- Aesthetic Transcendentalism in Emerson, Peirce, and Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting by Nicholas L. Guardiano
As environmental concerns rightly take a greater role in the critical reevaluation of the American philosophical tradition, it behooves us to return again to the often slippery notion of “nature” to ask if it can be redeemed as not merely the canvas on which human endeavor is depicted but an active element of the diverse and distinct philosophical perspectives that make (and have the potential to re-make) the tradition. Indeed, there is a great need to depict the potentially subversive ways that human and nature can be understood as radically connatural, in intimate ecological and constructive relations that make nature not just the instrument for the exertion for human wants and desires but also thoroughly and profoundly aesthetic and transformative.
Contributing to this line of inquiry, Nicholas L. Guardiano gives us what he terms an “aesthetic transcendentalism,” which aims to bring together Emerson’s poetic conception of nature, Peirce’s rigorous metaphysical account of nature, and the artistic claims of the Hudson River School and Luminism to show that the aesthetic dimensions of nature are “metaphysically significant, qualitatively pluralistic, and artistically creative” (xiii). Guardiano’s work seeks to illustrate how nature holds an aesthetic richness, drawn from the inherent creativity and pluralism of its metaphysical depths, that accounts for the unlimited variety of sensuous experiences depicted in poetic, philosophical, and artistic form. The book brings together these approaches to nature to show how they conjointly make objective claims about metaphysical principles that are drawn from ordinary experiences and “direct encounters with nature” (5).
Chapter one begins with the birth of aesthetic transcendentalism in the poetic promptings of Emerson, who shows that one can rightly recognize her [End Page 120] immersion in the natural beauty of the world and thus become oriented toward its “aesthetic richness” (1). Guardiano relies heavily on Emerson’s discussion of natura naturata and natura naturans to show that nature holds an active creative power that grounds both the products of nature as presented to experience and the living processes by which nature is continuously productive. In this way, nature is “self-sufficient” while also being the real and substantial basis for the existence of a plurality of aesthetic experiences—as opposed to accounting for this pluralism of experience through subjective and/or phenomenal accounts of the human faculties (7, 14). For Emerson, the claim is not that our sensory apparatus produces an experience of nature’s beauty as we interact with the brute objects of the world, but that beauty itself is a metaphysical principle, or “ultimate origin of the world,” that comes to bear on our experiences in it (14). As beings living in and nurtured by a complex and qualitatively vast universe, we ought to expect that our careful attention should allow us to make real claims about the world in all of its depth and breadth.
In chapters two and three, Guardiano sets out to give a theoretical grounding to the poetic insights of chapter one by drawing upon the technical vocabulary of Peirce’s trichotomic cosmology. Not content with a merely expressive account of nature, Guardiano uses Peirce to show the “rational coherence” of aesthetic transcendentalism for the theoretically minded. In doing so, he reaf-firms the sense of an immanent, self-transformative, and creative nature while further exploring the “primordial ontological conditions of the world as we know it,” for which one needs the Peircean notion of Firstness (55). Perhaps more so than with Emerson, it is here with Peirce that experience is shown to be continuous with nature in such a way that it becomes possible to use it to infer the character of the cosmological order that makes such experience possible. Nevertheless, while Guardiano notes that his interpretation of a realist Emerson is distinct from what he reads as the subjectivist readings of Stanley Cavell and Russell Goodman (4), he does not explore why those readings of Emerson have been compelling for generations of...