Emerson and Perception of Nature

“Thus to him, to this school-boy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one Root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation, sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that root? Is not that the soul of his soul?—A thought too bold?—A dream too wild?”

Emerson insists throughout his work that nature is the most important, “influence upon the mind.” Relating back to his essay, “Circle,” he spoke of it as a series of never-ending cycles. The habits of the moon cycle, plant growth, human activity. These are all continuous cycles and because they are so prominent and continuous it has a great importance in the way we think and behave. 

Nature exists without human interpretation. The moon rose after the sun much before humans understood why or that it would happen again and again—never-ending. Nature exists in its own right, but we possess the ability to interpret, and to be truly scholarly Emerson claims, “he must settle its value in his mind.” A person must ask themselves what nature is to them, and what it means to be a part of this cycle of cycles. Here is where Emerson truly devolves into philosophy, asking questions that no one can answer for you. Each person must ultimately decide for themselves in what way they are connected to this thing that surrounds us on all sides. It’s a difficult question, one that calls for the psychology of perception. 

Philosophy has long been a part of psychology with people like Socrates and Plato, all having influences on today’s practice. Something that Emerson touches on in this philosophical debate is the psychology of perception. How people begin to classify things at a young age in order to understand them. It takes from Jean Piaget’s developmental theory, how people begin to put objects into hierarchical groupings in a way that our mind slowly learns to understand them. Humans begin to understand the cycles of the moon and classify it as a lunar phase. They give names to animals and plants, slowly building a catalog of their surroundings in order to make sense of it all—to give law to things that were once chaotic. Though it begs the question, “what is classification but the perceiving that these objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?”

Perception can be a powerful thing, something that Emily Dickson knows well and discusses in her poem, “Perception of an object costs.” The philosophy of perception is tricky, to understand that when an object is perceived, the object itself is lost in the translation. The absolute of the object in Emerson’s address being nature is lost when people try to perceive it. People apply the law to the Earth and in doing so loses what it was before. Though, there is also something to be gained from this. It could be considered the sacrifice one must make in order to understand the ways nature influences oneself. Emerson states, “The astronomer discovers that geometry, a pure abstraction of the human mind, is the measure of planetary motion. The chemist finds proportions and intelligible methods throughout matter; and science is nothing but the finding of analogy, identity, in the most remote parts.” Through this perception, new concepts are formed. A method of understanding and connection with the Earth is made. Without the loss of the object that would never happen. People write poems and songs and stories about the sun and the moon because they know of them. They are like old friends in that there’s so much history and knowledge there in our understanding of them. It is through this that we see what influence nature has on the human mind, how perceiving them and classifying them allows us to feel a little closer to them. Though the object is lost a new understanding is gained, and therefore can allow for a person to then figure out what nature is to them.

Therefore, Emerson saw nature as an important influence on the mind of being a scholar. He said not to let go of the notion that Nature isn’t yours to perceive, but rather to understand it as its own being, and that you are connected to that in itself. Man and nature came from the same root, but to also know that its beauty comes from the beauty he already has in his own mind. Emerson makes the claim that a person’s intellect comes from their understanding of where they came from, of how nature pulsates all around them while also understanding they will never know even half of it. It is okay for it to exist beyond the realm of what they know, but take what you do know, intimately, and keep it close. Emerson concludes, “know thyself, and the modern precept,” and “study nature” become a singular phrase. That to study nature is to study yourself.

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