Spiritual Realism and Process Philosophy

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 14 Comments

As I have read through Emerson’s writing I see two aspects to his metaphysics. On the one hand he describes a spiritual Realism in which the collective human soul of humanity exists in a transcendent and exalted form.  Spiritual development involves finding this higher soul, or Over-Soul as Emerson called it, in our own experience and allowing it to become the driving force behind our actions. On the other hand Emerson was developing an early process philosophy in which he saw everything including human beings, human language and human consciousness as part of the growth process of nature.

Before we return for a moment to Emerson’s Spiritual Realism let’s take one last look at the term realism. Realism is the belief that universals actually exist and it is opposed to Nominalism which is the belief that universals do not exist and only particulars exist. Let us use for example the idea of rightness. Is there a something like “rightness” – meaning the condition of being right, outside of particular instances of rightness. If I strike someone for no reason, most people would agree that is not right. In that particular instance the lack of “rightness” exists as a quality of that circumstance, but how do we know that it is not right? What are we comparing to? A Realist believes that some quality of rightness does exist as a universal abstract quality and that universal quality is what we are comparing to when we recognize the rightness of a particular instance. A realist would say that the way we know that something is right or wrong, or beautiful or ugly, or just or unjust, is because we compare to the universal property that exists. If there was no universal to compare to how could we know?

Spiritual Realism then might be the belief that the highest human qualities actually exists in some ideal form. If Realism is the belief in universals, then Spiritual Realism would be the belief in a universal human spirit. This notion is actually more commonly referred to using the phrase Spiritual Idealism. (Hence the confusion that I wrote about in my last post.) Whichever term we use to describe it, the sentiment definitely describes Emerson’s spirituality. In short there is some ideal human possibility that really exists in some transcendent realm. And as I said earlier, Emerson called this the Over-Soul and the spiritual path involves allowing the wisdom of that higher self to flow through us and into the world as our inspired actions.

This spiritual inclination can be recognized as a holdover to the Christian faith and in Emerson’s case almost certainly was. This view closely mirrors the Christian faith and many of the Romantic spiritual philosophers like Emerson and also the German Idealists. Fichte, Shelling and Hegel created spiritual philosophies that include an Over-Soul like higher being that was becoming manifest in the world. This is akin to a notion of God who manifests in the world through good deeds. The next generation of American philosophers who had close ties with Emerson were Charles Sanders Peirce and William Jame. These thinkers rejected Emerson's spiritual realism. What they did take from Emerson, however, was his process philosophy.

As I have outlined in earlier posts Emerson saw Nature as a gradual unfolding of new forms. These forms begin as physical materials gradually organizing into physical forms and then into organisms. The interaction between at least one organism, human beings, and the surrounding environment gives rise to language and thought and consciousness. Emerson felt the need to postulate an Over-Soul or universal spirit that was driving and guiding the process and which was gradually coming into form through the unfolding of the process.

Peirce and James were working in the enormous wake of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. They were completely entranced by the idea that there was no need to postulate any source of intelligence or energy outside of the world to explain evolution. The gradual development of reality could be fully explained by process fully observable in the world. Darwin had placed a large question mark on the existence of God, or any transcendental realm or being. Peirce and James were following in Darwin’s footsteps and applying the same anti-transcendent bias to philosophy that Darwin had applied to evolution. The result was a profound process philosophy that became known as Pragmatism and became a dominant philosophical force in the world during the early decades of the 20th century.

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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

In varieties of religious experience William James says: ‘spiritual life one recognizes by its results’; ‘man’s religion might be defined by whatever he holds to be the primal truth’, ‘religion whatever it is, is man’s total attitude upon life’, he also says: ‘we shall see indefinitely passionate a thing religion at its highest flights can be. Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, it adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else. In Italian travels Goethe talks about his favorite saint and tells some stories… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Liesbeth, re: “He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled (..) if a man is at heart just”

Yes, that’s an important “If”. What’s also important in good and altruistic behavior is the motivation of the action. If egotism is involved, as it may sometimes be operating even vestigially, the behavior is open to scrutiny, wouldn’t you agree? And the scope and breadth of the benefits, the more beneficial to the more sphere of influence, the more good and noble.

Best regards, aloha, namaste!

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Hi Frank, thank you for your response. I was just thinking ‘what kind of response it mine, in connection with Jeff’s blog’. It is something I wrote yesterday and today I suddenly remembered the story of the monkey’s tail. I than remembered William James talking about about spirituality as profound goodness, real goodness is not rational, it just touches the soul.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Liesbeth,

TY for your instant response! Pls tell what that story is re: the monkey’s tale and tail. ??

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I wrote monkey instead of donkey tail (I wrote about that above). A gentleman that has to walk with a donkey tail through the streets. Goethe is part of the nobility and in this book we see the world as it is through his eyes: every noble family builds his own tower and to be different people start to built tilted towers. They also built galleries with pillars but what we cannot imagine is that the common people immediately start using it as toilet. The streets are so dirty that when it rains that the stockings of the nobility gets… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hey LIesbeth,

It’s not clear to me the takeaway from the donkey tail story. What would you say it is?

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Like I said: spirituality is not rational. First step is breaking down all structures in the brain connected to what I am identified with and call ‘me’. That has been in all spirituality in all times. Starting with the Buddha. The gentlemen is completely identified with nobility. To prove that he found a higher truth he had to renounce everything that was connected to nobility, ridiculing himsellf as a gentleman wearing a donkey tail while he was walking in the city.

Jonathan Speke Laudly
Jonathan Speke Laudly
10 years ago

Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here, Language is basically the act of placing individual things into general categories, which to be useful are flexible, expandable. Do the categories exist? Does the forest exist? A forest is just a bunch of individual trees. But a tree is just a bunch of trunks and branches. Both forest and tree can be seen as generalizations–that do not exist. The force of gravity is just a bunch of things dropping and orbiting. Seems pretty arbitrary which general category one considers real and which one doesn’t. Oh gravity isn’t real. But a forest, now there’s a… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Dear Jonathan, Are you familiar with the philosophy of William James? You would probably appreciate it because you express aspects of it very clearly.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I’m wondering if Spiritual Realism is akin to the Perennial Wisdom? I know Emerson was cognizant of Buddhism and Theosophy.

??

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Frank Luke

I think that is true. Emerson was definitely trying to find the “Truth” that lay behind all traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism were all things that Emerson studied – Theosophy was a later development.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I’m also wondering if I can say that being Spirituallly Awakened and Emerson’s Oversoul are talking about the same thing, where I see that there’s the unawakened self and then the Self, Spiritually Awakened?

(Self), differentiated from (self).

(Oversoul) contrasted with (soul)?

Creationist
Creationist
10 years ago

Jeff Carreira why do you believe in darwins theory of evolution? It has been disproven.

There is no missing link 150 years after darwins theory and no common ancestor fossils have been found. No sign of evolution.

Evolution is a fairytale, a front for atheism. Science is knowledge from observation – darwins theory of evolution has never been observed – Hence it is an unscientific theory.

truthseeker
truthseeker
10 years ago

i agree darwin was wrong. darwin was an atheist he was not a scientist