If, as Henri Bergson holds, a philosopher’s work is pervaded by the unfolding of a single thought, for Emerson it is the thought of « unfolding” itself. The driving force of Emerson’s thought is that form – whether natural form, object-form, political or moral form, forms of the self or of the mind – to remain vital can only be understood in terms of metamorphosis.

He says this in a myriad of ways : already by the “Lord’s Supper Sermon”, he has rejected “exalting” particular symbolic forms such as the Eucharist, declaring form to be “essential as bodies”, such that “to adhere to one form, the moment after it is outgrown, is unreasonable, and it is alien to the spirit of Christ” (CW 11:20). He thus resists natural theology’s prescripted scheme for the universe (wherein specimens or species “conveyed the meanings” of God) as the “dead forms of our forefathers.” He persistently celebrates those who break established political, moral, philosophical systems from within, who destroy them in the name of life. As he states in his 1859 lecture “Morals”, “Great men serve us, as insurrections do, in tyrannical governments. The world would run into endless routine, and forms incrust forms, till the life was gone. But the perpetual supply of new genius shocks us with thrills of life” (SL 253). Calamity or the death of a friend or loved one is not without the “compensation” that new formations or styles of living then open before us.

Yet forms of everyday life can imprison us most : as Emerson will say in “Fate”, even the “shocks and ruins” of the brute forces of nature or personal calamity are “less destructive to us than the stealthy power of other laws which act on us daily” (Essays 772). These constitute the “book of fate”, the physical forms that tyrannize and limit us, the forms we are given and about which we can do nothing. Likewise personal identity becomes our prison with conformity as its warden : “Every spirit makes its house ; but afterwards the house confines the spirit” (Essays 772). Thus Emerson valorizes thought as that which “dissolves the material universe” (Essays 782) ; “Intellect annuls Fate” ; “every solid in the universe is read to become fluid on the approach of the mind, and the power to flux is the measure of the mind” (Essays 790). This ability of thought indexes to his famous “aversion to conformity” ; it is an “out-thinking” of the fixed self for the sake of self-culture, a sloughing-off of the restraining forms of personal identity by the impersonal, othering force of thinking. In this sense we can understand how what would appear to be “formal” concerns in Emerson’s thinking (beauty, moral perfectionism, natural form) remain in contact with his philosophy of “ordinary” experience. Form is neither esoteric nor detached any more than it is ideal or unreachable ; rather, fluent form is the beating heart at the core of the physiognomy of the ordinary. Reform thus serves a “vital function” (SL 263), whether through the upheaval of revolution or natural catastrophe, in the redirection of currents of thought, or in subtle shifts to our mundane registers of morality, politics, or personal habits. Whereas all “forms of old age” (fever, intemperance, insanity, stupidity, and crime ; conservatism, appropriation, inertia), as he says in “Circles,” become dead ends, “not newness, not the way onward,” metamorphosis is the world made young. Metamorphosis is the catalytic heat of life, in the midst of life. From out of the creative dissolution of form, life perpetually emerges.

Yet, as we will explore here, it is in Emerson’s philosophy of nature that he most profoundly registers the possibilities for life and thought opened by the fundamental shift from fixed form to transitional or metamorphic form, a shift paradigmatically stated for him in Goethe’s scientific work on plant morphology. To be sure, we often find Emerson cataloguing the advances of key scientists : Linnaeus, the French botanists, the chemistry of Priestley, Lavoisier, and Faraday, the geology of Hutton, Playfair, and Lyell, the anatomical work of Buffon, Cuvier, and Geoffroy-St. Hilaire, the investigations into speciation of Lamarck, Agassiz, and Darwin, the astronomy of Copernicus and Laplace, and German Naturphilosophie. The achievements of these “grandees” serve as vademecum to Emerson’s lectures, essays, and journal meditations. He celebrates the work of recent science in “Life and Letters in New England” as part of a reaction of the “general mind” against the “too formal science” of the eighteenth-century : “there was, in the first quarter of our nineteenth century, a certain sharpness of criticism, an eagerness for reform, which showed itself in every quarter” (CW 10:169). At the threshold of the nineteenth-century, natural scientists effectively rewrote geo-history, the development and durations of the physical earth, its perpetual forces, its bloom into myriad different forms. As Foucault carefully details in The Order of Things, conventional natural history was superseded by the emergence of a new discourse in the sciences of life, the discourse of biology. Systems of ordering and classifying the world were rebuilt and set in motion ; new attention was paid to internal “organization” and processes of development began to be understood as constitutive of natural phenomena. Even the so-called “pseudo-sciences,” as Emerson apologizes – Lavater’s physiognomy, Gall and Spurzheim’s phrenology, mesmerism – put science and knowledge “back in touch” with what is “human” or “genial”. Each “affirmed unity and connection between remote points” and thus each provided “excellent criticism on the narrow and dead classification of what passed for science ; and the joy with which it was greeted was an instinct of the people which no true philosopher would fail to profit by” (CW 10 : 169).

