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Method and Metaphysics in Emerson’s “Nature”

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? In use it is alive. Islife breathed into it there? Or is the use its life?
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Emerson began his intellectual career by resigning from the Unitarian ministry, an act more anti-authoritarian than anti-religious in its philosophical roots and consequences. But Emerson’s rejection of the church hardly alienated him from his family and friends, and his lectures and essays led not to his society’s suppression of his ideas as radical but to widespread affection and acclaim. Emerson’s iconoclasm had little to do with, and little effect on, the particular institutions from which he dissociated himself. Emerson’s “No” was directed not at any particular ritual, custom, or institution but at the institutionalizing urge itself; and the fight he waged was conducted in terms whose very aloofness from society drained its expression of real venom insofar as it touched on immediate social issues. It was an internal fight against the oppression Emerson felt from any group or creed which claimed authority over his mind. What he wanted was a clean slate, a blank page on which to write, an opportunity to forge what he called “an original relation to the universe.” He took “pleasure” in the “thought” that his “mind” might “be new in the universe.” He was struggling to free himself from the weight of authority in order to find a ground of authority in himself, and eventually cited every authority he could use in support of his own struggle.

Often he referred to those creeds and institutions which undermined him as forms. About to leave the ministry, he wrote, “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it were necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of out forefathers.” “Religion in the mind is not credulity, and in the practice is not form. It is a life” (J. , IV, 27). Years later he defended his resistance to the Brook Farm enterprise on the same basis, though “form” is rhetorically heightened into “prison”: “I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger. I wish to break all prisons” (J. , VII, 408). Emerson was not concerned with the corrupt form of society but with the corruption implied by form itself—the corruption of the soul’s power. “It is not wise,” he said, “not being natural, to belong to any religious party . . .which is to say, as fast as we use our own eyes, we quit these parties or Unthinking Corporations,” and join ourselves to God in an “unpartaken relation” (J. , Ill, 259). Emerson rejected the reform of social institutions for the same reason that he rejected the form in which they already existed, in order to posit an “unpartaken relation” between man and God, an unmediated relation between the soul and the universe. In his effort to free himself from the internalized oppression of the philosophic and religious authorities in his intellectually thin culture, Emerson repudiated the very interdependence of individual and institution, self and society.

Emerson’s resignation from the pulpit of the second Church and his subsequent removal from Boston to Concord, then, reflect not only a withdrawal from the genteel culture of New England, but first an attempt to move beyond the confines of culture itself, understood as an institutionalized authority structure, and second an opposition to the principle of form itself, seen as the necessity of intellectual patterns through which experience can be received and expressed. “The difficulty,” as he put it, “is that we do not make a world of our own, but fall into institutions already made, and have to accommodate ourselves to them to be useful at all, and this accommodation is, I say, a loss of so much integrity and, of course, of so much power” (J. , Ill, 318—19). Eventually, Emerson’s opposition to form necessitated a devotion to a state of open-ended process:

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, —you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, —most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all the moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being (W. , II, 341).

Remaining thus “aloof became for Emerson a creed in itself, one whose philosophical basis found its first expression in “Nature.” Repudiating the authority of “foregoing generations,” Emerson sets out in “Nature” to find a ground for “a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition” (W. , I, 3). Viewing the totality of man’s artifacts as no more than “a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing,” he wipes the slate clean of the past’s scribblings, beginning anew to define a “theory of nature” (W. , 1,4—5).


“Nature” is an attempt to forge an “original relation” between the soul and the world (W. , I, 3). The question Emerson poses here is the one to which he refers again in a journal entry of 1839, the question of whether “the world is not a dualism, is not a bipolar unity, but is two, is Me and It.” If the world is two, Emerson continues, “then there is the alien, the unknown, and all we have believed and chanted out of our deep instinctive hope is a pretty dream” (J. , VII, 200). Accordingly, when Emerson defines nature as all that is NOT ME, he initiates an argument through which he will negate the referentiality of his own term. The great issue at stake in “Nature” is not the explicit question of nature’s order and meaning but the implicit question of the epistemological use to which it can be put in order to overcome our sense of alienation from the world. By the climax of the essay, there is nothing to which the NOT ME refers, except that world the reader has not yet built. What Emerson develops in “Nature” is not a theory of nature, but a method by which “brute nature” is dissolved (W, I, 45). The world is thus reconstituted as a purposive order whose purpose is to evoke the imagination. That is, Emerson’s purpose is to achieve a vantage point from which man is at home in the world, fundamentally related to nature. His method, however, provides more than a means for achieving that purpose. By relating man and nature, he transforms both: man emerges as maker, nature as made. Nature as an alien presence, nature as an externally subsistent entity, disappears as it is used. To make sense of the closing injunction, to “Build, therefore, your own world,” we must come to terms with what Emerson refers to as the “doctrine of Use,” which turns out to function more as a tool than as a doctrine (W. , I, 76,41).

