Absolve you to yourself: Emerson's conception of rational agency

Inquiry 50 (3):234 – 252 (2007)
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously warned his readers against the dangers of conformity and consistency. In this paper, I argue that this warning informs his engagement with and opposition to a Kantian view of rational agency. The interpretation I provide of some of Emerson's central essays outlines a unique conception of agency, a conception which gives substance to Emerson's exhortations of self-trust. While Kantian in spirit, Emerson's view challenges the requirement that autonomy requires acting from a conception of the law. The key to understanding Emerson's opposition to Kant rests in showing how obeying the law requires spontaneity on the part of the agent herself. Emerson's concerns about conformity and consistency further enrich the view of agency, argued for by Richard Moran, according to which we take responsibility for our minds by taking up a first-person deliberative perspective on our minds. Conformity and consistency in one's thinking and acting permits society and one's own past to dictate when deliberation may come to an end, thereby undermining a crucial sense in which an agent, in taking up the deliberative perspective, has taken responsibility for her mind
Keywords Ralph Waldo Emerson  Kant  American philosophy
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