'The Intuitive Self Made Supreme: An Existentialist Reading of Emersonian Transcendentalism through Sartre’s Concepts of Nothingness and Engagement'

Harma, Tanguy. 2016. ''The Intuitive Self Made Supreme: An Existentialist Reading of Emersonian Transcendentalism through Sartre’s Concepts of Nothingness and Engagement''. In: GLITS. Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom 13 October 2016. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This paper will offer a reading of the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) from the perspective of Sartrean Existentialism. Emerson’s essays ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘History’ (1841) and ‘Self-reliance’ (1841) will be filtered through selected concepts from Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), namely ‘nothingness’ and ‘commitment’ as defined in Being and Nothingness (1943) and in ‘Existentialism & Humanism’ (1946). This interpretation of Emersonian Transcendentalism from the viewpoint of Sartrean theory will enable us to foreground an American variant of Existentialism.

The continuum from nature to man and from spirit to matter in Emersonian Transcendentalism suggests that the type of engagement it engenders emerges from the spiritual principle of creation that precedes man. While this comes as a sharp contradiction to Sartrean theory, in which existence precedes essence, I will show that Emersonian forms of engagement are equally self-creative by referring to the notion of spiritual immanence. I will pinpoint the crucial role that the intuition plays in Emersonian forms of engagement; it will be replaced within the context of Emerson’s biographical reading of history, which I will interpret as a desire for a a-historical self. This yearning for an ideal, a-historical self provides Emersonian forms of engagement with a vertical direction that is typical of the fundamental idealism that lies at the core of American Transcendentalism. Nevertheless, this verticality is but a commitment to a higher, spiritual self: I will insist on the exacerbated self-centredness that Emersonian forms of engagement embody.

The disconnection of the self from nature will be interpreted as a process of alienation that induces a form of ontological degeneration. The agent of this alienation will be identified as the series of social mediations that reflect the cultural predicament of modernity; these mediations will be conceived ontologically as constraints to immediate and unconditional self-realisation. Consequently, I will argue that Emersonian forms of engagement typify, simultaneously and paradoxically, a movement of disengagement from the social and cultural spheres of influence. Eventually, I will show that the proprieties of Emersonian engagement participate in the definition of an American form of authenticity; one that abolishes the Sartrean ethics of social responsibility through the triumphant individualism that it purports, and that is threatened by a form of solipsism that risks becoming counter-productive for being.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Emerson; Sartre; Nothingness; Engagement; Verticality; Disengagement; Pantheism; Immanence; Transcendentalism; Existentialism; Intuition; A-historical; Solipsism.

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


13 October 2016Completed
6 October 2016Accepted

Event Location:

Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom

Date range:

13 October 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

01 Nov 2016 15:33

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:20



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