Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Conception of Nature

The Pragmatic definition of truth may have deep roots in American thought, but to uncover the metaphysical conception that is the ground under Pragmatism’s feet we should look one generation earlier into the mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s Transcendentalism, which recognizes intuition and not logic as the ultimate source of wisdom, stands in opposition to many core Pragmatic notions. At the same time, central to Emerson’s thinking are two ideas that would become foundational to the later metaphysics of Pragmatism. The first is the conviction that the inner reality of consciousness has to be continuous with, and non-separate from, the external reality of the world of the senses. The second is the conviction that individuals have the freedom to make choices that will control their destiny and unleash their true creative potential.

The connection between the early Pragmatists and Emerson was deep and intimate. Of the three most significant originators of American Pragmatism, two had fathers who were close associates of Emerson. Charles Peirce’s father, Benjamin Peirce, a professor at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, and William James’s father, Henry James Sr. a converted Swedenborgian, and a self-styled devotee of Emerson, both orbited in Emerson’s circles. In fact the “Sage of Concord” as Emerson has been called, was said to have visited the James home so often that a room in the house was affectionately referred to as Mr. Emerson’s room.

To consider Emerson’s metaphysical contribution to Pragmatism we should go to 1836, when he published his first book, Nature. In it he described, in his uniquely poetic fashion, an integrated view of man and nature. The word “nature,” as Emerson used it, did not refer to the outside world of animals, plants and landscapes, in the way it is commonly used today. He used it with a connotation more common during his time, to refer to the fundamental essence of things. And in his book he describes his firm belief that the nature of man and the nature of the outside world are one and the same. In the first chapter of Nature, Emerson writes:

Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. 5

Emerson in moments of deepest revelation saw the boundary between inner and outer dissolve and become transparent, revealing a deeper unity between the inner life of human beings and the outer manifestation of the physical world. This is Emerson’s expression of the continuity of reality that was to become central to the evolutionary metaphysics of the Pragmatists. Emerson expressed the same sentiment, again, in his famous American Scholar Address, when he wrote:

He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.