Emerson’s Dualistic Idealism

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 10 Comments

Emerson was an Idealist. He believed that ultimately some form of mind was the foundation for the rest of reality. His spiritual teaching about Self-Reliance and the Over-soul are all based on his idealism. In short there is some universal mind that “materializes” as the physical world filled with physical beings.

Not only is Emerson an Idealist, but he is a Dualist as well. Although, as I will describe later, he is beginning to explore new non-dual territory especially in his later work. Philosophies of this type can be thought of as vestige or reflection from Christian theology. In the traditional Christian view God is held as being separate and wholly apart from the world. God is the universal mind. Emerson as a Romantic is attempting to secularize Christian thinking by retaining the spiritual depth while ridding himself of the dogma. We must give Emerson some time to work through this however realizing that he was a minister from a long family line of ministers. Emerson’s basic metaphysical conceptions have a great deal in common with those of the German philosopher Georg Hegel who died before Emerson reached the age of 30.

Emerson would become familiar with Hegel’s work later and it would help catalyze an evolutionary turn in Emerson’s thinking, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Hegel, like Emerson saw all of reality as emerging from some form of Universal Mind. Hegel called this mind The Absolute. Both Emerson and Hegel saw that human culture develops over time and both saw this development as emanating from a universal source of intelligence. The distinctly Hegelian tone in Emerson can be heard clearly in this passage from his essay entitled History from the first series of his essays.

“There is one mind common to all individual men. Of the works of this mind history is the record. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. all the facts of history pre-exist as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of this manifold spirit to the manifold world”.

Where there is a difference between Hegel and Emerson is in the way each places emphasis of the individual or cultural as the vehicle for development. Hegel placed more emphasis in his philosophy on the ongoing transformation of culture and Emerson placed more on the transformative role that the individual played in bringing about changes in culture. Emerson believed that when individuals became so advanced that they could allow the Over-soul to take command of their will then they became vehicles for social transformation. Such “representative men” become the leaders that the rest of culture follows.

To explore this difference lets compare Emerson with another philosopher who was his contemporary and who was also influenced by Hegel. That would be Karl Marx. Emerson can be seen as taking Hegel’s ideas with a slant toward the individual and creating the philosophical basis for the American version of a free-market capitalism and democracy. Marx took Hegel’s ideas with a slant toward society as a whole and created the philosophical basis for socialism and communism.

Emerson saw the individual as the fundamental driver of change. Create a society that generates a steady stream of strong individuals and the great among them will create the pathways that the rest of culture will follow. Marx saw impersonal social and cultural forces, particularly economic forces, as the main drivers of change. No matter how powerful or advanced an individual might be, at the end of the day their ability to create change would be overshadowed by the larger cultural, social and economic forces at play.

On the stage of American philosophy the role that Emerson plays in setting a trajectory that would guide thinking right up to the present day cannot be overstated. He was and is a tremendous influence on the way all of us live and think. In terms of his dualistic idealism, that would be rejected by the next generation of philosophers. William James would reject that aspect of both Emerson and Hegel’s thought. But the story of Emerson’s influence on American metaphysics isn’t over, because Emerson had not had his final word yet. As I said we have to give him time to mature his thought and move further from some of the trappings of his roots before we see the evolutionary philosophy emerge that would propel and inform a great tradition in American philosophy.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Joanna
Joanna
11 years ago

Very interesting Jeff! Thanks.

Love, Joanna

Carl
11 years ago

Interesting to consider Hegel, Marx, and Emerson in the way that you describe them as lining up at different points on the line between Autonomy and Communion. Seems like Hegel and Marx might have been more toward the Communion end of the line, and maybe Emerson was in the middle or a little toward Autonomy. If one takes a truly integral, systems thinking, non-dual view, then Autonomy and Communion go together as two aspects of the same thing, like Yin and Yang, as Luke referred to commenting on your previous post. That is how I think Skinner might have framed… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

It’s interesting to note that Emerson’s focus on the individual is maybe that we Americans so honor individualism whereas Marx comes from a culture where the communal society was more important than individuality. Not an accident, I’d say; ideas, concepts are of course influenced by the cultures of the thinkers, right?

Carl
11 years ago

Did Marx come from a society in which communal society was more important, or did he influence that to be the case? I actually have no idea, but it occurs to me that he was responding to some extent to a culture in which the very wealthy — landed gentry — owned everything and as individuals were considered VERY important. But the “masses” were not in the same situation. This just reflects my fuzziness about that era in history, I think.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Re: “What makes us call one set of thoughts philosophical and another spiritual?”

Can I sumit that phiosophy is usually considered as an intellectual pursuit on the whole and couched that way whereas spiritual discourse and thought may be intellectual as well but takes in emotions and heart in a more holistic way? Ideally, both would be moreso synthesizing heart and mind, wouldn’t you agree?

antidual
antidual
10 years ago

sorry but this article is wrong, emerson was a strict monist he rejected all types of dualism… his theories were not dualistic.

manzel
manzel
8 years ago

Jeff, in response to your observation that Emerson had monistic and well as dualistic elements, Yes. That much is true and there is more. While many idealists follow Plato in being dualists, Hegel and Emerson while having some of those qualities go far beyond dualism or even monism. They can both rightly be called panenthiests. That is their view of reality. It is spelled out in Emerson’s concept of the over soul. There is a unity of all things which sounds like pantheism or monism but more than that, the belief is that the whole is greater than the sum… Read more »

socratus@bezeqint.net
socratus@bezeqint.net
8 years ago

Dualism = Idealism. =. How can intelligence be physical ? How can meaning be physical ? How can thinking be physical ? How can knowing be physical ? How can life or consciousness or free will be physical ? In the name of reason and common sense: How can dualism be equal to idealism ? =. To solve the problem of dualism of particle in physics is equal to solve the problem of idealism in philosophy. Dualism = Idealism. Why? Because in physics we have two ( 2) conceptions of impulse: a) Newtonian/ Classical physics explains conceptions of impulse as… Read more »

Brooks Alfonso
6 years ago

Why has this discourse been halted. Please share some more opinions.