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  • "Bi-Polar" Emerson:"Nominalist and Realist"
  • Joseph Urbas

Cause & effect, cause & effect forever!

—Emerson to Margaret Fuller, 28 Sept. 1838; Letters 2:164

I told S[arah]. M[argaret]. F[uller]. that I was a cross of Plato & Aristotle.

—Emerson, Journal D, April 1839, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 7:1861

A too rapid unification, and an excessive appliance to parts and particulars, are the twin dangers of speculation.

—Emerson, "Plato, or the Philosopher," 1850; Collected Works 4:302

Emerson and "Modern Controversies of a Properly Metaphysical Sort"

As Emerson's philosophical rehabilitation settles into its fourth decade, the time seems right to take stock, in order to ensure that no important dimension of his thought has been neglected in the general movement. Since the publication of Stanley Cavell's groundbreaking essays ("Thinking of Emerson," 1978; "An Emerson Mood," 1980), the rehabilitation process has produced studies of impressive wealth and variety, particularly in the fields of ethics and epistemology.3 Philosophers working on or within the pragmatist tradition (Russell Goodman, John Lysaker, Cornel West) have made some of the finest contributions to the ongoing reassessment. The result has been a vindication of Emerson's standing as a serious philosopher and the recovery of his rightful place in the history of American philosophy. Emerson has been well served by recent scholarship.

With one notable exception: his metaphysics. This was perhaps to be expected at the close of a century that was, to borrow John Heil's understatement, "not kind to metaphysics" (1). That unkindness, whose culminating expression might be seen in Hilary Putnam's "obituary" for ontology (71-85), has been especially true of Emerson studies, where the sentiment has characterized [End Page 78] most of the revisionist interpretations—whether "perfectionist" (Cavell), pragmatist (Poirier), Kantian (Van Leer), Nietzschean (Lopez), historicizing (Cadava), or broadly postmodern (Arsić). Following Stanley Cavell's lead, Emerson rehabilitators have as a rule wanted "no part" of metaphysics (Cavell, Conditions Handsome 13). The result has been a largely "de-Transcendentalized" Emerson (Buell, "Emerson Industry" 127). The new approaches to Emerson have either ignored his metaphysical doctrine or denied that he even has one. Nevertheless, a strong case can and should be made for Emerson's philosophy as a fine exemple of the "ineliminability of metaphysics" (Heil 5).

If the anti-metaphysical tide shows signs of receding, one indication of the tendency, where Emerson scholarship is concerned, is the appearance of a number of recent articles dealing explicitly with Emerson's metaphysics.4 Among these, I would single out Russell Goodman's reading of "Nominalist and Realist." Goodman's choice of the essay and the terms of his discussion provide an excellent starting point for a full-scale rehabilitation—long overdue—of Emerson the metaphysician. Emerson's own choice of this particular metaphysical theme was in keeping with the times. For his generation, schooled in the history of philosophy by James Mackintosh (among others), the Nominalist-Realist controversy was not a mere historical curiosity, still less "an example of barbarous wrangling," but rather an anticipation of "many modern controversies of a properly metaphysical sort," the source of "most of the metaphysical discussions of modern times."5 The Scholastic dispute lived on in Emerson's nineteenth century. To do metaphysics then was to deal with this legacy, one way or another. Emerson's way, I shall argue, is that of synthesis or "bi-polarity," within a general metaphysics whose core principle is universal causation. If Emerson refuses to take sides in the age-old controversy, that is because he embraces both Nominalism and Realism as true to opposite poles of the same causal and ontological continuum—that of reality itself.

"Wrongly Labelled": Hedge's Objection to "Nominalist and Realist"

In his review of Essays: Second Series, Frederic Henry Hedge, Emerson's friend and fellow Transcendental Club member, expressed disappointment with the second volume, finding it "to possess less interest on the whole" than the first (88). If Hedge saw much to admire in the essay "Experience"—the best in [End Page 79] the collection in his view—he had harsh words for "Nominalist and Realist," which he thought "the most ill-arranged of the whole," when it should have...


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