Emerson’s Legacy: Process Philosophy and the Self

It is uncanny as you read more and more of Emerson how you can see the seeds of so much of American philosophy in his work. As I have said Pragmatism is the most significant American contribution to world philosophy and it is still in all of its different forms a dominant force throughout American academia. And many of the core concepts that were built into it from the start by its founders have direct ties to Emerson.

Charles Sanders Peirce was a major force in the study of semantics and the creation of meaning. He saw our human understanding of the universe as part of the structure of the universe in much the same way as Emerson describes in his essay “The Poet” that language is a type of “second nature” that grows through the interaction of human beings with their environment. William James places human choice and volition as the central agent in the process of developing human character and sees extraordinarily developed human beings as the guiding lights that hold a torch for the rest of humanity to follow. John Dewey who was a contemporary of Peirce and James a half generation younger, took the process philosophy of pragmatism well into the twentieth century and became arguably the single most influential American philosopher.

Another aspect of Emerson’s thinking that takes on a central role in Pragmatism is the question of the self. A process philosophy, like Emerson and the Pragmatist’s held, represents a radical shift in the fundamental understanding of reality. Before seeing the universe as a process, the universe is thought of as a fixed extended space that exists in time. This space is the unchanging background upon which the activities of life and even evolution unfold. Once a process view is adopted then the universe is seen as a single unfolding process. That means that everything in that process has evolved from earlier forms.

From a process view point we no longer see ourselves as an object that exists within the universe. Instead we begin to see that our own selfhood has itself evolved out of the universe. This recognition is profoundly counterintuitive and immediately leads to a deep questioning of the nature of the self. What is the self? Emerson and the Pragmatists all questioned the self in the light of recognizing the universe to be not a collection of objects that interact, but a single evolving process that grows. This questioning of the nature of who we are gives a great deal of their philosophy distinctly spiritual qualities. A shift in the understanding of reality this fundamental necessitates a questioning of almost everything.

Emerson’s ideas of self development have roots in his reading of Goethe and his understanding of the German term bildung. Bildung has no complete equivalent in English. You might say that education, character development, and self improvement point in its general direction, but all miss the mark. The problem with these English terms is that they all imply the growth of some characteristic of the self. You can learn to play the piano or learn to do mathematics. You can develop empathy and compassion. And you can get stronger, smarter, healthier and happier. Bildung is not merely the development of any one or even any collection of attributes of the self. It is the development of the self – itself.

Emerson shared his passion for Goethe with his friend and compatriot Margaret Fuller. Fuller saw Goethe as her spiritual teacher and it is almost certain that she transmitted some of her understanding of Goethe and the idea of bildung to Emerson. What you see in Margaret Fuller is a deep questioning of the sense of self. I find it fascinating how clear Fuller’s inquiry was and how daring.