The Romantic Veil (of Perception): American Transcendentalism and British Romanticism as a Continuation of Lockean Empiricism

Christian Knirsch

Traditional analyses of the epistemological basis of both British romanticism and American transcendentalism usually exclusively focus on German idealism in general and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy in particular, as Marshall Brown’s The Gothic Text exemplifies—to name just one of the more recent examples of this tradition. Consequently, both in British as well as in American literary criticism, the view that the romantic movements on both sides of the Atlantic were decisively influenced by “the writings of Kant” is still generally accepted (Brown xiv).

Partially, this exclusive focus on Kantian thought can be explained by the unquestioned acceptance of respective statements by several romantic and transcendentalist thinkers themselves: Samuel Taylor Coleridge excessively wrote on Kantian philosophy, James Freeman Clarke calls transcendentalism “the massive and splendid philosophy, which Kant had founded and men of like talent built up” (44), and Alexander H. Everett labels the transcendentalists “Kant and his followers” (32).

Due to this self-confessed proximity with Kantian thought, romanticism and transcendentalism have always been considered a radical antithesis to Lockean empiricism, which had been the dominant philosophy in the anglophone world from the early 18th to the early 19th century. Richard Brantley, for example, speaks of a “Lockean hegemony [which] extended to America” from Britain in the course of the 18th century (38). According to most scholars, this empirical theory based on sense perception in Britain and the United States was superseded by romantic movements which developed from radical idealism and replaced the senses with spirit as the source of knowledge.

Again, the romanticists and transcendentalists themselves are at least partially responsible for this clear-cut dichotomy between the two romantic literary movements and empiricism. Among others, Ralph Waldo Emerson treated John Locke as an exponent of “the old school” (“Historic Notes” 500) and repeatedly uttered his dislike of Locke’s theory because it imposes its absolute and all-encompassing “classification[s] on other men” (“Self-Reliance” 226).

Notably though, a paradigm shift in philosophical research has set in over the last few decades. Scholars like Martyn P. Thompson, Patrick S. Madigan, Reinhard Brandt, and especially Wayne Waxman treat Kant’s idealist transcendental philosophy as a “continuation of” (5, emphasis in the original) or an “addition [to]” (12) Locke’s empiricism. These latest research results on the relationship between empirical and transcendental philosophy now suggest a re-evaluation of the relationship between romanticism, transcendentalism, and Lockean empiricism. At first glance, any close relationship between these seems to be a contradiction in terms; after all, John Locke’s epistemology was met with an explicit and pronounced disdain by most romantic and transcendentalist thinkers, as I have pointed out above.

Open disdain, however, is but an ill marker for the analysis of interdependencies between different schools of thought, as is evident from the transcendentalists’ demonization of Unitarian theology. Even though the overwhelming majority of the transcendentalist thinkers and writers were Unitarians, some of them even Unitarian ministers, their condemnation of Unitarian theology was strong, almost violent. From the 1980s on, however, literary critic David Robinson has repeatedly emphasized that, despite his vehement criticism, Emerson is not refuting Unitarianism at all; rather, he “[is] following Unitarian assumptions to their logical conclusions” (Apostle 4).

Curiously enough, it has often been remarked that Unitarianism is based on Locke’s theology. Mario Montuori, though, limits the interdependencies between Lockean philosophy and Unitarian thought not only to theological questions, but detects a pronounced “unitarian and Socinian framework of his theologico-philosophical thinking” in general (189). This, in turn, suggests that the continuities between Lockean philosophy and romantic or transcendental theory are not limited to theological matters, but include the epistemological basis of the respective theories.

In order to demonstrate the continuities between Lockean epistemology and the conception of reality proposed by several romantic and transcendentalist thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, and, most prominently, Ralph Waldo Emerson, I will briefly outline the basic assumptions of Locke’s empirical theory with a special focus on the different definitions of the concept of the veil of perception, summarize several theoretical positions of romanticist and transcendentalist thought, and finally show their continuity with Locke’s epistemology.

