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.