The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance
IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.
Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.
Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?
It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)
For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.
And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)
By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.
Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.
Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.
Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:
Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.
Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.
Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.
Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.
Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.
Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well. Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.
Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!
Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.
As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
Written by John Uebersax
June 22, 2015 at 10:13 pm
Posted in American Transcendentalism, Cognitive psychology, Cultivation of the Intellect, Cultural psychology, Culture, Economics, Education, Education reform, Globalization, Higher Education, History, Humanities, Idealism, Law, Libertarian, Literature, Love, Materialism, Media brainwashing, Militarism, modernism, Moral philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Reading, Reform in government, Renewing America, Scholarship, Self-culture, Social philosophy, spirituality, Transcendentalism
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