Categories
Dispatches from the Archives

Emerson on Kant: A Metaphysician Not Worth Reading

by guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

By Christopher Porzenheim

Joseph Urbas has recently argued that since the 1970s that there’s been an ongoing effort on the part of philosophically minded Emerson scholars to rehabilitate Emerson as a canonical philosopher. John Lysaker has relevantly observed that one strategy some of Emerson’s advocates use is arguing there is a close relationship between Emerson and Kant (because most professional philosophers would consider Kant a canonical philosopher.) But there are a few problems with this approach, the least of which is the lack of evidence Emerson ever read Kant.

Robert Richardson correctly noted that there is no evidence Emerson ever read Kant, only evidence he encountered Kant second hand, through various sources like Dugald Stewart, Madame de Stael, Thomas Marsh, Joseph Degerando, Victor Cousin, Samuel Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Frederick Hedge. On the basis of this second hand evidence, many have influentially argued that Kant exercised a profound philosophical influence on Emerson, such as Stanley Cavell, David Van Leer, and Gustaaf Van Cromphout. Oddly, even though it is obviously relevant evidence, no one has analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks on Kant as a philosopher.

Ultimately, I believe Emerson’s remarks suggest we should be wary about attributing any substantial influence upon Emerson to Kant, for, as we shall see, Emerson believed that Kant wasn’t someone he should bother to read.

Emerson undoubtedly has generous praise for Kant. Kant is on Emerson’s short list as a philosopher any “scholar” should have the “courage” to criticize (W 8: 311), who alongside Hegel is a modern master of German metaphysical speculation skilled in the art of wielding classifications and categories (J 10: 53) which has allowed them both to have “made the best catalogue of the human faculties and the best analysis of the mind” (W 10: 327-328). Kant is a “seer” of the “interior realities” and “master” of “the substantial laws of the intellect” (W 8: 347), a philosopher who could easily discover any “secret doctrines” in Plato’s writings (W 2: 146-147). He is a man who “predicted the [movement of the] asteroids” (J 6: 145, 9: 296, 10: 211), an advocate of “pure reason” (W 10: 248) and “the intellect” (W 10: 306) whose thinking was marked by “extraordinary profoundness and precision” which has “given vogue to his nomenclature” (W 1: 339-340) and which made it no less popular than the vocabulary of phrenology in Emerson’s era. (J 4: 94). 

But, alongside his praise, Emerson has much criticism for Kant. For example, Emerson considered Kant an overvalued modern restatement of ancient philosophy of Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Xenophanes (W 1: 160, 172, J 4: 472-473), only “a more or less awkward translator of things in our own consciousness” (W 2: 343-345), and a philosopher who, unlike Socrates, spoke in a “tone” too “arid” to be considered “true philosophy” (J 9: 524). Furthermore, Emerson considers it a sign that philosophical thought in his era has not reached its “meridian” (the widest circle that can be drawn inside a sphere) because people mistakenly overvalue Kant as a “great analyst”, when, in fact, “Kant is rather a technical analyst than an universal one such as the times tend to form.” (J 5: 306). In short, Emerson’s claim is that it is proof that the philosophy of his era is too circumscribed (in its scope, level of detail, or focus) because Kant is commonly mistaken for a great philosopher. That said, Emerson’s bitterest comment about Kant is perhaps that Emerson himself sees no need to read Kant because of how impractical a metaphysician he is. (J 8: 528-530).

Two trends are apparent in Emerson’s thoughts on Kant.

For one, Emerson shows little explicit awareness of any of the details of Kant’s ethics and is almost exclusively concerned with him as a metaphysician. What little Emerson does say about Kant’s moral philosophy only amounts to an abstract and vague appreciation of the categorical imperative (W 7: 27, 301, 10: 92-93). For, in striking contrast to the normal assumptions of present day ethical philosophers, Emerson sees no important differences between Kant’s categorical imperative, the Utilitarian greatest happiness principle, or the ideas of a virtue ethicist like the Stoic Marcus Aurelius. (W 10: 92-93) Emerson’s vague knowledge of Kant’s ethics might well be the result of the fact Emerson did not feel the need to read Kant.

The second trend in Emerson’s remarks is that Emerson (usually) praises Kant in his published work while (usually) confining his critical remarks to his private journals. Reading his journals side by side with his public work reveals that just as much as Emerson praises Kant in lavish hyperbolic terms, he is also willing to boldly make irreverent critiques; to claim Kant was derivative of ancient philosophy, overvalued by the public, too impractical a metaphysician to be worth reading, and not someone who produced true philosophy.

Taken together, these trends suggest the conclusion that Emerson generally saw Kant as a clever metaphysical theoretician with influential terms of art, but not one practical enough to be worth reading or seriously studying. This conclusion may appear more controversial than it is.

Some might object to the fact that I have given equal hermeneutic authority to Emerson’s published public works and his private journals. For, this might unduly undercut the authority of Emerson’s essays in favor of his journals, or vice versa. But, so far as I am aware, Emerson does not make contradictory claims about Kant in his journals and published essays, thus I have not undercut either source’s authority by granting them equal hermeneutic authority. 

 Others may worry I have not given a representative sample of Emerson’s remarks on Kant, insofar as I have not considered Emerson’s sermons, his unpublished early or late lectures, or the more recent and complete edition of his journals and notebooks. I have only relied on the sources that are digitally word searchable (the 1909-1914 edition of Emerson’s journals and the 1903-1904 edition of Emerson’s works.) Nonetheless, my sample is by no means an insignificant portion of Emerson’s corpus, and so long as we take my conclusions as provisional, and thus in need of future confirmation, the concern my sample may be unrepresentative can be dismissed.  

In the end, if we want to determine Kant’s philosophical influence on Emerson, it would help to know Emerson’s thoughts on Kant as a philosopher. Emerson’s remarks certainly can’t settle this issue, if only because philosophers may be influenced by other philosophers without knowing, or even in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. That said, if we were to judge only by Emerson’s own words, it does not seem likely that Emerson himself would claim Kant had a substantial influence on him. After all, as we saw earlier, Emerson decided not to read Kant.


Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Left: Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857. Right: Immanuel Kant, portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768.

Leave a Reply