Basic Assumptions of Locke’s Empirical Theory

One of Locke’s basic assumptions is that man is born an “empty cabinet” and that everything he knows is acquired through “the senses” (I.ii.15). Therefore, Locke’s philosophy is best defined as “systematic empiricism” (Newman, Introduction 1). Ever since the 18th century, an overwhelming majority of Locke scholars has argued that, in his magnum opus, the famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke develops a representationalist theory of perception and knowledge on this empirical basis. This implies that man does not have direct access to nature and that “[p]erception” is strictly and exclusively “about our ideas” (II.ix.1):1 In the last decades, this representationalist view of Locke has been under attack from two sides: in the 1960s, several scholars such as C.B. Macpherson treated Locke as a postmodernist avant la lettre; more recently, John Yolton and Thomas M. Lennon have interpreted Locke as a—more or less—direct realist. Another deviating position which, however, is much closer to the majority’s opinion, is G. A. J. Rogers’s interpretation of Locke as a “representational realist” (“Locke” 252), which combines arguments from both the realist and the representationalist camp.

A key concept and a crucial question of debate in recent Locke scholarship is the so-called ‘veil of perception,’ which is said to separate man from physical reality: “It is evident the mind knows not things immediately, but only by the intervention of the ideas it has of them. Our knowledge therefore is real only so far as there is a conformity between our ideas and the reality of things” (IV.iv.3). From a representationalist perspective, the role of the metaphoric veil in this example seems fairly obvious: it is a mediator between physical object and percept. It separates man from its physical environment, but nevertheless grants its perception.

An issue that is yet debated within the representationalist school of Locke interpretation is the materiality of the veil of perception. In this respect, a majority of Locke scholars speak of a “semantic veil of ideas” as defined by Martha Bolton, who denies the veil any material existence (“Locke” 301). Some followers of the representationalist tradition, however, argue along the lines of corpuscularianism, a physical theory that was apparently very influential for Locke.2 Here, the veil of perception is actually a material veil fashioned by the “phenomenal atoms of experience,” as Rogers puts it (“Locke” 249). The corpuscular theory basically purports that, in sense perception, real objects of the material world send out so-called corpuscles which hit the senses and thus create “corporeal image[s],” i.e. the physical equivalent of Lockean ideas, in the mind (Jacovides 107). The resulting veil of perception is accordingly “a veil of [physical] ideas” (110). Thus, in Rogers’s words, sense perception is a consequence of “causal chains from objects to the brain” (“Locke” 247), in which “atoms” function as the chains’ links (“Locke” 249). Although not the majority’s position, Rogers’s and Jacovides’s claims seem to be justified: Locke’s suggestions that “some singly imperceptible bodies” (II.viii.12) or “the operation of insensible particles on our senses” (II.viii.13) are responsible for sense perception obviously support their argument. Furthermore, Locke explicitly calls ideas “appearances or sensations produced in us by the size, figure, number, and motion of minute corpuscles singly insensible” (IV.ii.11, emphasis added). For Locke, “corpuscles [are] the active part of matter” (IV.iii.25) and actively “operate on our senses” (IV.vi.14), thus they are ultimately responsible for any sense perception.

