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  • Emerson's Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes by Joseph Urbas
  • Frederic Tremblay
Emerson's Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes Joseph Urbas. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016.

In this captivating book, Joseph Urbas proposes a reconstruction of the metaphysics of the American poet, essayist, and self-defined philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to Urbas, Emerson had a coherent metaphysics, the fundamental principle of which is the category of causation. The author provides an abundance of textual evidence to support his thesis that in Emerson there is an emphasis on causes and effects, connections, relations, ties, links, continuity, tendency, laws of nature, flux, and so on. He argues, against other prevalent interpretations, that the Emersonian chain of causes and effects, which pervades everything, is not a regressus ad infinitum, but ends in a terminus a quo—the ultimate ineffable metaphysical ground of being, the "primal Cause," or "Cause of Causes," or "Absolute Cause." Emerson is accordingly here characterized as a "causationist"—a word apparently of Emerson's own coinage (xxv). His philosophy is thus considered a "causationism" (xxvi), and his poetry a "song of laws and causes" (xxvi).

The Transcendentalist era was, says Urbas, an "age of metaphysics" (xx-viii). In the aftermath of German idealism, a rehabilitation of metaphysics took place on the old continent. And, according to Urbas, "New England Transcendentalism needs to be understood in comparable terms, as a historical and intellectual outgrowth of the same philosophical movement towards metaphysical realism" (2). We must, he says, "consider American Transcendentalism as part of a broad transatlantic rehabilitation of metaphysics" (23). For the Transcendentalists, he adds, "one of the most pressing metaphysical issues of the day" was "the quintessentially modern threat of subjectivism" (2). The New England "ontological turn was a turn away from subjectivism" (2), which "threatened 'to absorb all things'" (5). It was a turn away from "the egocentric predicament" (10). Urbas accordingly locates the background of Emerson's philosophy in New England's ontological turn, which took place between 1820 and 1850: "Emerson's career as a philosopher, from the formative 1820s to Representative Men (1850), coincided with a metaphysical renaissance in New England which was itself part of a broader transatlantic 'realist' turn" (xxx). Emerson became "a metaphysical realist in the sense that he does not reduce ontology to epistemology, or being to knowledge" (xxviii). [End Page 120]

Underneath the pernicious influence of German idealism lay hidden the even more pernicious influence of David Hume, who woke Kant from his so-called dogmatic slumber. Emerson's encounter with Hume's skepticism, which "had seemed to cast doubt on the 'necessary connexion'" (xxvii), had been a "traumatic experience" (xxvi). Urbas cites letters to Mary Moody Emerson, where the young Waldo confesses to his aunt the devastating impact that Hume's arguments had on him (34). That we have only knowledge of mere constant conjunction of events rather than of necessary connection, implied, among other things, that we could not ascend back to the "Cause of Causes," that we could never prove the existence of the "Absolute Cause." But Emerson eventually recovered from his trauma, although he "would never completely 'shake him [i.e., Hume] off" (38). Waldo grew to develop "his own causal monist metaphysics" (xxviii), and remained a causationist throughout his life. In The Conduct of Life (1860), that is, in his mid-fifties, he still displayed "an absolute trust in reality as a causal continuum, an unshakeable belief in 'relation and connection'" (58). Urbas's interpretation is thus in agreement with the prevalent interpretation according to which Emerson's thought, and Transcendentalism in general, were primarily reactions to Humean skepticism (38).

Emerson is further characterized as a "bipolar" philosopher, who sought to synthesize the philosophical approaches of Plato and Bacon, reason and experience, rationalism and empiricism, λόγος and ύλη (70). This synthesis is achieved through a causal unity, as all polar opposites are grounded in the same primal Cause. As Urbas explains, "Emerson's 'bipolar Unity is a unity of cause" (70). As a Unitarian, Emerson believed that the chain of causes and effects finds its first cause in a unique Absolute and Infinite Cause, and not in some incomprehensible Trinity of first...


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