The problem introduced at the opening of Chapter II: “Commodity,” is posed in terms of the “final cause of the world,” that end of nature served by what Emerson describes as “multitude of uses” falling into four classes: Commodity, Beauty, Language, and Discipline (W. , I, 12). Emerson develops here the theory that nature’s end or purpose is to be used. His optimistic view of nature as working “incessantly . . .for the profit of man” results from the perspective created by the term commodity itself. As commodity, nature is by definition useful, and the world is automatically domesticated as man’s “floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed” (W. , I, 13). By focusing first on how we indisputably use nature, Emerson immediately excludes from consideration the hostile and alien aspects of the world. Moreover, he sets in motion a circular argument which says: nature is useful in the following ways, and therefore nature’s end is to be used. This conclusion, however, raises another question. By claiming that the end of nature is to be used, Emerson must face the issue of what it should be used for. Accordingly, each class of uses generates a higher class; nature’s “mercenary benefit” exists for “a farther good” ; beauty, itself a higher use than commodity, is nonetheless, “not ultimate,” and so on (W., I, 24)

To approach nature’s “final cause,” Emerson appropriates a mechanism which hypostatizes this self-regenerating doctrine of use. “The use of the outer creation,” he tells us at the beginning of “Chapter IV: Language,” is to give us language “for the beings and changes of the inward creation” (W. , I, 25). Because words signify natural facts, language represents still another of nature’s provisions for man; it offers him a sign system for articulation. Man “is placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man” (W. , 1, 27—28). What language does, first, is to afford man a “vehicle of thought,” a vocabulary and grammar for realizing his identity as “me” (W. , I, 25). But since “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind,” language acquires another, higher use (W. , I, 32). Since natural facts signify spiritual facts, we can use nature’s sign system to transcend nature itself, arriving at those higher laws which nature signifies. Words signify natural facts, natural facts signify spiritual facts, and to the extent that language remains fastened to “natural symbols,” it can be used to reflect spiritual truth (W. , I, 29). Now it is “in view of this significance of nature,” Emerson says at the beginning of Chapter V, that nature can be used as “a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths” (W. , I, 36). The relationship between words and natural facts, and between natural and spiritual facts, represents a fundamental “use of the world,” because it establishes a model for transcendence which can operate endlessly (W. , I, 36). “Nothing in nature is exhausted in its first use,” because the signifier-signified model can always be invoked again, using the signifier to focus on the signified (W. , I, 41).

Emerson is no longer enumerating nature’s uses as he did in Chapters II and III; he has designed a tool for using nature and proceeds to apply it in Chapter V. For instance, he says the “use of Commodity, regarded by itself, is mean and squalid. But it is to the mind an education in the great doctrine of Use, namely that a thing is good only so far as it serves” (W. , I, 41). Therefore we are confronted not only with all those beneficial provisions discussed in Chapter II, but also with “grinding debt” and all those apparently negative aspects of nature omitted earlier, in order to learn this lesson (W. , I, 37). Nature’s use as signifier has outstripped all other uses. Again, when Emerson says “therefore is Space, and therefore is Time, that man may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual,” he is exemplifying a use of nature rather than making a discursive claim about its purpose (W. , I, 38). Or rather, he is doing both, since nature’s end is now seen to be its use as a sign system. (The conflation of the epistemological model of use with a metaphysically grounded telos creates certain problems, as we shall see. ) What the first half of the essay establishes is not a definition of nature, but a methodology for using nature, which becomes not something to think about, but something to think with. Once this methodology is set up, the question of nature’s substantiality becomes irrelevant: “whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful. . .to me” (W. , I, 48). The NOT ME acquires its meaning from its relationship to me, a relationship defined by the use which the me makes of the NOT ME. Nature becomes whatever man’s use of it makes it. The NOT ME loses its horror when it is appropriated by this method, for it becomes not an alien and inaccessible reality, unrelated and potentially hostile to man, but that which he uses to exercise his imagination.

