Panel Discussion Proposal for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy
Beyond the Limits of Rationality Toward a Transcendental Morality:
Democracy, Education and Value in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” as Democratic Citizenship:
An Exploration of Emerson as the Philosopher of Democracy
Self Discovery and Calling in Emerson’s Philosophy of Education
Margaret Fuller: The Resolution of Crises through Love
Emerson and Fuller are both clear that ethics does not simply involve the repetition of rules. Furthermore, any moral act for these thinkers is not wholly the outcome of rationality but rather originates through a richer process of feeling and poetic inspiration. Despite the Kantian roots of transcendentalism, Emerson and Fuller hold that an overemphasis on rationality limits the full possibilities of moral excellence. This panel seeks to open a discussion of the origin of moral norms as a function of felt value. This will justify these thinkers as important critics of the Enlightenment conception of morality as founded on reason.
The first paper investigates the veracity of Dewey's claim that Emerson is the “Philosopher of Democracy.” Dewey can do this because he and Emerson share similar conceptions of individuality and the relationship of the individual to the community. While Dewey will emphasize pragmatic inquiry and Emerson the Over-soul, both reach a similar robustly democratic theory that does not rely on the ontological priority of the individual as conceived in the liberal tradition. For Emerson, it is the Over-soul that provides a moral center to an individual's activities and abilities through immediately felt values. Democracy is the means by which a group can come together and share the moral disclosures of the Over-soul as a community. Dewey can call Emerson the philosopher of democracy precisely because Emerson reformulates the individual as a self-reliant person without putting the individual up as something ontologically prior to morality or communities.
The second paper will argue that Emerson holds the unique purpose of education to be the cultivation of a student's self-discovery. Emerson’s educational philosophy emphasizes imagination and inspiration, child-centeredness, the balance of the physical and contemplative in the student, and the proper pace of education. Many of these features center on two meanings of Nature at work in his philosophy. Emerson sees Nature itself as a moral educator that inspires self-discovery. Additionally, Nature serves as an analogy to the pace which education should follow. Immersed in this exposition is a debate concerning the ontology of the self to be discovered. Emerson's self is a seminal calling, open to growth and multiple possibilities; however, it is relationally formed and, by virtue of its constraint by the Over-soul, morally charged.
The third paper will argue that Fuller reveals our responsibility in the creation and generation of moral norms by identifying crises in lived meaning and showing how an orientation toward values as concrete dynamic actualities can create novel possibilities. We are always implicated in and thus responsible for the generation and transformation of meaning. Because meanings are not fixed or static, crises occur when the way we are living does not conform to the felt value in an experience. Fuller, in Woman in the Nineteenth Century articulates many of these crises or reversals of value. These crises, when left taken for granted as the status quo, have a detrimental effect on humanity because they prevent us from realizing the possibilities that are open to us and leave us unable to affect the transformation of oppressive structures. Finally, it is argued that love, because of its openness to what is limitless is able to visualize and create new possibilities. This reorients the values that have become disordered by aligning our lived meanings with values we experience.
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” as Democratic Citizenship:
An Exploration of Emerson as the Philosopher of Democracy
John Dewey refers to Emerson as the philosopher of democracy in a 1903 essay and makes reference to Emerson throughout his writings as an exemplar of democracy. I argue that Dewey can do this because he and Emerson share similar conceptions of individuality and the relationship of the individual to the community. While Dewey will emphasize pragmatic inquiry and Emerson the Over-soul, both reach a similar robustly democratic theory that does not rely on the ontological priority of the individual as in the liberal tradition. I argue that despite apparent differences in the sources of moral normativity (inquiry versus the Over-soul), both reformulate what philosophy should mean by individual person and how this person ought relate to a social community. Dewey can call Emerson the philosopher of democracy precisely because Emerson reformulates the individual as a self-reliant person without putting the individual up as something ontologically prior to morality.
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” as Democratic Citizenship:
An Exploration of Emerson as the Philosopher of Democracy
But at least, thinking of Emerson as the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato, one may without presumption believe that even if Emerson has no system, none the less he is the prophet and herald of any system which democracy may henceforth construct and hold by, and that when democracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself already proposed in Emerson.
John Dewey calls Ralph Waldo Emerson the philosopher of democracy. In Individualism: Old and New and The Public and Its Problems, Dewey cites Emerson as a trailblazer of democracy. Given the Transcendentalist emphasis on the individual and the Deweyan pragmatist’s emphasis on the primacy of communities and education for the formation of individuals, there seems a contradiction on first blush. This is only compounded by the erroneous vision of Emerson as a rugged individualist, emblematic of the American spirit which moved countless Europeans through the “untamed” frontier. It will be seen that Dewey’s view of Emerson's philosophy is informative of what democratic citizens are capable of. Understanding “Self-Reliance” and other essays where Emerson extols to the virtues of the direct and primary self is important not only to understand the democratic vision of Dewey, but also the American democratic experiment.
Emerson is an idealist, albeit a very practical “Yankee” idealist; however, pragmatists are not materialists and do not reject idealism wholesale. Doing so would reduce figures like Dewey to empiricists, not pragmatists. Dewey calls Emerson the philosopher of democracy because Emerson presents an ideal of democratic citizenship which does not fall into individualistic liberalism, such as Locke would endorse. Furthermore, Emerson also presents a vision of democracy that is not simply mob-rule. While Emerson holds that the individual self is primary to society, it is not primary in a manner that results in egoism. The self that Emerson points to is the type of individual which Dewey envisions as the new creative democratic individual in Individualism: Old and New. Emerson is the philosopher of democracy precisely because he is able to identify a manner where the self is adequate and trustworthy for self-government in every sense of the term. This vision of the robust, self-trusting Emersonian self is the democratic citizen of Dewey. Dewey will reject much of the language of an idealist like Emerson, and see a different process and description of the centrality of the Over-Soul as a locus of goodness, but Dewey will maintain that what Emerson sees as self-reliance is the ideal of the democratic citizen and can function in such a way not only to govern a state, but a life in a robust and growth-oriented manner.
