Emerson: Nature and Natural Philosophy

September 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Caricature drawn by Christopher Cranch

Nature, published anonymously in 1836, is Emerson’s first publication. The title suggests the significance of nature in Transcendentalism, as well as Emerson’s significance in early forms of American environmental writing and thinking.  However, Nature–where Emerson proposes a ‘theory of nature’–is more specifically an attempt at philosophy than what we might think of as “nature writing.”

Yet one common response to Emerson from philosophers is that his thought isn’t very systematic: too poetic, too much metaphor, not enough system for a work in philosophy. For the most part, he hasn’t been accepted as a worthy figure in American philosophy (one major exception is the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell; I would  also note that he is included in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Remember, Emerson tells us as much: he has no system. But another way to view this would be to understand that Emerson, in the early and middle part of the 19th century, represents a middle ground or hybrid between poetry and philosophy (also between poetry and science) that is called Natural Philosophy. In this context, before academic specialization separates poets, philosophers, and scientists, one could be all three. So we need to read Emerson, starting with Nature, with this forgotten poetic science and/or poetic philosophy in mind (and the reverse: scientific and philosophical poetics). Nature might be thought of as Emerson’s demonstration of how writing by “Man Thinking” reads.

Emerson uses in Nature various words and concepts from the science of his day, generally called natural philosophy or natural history, in poetic ways. Put differently, his writing and his focus on language reveals a “relation” (key term for him) between the study of nature, the study of philosophy, and the language tools of the poet. After all, nature is viewed as in some way emerging through language, a vehicle of the mind. I want to dig in at this point into what emerges from this vision of nature and its language–and how a ‘poetics of science’  figures in Emerson’s thinking. First, let’s consider some of the language he uses (with help from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary)–pierce through some “rotten” and forgotten diction.


TRANSMU”TE, v.t. [L. transmuto; trans and muto, to change.]

To change from one nature or substance into another. Water may be transmuted into ice, and ice into water; the juices of plants are transmuted into solid substances; but human skill has not been able to transmute lead or copper into gold.

A holy conscience sublimates every thing; it transmutes the common affairs of life into acts of solemn worship to God.The caresses of parents and the blandishments of friends, transmute us into idols.

Continuing in the language and tools of transmutation–Alembic:


A chimical vessel used in distillation; usually made of glass or copper. The bottom part containing the liquor to be distilled, is called the cucurbit; the upper part which receives and condenses the stream, is called the head, the beak of which is fitted to the neck of a receiver. The head is more properly the alembic. This vessel is not so generally used now, as the worm still and retort.

E*pit”o*me (?), n.; pl. Epitomes (#). [L., fr. Gr. a surface incision, also, and abridgment, fr. to cut into, cut short; upon + to cut: cf. F. épitome. See Tome.]

1. A work in which the contents of a former work are reduced within a smaller space by curtailment and condensation; a brief summary; an abridgement.

[An] epitome of the contents of a very large book. Sydney Smith.

2. A compact or condensed representation of anything.

An epitome of English fashionable life. Carlyle.

A man so various that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankind’s epitome. Dryden.

Syn. — Abridgement; compendium; compend; abstract; synopsis; abbreviature. See Abridgment.

ANAL”OGY, n. [Gr. ratio, proportion.]

1. an agreement or likeness between things in some circumstances or effects, when the things are otherwise entirely different. Thus a plant is said to have life, because its growth resembles in some degree, that of an animal. In life and growth, then, there is an analogy between a plant and an animal. Learning enlightens the mind, because it is to the mind, what light is to the eye, enabling it to discover things before hidden. When the things which have an analogy follow a preposition, that preposition must be between or betwixt; as there is an analogy between plants and animals, or between customs. When one of the things precedes a verb, and the other follows, the preposition used must be to or with; as, a plant has some analogy to or with an animal.2. With grammarians, analogy is a conformity of words to the genius, structure or general rules of a language. Thus the general rule in English is that the plural of a noun ends in es; therefore all nouns which have that plural termination have an analogy, or are formed in analogy with other words of a like kind.
HIEROGLYPH”IC, n. [Gr. sacred, and to carve.]
1. In antiquity, a sacred character; a mystical character or symbol, used in writings and inscriptions, particularly by the Egyptians, as signs of sacred, divine, or supernatural things. The hieroglyphics were figures of animals, parts of the human body, mechanical instruments, &c., which contained a meaning known only to kings and priests. It is supposed they were used to vail morality, politics, &c., from vulgar eves.2. Pictures intended to express historical facts; supposed to be the primitive mode of writing.3. The art of writing in picture.

EM”BLEM, n. [Gr. to cast in, to insert.]

1. Properly, inlay; inlayed or mosaic work; something inserted in the body of another.2. A picture representing one thing to the eye, and another to the understanding; a painted enigma, or a figure representing some obvious history, instructing us in some moral truth. Such is the image of Scaevola holding his hand in the fire, with these words,”agere et pati fortiter Romanum est.” to do and to suffer with fortitude is Roman.3. A painting or representation, intended to hold forth some moral or political instruction; an allusive picture; a typical designation. A balance is an emblem of justice; a crown is the emblem of royalty; a scepter, of power or sovereignty.4. That which represents another thing in its predominant qualities. A white robe in scripture is an emblem of purity or righteousness; baptism, of purification.EM”BLEM, v.t. To represent by similar qualities.AL”LEGORY,n. [Gr. other, to speak, a forum, an oration.]

A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The principal subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker, by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject. Allegory is in words that hieroglyphics are in painting. We have a fine example of an allegory in the eightieth Psalm, in which God”s chosen people are represented by a vineyard. The distinction in scripture between a parable and an allegory, is said to be that a parable is a supposed history, and an allegory, a figurative description of real facts. An allegory is called a continued metaphor. The following line in Virgil is an example of an allegory.Claudite jam rivos, pueri, sat prata biberunt.Stop the currents, young men, the meadows have drank sufficiently; that is let your music cease, our ears have been sufficiently delighted.

What about “hieroglyphic”? We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. Early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science did not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy  that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related. With metonymy, we might think of it more in the ecological senses of relation. (More discussion to come about this rhetorical concept, metonymy, of importance to Emerson).

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in his “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, he remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

For those wanting some further reading on Emerson’s philosophical conceptions of science and its relevance for multidisciplinary approaches to nature and the environment, I can send you to T.S. McMillin’s essay “The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity and the Nature of Method” (Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2013). I have a pdf copy of the essay that I can provide, should you want to do more with this for your Writing Project.


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