Difficult Quote

“But this origin of all words that convey a spiritual import, so conspicuous a fact in the history of language, is our least debt to nature. It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture” (Emerson 136).

After reading this quote a few times, I realized that I did not understand Ralph Waldo Emerson description of language. Yes, it is evident that languages are useful tools for human beings. Through language we are able to communicate our ideas, rationalize and express our feelings and concerns.  Despite the fact that there are thousands of different types of languages and dialects, they all have a similar characteristic; language is not simply a representation of an item but the items themselves are symbolic. We should not focus solely on the definition of the words we see, study, or write. Nature in itself is symbolic because it appeals to our senses and our spirit.  Our mind on the other hand is very complex and therefore when we do see “Nature” we see something deeper than what the object is.

Emerson‘s definition of language reminds me of Plato’s Theory of forms. According to Plato, two worlds exist, the visible world and the intelligible world. In the visible world, we see an object and have a name for it. However, in the intelligible world, we already have the simplest concept of the object. For example, if we see a painting, one might say it is beautiful. However, in the intelligible world we know that the painting is beautiful because we already have a concept of beauty. Similarly, Emerson explains that language tries to capture the concept of what we perceive. Our English language is so basic that when we try to translate words, the meanings are lost. That is why in the English language we use metaphors to relate an object to an idea. Emerson says “a firm man is a rock” (137). A man is not literally a rock. However, connotative speaking the man’s character is so grounded that he is compared to a rock.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kwalley on September 22, 2011 at 9:38 am

    I find your comparison of Emerson’s definition of language to Plato’s theory of forms very interesting. I believe that as a whole nature would, in a sense, belong in the intelligible world because we know already what it is. However, in the visible world nature exists more as a commodity and we do have a name for the different types of nature. Society’s insistence on labeling and exploiting nature is concrete language whereas the beauty and importance of nature is much more abstract. I find that Emerson tries far too hard to bring poeticism to his language as a means of emphasizing the intrinsic beauty of nature. Unfortunately Emerson loses this emphasis through his muddled arguments in which he cannot seem to use his language to convey a point.

  2. I like your argument, and it brought to mind another quote of Emerson which I think can apply here. “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put” (125). I interpret this quote as Emerson saying that the human race itself is a symbol, not just the language applied by us. It’s possible he is saying that the intrinsic nature of humans is subliminal and automatic, and to glean reason we must be able to interpret these actions.Using Plato’s theory, we use the “visible” doings of human and link it our own “intelligible” behaviors and reactions. Analyzing our human nature affords us insight to Mother Nature, and therefore our connection, thus aiding to define the relationship.

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