- “The World Is Full”: Emerson, Pluralism, and the “Nominalist and Realist”
All persons, all things which we have known, are here present, and many more than we see; the world is full.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nominalist and Realist” (Essays & Lectures)
I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment, and this is a fragment of me.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience” (Essays & Lectures)
Despite his lifelong admiration of Plato, Emerson also found the Platonic philosophical temperament excessive. “Nominalist and Realist” (from “Essays, Second Series”) evokes a critique of the Platonic tendency toward severe abstraction. At the opening of the essay, Emerson remarks: “The genius of the Platonists, is intoxicating to the student, yet how few particulars of it can I detach from all their books” (Essays & Lectures 575). Continuing, he says: “We have such exorbitant eyes, that on seeing the smallest arc, we complete the curve, and when the curtain is lifted from the diagram which it seemed to veil, we are vexed to find that no more was drawn, than just that fragment of an arc which we first beheld” (EL 575). If we as viewers quixotically “complete the curve,” this is due to our being “too liberal in our construction,” thus projecting a completion not actually present. Though Emerson praises the Platonists’ “intoxicating” qualities, there remain “few particulars” that can be garnered from their ethereal adumbrations. They are “too partial” because they “unduly [favor] a few worthy things to the exclusion of others that have equal or comparable claims” (Kateb 7). “Nominalist and Realist” works as Emerson’s skeptical rejoinder to what could be called the ultra-abstractionist or ultra-rationalist strain in philosophy, the metaphysical and epistemological disposition William James describes in his lecture “What Pragmatism Means”: “Your typical ultra-abstractionist fairly shudders at concreteness: other things equal, he positively [End Page 32] prefers the pale and spectral. If the two universes were offered, he would always choose the skinny outline rather than the rich thicket of reality. It is so much purer, clearer, nobler” (Writings 1902–1910 517). The implicit critique of “Nominalist and Realist” signals an area in Emerson studies—pluralism—that could benefit from some further illumination.
Recently, James M. Albrecht, in Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison, has argued for Emerson’s pluralism vis-à-vis the long-standing debate among critics concerning “the question of whether Emerson is a monist, viewing reality as suffused by an absolute, ideal unity, or a pluralist, viewing reality as characterized by real diversity, particularity, and contingency” (Albrecht 26). Yet just how this pluralism works within Emerson’s philosophy is something in need of further investigation. A philosophical orientation elaborated by William James, pluralism posits the willingness to believe that “the substance of reality may never get totally collected, that some of it may remain outside the largest combination of it ever made” (Writings 1902–1910 645). Pluralism raises the ethical stakes of pragmatism, taking “contingency seriously by applying it to reality itself ” (Koopman 108). For James, philosophies that deny the particular and the many engage in what he calls “vicious abstractionism”: a form of symbolic violence qua exclusion. Similarly, “Nominalist and Realist” suggests that ultra-rationalist philosophies arouse ethical objections by devaluing the ordinary and obscuring the plural nature of experience, calling into question the Platonic and neo-Platonic orientation taken teleologically. Both Emerson’s and James’s pluralism are internal and external: they view diversity in the world as a real thing, yet they also see Being and experience as a plural event, one that escapes representational containment. Philosophies that abstract too far away from concrete experience elide the plural nature of Being, ignoring and obscuring difference as it enfolds in the stream of consciousness, and difference as it exists as a concrete reality in the world. As George Kateb points out, Emerson felt that the doctrines of philosophy, just like those of any political party, tended “to be blindly or insanely excessive” (Kateb 7).
Despite Emerson’s transcendental vocabulary, his understanding of metaphysical pluralism nonetheless finds deep affinities with what James eventually formulates as philosophical pluralism in texts such as The Principles of Psychology and...