Perceiving the Sublime: A Look at Emerson’s Aesthetics

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 65)


In “The American Scholar,” Emerson sets forth to describe what he thinks should be the unique shape, task, and approach of a scholar formed in and working for America: “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.”1 This is not meant to be an insult to the European scholarly traditions — within the essay Emerson praises Goethe, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, among others — but merely to point out that while studying and admiring the traditions of other countries can be useful and inspiring, trying to mimic or fit into those traditions is dishonest and unproductive. The problem is not, as Emerson sees it, in being influenced by a great European mind, but in feeling that one must be: “Men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books” (27). Oliver Wendell Holmes would later refer to this speech as “Our Intellectual Declaration of Independence,” emphasizing Emerson’s own sense of the significance of the fact that America is based on revolution.2 While we have broken off from European control and forged a new, unique political system in which new leaders are constantly picking up the reigns of control, intellectually we are still, Emerson is saying, working within the European system of inheriting masters: master thinkers and master texts. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t suit, in a country based on constantly reinventing itself, to have an educational system and a scholarly tradition based on inheritance. Emerson is not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to all things foreign or that we throw out the great books from the past; in fact, as mentioned above, he frequently calls on such “old masters” as Plato, Milton, and Shakespeare both here and in his other works. Emerson’s point, however, is that we shouldn’t read Plato because our fathers and mothers thought he was a genius, but rather, if we read Plato we must do so because we have established our own relationship with him and because we have discovered for ourselves the truth and beauty within his work. Just as we constantly reevaluate our political leaders, we must constantly and individually reevaluate works of literature, of art, etc., and decide whether they remain valid. As he tells the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in July, 1848: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing” (30). When a “master text” ceases to provoke me, I must reject it.


Aesthetic Experience American Scholar Aesthetic Theory Sublime Experience Scholarly Tradition 
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  1. 1.
    All citations from Emerson’s work will refer to: The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson(New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1929) 104.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923); reprinted in: Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 ) 263.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See: William James, The Will to Believe (first published in “The New World” in June, 1896 ).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    John Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” The Philosophy of John Dewey, Ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1973) 24–31; 25.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    As Emerson will make clear in “The Poet,” it is possible for a certain kind of language to convey these experiences. The point that Emerson seems to want to emphasize in “Nature” is that language should not be used to dictate and mediate our experiences, but that the experience should be primary. The implication is that we use language to predict experience, thereby removing the element of surprise. While this removal of surprise may give us the false sense of knowledge, it actually, as Emerson will make clear, keeps us from knowledge.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    By “personal” I mean a deeply intimate, unmediated, one-on-one connection between myself (my body, intellect and spirit) and my surroundings.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Richardson, 148–150.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth, Ed. Jack Stillinger ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965 ) 186–191.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Elizabeth I. Dunn, —A Deranged Balance’: Emerson on Inspiration,“ The Cast of Consciousness: Concepts of the Mind in British and American Romanticism, Ed. Beverly Taylor and Robert Bain (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987) 141–150; 142.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See “The Live Creature” in The Philosophy of John Dewey(525–540).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    By `original language“ Emerson means that for each thing in nature and each state of mind, there is a proper, rightful name which will occur to man when he is perfectly in tune with nature; when his eyes and ears are open. As he writes in ”The Poet“: ”The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in pre-cantations, which sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them and endeavors to write down the notes without diluting or depraving them“ (246). Language gets corrupted when ”the sovereignty of ideas“ is broken up by what Emerson refers to as ”secondary desires“: ”the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise“ (9). This results in a ”perversion“ of words which are used to stand for things other than their rightful referents: ”a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections“ (9). Because nature is a reflection of man’s state of mind, and naming things in nature helps man understand these states of mind, the corruption of language causes a corruption of mind and inhibits man’s understanding; it clouds man’s vision. Language, for Emerson, is man’s primary means of communication, so if his language is not in harmony with nature, then nothing will be in harmony with nature.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    By “power,” here, I think Emerson is referring to man’s ability to understand the world, and not his desire to dominate it.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    In “Shakspeare [sic];or, The Poet,” Emerson writes: “It was not possible to write a history of Shakspeare till now. Now, literature, philosophy and thought are Shakspearized” (383). Each great poet changes our thinking and furthers our knowledge.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992 ) 13.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, 1840 ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945 ) 50.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brandeis UniversityUSA

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