Yet, what is ultimately more important than the question of its physical or ideal materiality is the degree of its transparence as a “mediating barrier between the mind and real external things” briefly touched upon before (Newman, “Locke” 274). The term “veil of perception” was coined by Jonathan Bennett in Locke, Berkeley, Hume (69). Bennett, however, considers Locke an external world skeptic, which demands that such a veil of perception is absolutely opaque. This definition of an opaque veil of perception has become the academically accepted standard and is rarely called into question. Implicitly, most scholars thus acknowledge opacity as a necessary quality of any veil of perception; scholars who disagree with Bennett’s definition of Lockean epistemology often develop alternative metaphors such as “mist, or dirty glass” rather than re-define the concept of the veil of perception itself (Lennon 323). Yet, several proponents of a representationalist reading of Locke’s epistemology appropriate the concept and even agree that it is indeed opaque as far as sense perception is concerned—opaque but universal, as Locke himself repeatedly emphasizes: “the sensible ideas produced by any object in different men’s minds are most commonly very near and undiscernibly alike” (II.xxxii.15). This universality claim, of course, falsifies any interpretations that read Locke as an anachronistic exponent of postmodern theories of solipsism or radical constructionism. If, in the intellectual following of Jonathan Bennett, one considers the veil to be completely opaque, the sheer existence of the physical world is indeed called into question. As I have already hinted at before, the veil’s opacity as a necessary definitional condition is not very convincing to me. Veils as epistemological metaphors may well be opaque, especially in epistemological and ontological theories in the larger intellectual framework of postmodernism such as Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist conception of the veil as a textile metaphor or cybernetic theories of radical constructionism,3 but opacity can never be a general definitional prerequisite for every veil of perception. Especially in Locke’s epistemological theory, different degrees of transparence are not only possible but necessary, if one wants to break the epistemological circle constructed by Bennett and similar radical scepticist interpretations of Lockean epistemology.

The gradual transparence I would suggest for Locke’s veil of perception is, strictly speaking, not a perceptive but an epistemological transparence. After all, Locke is certainly not a naïve realist. The mere veil of perception as such is in a sense opaque indeed, but it is an intersubjective or even universal veil and does certainly not lead into solipsism. Furthermore, according to Rogers’s representative realist reading of Locke, there is “a precise correspondence between the ideas and the properties of things in virtue of which the idea accurately reflects the way the world is” (“Locke” 250). This is guaranteed through the moral reliability of God, who grants man’s senses “all the conformity which is intended, or which our state requires” (IV.iv.4). Therefore, in an epistemological sense, the veil is semitransparent in the end.

Locke’s process of perception is characterized by its complete passivity and inter-subjectivity; one simply “cannot avoid perceiving” (II.ix.1). Especially the perception of so-called “simple ideas,” the smallest and most basic unit of ideas, strictly follows this fashion (II.ii). In Locke’s theory of perception, one becomes only active when the mind starts to combine different simple ideas in order to form “complex ideas” (II.xii). The generation of knowledge, finally, which, according to Locke, is per definitionem only possible through “the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas” (IV.i.2, emphasis in the original), generally requires the cooperation of both “faculties of knowledge,” i.e. “reason and sense experience” (Rogers, “Intellectual” 23).4 Any human knowledge thus derives from two sources, sense perception and the perception of the operations of the mind processing them—in Locke’s terminology: “sense” (II.v) and “reflexion” (II.vi.1) or “external and internal sensation” (II.xi.17). The definition even of reflection as sensation once more underlines Locke’s radically empiricist view.

