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Emerson as a Scientific Thinker

Lawrence Buell

Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. Laura Dassow Walls. x + 280 pp. Cornell University Press, 2003. $35.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a sage, not a scientist, but he was more keenly interested in the scientific advances of his day than is commonly realized. One of his early aspirations was to be "a naturalist," and he started his career as a lecturer-essayist by giving talks on natural science, including one focused on the chemical composition of water. Although Emerson went on to make his mark primarily in the areas of literature, religion, philosophy and social reform, he remained an eager lifelong student of both traditional and contemporary natural and social science. To date, however, this side of Emerson's thought and life has attracted only a handful of significant scholarly discussions. Emerson's Life in Science is the best: Of the spate of books on Emerson that have marked the bicentennial of his birth, this is one that will endure.

Moving in a generally but not rigidly chronological fashion through the stages of his career, Laura Dassow Walls gives a full account of Emerson's engagement with the discourses and philosophy of natural and social science from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alexander von Humboldt to Georges Cuvier, Arnold Guyot, Charles Lyell, Robert Chambers (the author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation) and Louis Agassiz to Charles Darwin, Asa Gray and Adolphe Quetelet—to give a partial list of the many figures and fields that attracted Emerson's interest. With several of these men he was personally acquainted; Agassiz became a close friend. All of them and many more Emerson absorbed by turns as inspiration, as provocation, as calibration, as foils.

As Emerson's Life in Science demonstrates, the range of Emerson's interests was very broad indeed, extending from astronomy, physics, geology and botany to anthropology, sociology and statistics. In characterizing these interests, Walls maintains a judicious balance between the judgmental and the appreciative. On the one hand, she freely grants Emerson's old-fashioned propensity for enlisting "science" as reinforcement of a vision of cosmos and history rendered coherent by moral law; on the other hand, she also does fuller justice than any precursor has to Emerson's more avant-garde insistence that what counts as truth must be obedient to science—and to Emerson's canniness at his best as a critical interpreter of "scientific" claims. For example, Walls judiciously builds on findings by Barbara Packer and other Emersonians that the later Emerson moved toward a more materialist theory of history as an outgrowth of his increasing interest in quantification, and in the sociological implications of the new discipline of statistics. On the other hand, Walls rightly acknowledges that Emerson facilely acquiesced to Darwinism by viewing natural selection as just another argument from design like those he had absorbed from Lyell and other proto-evolutionists.

In a chapter that will especially interest historians of social science, Walls accords Emerson due praise for maintaining a certain skepticism toward the racialist pseudoscience of his day (Samuel Morton's craniometry, the racial taxonomies of Samuel Knox and others), even as he sometimes made use of its vocabulary. Walls makes a case that Emerson approached the sciences very seriously, recognizing them as integral to epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and social theory. Here and elsewhere, Walls's arguments are all the more persuasive because they incorporate a candid, nuanced appraisal of Emerson's misreadings and oversimplifications along the way—as well as a recognition of Emerson's surprising influence as an inspirational thinker (mainly, it seems, as a poet of the idea of the mind's boundless powers of untapped potential) upon such Anglo-American men of science as British physicist John Tyndall.

For an Emersonian, perhaps the most compelling part of Emerson's Life in Science is its demonstration of how deeply informed by the scientific thinking of his day were many of the basic structural coordinates of Emerson's thought and writing—for example, his concept of bipolarity (more specifically, of the bipolar unity of both material and conceptual phenomena); his theory of representativeness; his strong attraction to conceiving of issues and problems of all sorts as processes versus his equally strong partiality to "gnomic" bottom-line categorical pronouncements; his simultaneous commitment to individual or group distinctiveness and to the universality of the human.

The organization of Emerson's Life in Science is dictated more by these defining elements of Emerson's thought, and by Walls's desire to chart Emerson's thought as it unfolded throughout his lifetime, than by the different branches of natural science that most interested him—although there are concentrated discussions of these along the way. Conceivably this approach may strike some readers as diffuse and inefficient. But to me it seems entirely appropriate for a figure for whom what we call "science" was a vital but nonexclusive ingredient of a conception of knowledge better defined by such terms as scientia or Wissenschaft.

At all events, the author's command of her subject comes through unmistakably. No specialist in 19th-century American literature surpasses Walls in knowledge of the history of science. Emerson's Life in Science bears this out even more forcibly than her earlier book Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science—a fine, illuminating study somewhat constrained by its concentration on the influence of a single figure, Humboldt. Anyone wishing to know more about what science meant to Emerson should start here.—Lawrence Buell, English, Harvard University

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