Yet it is Goethe who most decidedly and indelibly shapes Emerson’s approach to natural history and epistemology. At the completion of the passage cited above from “Life and Letters of New England”, Emerson celebrates Goethe’s stubborn resistance of the entrenched assumptions of the natural philosophers that came before him, and his equal obstinacy towards those that followed :

Goethe revolted against the science of the day, against French and English science, declared war against the great name of Newton, proposed his own new and simple optics : in Botany, his simple theory of metamorphosis ; — the eye of a leaf is all ; every part of the plant from root to fruit is only a modified leaf, the branch of a tree is nothing but a leaf whose serratures have become twigs. He extended this into anatomy and animal life…The revolt became a revolution. Schelling and Oken introduced their ideal natural philosophy, Hegel his metaphysics, and extended it to Civil History (CW 10 : 169).

Goethe sharply critiqued Newton’s work on optics and white light, proposing instead his own theory of colors. In the face of eighteenth-century anthropocentric claims that man is separate from all other animals, he discovered the Os intermaxillaire, a tiny jawbone common to all mammals, an anatomical missing link which put humanity in continuity with the so-called “lower” mammals. If Kant had stated as one of the central questions of his first Critique how is it that modern science is thinkable [1] , Goethe, who developed parallel to Kant and at key points responds to him, would take as his central question : “how did form arise out of the interaction of idea and matter ?” (Goethe xiii). Yet unlike Kant or the German Idealist philosophers who would follow in his wake, Goethe will resist codifying his findings into any systematic metaphysics. Emerson does not merely chronicle these innovations ; he takes from them the cardinal points for his thinking. As he writes in his Journal on May 3, 1834 : “This is what Goethe sought in his Metamorphosis of Plants…We have no theory of animated Nature. When we have, it will itself be the true Classification” (JMN IV, 288-89) [2] . Goethe’s “simple theory of metamorphosis” provides Emerson with confirmation of a “pure plastic Idea” of nature and, in turn, becomes a mobile analogy for the exfoliating movement of Emerson’s own thought. Emerson thus holds Goethe as his “representative” writer, spelled out in the essay devoted to him in his book Representative Men, “Goethe ; or the Writer.” Emerson writes in superlative terms : “He has said the best things about nature that ever were said. He treats nature as the old philosophers, as the seven wise masters did, – and, with whatever loss of French tabulation and dissection, poetry and humanity remain to us” (753). Emerson, after Goethe, will poise his work at the dynamic interface of science, philosophy, and poetry.

In “Goethe”, Emerson elaborates Goethe’s achievements in what becomes a central passage for his thinking, one that will appear in several variations throughout his essays, lectures, and journal entries :

Eyes are better on the whole than telescopes or microscopes. He has contributed a key to many parts of nature, through the rare turn for unity and simplicity in his mind. Thus Goethe suggested the leading idea of modern botany, that a leaf or the eye of a leaf is the unit of botany, and that every part of a plant is only a transformed leaf to meet a new condition ; and, by varying the conditions, a leaf may be converted into any other organ, and any other organ into a leaf. In like manner, in osteology, he assumed that one vertebra of the spine might be considered as the unit of the skeleton : the head was only the uttermost vertebrae transformed. « The plant goes from knot to knot, closing at last with the flower and the seed. So the tape-worm, the caterpillar, goes from knot to knot and closes with the head. Man and the higher animals are built up through the vertebrae, the powers being concentrated in the head. » In optics again he rejected the artificial theory of seven colors, and considered that every color was the mixture of light and darkness in new proportions. It is really of very little consequence what topic he writes upon. He sees at every pore, and has a certain gravitation towards truth (Essays 753).

