The essay “Self-Reliance” occupies a central place not only in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collection “Essays, First Series”, but in all of his writings and his thinking. On account of that it is often the first (or only) work by Emerson which many readers encounter. Having published “Nature” before, he himself described it as “ an entering wedge ( … ) for something more worthy and significant ” (cf. Porte, p.106). With his “Essays, First Series” then, Ralph Waldo Emerson once and for all established himself as a writer. Moreover, he found his most important subjects and style of writing as well as putting down his basic philosophical assumptions (cf. Van Leer, p.100 f).
Even without prior knowledge of most of Emerson’s other writings, Self-Reliance might offer a key to his thinking in general. The concept of the Self that Emerson outlines in this essay seems to be the pivot around which his view of Man revolves. Therefore, I would like to investigate this concept and its underlying attitude towards intuition and reason as far as it becomes apparent in Self-Reliance. The relationship between intuition and reason in this key text of Transcendentalism is all the more interesting if one considers the roots of this intellectual current. Transcendentalism itself developped out of a reaction to the strong emphasis on emotionalism in the Great Awakening spilling over from England to America at the end of the eighteenth century. (cf. Porte, p.14f.) Notably the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing had rationally deduced how Puritan doctrines were opposed to the development of the character and how every individual should search for God’s presence inside his own being (cf. Channing, p. 147).
At the same time, Transcendentalism seems to run counter the more and more prevailing trust in an all-encompassing rationalization as a result of the progressing Enlightenment. It therefore may already have provided nineteenth century individuals with an opportunity to emancipate themselves from two extremes: It is opposed to religious bigotry as well as to a one-sided reliance on the deceptive means of a purely logical thinking as it has later been criticized most prominently by the scholars of the Frankfurt School (cf. Adorno or Wiggershaus, p. 364-390). A closer look at Emerson’s concept of the self may convey some support for this thesis. Emerson has often been viewed as a “philosopher of intuition”. But rather than merely that, he is a philosopher of tuition, i.e. rational realization, alike (cf. Cavell, p. 289; Harper p. 507). He values and applies both intuition and reason as necessary means for a desirable development of the self. But what is his notion of “intuition”? Since Emerson approaches his topic in circular movements, the respective hints are to be found scattered over the text.
At the very beginning, he speaks of “a gleam of light which flashes across his [i.e. Man’s] mind from within” (Harper, p. 500). Emerson advises to pay closer attention to it and seems to come back to it below, when he states that there is a sacred law of Man’s nature and that right and wrong are defined by his own constitution only (Harper, p. 502).
What he sketches along these lines as well as the examples he gives both serve to clarify his view of exterior circumstances as distracting Man from his original cause. For instance, Emerson’s graphic depictions of conformity and consistency as two main evils illustrate how outside influences compel Man to actions and utterances that are bereft of intrinsic meaning (cf. Harper, p. 502-507).
The assumption that Man does have a meaningful cause is left unquestioned by Emerson. Having outlined how Man is being distracted from it however, he vividly describes what constitutes Man’s intrinsic quality. He names “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct”. Its decisive quality is that “all things find their common origin” in it and that no rational analysis is capable of going beyond it. Emerson says that we do not know how this source affects our being, but that it shares the identity of virtually everything, since everything necessarily originates from it. He calls this “Spontaneity” the “fountain of action and thought” and the “lungs of inspiration” (Harper, p. 507). Emerson’s description may sound as colourful as vague up to that point. However, this is due to the fact that the very act of putting down in words a precise definition of “Spontaneity” would mean to subject it to its own opposite pole, namely reason: “All philosophy is at fault. Its [i.e. Spontaneity’s] presence or absence is all we can affirm (…) The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps” (Harper, p. 508).
According to Cavell, one might ascribe Emerson’s search for inner connectedness with truth to his interpretation of Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” as a need for establishing one’s own existence (cf. Cavell, p. 284ff; Harper, p. 508). Instead, one might as well keep in mind that there is a very tangible limit to all rationality. Logic requires that every phenomenon is effected by a cause. This however still implies that there is a beginning, or an originating source as Emerson would say, which has not been caused logically. Otherwise there could be no chain of effects at all and all our logic would contradict itself. Since for him everything must necessarily spring from a common source, Emerson does not question the notion of intuition as an inner connection with a higher truth than the one that logic provides.