Emerson has overcome alienation, then, by constructing an epistemological model for relating self and world by means of a process of use. However, once the implications of this argument emerge, certain problems arise.

According to Emerson, by using nature as a sign system, we humanize it so that it becomes “the double of the man” (W. , I, 40). This process of use transforms the relationship between self and world into a relationship between maker and made. What Emerson’s epistemological model entails is a world knowable by man—and thereby related to him—because it is made by man. As Vico explained, though for his own antiCartesian purposes, if we can know only that which we make, then what we know of nature is limited to that which we make of it, whether in the form of geometrical theorems, political institutions, or Homeric epics. Nature as epistemological category is cast out, to be replaced by culture. The ontological question of nature’s existence is rendered forever moot—a consequence Emerson initially finds problematical.

By translating what is initially posed as an ontological duality between self and world into an epistemologically founded relationship, then, Emerson’s model of use forces him to beg the ontological question. Chapter VI: “Idealism,” is devoted to begging it at some length. He offers three arguments: (1) Since it remains useful whether or not it has an absolute existence, nature does not need to exist as substance. “The relation of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, the worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end . . .?” (W. , I, 47—48); (2) since “any distrust of the permanence of laws would paralyze the faculties of man,” only the “frivolous” entertain such doubts (W. , I, 48); (3) empirically, there is overwhelming evidence to prove that “it is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind . . .to lead us to regard nature as phenomenon, not a substance” (W. , I, 49). The last claim is supported by an extended discussion of all the ways man uses nature and in so doing learns that its phenomenal status suffices to his use.

What is most significant about this chapter is not whether Emerson proves his case, but the fact that he labors to do so at all. That is, the chapter constitutes a long testimony to Emerson’s own dissatisfaction with having to beg the ontological question in the first place, as he admits finally that he must do:

But I own there is something ungrateful in expanding too curiously the particulars of the general proposition, that all culture tends to imbue us with idealism. I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it. I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons. Let us speak her fair. I do not wish to fling stones at my beautiful mother, nor soil my gentle nest. I only wish to indicate the true position of nature in regard to man, wherein to establish man all right education tends; as the ground which to attain is the object of human life, that is, of man’s connection with nature (W. , I, 59).

The unusually gnarled syntax here reflects the anguish with which Emerson finds himself “wandering in the labyrinth” of his own “perceptions,” as an idealist for whom nature’s “absolute existence” is not only improvable, but irrelevant (W. , I, 49). It is as if he stood back in chilled awe from his own conclusions, begging forgiveness of his “beautiful mother,” reminding her of how modestly he began the intellectual enterprise which has ended in her removal.

But there is, of course, nothing modest about the aim itself, which is to “attain” the “ground” of “man’s connection with nature,” a feat which is defined as “the object of human life.” While begging the ontological question, Emerson has meanwhile applied his epistemological model on each rung of the ladder built in Chapters II through V, presenting a vision of nature in use. Beginning with the physical uses, and moving up through aesthetic, intellectual, moral, and religious uses, Emerson’s third argument, while ostensibly providing empirical evidence in the “effect of culture” for the practical validity of the idealist’s definition of nature, is tracing the effect of his model on nature, which is to transform it into culture (W. , I, 14). And culture, in turn, is provided with an ontological ground in Spirit: thus if Idealism “accepts from God the phenomenon, as it finds it, as the pure and awful form of religion in the world,” we need not beg the ontological question any longer (W. , I, 60).


Chapter VII, “Spirit,” officially introduces spirit as Final cause. Whether Spirit, or the Over-Soul, as Charles Feidelson has pointed out, “was always available in emergencies” to Emerson, it certainly saves him here. Most obviously, it frees him to apply the use model to the idealist’s distinction between phenomenon and substance. “When we consider Spirit,” he explains, “we see that the views already presented do not include the whole circumference of man. We must add some related thoughts” (W. , I, 62). These related thoughts turn out to be a crucial redefinition of the ontological issue in epistemological terms. By defining nature “as a phenomenon, not a substance,” idealism introduces not an unacceptable duality which again “makes nature foreign to me,” but a “useful introductory hypothesis, serving to apprize us of the eternal distinction between the soul and the world” (W. , I, 62, 63). The original distinction between me and NOT ME, which idealism had seemed to reinstate, becomes itself the starting point of that “right education” whose goal is to establish “man’s connection with nature” (W. , I, 59). Emerson’s epistemological model can now swallow the ontological duality which generated it by treating that duality as a sign whose ontological reference resides securely in the “ineffable essence” called Spirit, and whose use yields the activity to which the entire essay is devoted—to establish man in a “true position” toward nature (W. , I, 61).