Many contemporary readers of Dewey emphasize his communitarian character. The community plays an irreplaceable role in the development and maintenance of each of its members. Communities provide education, economic possibilities, and a place to inquire. However, much of this emphasis is done in a manner to show the difference between Dewey’s political theory and liberalism. Locke and Mill, in the classical liberal tradition, and Rawls, in the contemporary liberal tradition, hold onto a form of individual as ontologically primary and somewhat easily abstracted from society at large. In all of these there is a sharp disconnection of the individual from society in what Deweyans see as an impossible dichotomy. Dewey is clear that the individual is emergent from many conditions, both biological and social. Given the considerable influence of liberalism with individuals who are ontologically prior to society, emphasizing Dewey’s communitarian credentials is important. However, Dewey’s robust philosophy of community is only a part of his social thought. Dewey does still considers the individual as important as the community. Individuals form the constitutive parts of a society but they are also the source of inquiry, creativity, and change. That society and the individual are co-constitutive does not mean that society trumps individualism, nor does it imply that the individual is prior to the society. Dewey’s social philosophy is concerned with social institutions, but as a manner to develop individuals that are capable of robust inquiry and creativity.
In Individualism: Old and New, Dewey argues that the old individualism of western society cannot cope with the new social arrangements of the industrialized world. However, there is no need to reject individualism in total, rather there is a possibility to reformulate and reconstruct it given the real and novel state of the world. The old individualism was developed in the Christian west and always emphasized the individual as the means of sin and salvation.With this foundation, developments in industry and technology along with the Protestant Revolution created the dominate view of property, material and the rewards of the individual. Thus, old individualism lead to a belief that
emancipation would stimulate latent energy into action, would automatically assign individual ability to the work for which it was suited, would cause it to perform that work under stimulus of the advantage to be gained, and would secure for capacity and enterprise the reward and position to which they were entitled.
However, “such thinking treats individualism as if it were something static.” The development of society during the industrial revolution because of science, industry and the decline of medieval religion has made this vision untenable. It leads to isolated individuals which Dewey calls “monstrosities.”
Dewey sees hope in the reformulation of individualism, into something new and different. Dewey holds that “[t]he solution of the crisis in culture is identical with the recovery of composed, effective and creative individuality.” He continues:
When the patterns that form individuality of thought and desire are in line with actuating social forces, that individuality will be released for creative effort. Originality and uniqueness are not opposed to social nurture; they are saved by it from eccentricity and escape.
This new individual can be a democratic citizen. The citizen is capable of true independence, of the positive freedom to create, inquire, and interact. This does not reduce to a form of atomism for Dewey, as the individual is educated and is continually reformed, from infancy to death, by cultural institutions and communal interactions. However, the individual is still the basis for creation and inquiry and must be developed in such a way that this is possible. It is here that this citizen is identical with Emerson’s self-reliant person.
Dewey argues, “democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.” Dewey’s democratic community life is a life for individuals. Without robust individuals, there is no community. Part of this is negative liberty of the variety we see in Locke’s Second Treatise. But freedom from restrictions is only part of Dewey’s vision, not the whole. Positive liberty is the “[l]iberty is that secure release and fulfillment of personal potentialities which take place only in rich and manifold association with others.”Positive liberty is individual, it is found in the power of the individual to be a creative and free contributor to life. This individual is the source of power not only in a Deweyan democracy, but also in Emerson’s conception of the self-reliant person. It is in forming an individual of this manner that creates the possibility of overcoming the limits of egoism and classical liberalism. Emerson’s identification that there are possibilities in all individual persons, that they can be more than simply egoists, is why he is the philosopher of democracy.
While “Self-Reliance” might often be the presumed go-to text for rugged individualism, the term “individualism” does not appear in the essay. Upon a cursory reading of this essay, in a vacuum of the remainder of Emerson’s corpus, it is easy to interpret this essay as a thorough endorsement an individualism that endorses a brand of egoism that ignores authority and lacks connection to the rest of society. This important essay is not a guide to selfishness but rather one that focuses human attention onto what can be changed and shows the method to achieve the best life. Taking this essay in concert with other works of Emerson, particularly “Over-Soul,” “Politics,” “Fate,” and “Power,” will demonstrate that Emerson is providing the tools of citizenship and a manner for democracy to become a culture which empowers human potential.
Emerson implores us to “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [the] mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” Because “imitation is suicide,” each person “must learn to take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.”This move is not one of selfishness; rather, it is the personal acknowledgment of the source of inspiration and genius—an individual self. Otherwise, one must “[a]ccept the place the divine providence has found for you” and confine the self “childlike to the genius of their age, betraying [one’s] perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart.”
Society as it exists, untransformed by the robust citizen, is the enemy of the greatness that self-reliance allows. Famously, and using a metaphor of the corporation as the model of living that Dewey will also employ in Individualism, Emerson writes: “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.”Society demands conformity and results in people who are “not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.” With conformity being the only virtue remaining within corrupted society, there is need for reorganization or abandonment. There is little appeal to be had to the weak and the timid. Rather, a source only knowable through self-reliance is the manner to overcome the corruption of the joint-stock society.
Emerson holds that the self is the means to know the Over-soul, which provides normativity and authority to the individual. Humans in the natural world “see the world piece by piece [...] but the whole [...] is the soul.” This is the source of wisdom and normativity for the self-reliant person. The Over-soul’s revelations appear individual insofar as they come by means of thought. Emerson holds that the Over-soul “overpower[s] reality [and] confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.”Because of the Over-soul, the self-reliant person is not egocentric; rather, justice is possible because individuals are the conduits of the revelations of the Over-soul. In it space and time are “abolished” and freedom from the predictability of the spatial and temporal world is possible. The Over-soul provides the source of power that overcomes the determinism of fate.
