Emerson and Nature

For Emerson—who I argue still retains much of the Idealist conception of Nature, specifically post-Kantianism and Early German Romanticism filtered through Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria—Nature is not necessarily intrinsically valuable, but is useful for understanding ourselves. Laura Walls explains that for Emerson, “Nature is spirit only until man is properly apprised of his true place, and thereafter instrumental nature, the channel of power, is again dead matter.” That is to say, that for Emerson, Nature attains a significance insofar as it allows us to “become what we are,” or to be “self-reliant.” This is not a utilitarian but Idealist view since for Emerson, the point at which we come to be “what we are,” nature and culture are indistinguishable from one another. This happens in the form of “genius,” an idea that he seems to indirectly take from Kant. Genius seems to be, for Emerson as for Kant, the name for nature giving a rule to art. For Kant in the third Critique, this claim does not have incredibly high stakes; but for Emerson, for whom history and social life are the product of a kind of poesis, the figure of genius has moral and political stakes. Emerson’s conception of nature begins to look proto-ecological when he attempts to “adapt the Federalism he inherited ‘to new times and new circumstances.’” If genius is that by which nature gives the rule to art, this is complicated by the fact that for Emerson, nature is law-giving only insofar as it allows us to be self-reliant, i.e. to give ourselves the rule. If, then, nature becomes what it is by apprising humans “of their true place,” it ends up being the case that the figure of genius is also that in which nature becomes self-reliant, giving itself the rule rather than having it imposed from an external power. Emerson’s Nature is therefore (almost) ecological in that it seemingly comes to be what it is only through its own action, rather than by referring to some outside source of meaning.

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