This process of transformation is based on a fundamental “unit” of transformation, but unit here should not be understood as a fixed part of the plant, but as an “ideal structure” (or Ur-plant) that is essential to the life-processes of all plants. As in Emerson’s 1833 experience at the Jardin des Plantes, Goethe had his own botanical revelation walking in the public gardens in Palermo in 1786, as he recounts in his Italian Journey. There he at last discovered what he held to be the Ur-plant : “it came to me in a flash” he remarks, “that in the organ of the plant which we are accustomed to call the leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms. From first to last, the plant is nothing but leaf” (Italian Journey 363). Though an Ur-Phaenomenon, the Ur-plant did not so much signify an origin to all plants in terms of a “what” or a “where,” but [as it] described the “how” of all plants. This “how” is the process of metamorphosis, embodied in the leaf as the unit of morphological botany. The leaf is an intensification of seed leaf into stem leaf, and in turn sepal into petal. The leaf is neither arkhe nor final cause, but a perpetual in-between of content and form. This idea departs from eighteenth-century conceptions of form and classification : Morphe becomes understood as metamorphosis and multiplicity, form as fugacity rather than fixity, singular self-enclosed organisms as pluralities [3]. Classification can no longer be thought on the basis of atemporal similarities and differences, the basis of the Linnaean system, but in a processual, temporalized morphology. As Elaine Miller writes, “in researching the metamorphosis of plants Goethe [took] a polemical stance against Linnaeus for reducing the study of plants to the cataloguing of their parts, for examining the plant not in its living intercourse with other natural phenomenon contiguous to it, but as a dead and dissected inventory of components” (58). Form becomes the “manner of flowing”, a rhythm of vital power that does not necessarily happen gradually or linearly. Form in other words is not simply configuration or structured arrangement (Gestalt), but on-going formation (Bildung). As in of Gestalt, form is plural, but its plurality is always changing, re-forming or re-assembling itself. As Goethe writes in his text On Morphology :

No living thing is unitary in nature ; every such thing is a plurality. Even the organism that appears to us as individual exists as a collection of independent living entities. Although alike in idea and predisposition, these entities, as they materialize, grow to become alike or similar, unlike or dissimilar. In part these entities are joined from the outset, in part they find their way together to form a union. They diverge and then seek each other again ; everywhere and in every way they thus work to produce a chain of creation without end (64).

This passage restates what Goethe earlier makes explicit : “When something has acquired a form it metamorphoses immediately to a new one. If we wish to arrive at some living perception of nature we ourselves must remain as quick and flexible as nature and follow the example she gives” (65). This demands that specimens not merely fill a drawer in a cabinet, nor a rung of the scala naturae ; but must be treated as living entities, a “chain of creation without end” to be integrated by an animating imagination.

Thus for Emerson the primary education of the “American Scholar” relies on Goethe’s instruction : it is “to [sit] down before each refractory fact ; one after another…and [go] on forever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by insight” (CW 1:54). Classifying becomes an organic process (morphology), classifications emerge as merely makeshifts or means, not as final ends, nor proofs of historical or theological predeterminations. Metamorphosis becomes the law of the universe insofar as it is the law of perpetual change. Metamorphosis becomes the “true classification” in turn, because it recognizes relations between things as likewise always in transit. For Goethe, the “record is alive” (Essays 746).

