Prompt 2: Understanding Emerson’s Argument Against Solipsism

“A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether this end be not the Final Cause of the Universe; and whether nature outwardly exists.  It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World, that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade.  In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul?  The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end – deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space – or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man?  Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me.  Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses.”  (45-46)


This paragraph, which commences Emerson’s chapter on Idealism, struck me as one of the text’s most compelling.  What made it compelling was that this is one of the few nature texts I have read so far that explicitly addresses the philosophy that nature might not even exist; this realization becomes particularly jarring when it is preceded by five chapters and an introduction praising and analyzing this thing which we are now made to realize might not be real.  The “noble doubt” to which Emerson is referring is most likely solipsism, a philosophical theory that advocates the idea that only oneself is certain to be reality, while everything outside one’s own thought processes cannot be determined to exist with any degree of certainty.  It is a particularly forceful philosophy since, as Emerson acknowledges, there is no way to test the existence of what we outwardly perceive as real because the mind can be manipulated into perceiving objects that are not there.  In his argument above, Emerson comes to the conclusion that it does not matter whether the universe exists or not, as long as the emotional impact it has on the mind still exists.  He admits that nature might be simply an image painted “in the firmament of the soul” (45), and in the long run this does not matter.

And here is where the problem begins.  In the Introduction to Nature, Emerson defines nature be stating it is “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the not me, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, Nature” (3).  So, nature is everything outside of one’s own mind, but in the above paragraph Emerson recognizes that solipsism necessitates the view that nature might not outwardly exist, and thus nature could exist solely within one’s mind.  This is a pretty explicit contradiction, and it makes Emerson’s defense of his own transcendentalist philosophy against solipsism even more difficult for the reader.

In defense of Emerson’s beliefs, and to explain this contradiction, here is my proposition.  Emerson does not hold fast and true to the rigid definition of nature he sets up in the Introduction, and he might have only included it to give a rough idea to the reader what was meant by the word Nature.  Also, throughout the text Emerson argues that nature exists as both a conduit and inspiration for human emotion and expression, stating that, “We are thus assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meaning” (30).  Thus, in Emerson’s true, implicit definition of nature, it does not matter whether nature exists outwardly or inwardly.  Instead, nature is defined by how it is utilized by the human mind, and how it in turn influences the workings of the mind.  To use Emerson’s own words, “Whether nature enjoy [sic] a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me” (46).  Therefore, this quote effectively renders Emerson’s previous definition of nature null and void, in addition to making his own philosophical shortcomings (or, as he puts it, his “utter impotence”) explicit to the reader.  Perhaps he would have been better off just taking the Blue Pill.


One response to this post.

  1. Reference: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book American Renaissance 2009

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