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  • Emerson’s Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes by Joseph Urbas
  • Heikki A. Kovalainen
Joseph Urbas
Emerson’s Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes
Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. 272 pp., includes index.

Contemporary commentators on Emerson often assume that the American essayist has been successfully rehabilitated as a philosopher. If we consider seriously his claims to philosophy from a contemporary perspective, however, we must also deal with the treatments of his philosophy critically. This is because philosophy, in itself, is a critical discipline, and every philosophical treatment of Emersonian thought deserves to be treated on the same footing with that of any other classical thinker.

Joseph Urbas’s Emerson’s Metaphysics joins David Van Leer’s Emerson’s Epistemology (1986) and Gustaf Van Gromphout’s Emerson’s Ethics (1999) as thematic, ambitiously titled attempts at providing general accounts of the different branches of Emerson’s philosophy. These books are not always written by professional philosophers, although their authors (like Urbas) may be trained and learned in both. The ways of doing philosophy in these works, in any event, are often bound by contextual issues in American literature or the historical problems that the American Transcendentalists were facing rather than contemporary [End Page 109] discussions in academic philosophy—which may be estranging to some philosophical readers.

Emerson’s Metaphysics offers a systematic, historico-textual account of Emerson’s metaphysics, with causation taken as the conceptual nexus—or even the core principle (p. xxiv)—of Emersonian philosophy. In the available philosophical Emerson literature, this book stands out in virtue of its thematic focus (metaphysics of causation), which is not preceded, passing comments aside, by former interpretations. Urbas’s general positioning of his argument in relation to the available commentaries is also insightful and original. Since the 1990s, the philosophical Emerson literature has been dominated by the presence of Stanley Cavell, but Urbas’s key argumentative moves stand in opposition to Cavell. More generally, Urbas goes against the de-transcendentalizing trend of much recent Emerson literature (e.g. Cavell; Saito; Lysaker), whereby Emerson’s metaphysics and religion have been left to too little attention.

What to think of Urbas’s understanding, then, of Emersonian metaphysics vis-à-vis the overarching concept of causation? The starting point of Emerson’s Metaphysics is plausible, but it raises the basic question: what is causation? In one sense, Urbas’s idea is to follow Emerson (and other Transcendentalists) in arguing against Hume’s skepticism, which famously denied the existence of causality in nature. In this context, causation means the network of causes and effects operating in nature and the natural laws binding these—hence, naturalistic causation (my term). In another sense, however, Urbas operates with an emphatically supernatural concept of causation, whereby the term connotes not just causes operating in nature, but also immaterial, transcendent causes beyond empirical experience—including, the “Absolute Cause” (see, e.g., p. 32) giving rise to everything that exists. Could these be the same concept? Answering in the affirmative would be a burdensome philosophical venture, so we need to read Urbas’s work closely here.

Emerson’s Metaphysics understands causation, to begin with, as a “thick” concept, “perhaps the thickest of all” (p. 38). Urbas associates the term with a plethora of Emersonian phrases such as “the causal order of the world”, “necessary connexion [between Cause and Effect]”, “Being”, “God”, “Life of Life”, and “the tie of fate”, to mention a few. In yet further senses, Urbas links causation with final causality and relationalism in nature. Given the sheer breadth of these different connotations of “causation”, a reader of Urbas’s book may wonder whether we are really dealing with a unified concept here. Take, for instance, causation qua relationality, which Urbas discusses by citing Emerson’s Nature: “I cannot greatly honor minuteness in details, so long as there is no hint to explain the relation between things and thoughts; no ray upon the metaphysics of conchology, of botany, of the arts, to show the relation of the forms of flowers, shells, animals, architecture, to [End Page 110] the mind, and build science upon ideas” (quoted in p. 43). In his systematic treatment, Urbas links this text...


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