Emerson, after Goethe, registers this shift to metamorphosis and morphology as directly impinging on how we understand mental activity ; therefore metamorphosis will take on a central role in the construction of his “science of the mind”. Formation is not just apropos of the natural forms of rocks, plants and animals, but of the perceiving-thinking scientist (or poet-scientist). As Goethe indicates in his “Significant Help Given by an Ingenious Turn of Phrase” : “my thinking is not separate from objects…the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it…my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception” (Goethe 39). As Goethe will detail in his short piece on Kant, “Judgment through Intuitive Perception”, the work of perception is to “penetrate the divine forces of nature” via an intuitive, imaginative movement from the empirical phenomenon to the archetypal (31-32). This will become increasingly important to Emerson as he develops through Goethe a notion of the “poetic perception of metamorphosis”, a notion that will come to define his later thought. Emerson will remain close to Goethe’s approach to philosophy and natural science, even as his thought undergoes other decisive shifts, e.g. away from a mystical, neo-platonic idea of form towards one in its own way “evolutionary”. This approach is perhaps best rendered by Schiller, who shortly after his first encounter with Goethe, sends him a letter estimating his “genius” and comparing it with his own philosophical method :

What is difficult for you to realize (since genius is always a great mystery to itself) is the wonderful agreement of your philosophical instincts with the pure results of speculating reason. Certainly at first, it seems that there could not be a greater opposition than that between the speculative mind, which begins with unity, and the intuitive, which starts from the manifold [of sense]. If the first seeks experience with a chaste and true sense, and the second seeks the law with a self-active and free power of thought [Denkkraft], then they cannot fail to meet each other half way. To be sure, the intuitive mind is only concerned with the individual, the speculative only with the kind [Gattung]. But if the intuitive has genius and seeks in the empirical realm the character of the necessary, it will always produce the individual, but with the character of the kind ; and if the speculative mind has genius and does not lose sight of experience – which that sort of mind rises above – then it will always produce the kind but animated with the possibility of life and with a fundamental relationship to real objects. [4]

We must keep in mind that Schiller’s letter arrives not long after Goethe read Kant’s Critique of Judgment with both great satisfaction in terms of its ability to reconcile the aesthetic with the scientific, as well as lingering doubts as to what was at stake in terms in this for living organisms. Schiller thus works hard to persuade Goethe of the necessity of Kant’s system, and here proposes a sort of compromise between the intuitive and speculative minds. At the same halfway point where the epistemological approaches of Schiller and Goethe meet could be said to be the idealist-realist position Emerson will struggle to articulate, and which will lead him to undertake a “natural history of the intellect”. At this point, where Goethe’s intuitive mind that seeks the necessary in empirical sense data meets Schiller’s speculative mind which does not lose sight of experience, each could be said to be in contact with the possibility of life and real objects. At such a meeting point, Emerson will work to ground his transcendental idealism in the “facts” of the physical sciences, especially the fact of metamorphosis.

Although the genealogy of Goethe’s relationship to Kant and post-Kantian thought – to German Idealism and British and German Romanticism – is complex and by no means linear, and although Emerson’s understanding of this relationship was not always clear, we can say with confidence that Goethe’s morphology provides a constant point of reference for Emerson’s later thought in its drive to identify the ideal and real. It will underwrite Emerson’s organic notion of mental structure, and lead him to posit intellect as actively constructing and imaginatively classifying the world. As we will see, this culminates in his late, unfinished project, Natural History of Intellect, in which he attempts to write a “metaphysics” of everyday life through attention to the “natural facts” of our ongoing intellectual immersion into the physical world. For his part, Emerson devotes his philosophy of nature to understanding life and experience as we find it, to opening new, unrestrained – if incomplete – geometries of thought, free to follow the “vast curve” of things as they are.

Emerson’s endemic distrust of systematic thinking (as that of Aristotle, Bacon, Kant, or Hegel) relies on the basis that any pre-ordained notion of relation cannot give a full picture of the mind in all of its movement and variation. Systematic completeness, for Emerson, imposes a pre-determined form onto sensible, intelligible reality ; thus it limits possibility and limits life. But system does not impose itself onto life only as a grand, monolithic whole. Systematicity reveals itself as much in its gestures towards wholeness or completeness as it does by its method of understanding individual relationships. In other words, part of the problem for Emerson with system is that systems work in granular differences, individual relationships and correspondences, in instances of perception and moments of transition where clear relationships of identity are blurred. For Kant and Hegel, if differently, the question of (logical) “necessity” determines epistemologically how things are to be thought together. Emerson, though indebted to both Kant and Hegel, resists the strictures of their notions of necessity by which such relations form into natural laws, if not laws of the mind. Relations are not to be fixed in advance but become constructed by the imagination and intellect in the midst of life. Key to Emerson’s thinking, then, is not only how and to what extent humanity can know the physical world, but also how human intellect effectively constructs or orders the world in which it finds itself implicated, at the crossroads of the real and ideal. Again this is the ongoing question throughout his work, and what he strives to articulate in Natural History of Intellect : namely the question of how “Intellect builds the world”.