Throughout Chapter VI the emphasis is on what we do with nature rather than what we mean by it, a perspective not only established inevitably by the need here to evade the ontological issue, but built into the model of use itself. As early as the chapter on Commodity, Emerson distinguished between the “material” and the “process and result” in nature’s “ministry to man” (W. , I, 13). It is the same distinction he makes in Chapter VII where he separates the question “What is matter?” from the other two problems . . .put by nature to the mind:. . . Whence is it? and Whereto?” (W. , I, 62). As we have seen, he dispenses with the first as a “useful introductory hypothesis” leading eventually to a basis for answering the other two (W. , I, 63). Whether the world be nature or culture, what concerns Emerson is the “process and result” of man’s relationship to it rather than its “material” substance, an issue which arises as problem only as it interferes with that relationship. For all his apologies to his “beautiful mother,” Emerson rejects the idealist’s position not because it negates nature’s “absolute existence,” but because it negates man’s relationship to nature by positing an unknowable other, a noumenal reality existing beyond the reach of the process of use (W. , 1,49).

Spirit, then, serves as ontological ground not for nature and not for man, but for “man’s connection with nature,” a connection which exists in and by virtue of the process of use itself (W, , I, 59). Thus Spirit functions for Emerson only secondarily as a means of coping with idealism; its chief purpose is to ensure this process an “infinite scope,” as is evident from the way in which Emerson introduces Chapter VIII, “Spirit”:

It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain something progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise (W. , I, 61).

Spirit, by providing the process in which the relationship between self and world is enacted with an “infinite scope,” precludes an exhaustion of uses which would bring the process to an end, sunder that relationship, and most importantly, accord to culture a spurious finality. Throughout Chapter VI, we learn again and again that nature in use is plastic, fluid, malleable: the poet “unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew” (W. , I, 51—52); when subjected to the philosopher’s use, nature’s “solid seeming block of matter” is “dissolved by a thought” (W. , I, 55). In the process of use he traces here, Emerson forges an “original relation to the universe,” but by replacing nature with culture, that process threatens to produce another “solid seeming block of matter” in the form of a Final Cause which can be institutionalized as authoritative. If we recall the essay’s opening, with its rejection of inherited cultural forms, Emerson’s disquietude at the prospect of a theoretical end to the process of use should not surprise us. Setting out to forge an original relation to the universe, Emerson has ended up tracing the development of culture—that set of institutions he originally repudiated.

Spirit, then, by serving as ontological referent not for sign or for signifier, but for the act of signification itself, renders the process of use theoretically endless, and thus incapable of yielding any finite end. Emerson has already tried to preclude such an eventuality by asserting that nature itself is inexhaustible, but his own model hypothesizes nature’s exhaustibility. “Nothing in nature is exhausted in its first use,” he tells us, but as his own example reveals, the model of use, when it transforms the physical “use of commodity” into a “moral sentence,” does exhaust nature as material substance. It is only “in God,” i. e. , with the ontological reference of the Spirit, that “every end is converted into a new means” (W. , I, 41). Inexhaustibility can be an attribute only of an energy which generates the process of use itself, not of that which is used. Spirit, posited as eternal energy source, precludes the exhaustion of uses in which the process would otherwise cease. And that is Spirit’s primary function in Emerson’s metaphysics.

In the metaphysical model which Spirit completes, then, nature becomes “a fixed point whereby we may measure our departure. As we degenerate, the contrast between us and our house is more evident” (W. , I, 65). Our alienation from nature is an entirely remediable consequence of our failure to exercise our “Reason.” “Imagination,” Emerson tells us, “can be defined to be the use which Reason makes of the material world” (W. , I, 52). Accordingly, “we are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from God,” because it is only to the extent that we fail to use the world as a sign system that it remains other (W. , I, 65). “Build, therefore, your own world,” Emerson concludes in Chapter VIII (W. , I, 76). As long as one is in the act of building his world, he is in touch with Spirit and is exercising his Reason. During this process, nature becomes fluid. It is only when he is not acting in accord with Reason, not using the world as sign-system, that it appears other. Then he requires the assurance that this otherness is not a necessary ontological fact, but the result of his own failure to build his world. “The ruin or blank that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque” (W. , I, 73). A. , chis point Emerson seems less concerned to define man as one who makes his world, than to chastise him for his failure to do so.

