ceases to be marked as an instance of self or time.  This is where Emerson is perhaps truly closest to a break with the Judeo-Christian tradition, for he says, “I do not wish to expiate, but to live” (22).  The problem is that he wants to cast away history but still move toward potential.  He wishes to absolve himself of the necessity of existence in time, but like Bergson waiting for the sugar to dissolve, he cannot.  Or, perhaps more accurately, Emerson wishes to dissolve like the sugar, but because he has conceptualized it, he is impatient.  In either case, Emerson move toward a future where truth is fulfilled.  Emerson wants to move beyond existence.

Intuition, in any case implies the instantiation of a subject, a perspective from which to intuit.  To rely on a self, one must instantiate.  When one instantiates, one creates formal boundaries of identity that makes one viewable by others and perhaps, as my discussion of prayer suggests, separate from God.  Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essentially locates the ethical problem that in order to transcend to the impersonal, in order to join the divine, one must first be located as a self which is then ethically bound to humanity and divorced from God.  His ethical advice then comes from the fundamental belief that all dualism between Nature or God and humanity is a sham, and that we can experience the unity with God by looking inward.  If we view Emerson as maintaining a sense of religious devotion that has widened from his Unitarian roots while still showing roots of that religion, we can view his work as soundly ethical.  However, if we view him as being completely secular as scholars like Sharon Cameron have done, then Emerson’s ethics are essentially a turn away from humanity, and therefore not ethical at all.

Emerson raises the following questions: if ethics and religion are different, can religion justifiably precede ethical action?  Is substitution really possible?  Such questions are at the heart of Emerson’s own religious background.

Works Cited

Bacon, Sir Francis. “Excerpt from The New Organon.” Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. United States: Thompson Wadsworth, 2005.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution.  New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005.

——————Time and Free Will.  New York: Dover, 2001.

Cameron, Sharon.  “The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson’s Impersonal.”  Critical Inquiry. Vol. 25, No. 1, 1998. (1-31). Accessed Feb. 15, 2009.

Chai, Leon. The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Channing, William Ellery. “Likeness to God.”  Transcendentalism: A Reader.  Ed. Joel Myerson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover,  1993.

Heraclitus.  The Cosmic Fragments.  Ed. G.S. Kirk. London: Cambridge UP, 1970.

Holy Bible. King James version

Lekan, Todd. “Appreciating the Impersonal in Emerson (That’s What Friends Are For).” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 21, No. 2, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “The Vocation of the Other.” Is It Righteous to Be? Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

“martyr.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. Charles Herbermann. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1910.

1 The reader should note that I have edited these entries for clarity of purpose.  For more detail see Strong’s Biblical Concordance entries 4994, 577, 4336 in both the Hebrew and Greek sections and 6419 in the Hebrew section.


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