Transatlantic Ontologies: From Sartre Back to Emerson, Towards an American Existentialism

Harma, Tanguy. 2020. 'Transatlantic Ontologies: From Sartre Back to Emerson, Towards an American Existentialism'. In: 'Over the Horizon: Comparative Perspectives on Literature'. Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom 28 March 2020. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

This presentation 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’ – or engagement – as defined in Being and Nothingness (1943) and in ‘Existentialism & Humanism’ (1946). This reading will enable us to define a conceptual framework for an American variant of Existentialism, a variant that is grounded in the American tradition of Emersonian Transcendentalism.
After a brief contextualisation of the academic discussion on American Existentialism, I will seek to identify the multiple touchpoints between Sartre’s ontological system and Emersonianism. 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 intuition plays in Emersonian forms of engagement, which will be replaced within the context of Emerson’s biographical reading of history.
These numerous points of interaction between the ontological model of Sartre and that of Emerson will enable us to elucidate the terms of an existential authenticity that is distinctively American; a transcendental form of authenticity whose theoretical strengths and flaws will be evaluated.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


American Existentialism; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Transcendentalism; transcendental ontology; engagement; existential authenticity; immanence; intuition

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


28 March 2020Completed

Event Location:

Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom

Date range:

28 March 2020

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

03 Apr 2020 12:06

Last Modified:

10 Jun 2021 09:00


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