Emerson’s Process Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 7 Comments

The American Pragmatists outlined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a profound evolutionary process philosophy. The view of reality  they explored was one in which all of reality was seen as an unending flow of energy. Human life was part of that flow, even the physical forms of material objects were part of that flow.

In any process philosophy reality is like a flowing river and all the things and people in the river are like ripples or eddies that appear for a time and then disappear. The Pragmatist John Dewey commented on how we mistakenly think that material objects are permanent, but that mistake comes from the fact that the rate of change for these objects is too slow for us to observe. Even a mountain has a life cycle and throughout that cycle it is born, grows, declines and eventually disappears. Everything is part of an unending flow. Charles Sanders Peirce promoted an idealist view that saw all mater as ultimately created from habits of mind. This probably puts him closest to Emerson in some regards. William James postulated that reality was made up of pure experience and that both that which we call mind and that which we call matter are made up of the stuff of experience.

Emerson, decades before any of these thinkers came of age, had already outlined a process philosophy that would take root in the American mind and become central to much of American philosophy right up to the present day. Emerson saw the universe as a self-regulating organic process of growth. Everything for Emerson is in flux and human beings are also a process. Or as he put it, “A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like to him, wherever he goes. He takes only his own out of the multiplicity that sweeps and circles round him.”

As human beings we are a gathering node in the flow of life. We have core tendencies and dispositions and because of those we attract certain things to us while rejecting others. We are not static objects that exist in a growing universe we are part of that growth. As his thought matures Emerson details the role that human beings can play in guiding the growth of the universe. This deep understanding of the reality of how things actually work Emerson dubs, “the science of the real.”

In his essay called The Poet Emerson expands upon some of the thoughts he had written about language in his original book called Nature. Everything to Emerson is a symbol. All things represent other things in an endlessly complex matrix of interlocking meaning. In the next generation Charles Sanders Peirce would complete ground-breaking work in semiotics and make the insight about symbols and representation the basis for a profound evolutionary philosophy. I believe the seeds of Peirce’s semiotics, or at least the anticipation of it, can be seen in Emerson when he says:

“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems, but we sympathize with the symbols, and, being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.”

Emerson’s thinking around the relationship of language to nature is daring and original and again anticipates some of the fundamental notions that will become the basis of Peirce’s philosophy and also the later Integral philosophy of Ken Wilber. Emerson had already written in Nature that he believed that language grew out of nature. Emerson did not see language as something separate from nature. The Symbols of language were not like sigh posts that pointed to the real things in nature. Language as it developed was itself part of nature. Language grows through the creation of expressions of names for things and again in his essay The Poet Emerson writes:

“This expression, or naming, is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree. What we call nature, is a certain self-regulated motion, or change; and nature does all things by her own hands, and does not leave another to baptize her, but baptizes herself; and this through the metamorphosis again.”

Language is like the leaf of a tree. A leaf is part of the tree, it is an extension of the tree. Language is an extension of nature, it is a second nature. As Emerson writes you can see that language is not a possession of human beings, if anything it is a possession of nature itself and it just happened to grow through human beings. The apple belongs to the tree, not to the branch that supports it. Language belongs to the universe, not to the species that speaks it.

I have been amazed to find the degree to which Emerson anticipates the evolutionary philosophy that would become an international sensation in the following century. His thinking is less scientific and often less rigorous than that of the next generation of American philosophers would be, but his imaginative and creative powers were magnificent.

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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Steve Jackson
Steve Jackson
11 years ago

That’s great, Jeff. Very interesting. There’s so much in this short piece, I’m going to have to come back to it soon. The sheer impersonality of this sense of humans being like nodes on this energetic chain is very striking and, to some degree, has resonances of the tenet of impersonality in Andrew Cohen’s evolutionary enlightenment philosophy. The more I learn of history and philosophy, the more I’m amazed by the way these peaks of higher understanding come bursting through from time to time, presaging and building the momentum towards higher development. In this, as you point out, Emerson was… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Culture is explained through symbols. In 1907 Peirce defined semiosis as “action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant (the way it is interpreted). It is not only that signs evolve through time, we can also can investigate the past and the present. The book/movie ´in the name of the rose´ is a famous example because of the semiotics (signs leading to essential information). The movie ´the blue angel´ with Marlene Dietrich is full of Freudian symbols which is named to explain its success. All famous movies… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Jeff: Afterthought about your response to my complaint about not getting responses and my comments languishing as if I’ve stopped all discussion.

I certainly don’t intend to load you down with monitoring every comment and appreciate your enterprise and comments whenever they appear.

I realize I may be overly commenting, loading up the threads, but my intention is to stimulate thoughts and would hope to have more feedback. Are my comments acting as non-sequitors? I would hope not. I know there are a lot of smart people commenting and would appreciate more dialogue with any and all.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Frank,

since you mention this; I myself have very little time. When I come on the blog I try to follow my intuition on what to answer to and where to go and I must admit that I was recently completely screened by your posts. Couldn’t find things anymore. So maybe yes: no more than one comment a day, but a very good one ? how about this ?

With love, Catherine

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hello Catherine,

I so appreciate your feedback, assured that life still stirs on these threads. It’s like speaking to the wind not to get feedback so thank you kindly. We should respond to comments, positively or negatively. I note many of them are kind of seeking Jeff’s good graces complimenting him rather than offering real ideas to chew on. The more thoughtful comments the better.

Best regards. Your work going well?

Aloha, Frank

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Frank, thanks to ask about the work ! yes the work is doing well; the checks are still going on for the transmutation of all fermionic theories into bosonic ones [ my big result if confirmed] and meanwhile another idea, of less caliber but nice, came through about the mystery of the “hidden order in URu2Si2”. Will tell you at some point if interested. I am working this one out with my long time american colleague from Argonne National lab. A pretty good guy… At some point my dream is to start to establish a thermodynamics of spirituality. I… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hey Cathrine: At some point my dream is to start to establish a thermodynamics of spirituality.”At some point my dream is to start to establish a thermodynamics of spirituality.”

That sounds fascinating. How would it work, can you say in a few sentences or is that giving away too much? How far along have you gotten with this? Keep us posted, privately if you prefer on my email. Do you have collaboraters? Best, aloha, F.