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 readers. That is, Guardiano moves rather quickly away from the strains of Emerson’s idealism that lead many to emphasize the creative poetic powers of the human that are not fully accountable in terms of a realist experience of nature (here, Emerson’s essays “Experience” or “Illusions” would seem relevant for when experience does not grasp reality). Although Guardiano reads this as a debate between objectivist and subjectivist readings of Emerson, a debate that Emerson himself seems torn between in “Nominalist and Realist,” the issue seems to evade any easy distinctions, and it seems an open question whether Emerson would grant that humans can occupy the robust objective intellectual standpoint that is needed to have more than a limited (though still real) perspective of nature with our finite modes of engagement with it (call it his latent Calvinism). Nevertheless, [End Page 121] Guardiano is on firmer footing with the modest claim that Emerson first instigates this investigation of nature, which Peirce develops more rigorously into the kind of coherent metaphysics that Guardiano wants, with its “synechism whereby experience is continuous with the real world, humankind with nature, and nature with the greater universe” (59).
Perhaps the most original work of the book occurs in chapter four where the American landscape tradition of painting is shown not merely to reproduce images of nature like a photograph—so its detractors would claim—but to “hyper-realistically” present and preserve nature in such a way that the variety of its aesthetic dimension is visibly conveyed to the viewer, “shining a light upon things taken to be ordinary, low, ugly, and insignificant” (87–88, 27). As in the case of Frederic Edwin Church’s work, viewers felt that they were actually in the landscape, “walking about the place, and examining the beautiful variety of nature,” like in a dream where “the distinction between the sign and the thing signified is lost” (91). Because these painters worked with the assumption that their art was connatural with the creativity of the universe, they aimed to reveal nature as objectivity creative and inherently aesthetic (84, 100–101). In this process, they sought to eliminate themselves as the intermediary between the represented content of their work and the audience who views it, thereby erasing their brushstrokes on the image (106). Because Guardiano reads these painters as making philosophical claims about the reality of nature that contributes to the rational coherence of aesthetic transcendentalism, he defends their method of mimetic representation. But I wonder if important criticisms of this view need to be addressed, since in erasing the artist’s hand (perhaps an impossible task to begin with), one also erases the particularity of the painting (that it is a painting of this particular landscape, not all landscape) as well as the social and political conditions that make for such a painting (why choose this landscape, at this time). Guardiano seems more interested in the question of whether these paintings make claims about something real, not worrying about whether in erasing the painter, a singular vision becomes universal eyes—thus backing into the view that one person can stand above himself to such an extent that he stands nowhere at all. There seem to be some deeply important ethical and political questions involved here, and they do cut to the core of claims to seeing “nature” “objectively.”
None of this is to take away from Guardiano’s powerful argument that the con-natural relations between humans and nature are not only materially significant (a form of ecology) but also aesthetically significant. The core claim that nature has an aesthetic dimension that is plural, generative, and infinitely creative is central to much American philosophical, religious, and aesthetic thought, and the book makes a major contribution to its philosophical exploration. However, the book does have one important omission: it would be significantly stronger if [End Page 122] it had included an engagement with the variety of environmental philosophers, ecocritics, and environmental justice literature that criticizes the very idea of an autonomous, self-sufficient “nature,” oftentimes using the American literary and philosophical tradition to develop an environmental aesthetics that shies away from the metaphysics of “nature. Many would worry that the romantic roots of the transcendentalist concept of “nature” show how it emerges out of an attempt to escape from human society and culture to find a place of regeneration and renewal, creating a place for the privileged few who were able to “experience” it in its pristine shape, whether through study and travel, or by viewing its artistic representations. Regarding representations of nature, Timothy Morton writes: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.”1 I believe that aesthetic transcendentalism can be attentive to these critiques, but it would have to be clearer about the places of friction between the human and the natural in its synechism, especially in artistic representation, and the various attempts, especially within the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, to attend to how human intellect is shaped within a world of human powers.
1. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.