The Over-soul is available to all people. We find that everyone can achieve
The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God; yet for ever and ever the influx of this better and universal self is new and unsearchable. It inspires awe and astonishment. … He has not the conviction, but the sight, that the best is the true, and may in that thought easily dismiss all particular uncertainties and fears, and adjourn to the sure revelation of time, the solution of his private riddles.
There is no reason for Emerson to place a caveat or restriction on the limits of self-reliance. If the soul is the informer of goodness and wisdom, action will be right. The buzz and confusion of the day-to-day world, including the society of the lost, cannot give anything more than fated action. The Over-soul's role in freedom is suggested in “Self-Reliance:”
This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms. All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain.
In receptivity to the Over-soul, “the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts, and act with energies, which are immortal.” This type of attunement to the goodness and truth is selfless, although found in reflection into the self.
When Emerson speaks of power in “Self-Reliance,” he means that ability humans have to unleash their energies against Fate. Fate is that part of the universe that is determined and predictable. Emerson calls it natural history and the laws of the world. This acts to limit any part of the world to predetermined, law-guided outcomes. Rocks fall predictably, planets stay in their orbits, and those without thought and passion go about their daily business by the dictates of Fate. But, “[i]f Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate.” Power allows for freedom, it is “parallel” to fate, opposed but without contact. Power alone allows for change of Fate and the possibility of dynamic action. Emerson holds that “every man is efficient only as he is a container or vessel of this force, and never was any signal act or achievement in history, but by this expenditure.” A contradiction such as this leads to a dialectic of these two opposing forces. Emerson is clear that these forces are harmonized within the individual self:
If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character. ... The riddle of the age has for each a private solution.
This “private solution” is found in the self, and whatever actions it brings about must be jealously guarded against the corrosive influences of society. The dialectic between determination and freedom that must be resolved within each person. While “Fate against Fate is only parrying and defense: there are, also, the noble creative forces. The revelation of Thought takes man out of servitude into freedom.” This resolution is found in conduct, in the self-guided, self-reliant actions of a free human being.
The political structure that Emerson favors is minimal to accommodate the interaction of free peoples. Emerson holds that “[e]very actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well.” Society is removed from the Over-soul, because it communicates and inspires the individual. For Emerson "[t]he antidote to this abuse of formal Government, is, the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual. Furthermore, “[t]he appearance of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State.” This is the idea of democracy which Dewey forwards. Dewey holds that “democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character, and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life.” Further, “democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.” Emerson’s state is no different, because it relies upon the free choices and actions of robust selves. Here, Dewey and Emerson have no quarrel. Both see a fundamental reorientation needed to achieve free individuals who can achieve goodness in life.
Dewey’s praise of Emerson is due because Emerson’s thought involves the common person in a way that typical idealisms do not. There are no toilers with souls of iron for Emerson. The Over-soul speaks to all and causes each actor, if they are listening to its revelations, to act in accordance with what is good. When guided by the Over-soul, there is no need for governments and regulations; instead, people act justly due to their own self-reliant wisdom. Emerson is the philosopher of democracy because he empowers the common person as much as authoritative society empowers the scholar, the ruler, or the priest.Emerson’s reliance on the Over-soul as an influence to inform and move individuals to learn and grow is identified by Dewey as the growth of intelligence by means of inquiry. If this philosophic difference is overlooked, both thinkers give us a vision of human intelligence (in Dewey-speak) or human genius (in Emerson-speak) potentially and ideally alive in each individual. From this intelligence results action that makes community life robust and powerful. Communities are not, for either thinker, systems of power, but rather gatherings of robust selves with the result of the good life. Dewey finds that “Emerson's whole work as a hymn to intelligence, a paean to the all-creating, all-disturbing power of thought.”
There is resolution to the question of how an idealist and a pragmatist might have the same answer to the needs of communal living and of revitalizing the individual. Dewey sees Emerson as the philosopher of democracy because Dewey understands that Emerson is something more than merely a philosopher or merely a poet, he is the sum of the two, which in this case is greater than the whole. Dewey “would not make hard and fast lines between philosopher and poet.” The philosopher has narrow thoughts, “[n]ot thought, but reasoned thought, not things, but the ways of things, interest him; not even truth, but the paths by which truth is sought.” “Outcomes, interpretations, victories, are indifferent.” Instead, the artist’s “[a]ffection is towards the meaning of the symbol, not to its constitution. Only as he wields them, does the artist forge the sword and buckler of the spirit. His affair is to uncover rather than to analyze; to discern rather than to classify. He reads but does not compose.” Emerson is the hybrid of these, on Dewey’s account, and is able to compose truth while analyzing it. A paradox such as this should be no problem for the Emersonian, as this account does meet with experience and finds its rectification in the intelligent conducts of a self-reliant individual. The differences of Dewey’s democratic thought and Emerson’s are thus differences of the language employed: Emerson is the artist-philosopher who creates while Dewey when taken only as the philosopher can only analyze. Emerson is the philosopher of democracy, or more precisely the philosopher-poet of democracy, because Emerson is creating while reading. Emerson makes the possibility of self-rule and freedom a live one by showing that the individual can be more than something driven by egoism or controlled as a cog in a machine.
Dewey, John. “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us.” The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953, vol. 14. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
---. “Emerson-The Philosopher of Democracy.” John Dewey: The Middle Works, vol. 3. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977.
---. Experience and Nature. John Dewey: The Later Works, vol. 1.ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
---. Individualism Old and New. John Dewey: The Later Works 1925-1953: vol. 5.ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.
