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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–82)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC024-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

The American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson developed a philosophy of flux or transitions in which the active human self plays a central role. At the core of his thought was a hierarchy of value or existence, and an unlimited aspiration for personal and social progress. ‘Man is the dwarf of himself’, he wrote in his first book Nature (1836). Emerson presented a dire portrait of humankind’s condition: ‘Men in the world of today are bugs or spawn, and are called “the mass” and “the herd”’. We are governed by moods which ‘do not believe in one another’, by necessities real or only imagined, but also, Emerson held, by opportunities for ‘untaught sallies of the spirit’ – those few real moments of life which may nevertheless alter the whole.

Emerson’s lectures drew large audiences throughout America and in England, and his works were widely read in his own time. He influenced the German philosophical tradition through Nietzsche – whose The Gay Science carries an epigraph from ‘History’ – and the Anglo-American tradition via William James and John Dewey. Emerson’s major works are essays, each with its own structure, but his sentences and paragraphs often stand on their own as expressions of his thought.

Citing this article:
Goodman, Russell B.. Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–82), 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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