Emerson’s essay is not about nature itself, nor about man himself, but about the relationship between the two. Initially projecting a mystical union with nature in the famous statement “I am nothing; I see all,” he ends with the orphic poet’s pronouncement, “What we are, that only can we see,” a conclusion that is unlikely to inspire confidence in Emerson’s sense of consistency (W. , I, 10, 76). The two statements share, however, a reference to that moment when self and world unite in the realization of both, when “a correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of spirit” (W. , I, 76). And this moment occurs not as an end, but as part of a process which has no end.

“Nature” constructs the framework of Emerson’s metaphysics, but more significant by far is the rhetorical method which emerges in the course of this construction. For the method finally outstrips the limits of the issue it is developed to resolve. When the opposition between self and world becomes useful rather than threatening, it is because Emerson is enacting the process he has defined. Moreover, this step retroactively alters the purpose of all those that have preceded it. For at this moment we are faced with the realization that Emerson has been enacting this process from the beginning of the essay. In calling the idealist’s distinction between self and world a “useful introductory hypothesis,” Emerson describes precisely the use to which he has put it (W. , I, 63). As is all too clear from Emerson’s struggles in Chapter VI, this distinction eannot be refuted. But he turns this dilemma to his advantage by treating the distinction as a sign whose meaning derives not from its reference to “the total disparity between the evidence of our own being and the evidence of the world’s being,” but from the process of using it as a signifier, the process to which “Nature” as a whole is devoted (W. , I,62).

It is this process of signification which constitutes Emerson’s rhetorical method, one which he was to develop and refine in later essays, where the subject at hand serves not as a topic but as a stimulant to thought, not as something real to which the essay refers, but as a sign whose meaning is to be discovered by its use as a signifier. What is thereby enacted and adumbrated once more is the process of signification itself. The process of making meaning, in other words, constitutes the real content of the essay; and it is this process, rather than any particular meaning it yields which is authorized by Spirit. Thus the essays can assume the form of “untaught sallies of the spirit,” which resist the force of any “tyrannizing unity” by acting always on the belief expressed in “The Method of Nature”: “Seekest thou in nature the cause? This refers to that and that to the next, and the next to the third, and everything refers” (W. , 1,66, 67, 200).


What this view of Emerson suggests is that the power of his essays derives not from any transcendentalist doctrine, but from a rhetorical method designed to pry the reader loose from his “moorings” and set him “afloat” as a “candidate for truth,” by inspiring a belief in his own power and authority as an individual (W. , II, 341). In “Circles,” for example, the method enabled him to use the figure of the circle, as he had once used the distinction between self and world, as a stimulant to thought, this time leading to the idea “that around every circle another can be drawn” (W. , II, 301). This proposition generates a process during which the circle comes to signify “the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance, —as, for instance, an empire, rules of art, a local usage, a religious rite, —to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in life” (W. , II, 304). Just as in “Nature,” the world appears to us as a “solid seeming block of matter” unless we are in the act of using it, in “Circles” the “extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul” (W. , I, 55; W. , II, 304). Once again, Emerson’s purpose is to inspire his reader to build, therefore, his own world.

As we know, Emerson’s faith in every man’s power to create his life became tempered by his mounting respect for the force of limitation, the power of inertia. His metaphysics came to accommodate this change by designating man a “stupendous antagonism,” the site of an eternal opposition between power and form (W. , VI, 22). It is easy enough to regard this decline in optimism as a belated ascent to maturity. But we will fail to understand Emerson if we adopt the view of Henry Adams, that Emerson was after all, nai’ve. For the rhetorical method generated in “Nature” gave his voice a power that even Adams inadvertently acknowledged when he contrasted the Boston of George Cabot Lodge to that of “Emerson and Whitman, Longfellow and Lowell,” whose “anti-slavery outbursts . . .shook the foundations of the state.” Adams, as usual, is referring nostalgically to a lost world, one in which the “gap between the poet and the citizen” was not yet “impassable.” But if anything, this gap has only widened since Adams” day, a fact which makes it the more difficult— and the more essential—to understand how Emerson’s voice was able to cross it.


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