---. The Public and Its Problems.The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953, vol. 2. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
In this paper I argue that the unique purpose of education according to Ralph Waldo Emerson is that the student achieves self-discovery. Using Immanuel Kant’s educational philosophy as a point of departure, I expose several features of Emerson’s educational philosophy including the role of imagination and inspiration, child-centeredness, the balance of the physical and contemplative in the student, and the proper pace of education. Many of these features center on two meanings of Nature at work in his philosophy. Emerson sees Nature itself as a moral educator that inspires self-discovery. Additionally, Nature serves as an analogy to the pace which education should follow. Immersed in this exposition is a debate concerning the ontology of the self to be discovered. I contend that this self is a seminal calling, open to growth and multiple possibilities; however, it is relationally formed and, by virtue of its constraint by the Over-soul, morally charged.
Self Discovery and Calling in Emerson’s Philosophy of Education
At first glance a systematic philosophy of education in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy seems elusive. In addition to a reading of his essay entitled “Education,” an illustration of his philosophy of education includes, but is not limited to, an interpretation of the poet as teacher and the American Scholar as student. In this way, we see education not as minor concern for Emerson, but a rather central one. What emerges from this examination is the unique purpose of Emersonian education—self-discovery. To reveal this distinctive intention, I will expose several features of Emerson’s educational philosophy including his break from his Kantian roots concerning the role of imagination and inspiration, children as the center and starting point of education, the balance of the physical and contemplative functions of a student, the goal of moral education, and the proper pace of education. Many of these features center on two meanings of Nature at work in his philosophy. Emerson sees Nature itself as an educator and access to self-discovery. It is the all-encompassing environment of the student and communicates to him its universal laws. Additionally, Nature serves as an analogy to the pace and method which education should follow. Education should proceed naturally and should not be artificially forced.
The purpose of education, that the student discovers this sense of self, is the thread running through all of these facets of Emerson’s educational philosophy. Immersed in this exposition is a debate concerning the ontology of the self to be discovered. I contend that this self is a seminal calling, open to growth and multiple possibilities; however, it is relationally formed and, by virtue of its constraint by the Over-soul, morally charged. The self is that seminal power to realize the possibilities of achieving ever expanding ideals.
Emerson differs from other idealist educators, such as Immanuel Kant, in that he does not subordinate the role of the imagination to the role of Reason. Kant subordinates imagination to understanding and memory to judgment. Understanding is the knowledge of the general; judgment is the application of the general to the specific. Reason, the highest faculty, is the power of comprehending the relationship of the general to the specific. The development of memory alone creates pedants, according to Kant. Imagination, while naturally lively in children, need not be cultivated any more by fictional tales; instead it needs to be curbed. While pedantry, the tendency of those who “magnify a few forms,” is to be avoided in Emerson’s ideal educator, Kant’s strict demarcation between faculties of the mind marks a contrast to Emerson, who holds the imagination in high regard, and prescribes fiction and poetry at the appropriate stage: “There comes the period of the imagination to each, a later youth; the power of beauty, the power of books, of poetry… If we can touch the imagination, we serve them, they will never forget it.” Emerson’s departure from Kant is part of his general tendency to expand Kant’s narrow conception of the categories. For Kant, we are sensible intuitors, and all possible knowledge must be structured by the understanding, which legislates, synthesizes, and structures. Emerson views us as intellectual intuitors, and Reason, viewed in terms of the Genius of imagination and poetic vision, is the faculty which gives us access to universal laws and meaning. For Kant, empirical employment of the concepts of the understanding with regard to phenomena yields knowledge, the transcendental employment of the concepts of the understanding with regard to noumena, yields illusion. In this light, Emerson is a transcendentalist because he claims we have, if rightly oriented, a receptive access to naturally accessible noumenal reality (to use Kant’s language). This elevation of imagination, for Emerson, differentiates his approach to education from Kant’s.
For Emerson, imagination is the faculty of Genius and plays a dual role. The highest minds are capable of seeing a double or a manifold of meanings in every fact; imagination as poetic vision allows for this. Genius is also one of the “capital facts” of education. Emerson writes, “[Genius] is the inspiration in the well-born healthy child, the new perception he has of nature.” It takes imaginative and poetic genius to teach, and the purpose of teaching is to awaken that genius in the student. Emerson emphasizes this point: “The imagination must be addressed. Why always coast on the surface and never open the interior of nature, not by science, which is surface still, but by poetry?” The genius sees the symbolic nature of each fact and must impart this to his students. Emerson extends this ideal of awakening genius in the students to the role of the colleges, “which can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create.” This is also the purpose of books, which should be read for inspiration, with a spirit of inventiveness. Since genius must stoke the imaginative and inventive fires in the hearts of his students, where must the teacher begin? How must she proceed to inspire?
Emerson recommends beginning with the child. Instead of importing and imparting objective “knowledge” to the student, the teacher should begin with what the student knows. Emerson claims that the desire to achieve victory over “things” gives all of us an inherent ability and desire to learn. As we confront our environment we desire power over it, and this prompts us to action. Activity here means interaction with nature which educates and hones our skills. In this way all of the child’s activities, hunting, fishing and game playing serve as an “indispensable base” for learning. Experience and reading “interpenetrate” each other. These activities of lived experience serve as the animating particulars to which students attach generalities learned while reading, and their experience serves as a testing ground for theories learned reading. Emersonian education is student-centered and individualistic.
Not only are human minds uniquely fit for education by our desire of power over things, but since we express an infinity of possibilities, education should be equally unlimited. Emerson writes, “Education should be as broad as man… If he is jovial, if he is mercurial, if he is great-hearted, a cunning artificer, a strong commander, a potent ally, ingenious, useful, elegant, witty, prophet, diviner, - society has need of all these.” This long proclamation speaks to the unique temperaments at work in each student, which should not be curbed, but revealed to the students as their unique angle of vision. Their unique temperament, or bias, forges their seminal calling.
