The Holistic Vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson

I  am sorry that I missed a post this week due to travel, but I am excited to share more from Ralph Waldo Emerson. As we understand more how Emerson’s thought developed we see the foundations of our own mind.

Emerson was arguably the most significant figure of the American Romanticism that blossomed in America in the early 19th century. Emerson was a romantic thinker who saw the universe not as a machine but as a process of growth. Emerson was also an Idealist who believed that there was a larger human mind and spirit that existed behind all apparent reality. This larger spirit made its way into existence slowly through the developments of history. In this way he was very much a Hegelian.

Emerson’s Hegelian style dualism was rejected by the Pragmatists in the next generation, but it is clear to me that Emerson’s remarkable intuition of how the universe grew to create first life, then human beings and finally consciousness, had a lasting impact on that generation. Both Charles Sanders Peirce and William James had father’s who were close friends of Emerson and both men knew Emerson personally. Peirce and James both made a point of stating that they rejected the idealsim of Emerson’s creed, and both also admitted their indebtedness to this great man. I believe that it is in Emerson’s Holistic notions of evolutionary growth that you can find the seeds that would grow into Pragmatism.

When you read Emerson’s first book Nature you find that he sees human consciousness as a direct product of the universe in a very interesting way. Emerson believes that the first words were simply labels for physical objects. The word rock was simply a sound that early human’s made when they wanted to refer to a rock. If you let yourself be somewhat imaginative with this you may find it interesting. Maybe the sound “rock” somehow seemed to somehow sound like, or feel like, the object of a rock. Perhaps similarly the word “splash” grew out of the early humans simply made a sound that resembled the sounded of water splashing, that sound was used when ever someone wanted to indicate water and eventually when language was developed it was codified in letters and became a word.

This I believe is how Emerson thought about the evolution of consciousness. There were early human’s and they started to make sounds that in some way resembled in sound the thing they were trying to name. Perhaps in the very beginning when people wanted to refer to water they all had slightly different sounds and early language was like a game of charades with people making sounds and others had to figure out their meaning  . After some time perhaps one particular way of “sounding like water” became the most popular and eventually that sound became accepted as standing for water. So if someone came into your village and made that sound you would know they were referring to water. And where groups of people were geographically isolated different sounds would become accepted and different languages would emerge.

Emerson imagines that in primitive times all of the language – if you can call it that – which existed, was just sounds that stood for different objects. So there was a one to one correspondence  between languages and nature at this point. As language gets more complex perhaps sounds could be combined to create new meanings. Perhaps the sound for splash would combine with the sound for wind to become a sound that meant rain. In this example two sounds are being combined to point to some third thing. Splash and wind combined to stand for rain. That means that the sound for rain is one step removed from nature. It was a sound made from two other sounds.

I am making up these examples of course, but I do believe that this is how Emerson saw it. Language starts as a direct attempt to create signs that point to objects in nature and then gradually becomes more abstract as sounds combine to form new sounds that have new meanings without a direct connection to nature. Fast-forward thousands upon thousands of years and you have complex written languages where meaning can build and build and new words can form to stand for more and more complex and subtle meanings. It is impossible to think of language as we know it today and imagine a one to one correspondence to nature because it has grown to such a high level of complexity and abstractness.

Now with Emerson’s romantic inclinations he saw this as problematic because our very language was removing us from nature. I believe that this view of how language grew out of nature is an important and wonderful insight that will bloom in the Pragmatic thinkers. To Emerson as to most thinkers right up to the present day, language is seen as intrinsically tied to consciousness. As Emerson outlined it, language developed out of the human interaction with nature. Language in effect grew out of the interaction between human beings and the environment. If we remember that language and consciousness are intimately tied, then Emerson is exploring early ideas of how consciousness could have evolved out of the universe itself. This is a profound evolutionary philosophy and a very early one. Emerson didn’t have the benefit of Darwin’s ground breaking work in Natural Selection. In the early 1830’s when he was writing Nature he didn’t even have the work of Herbert Spenser. He was a true evolutionary pioneer trying to imagine how consciousness could have evolved in the universe.