I’ve been working on a new book on Transcendentalism, an attempt to think through Emerson and Thoreau in relation to Kant, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty. The book centers, unsurprisingly, on the concept of ‘experience’ and opens with an extended reading of Emerson’s essay, Experience.
What interests me in particular are the changes I take Emerson to ring on Kant’s concept of ‘experience’. While I take Emerson generally to agree with Kant that “the concept of ‘experience’…is not an empirical concept” (Royce), I do not take him to agree with Kant about how the details go, on what, specifically, the denial means.
When we take Emerson to be thinking of Kant — or anyway to be thinking as a Kantian — his opening question in “Experience” becomes even more arresting:
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes and believe it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.
The Kantian confidence that reflection will yield the extremes, show us the (our) limits, has been shaken. This shaken state is revealed in the Table of Categories Emerson supplies in the poem epigraph for the essay (he calls them “the Lords of Life”):
Use and Surprise,
Surface and Dream,
Succession swift, and spectral Wrong,
Temperament without a tongue,
And the inventor of the game
Omnipresent without name; —
Some to see, some to be guessed,
They marched from east to west:
What are we supposed to make of such categories, to ‘make’ with them? To what sort of completeness, if any, could such a Table pretend? What happens to the supposed a priori if it turns out that one of its categories is: suprise?
Does that make surprises more or less surprising?