Furthermore, children serve as a model of unfettered, innocent visions of the truth. In Emerson’s words, they have a unique ability to distinguish “truth from counterfeit,” in a manner unmediated by the understanding. They can discern in the teacher and communicate to her honesty and strength, deceit and weakness, in a silent immediacy In this vein, he says, “There are no secrets from them.” Emerson marvels at boys playing on the playground and visiting the sites of the town, the shops, factories, and firehouses. Although they are there just for fun, they are indeed at school. Their games and exercise provide “the precise element which frames and sets off their school and college tasks, and teaches them, when least they think it, the use and meaning of these.” Here life is a school, and a school should mimic life. But more than this, Emerson’s view of children as having an unfettered access to the truth suggests that children, not an expert pedant, be the center of education. Because “in their fun and extreme freak they hit on the topmost sense of Horace,” teachers should allow student spontaneity to serve as a model for spontaneity of vision and inspiration.
This breadth of education mentioned above in Emerson’s thinking speaks to two essential features of Emerson’s educational theory, its democracy and its plurality. This democracy of education is “the one miracle of intellectual enlargement…that when a man stupid becomes a man inspired…, no horizon shuts down.” In this light, Emerson praises New England for insuring upon colonization that the poor have a right to be educated just as the rich. The pluralism of Emerson’s philosophy means that education should bend to the student, not the other way around. The student is not clay for molding, but is the seminal form of his calling, which is given to him primordially, not taught by a teacher. In this sense, educators must allow the student to be what, in seminal form, the student already is. Emerson explains the notion of a calling in the student when he writes, “It is not for you to choose what [the pupil] shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret.” Emerson criticizes parents and teachers who try to force their own interests on students. Here we see the essential end of education: self-discovery. Its purpose is “to teach self-trust; to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his own mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength.” Scholars are divided as to the nature of this strength. As my language suggested above, and as Emerson’s words “chosen and foreordained” suggest, each child has a “finished seed” already planted, and the teacher must merely add the water of inspiration that is Genius and the food of exercise that is Drill. Experience speaks to endeavors such as teaching or studying philosophy as being given to us primordially, and if we are fortunate enough to receive an Emersonian education, we see the possibilities inherent in our future selves. We come to know our calling.
Another interpretation of the nature of the self, this individual and inner strength, emerges elsewhere in Emerson’s work. If the seed itself is not yet formed, then there is an infinite openness in each soul, and the goal of the student in the process of learning is to add new powers to itself. A particularity, a “bias,” still exists in the student, but it is not finished. The role of the teacher is not merely to nourish the finished seed, but to remove limitations which allow the pure power to realize itself. When education potentiates well, each student learns to grasp the scope of his own powers. Emerson’s use of “Circles” speaks to the grasping of one’s potential powers. On one hand, the central life and inner most circle, which is the measure by which we make sensible our growth, contains all of the future potential circles. On the other hand, each individual bias and potential in each person is an example and an exemplar to the rest of us. There is no end to our striving, and each self-actualization becomes the antecedent occasion for growth and pursuit of a further ideal. The human ability to attain ever more ideal circles emanating outward from his center of potentiality depends on the force of this power discussed above. Teachers must remove ingrained ideas, which limit the students’ potential. The teacher must inspire the student to rethink himself and imagine himself in a way that allows his power to break through his boundaries and realize a new horizon. This process of self-discovery is fluid, in constant transition, and each realization must humbly begin the process anew.
This question is given new color in the exchange between René Arcilla and Naoka Saito. Is this self-discovery more the acquisition of a self-centeredness which empowers the hero and the saint, or the recovery of a natural inclination? The question here runs to the heart of the ideal Emerson wants the student to achieve. Is it the will to power that breaks through the cultural limitation of conformity? Or is it a recovery of the natural self inherently more amenable to community and relationships? The former suggests that the student discovers a morally neutral potency. The latter suggests that the motive force behind self-discovery is a relationally formed person. Emerson did not promote conformity, and the individualism running through his educational philosophy speaks to the potential hero and saint, to genius, and to poetry. Arcilla fears that Emerson will be read as having “sicced modern narcissism and the will to power on us.” However, Naoka Saito, who desires to transcend selfish individualism in moral education, employs Emerson’s concept of the “Gleam of Light.” She writes, “This centeredness is not a form of hedonism; instead, it aims for a thorough confrontation with one’s self to reclaim one’s natural proclivity.” And while Arcilla, wondering how we can recover ourselves if our gleam of light has been lost, relies on interpersonal trust as that which forms and empowers the self. While Arcilla’s concern is valid, recourse to Emerson’s pervading concept of the Over-Soul synthesizes both of these concerns. The Over-Soul, the divine unity permeating nature and received by the poet, constantly constrains the individual and always subsumes human community. The vertical nature of our calling does not bypass others, but runs through them in the language of nature itself. This self is a seminal calling, open to growth and multiple possibilities; however, it is relationally formed by virtue of the moral constraint of the Over-Soul.
Each student’s quest is to know himself and to understand this sense of self as uniquely given as a sense of calling. And since each person represents an infinity of possibilities, it might seem that each should, once he has arrived at his calling, merely specialize. But essential to Emerson’s ideal in education is achieving balance. Most importantly, the scholar should balance the physically active and the intellectually contemplative lives. The scholar reflects, but also acts. Action is essential for the scholar, action ripens reflection into truth, and action siphons thought from the unconscious to the conscious. And although Emerson does not write much on physical education, he does regret its deficiency in education when he laments, “we scarce educate their bodies.” Physical education trains the spirit, much as in Platonic education, and Emerson defended it. Language itself is tilled from the fields of lived experience and emerges in “colleges and books” reflecting the active life. In the same way that a child’s playing and his reading interpenetrate each other, the student as scholar animates theory with lively particulars and tests it with repeated experience. The balanced ideal Emerson represents as “Man Thinking.”