The role of writing in this building is of key importance. Emerson’s writing seeks to be an alembic through which poetry, science, and philosophy are put to use to imaginatively distill the world, to expand it and transform it. The writer is the stone pilot for the altar to the Beautiful necessity Emerson pictures in “Fate”. To write is a poesis of the copula of relation, and the creation of new relations. These include, if not valorize, the relations among the natural facts Emerson seeks to enumerate. Thus this philosophy calls for a fluid theory of perception that allows for an ongoing reciprocity between specific knowledge of such facts (objects or life-forms as they are encountered in their transient moments of transformation) and general (categorical) knowledge (laws that govern the processes of nature, the order of things). Such a perception would allow general knowledge to flower from particular natural phenomena [5] .

It is no surprise, then, that Emerson will develop such a fluid theory of perception through Goethe’s botany and perception-thinking. This theory, the keynote of his later thinking, is what he will call the “poetic perception of metamorphosis” in “Poetry and Imagination” and elsewhere (CW 8:7) [6]. The poetic perception of metamorphosis opens a way of thinking that can proceed to “animate the last fibre of organization” ; it is a relational thinking in which relations are defined not so much in terms of fixed quantitative proportions, but as living – poetic – interconnections of meaning. In “Poetry and Imagination,” his fullest statement of how to rejoin poetry to science through these interconnections, Emerson makes this explicit :

Science was false by being unpoetical. It assumed to explain a reptile or mollusk, and isolated it, – which is hunting for life in graveyards. Reptile or mollusk or man or angel only exists in system, in relation. The metaphysician, the poet, only sees each animal form as an inevitable step in the path of the creating mind (CW 8:10).

The poetic perception of metamorphosis is tantamount to a “poetic knowing,” as David Robinson has elaborated in Emerson and the Conduct of Life, which is “fundamentally a recognition that perception is connection, [and] strives not to isolate objects from each other or the object of perception from the perceiving subject” (Robinson 192). As in Goethe’s “Ingenious Turn of Phrase”, it is a thinking that is not separate from objects, but evidences the existence of a “perfect Identity” or “parallelism between the laws of Nature and the laws of thought” (CW 8:7). This bears on how questions of form and metamorphosis shape Emerson’s conception of the analogic mind as he describes in “Powers of the Mind”. The work of the analogic mind is perpetual, imaginative classification – the work of intellect is in this way to build its universe, but always from within its universe, the unity of poetic interconnectedness.

For Emerson even if this is an imaginative, analogic construction, it is not wholly without its logic. In Natural History of Intellect, it is the “system” of “dotting the fragmentary curve.” Or, as Emerson writes in “Poetry and Imagination” : “The poet has a logic, though it be subtile [sic]. He observes higher laws than he transgresses.” Likewise, “Poetry is the gai science. The trait and test of the poet is that he builds, adds, and affirms. The critic destroys : the poet says nothing but what helps somebody ; let others be distracted with cares, he is exempt” (CW 8:33). This opens a different idea of writing nature – writing nature becomes an ongoing imaginative ordering of the world. As Emerson will say, again from “Poetry and Imagination” : “All thinking is analogizing, the use of life is to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank of the imagination in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is reader of these forms” (CW 8:14). Imagination thus is not expelled from the realm of science ; rather science depends upon the richness and “free play” of imagination as Kant and the post-Kantian Romantic tradition in both Germany and Britain continually emphasize. Emerson’s emphasis on imagination as the reader of forms evidences his continued proximity to Coleridge, who sees imagination in terms of an ordering or “esemplastic” unification (the transliteration of the term “Ins-Eins Bildung” he found in Schelling, and opposed to the “Fancy” a “mere aggregating” power) (Coleridge 449).

