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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Emerson as a process philosopher Wood, Barry Albert


Philosophers and literary critics have recognized for many years the profound recalcitrance of Emerson's thought to any kind of systematic formulation. It is the contention of this thesis that this recalcitrance is one of the main pointers to the nature of his philosophy, which is here described as "process" philosophy. All attempts to reduce Emerson's thought to a static system with definable terms is doomed from the beginning, since Emerson's universe was dynamic, fluid, processive, and therefore fundamentally indefinable. Chapter I ("Emerson's Quarrel with the Eighteenth Century") seeks to place Emerson within the Romantic tradition, emphasizing his reaction against the mechanical philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment. The image of the Great Chain of Being is seen as typical of this philosophy, and Swedenborg's theory of "correspondence" is seen as workable only within this context. Emerson's philosophy, however, was organic and processive, and therefore beyond the explanatory power of "correspondence." Chapter II ("Nature as Process") works out Emerson's understanding of Nature as dynamic and processive. Nature, for him was a system of interaction, a processive flow of objects into and out of themselves. Moreover, Emerson saw material reality as an "emanation" of the Divine, a process of spirit manifesting itself in material forms. At the same time, he saw Nature as "evolving" from material forms towards higher levels of spirit. Emerson managed to hold both views at once, seeing "emanation" and "evolution" as reciprocal transactions, so that the deevelopment (or un-folding) of the universe was simultaneously evolution and emanation. Chapter III ("The Process of the Soul") concentrates on Emerson's unifying center, the Soul. He thought that the Soul was the center of a web of interaction, a process or activity in which the world became unified through the mind and eye of man. Moreover, the Soul for Emerson was both a transaction with the divine Over-Soul and a dynamic process by which the seer and the thing seen, the subjective self and the objective world, are unified in a bilateral transaction. Chapter IV ("The Process of Art") applies Emerson's philosophy of process to one (of several) fields of human activity, artistic creation. Emerson understood art as activated initially by inspiration, a flowing of the Divine into man; and he understood art to be a kind of incarnation, an embodiment of spirit in matter, idea in form. Moreover, he maintained that beauty consisted of dynamic form, that is, form capturing the processive or fluid quality of life and nature. Furthermore, the appreciative process consisted of an observer investing artistic form with his own imaginative spirit. The final chapter ("Emerson and the Twentieth Century") attempts to relate Emerson's philosophy specifically and Romantic thought generally to such twentieth-century developments as relativity, emergent evolution, biological ecology, and transactional psychology. It becomes apparent that Emerson has numerous analogues in modern thought and that he was very close indeed to processive, non-categorical, descriptive approaches to reality and man's place in it. Because Emerson substituted a descriptive, transactional approach to reality rather than an explanatory, static approach, he ultimately moved beyond abstract philosophical speculation into pragmatic humanism. His transcendentalism was meaningful in terms of life and activity in the concrete situation. His processive descriptions ultimately invested the universe with life and incarnated man with the divine, allowing man to assume his central place in the universe.

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