Just as the scholar should act, no student should merely specialize. Emerson wrote in his journal that he prefers students to understand more than one class of topics. In that vein, he “like[s] a man who likes to see a fine barn as well as a good tragedy.” The specialist is a partial person, falling short of “Man Thinking.” Furthermore, Emerson criticizes college education as being run by specialists who cater to the “mercantile interests of students,” capturing the attention of their “sensuous, egoistic interests.” The utilitarian nature of this specialization results in a moral decay as we confuse our ends. The special skills and knowledge content needed to earn a living or climb the corporate ladder trump the character building of self-knowledge. This does not suit Emerson’s philosophy because for him, “character is higher than intellect.” Emerson criticized this failure of education in his day. He lamented that alongside the heavy preference for the teaching of facts and the exercise of the understanding in comparison and analysis came a deficiency in teaching the imagination. If this “vast” were eliminated, so would the practical and the moral. Because of the low sense of self-love mentioned above, we end up teaching students to be as we are, specialists, accountants, and engineers, but not great people. Ridding ourselves of this corrosive tendency toward specialization means trusting and believing in the noble natures of the students and inspiring them to see it in themselves.
This brings us to the highest purpose of self discovery in Emerson’s thinking—educating moral excellence. Emerson writes, “The great object of Education should be… a moral one...to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives.” The goal of education is the improvement of character. The role of the teacher is to provoke the students into a struggle to improve themselves. Emerson allowed the teacher to take a proactive role in the formation of the character of her students. Emerson warned the teacher to be “no kinsman” of the students’ sin.
However, the primary teacher of character is Nature, not the strict schoolmaster. To know nature better is to know oneself more fully and see the possibility of one’s improvement. The natural world is an index to the reality of growth and transition in the world: the seed becomes a plant, the tadpole a frog. Nature is a book of symbols which teaches the lesson of God’s omnipresence. Understanding this lesson amounts to interpreting the signs and symbols of nature. And to understand the signs inherent in every fact of nature is to understand the “relations that represent nature as internal to the human mode of being.” How is it that nature is internal to our mode of being? Emerson answers this when he pens: “Every object in Nature draw music out of [the student’s] mind. Is it not true that every landscape I behold, every friend I meet, every act I perform, every pain I suffer, leaves me a different being from that they found me?” The world is our teacher, and the nature of the landscape, the stars, sun, and moon is to awaken the inner life of our mind. The purpose of a sound education is to awaken in the student the reality that the world exists for his mind.
Nature also provides the proper pace and method which education should follow. Education should move according to the rhythms of nature. Emerson writes, “But this function of opening and feeding the human mind is not to be fulfilled by any mechanical or military method; is not to be trusted to any skill less large than Nature itself.” The key to arriving at a natural respect for the student is patience. This patience emanates from a faith in the pace of Nature. Emerson bemoaned the pace and method of education which mimicked the military, which forces its will and authority on the student and consequently stifles the self-discovery which should be its purpose. Emerson writes, “now the correction of this quack practice is to import into Education the wisdom of life. Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.” Use of the military method in teaching students amounts to forcing a plant to speed its growth: it is “meddling and perverse.” When we learn skills in our own endeavors, we follow the way of experience and allow nature to take its course; therefore, we should follow the pace of nature in bringing students to self-discovery. Another contrast with the military model in education is Emerson’s dedication to individualism. He criticize schools who “work for large classes instead of individuals.” Emerson disparages that schools violate individuality, and he wonders, “cannot we let people be themselves and enjoy life in their own way?”
The common theme of Emerson’s philosophy of education is its purpose of self-discovery in the student. The teacher must inspire by appealing to the imagination in the student. This faculty of Genius orients the student to see the possibilities of his future self. At the heart of Emerson’s educational philosophy is Nature’s ability to communicate self-knowing and moral improvement. Through the inspiration of books and the teacher, through the mediation and pace of nature, education strives at self-discovery in the student. Bringing the student toward self-knowledge is allowing the student to be in his own mode by liberating him from conforming limitations and arming him with his own seminal power, realizing his calling, to live in the light of ever higher ideals.
Arcilla, René V. “The Emerson Nobody Wants to Buy.” Philosophy of Education (2001).
---. “The Poet.” The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin Books, 1946, 1981.
Helm, Bert P. “Emerson Agonistes: Education as Struggle and Process.” Educational Theory. Volume 42. Number 2. (1992).
Kant, Immanuel. “Thoughts on Education.” Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. New York: McGraw Hill Co, 1997.
Maddock, Lawrence H. “Emerson on Education.” Educational Theory. Volume VII. Number 1. (1957).
Saito, Naoko, “Education for the Gleam of Light: Emerson’s Transcendentalism and its Implications for Contemporary Moral Education.” Philosophy of Education, (2001).
Margaret Fuller: The Resolution of Crises through Love
In this paper, I show how Margaret Fuller engages in generative thinking by showing how she is able to identify crises in lived meaning in and through accepting concrete dynamic actualities or values as central to the origin of meaning as originating. She shows how we are always implicated in and thus responsible for the generation and transformation of meaning. Because meanings are not fixed or static, they become susceptible to crisis. Crisis occurs when we experience something as having a certain value but live as if it has a different value. I describe several of the crises she articulates and I show how in each of these crises a reversal of value takes place such that we become closed off from absolute openness. This has a detrimental effect on humanity because we cannot recognize the possibilities that are open to us and therefore, see ourselves as not being able to effect any change or transform any oppressive structures. I argue that the denial of our responsibility in the generation of meaning makes it difficult for us to recognize our vocations and if we are able to, we often have trouble living them out. Finally, I argue that love, in its visualization and creation of new possibilities re-orients us toward the vertical, infinite openness that we experience. This resolves the crises because it aligns our lived meanings with the values we experience and from this we can grow since we are no longer limited by the obfuscating crises and therefore, can see richer and deeper possibilities for ourselves and others.
