Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 29 March 2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson – was he a pragmatist?

Besides being a student, I have a family, do consulting work 25 hours per week, and am a licensed prayer practitioner of the Center for Spiritual Living in Simi Valley.    As part of my continuing education to maintain my license, I took an eight-week course on Emerson’s essays.  I found his writings to be fascinating and relevant to the current times, though his writing style is very flowery and sometimes difficult to decipher.  I needed to translate his use of idioms to 21st century prose in order to gain understanding.

So, a question on my mind about Emerson; he’s considered to be a “transcedentalist“, but is he also a “pragmatist?”  I’m interested in the question because I’ve just had exposure to the pragmatists through a short seminar on Social Constructionism through my doctoral studies.  According to Wikipedia, “pragmatism is the philosophy of considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.   Pragmatism is generally considered to have originated in the late nineteenth century with Charles Peirce” and was expanded through the work of  William James and John Dewey.  I believe that Emerson was also focused on the practical consequences of meaning and truth.  Yet he wrote his essays at least 50 years before the pragmatists came onto the philosophical scene.

Here are some ideas from reading some of Emerson’s essays (1926):

In the first half of Self-Reliance:

Our words and beliefs create our reality. “The inmost becomes the outmost” (p.31). We must become sensitive to and aware of our intuition and creative thoughts. We should pay attention to them and give them value. We must embrace our divinity and consciously and courageously use our minds to create good in our lives. We should think and express original thoughts without apologizing for them “. . . that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide” (p. 32) .

We have created norms and values in our culture and chosen conformity over independence. Self-reliance is the opposite of conformity.  When we conform to standards of society, we lose the truth of who we really are. We stop thinking for ourselves and take on the majority viewpoint and belief system. “This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true” (p. 39).   Emerson also claims that man is “clapped into jail by his consciousness” (p. 34). We imprison ourselves because we worry about what others think of our opinions and ideas.  Emerson says to be unique. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind” (p. 35). We must challenge the external status quo and learn to know and trust our internal wisdom.

Value judgments of “good” or “bad” depend on one’s perspective and biases. We must stop giving value to “badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions” (p. 36). Most people act out of guilt or beliefs about what they should or should not do. They act out of fear; they are generous or helpful in order to earn a place in heaven. Emerson argues that he has a right to heaven and his good and doesn’t need to do or be anything other than himself to receive good. “My life is not an apology, but a life” (p. 37).


It is a challenge to be true to oneself when surrounded by a world that has set expectations for behavior. Don’t do what others expect – do what is right for you. “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think” (p. 38).  We want to appear predictable to others. Perhaps we are justifying our sanity by thinking sanity is defined as “consistency.” By placing our focus on appearing consistent to others, we lose trust in ourselves.  It takes a lot of psychic energy to remember our past in order to appear consistent to others. Emerson suggests we listen to our inner voice. “Trust your emotion” instead and live in the moment (p. 41).

A person’s character is revealed through words, action and being. Being is the essence of a character and it shows itself consistently if we pay attention. “A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; – read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing” (p. 42).  When we stand back and see ourselves and others from a distance, we see the authentic person. “The force of character is cumulative” (p. 43).

By allowing the true thinker/actor to express, we allow creativity, greatness and newness. “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age . . . an institution is the length and shadow of one man” (p. 44). We have the power within to transform the world if we remain true to ourselves.  You need not live a public life for your actions and opinions to have great impact and importance.

Instinct is “primary wisdom” and we are a conduit for Truth if we allow it to express through us freely. We must trust our intuition as Truth. “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence . . . When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams” (p. 47).  Emerson is saying that God or Spirit is infinite and available to us. By recognizing Spirit, we recognize the sacred in all. There is no time and space in Spirit. History obscures the light of the soul. “The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul. Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye maketh, but the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night” (p. 48).


We must live in the present moment. When we live in the past, we question ourselves and insert doubt and worry. We tend to quote others from the past rather than speak our own minds and thoughts. “There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. . . But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (p. 49).  By changing our thinking, we can let go thoughts and beliefs that no longer serve us. “If we live truly, we shall see truly . . . When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburthen the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish” (p. 49).


Emerson, R. W., & George, A. J. (1926). Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York,: Y. Crowell.

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