In the same manner, Emerson again turns to Goethe as his model : “Science does not know its debt to imagination. Goethe did not believe that a great naturalist could exist without this faculty. He was himself conscious of its help, which made him a prophet among the doctors. From this vision he gave brave hints to the zoölogist, the botanist and the optician” (CW 8:10). Goethe’s morphology was not merely a scientific description, but drew on the protean power of imagination to propose, like Schelling, a philosophy of nature that would be the poetry of the mind, a poetry of genesis and of transformation. In the final analysis, even as Emerson’s later thought becomes fundamentally marked by thinkers of the unfolding of natural form – the myriad scientists and philosophers and writers he calls upon and who call upon him – the “author” of the metaphysics he is waiting for will be a poet-scientist-thinker in the mold of Goethe. Goethe stands as Emerson’s representative “writer”. Not only does he protect the poetry and humanity from becoming lost in the statistical analyses of French tabulation, as Emerson writes in “Goethe ; or, the Writer,” but also he inaugurates a writing reserved for those with the “higher degrees” or “splendid endowments” who can “see connection where the multitude see fragments, and who [can]…exhibit the facts in order… so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns” (Essays 747). Such scholars will exhibit Goethe’s “superlative” [7] abilities. As embodied observers, they will look – from within nature – at nature and themselves, an “organic agent” in what Emerson calls “the knitting and contexture of things” (748). Theirs will be a joyous science ; they will become cheered by their “presentiments [and] impulses…[by] a certain heat in the breast which attends the perception of a primary truth, which is the shining of the spiritual sun down into the shaft of the mine” (748). In so doing, they will open new currents or conductivities of life, perpetually reorganizing and electrifying the grid of the possible. The poet-scientist-thinker probes the inner limits of each discourse, where each discourse approaches the other. The point of intersection of poetry, science, and philosophy becomes a point of mutual rupture – of entrenched presuppositions, terms, or relationships. It is the locus of a dynamic, creative thinking wherein our relationship with the world and the world itself is perpetually re-written, rethought, recreated and co-constructed. Such a thinking is for Emerson analogical, aversive, and inductive – it is the perpetual invitation of new life, out of life. It is a thinking that begins and is itself anticipation.


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Michael JONIK



[1] This, too, Coleridge had seized upon as he asks in Biographia Literaria when he asked : “Is philosophy possible as a science, and what are its conditions ?” (Coleridge 439).

[2] In a later journal entry, Emerson continues in a key passage : “All forms are fluent and as the bird alights on the bough & pauses for rest, then plunges into the air again on its way, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment into any form, as if by touching the earth again in burial, to acquire new energy. A wise man is not deceived by the pause : he knows that it is momentary : he already foresees the new departure, and departure after departure, in long series. Dull people think they have traced the matter far enough if they have reached the history of one of these temporary forms, which they describe as fixed and final” (JMN IX, 301).

[3] As Elaine Miller writes, “Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants [thus] gives crucial content to the figure of plant growth, as it marks the important transformation in botanical paradigm – from classification to morphology” (13).

[4] Friedrich Schiller to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (23 August 1794), in Goethe Sämtliche Werke, 12:15.

[5] Such a fluid, evolving relationship between observational and categorical knowledge will likewise be at the center of Thoreau’s thinking of perception. However, as commentators such as Francois Specq have argued, Thoreau’s program (most elaborately realized in his Journal) will be oriented towards the particularity of observed knowledge in the moment of its encounter, rather than to persistently seeking the analogical “sliding door’ to the ideal that Emerson continues to do throughout his later thought.

[6] See also the 1854 lecture “Poetry and English Poetry,” from The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871 v.1 ed. Ronald A. Bosco, Joel Myerson, (Athens, GA : University of Georgia Press, 2001), p. 299.

[7] Richardson 449 ; see also Emerson, from “Manchester Lectures, 1847, Fragments,” Houghton b Ms Am 1280, 199).