Margaret Fuller: The Resolution of Crises through Love
Margaret Fuller was sensitive to the ways we often attempt to predict and control the person and to the ways that this attempt to control stifles the creativity particular to the unique person and thus stifles possibilities for the enhancement and amelioration of humanity. Throughout her work, she attributes the inability to accept the uncertainty with which the other person leaves us and the resulting attempt to control to a crisis or reversal in what we value. In this paper I will explore how it is that she is able to identify crises and how she is able to see their resolution. In and through Fuller’s work, we come to understand the importance of the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the person in and through taking up our unique responsibility in the generation and transformation of meaning. Fuller stresses the inexhaustible often inexpressible richness, novelty and creativity we experience in our relationships with others and the ways in which these relationships shape our lives and can help us to do things we never thought we could. Through Fuller’s work we can realize our responsibility in the generation of meaning and how the transformation of lived meaning can only occur when the person can develop himself in his own unique way. To accept this responsibility and engage in the transformation of lived meaning requires an alignment of the felt value we experience with the way we live our lives and for Fuller, this takes place through love.
In an article entitled, “The Origins and Crisis of Continental Philosophy,” Anthony Steinbock characterizes generative thinking as a style of approach that allows us to discern crises in lived meaning, engage in the transformation of history and realize our role and responsibility in meaning’s development. As we will see in the characterization of generative thinking, the dynamic and not the static elements of origin, normative-teleology, and crisis within an experiential context are stressed and it is shown that without these dynamic components, we cannot adequately engage in historical transformation. Through generative thinking, we come to see the ways we are constantly implicated in meaning’s development and this illuminates the radical responsibility we have with regards to the dynamic orientation of meaning and thus, its generation in our current historical situation. We cannot separate ourselves from meaning’s development. Fuller is not a naïve idealist or merely a Hegelian where the totality of meaning has been worked out because she points to an absolute opening that allows her to articulate certain crises, ways of identifying crises and a resolution to those crises.
Generative thinking is a critical engagement with or the appropriation of the generative structure of experience. The generative structure of experience has three fundamental components: origin as the origin-originating of meaning, normative teleology, and crisis within an experiential context.
I will briefly explain these three components beginning with “origin as the origin-originating of meaning.” This means that we cannot understand origin as something static because the origin “is always with us originating.” We play an active role in the constitution of meaning but at the same time, we are in a historical context from which we cannot remove ourselves. We are living a meaning and are guided by it while at the same time creating new meaning by living it.
The origin of meaning as origin-originating serves a normative-teleological function in that it “guides experience according to its sense, without it having to be formulated explicitly as a principle or without having to conclude rationally from it.” For example, we can live in such a way that we emulate the style of another’s life without taking specific acts and repeating them or without making rational principles out of certain acts this person may have done to make rules for ourselves to follow. Instead, we can have a sense that guides us revealing when we are not living according to this style. Steinbock gives the example of a dancer or a choreographer that can be led by the “norms” of her art without having “to apply” these norms. “…He or she can point out that a particular movement or gesture is amiss in the experience itself without being able to identify the ‘right way’ to do it or without the meaning of the dance becoming an object of a separate consciousness.” We can see here how when we feel conflicted or recognize that something is not right, the origin of meaning as origin-originating is functioning in a guiding way, as normative-teleological. “Accordingly, the origin-originating simultaneously insinuates beyond itself a directedness or orientation from within the experience itself such that it guides, motivates, or solicits future experiencing; in this way, there is a normative, teleological structure endemic to meaning in its origination.” The meaning overflows its historical determination but at the same time is originating with an orientation in that determination. We are only trapped in this normative meaning when we take it as finished or static and thus, close ourselves off from the excess. Because the meaning is in excess of the historical context, it can be enriched or overcome through a new historical determination, “being integrated into or even instituting a new origin-originating and new teleological structure.”
Because meaning as origin-originating is in excess of the historical content, it becomes susceptible to crisis. We could not experience crisis if we were to import some a-historical standard or if the future were not open at all and meaning has been completely worked out, like in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
Generative thinking is able to be critical and address and re-orient the crises it detects because of the difference we experience between the origin-originating with its normative teleological sense and the actual concrete historical reality. This allows Fuller to articulate how things are and how they should be otherwise. Her critique is both immanent and transcendent in the sense that it goes beyond the present context but is rooted in it.
Fuller appeals to the vertically oriented or religious dimension of our experience and it is in and through this appeal that we can see her orientation towards absolute opening. By absolute, a fixed, static or totalizing origin is not what is meant. Absolute here means independent or unconstrained, infinite. It is an opening where we can get beyond current limitations and it is through the person that this opening is revealed. This is why for Fuller, it is most profoundly through love as an inviting acceptance of another person as who she is in her own manner of being and not who we may want her to be that the different crises she explicates are resolved.
Fuller identifies several crises throughout Woman in the 19th Century. To articulate them all here is not possible but I will look at three crises that she identifies and then we will see how it is through love that these crises can be resolved. The identification and resolution of crises further highlights Fuller as a generative thinker and shows us the ways that we can also engage in generative thinking to be able to re-orient the way we experience value.
Fuller’s indexical style of argumentation already indicates her generative approach. By appealing to experience, she acknowledges the actuality of where we are situated but she also points, through examples, to where we could be. She points through many examples from literature and mythology to convey the meaning and values she wants us to feel. By pointing through examples and not giving us a fully articulated argument, she leaves an open space for the creativity and spontaneity that are particular to the person as a unique being. Throughout her work, Fuller appeals to the religious or vertically oriented dimension of our experience and it is when the insight that comes from the orientation towards vertical ascension returns to earth that transformation occurs. Fuller recognizes the individual’s ability to orient vertically and sees that the horizontal development of the actual is best done when oriented towards the vertical. The excess in meaning present in a vertical orientation is what guides the horizontal actual development and this also manifests the dynamic nature of meaning’s becoming; meaning is developed and developing.
Fuller begins Woman in the 19th Century by expressing how man’s development is not complete. We are in the process of becoming. “Yet man, if not yet fully installed in his powers, has given much earnest of his claims.” She states, “…Man has appeared before us in princely promise worthy of his future.” We can see here how the future is not closed since it has not been completed. Fuller sees the way that what is beyond or in the process of becoming is the origin of meaning but this meaning also originates us in the process. Fuller goes on to articulate how we are stuck with the actuality that precludes verticality when we want to know everything with certainty. Because she sees the origin of meaning as originating, she is already able to identify a crisis in the way we live meaning. We seek certainty, to make static what is dynamic closing ourselves off from what is possible which involves what is uncertain and dynamic. This desire to predict and control is due to a fascination or over-valuation of objects such that we often attempt to treat what is not given as an object as an object.
“The Over-Soul” was published in 1841 in Essays: First Series. The essay elaborates upon the relationship between the soul and God that he first explored in Nature. Unsurprisingly, scholars consider the essay as the classical statement of his religious ideas.
Emerson prefaces his essay with two poetic epigraphs: "Psychozoia, or, the Life of Soul" by Henry More and a selection by Emerson (later published as “Unity”). The selection from More’s poem raises the idea of not only the soul of the individual, but also the intimate relationship of all souls to God. They are bound to one another. Emerson’s selection builds on this idea, drawing attention to both the constitutive relationship between opposite pairs (e.g., “east and west” and “Night and Day”) – like the relationship between the individual soul and God – and the unifying “power / That works its will on age and hour” and infuses “Every quality and pith” (i.e., God, or the “Over-Soul”).
While Emerson does not explicitly do so, his essay can be divided into four sections as a guide: 1) defining the Over-Soul (paragraphs 1-10), 2) the relationship between the Over-Soul and society (paragraphs 11-15), 3) revelation of the Over-Soul (paragraphs 16-21), and 4) the relationship between the Over-Soul and individuals (paragraphs 22-30).
Defining the Over-Soul (paragraphs 1-10)
Why, asks Emerson, do we have such extraordinary hopes for human life? Where does our “universal sense of want and ignorance” stem from? Emerson argues they derive from our connection to the Over-Soul. The Over-Soul contains and unites all individual souls, and acts as the animating force behind each individual. “When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love."
If such a description sounds opaque, Emerson admits to describe the Over-Soul in words is an act of futility, for one can only understand if one yields to and experiences the Over-Soul for oneself. Yet to a certain extent, we are all aware of its presence intuitively in those moments the soul contradicts all normal experience by abolishing time and space. Such moments overpower the human mind, so convinced of the absolute reality of time and space. For example, we are aware of a certain sense of universal and eternal beauty, which “belongs to ages than to mortal life.” When we think of a verse of Shakespeare, profound quote by Plato, or the teachings of Jesus, we feel the reach of their divine thought across the centuries in the present.
Nonetheless, our soul can grow to more intimately connect with and experience the Over-Soul. Such growth occurs not by gradation, but by evolution or ascension into a new state of virtue.
The Over-Soul and Society (paragraphs 11-15)
As the Over-Soul unites all individual souls, so it unites all of society. Such unification manifests itself in the idea of a common nature. When we refer to our common nature in conversations with one another, we do not refer to a social connection, but rather an impersonal one -- in other words, a connection to God.
Revelation (paragraphs 16-21)
Beyond our implicit awareness of the Over-Soul though, how do we recognize our soul and its connection to the Over-Soul? Emerson argues the soul manifests itself through revelation. While the popular conception of revelation is of fortune telling, such a practice is low, sinful, and ultimately futile. God will provide no answer to questions of the future, for humans should live in the present and accept “the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature.” Revelation properly understood is instead the “influx of the Divine mind into our mind,” and can be seen all across the history of religion. When our soul mingles with the Over-Soul in a moment of revelation, we receive a new truth or perform a great feat. Such moments are filled with the sublime, which leads to obedience to and insight into the Over-Soul.
Our capacity for revelation also allows us to see and know each other. For as we connect with the Over-Soul, we also connect with one another. We can perceive the spirit of our fellow humans. We place our faith in some, yet not others, based on their character, even if we have no foreknowledge of or significant acquaintance with them. “We are all discerners of spirits.”
The Over-Soul and the Individual (paragraphs 22-30)
As such, the state of our soul “we shall teach, not voluntarily, but involuntarily.” Regardless of superficial qualities like age, actions, or learning, we can distinguish when one has “the tone of seeking” or “the tone of having” an intimate connection with God. In particular, one whose soul has ascended to God is plain and true; has no rose-color, no fine friends, no chivalry, no adventures; does not want admiration; dwells in the hour that now is, in the earnest experience of the common day, — by reason of the present moment and the mere trifle having become porous to thought, and bibulous of the sea of light.
Such an individual experiences ongoing revelations.
As all can achieve such intimacy with God, Emerson advises we all recognize how God dwells within us. Such recognition does not occur through (established) religion, but rather a personal effort and belief. Indeed, Emerson ends with a critique of established religion, which appeals to the number of its followers, and thus stands on authority, rather than faith itself. To connect with the Over-Soul, one must have faith in oneself, and thus in the soul.