Yet, Locke originally defines three different kinds of knowledge which are labeled ‘knowledge’ with a decreasing degree of certainty: “intuitive,” “demonstrative,” and “sensitive” knowledge (IV.ii). According to Locke, truly certain, “intuitive,” knowledge only exists in mathematics as a system of knowledge that was developed by man himself (“mathematical certainty,” IV.x.1), in “morality” (IV.iii.18), and with regard to the question of “the existence of [...] a man’s self alone and of God” (IV.xi.2). Arguing from Locke’s self-confessed trust in God’s moral qualities, Nicholas Jolley, who researches the links between Lockean theology and epistemology, nevertheless arrives at the conclusion that one can speak of “knowledge in the strict sense or at least justified true belief” with regard to all three kinds of knowledge (448). This conclusion is certainly valid with regard to the ontological premise that a physical world exists independent of human sense perception. When it comes to the epistemological premise, however, the question of the exact material constitution of this physical world, knowledge in the strict sense cannot be guaranteed anymore. Of course, the causality law still applies, but this does not necessarily include physical “resemblance” between an idea and the actual physical object which causes this idea, as Martha Bolton justly points out (“Taxonomy” 83). At least, this assumption cannot be verified, i.e. it cannot be labeled ‘knowledge’ in the strict sense. Yet, in consequence of the relatively high degree of perceptive uniformity in Locke’s theory, one may well speak of “justified true belief” even with regard to sensitive knowledge—this is just what defines the semitransparence of the Lockean veil of perception. In the end, even Thomas M. Lennon’s realist interpretation of Locke’s philosophy can be reduced to this least common denominator. After all, Lennon does not propose a naïve realist reading of Locke; he is well aware that Lockean epistemology includes some sort of medialization. This can be seen from his demand for alternative metaphors such as mist or a dirty glass: His radical opposition to the concept of the veil of perception results from his implicit acknowledgment of the automatic opacity of such a veil, not from its mediating function. In the end, even Lennon accepts certain “qualitative difference[s]” between an idea and the corresponding material object (329).

Theoretical Positions on/of Romanticist and Transcendentalist Thought

At first glance, Locke’s radically empiricist view—which considers sense perception to be universal and mechanistically caused by the corpuscles of the perceived object out there in the material world—indeed seems to be diametrically opposed to romanticist and transcendentalist theories, which are usually held to emphasize individual subjectivity and despise ordinary sense perception as misleading. By and large, romanticism and transcendentalism are even considered an intellectual counter-movement to enlightenment thought and defined as a “turn to the subjective conditions of perception and cognition” (Otto 379).

At a closer look, however, this clear cut dichotomy can be sustained no longer: Perry Miller has already pointed out that the epoch in the American history of thought, which is generally subsumed under the title transcendentalism, was marked rather by a thorough “CONFUSION” between idealist metaphysics and mechanistic theories developed from natural philosophy (322). In Britain, too, the so-called Romantic Period was not solely dominated by idealism and transcendentalism (Erlebach, Reitz, and Stein 139). But even some of the most influential romanticist and transcendentalist theories were at least in part indebted to natural philosophical concepts such as John Locke’s empirical conceptions of knowledge and perception; thus, they did not so much refute Lockean epistemology, as they raised it to a different level.

This is especially evident in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most influential essay on Kantian philosophy, “Reason versus Understanding” (1825). For many British romantics and especially American transcendentalists who did not speak German, this essay was a major source for the intellectual examination of Kant’s writing. Reason, for Coleridge, is “the Source and Substance of Truths above Sense” and reveals a fixed and “direct Aspect of Truth.” Thus, it is ultimately superior to mere understanding which is “binding only in relation to the objects of our Senses” (10). As I have just stated, for Coleridge and the romantics, reason is indeed superior to understanding, but by no means does it replace it. Reason and understanding are simply two faculties which coexist in the human mind. In the end, Coleridge’s definition of understanding matches the Lockean definition of reason and understanding, terms he uses interchangeably throughout An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For Locke, there is nothing beyond this basic idea of understanding. Yet, for Kant, and thus for Coleridge, reason and understanding refer to two different modes of perception, the one empirical, the other transcendental.

In similar fashion, Frederic Henry Hedge distinguishes “common consciousness” in an empirical sense from an additional and superior “interior consciousness” (69). The former is restricted to the perception of ordinary empirical “phenomena,” whereas the latter transcends the material existence of these phenomena and perceives “noumena” behind them (70). Just as in Coleridge, the perceptible and knowable realm is redefined and now includes a spiritual level that was obviously lacking in Locke’s strictly empirical epistemology. Another transcendentalist thinker, George Ripley, too, emphasizes the “superiority of the testimony of the soul to the evidence of the external senses” (156). But again, this implies the continued existence of ordinary sense perception as the basis of the higher perception which yields spiritual truths; in the end, Ripley’s theory, too, is not so much a refutation of Lockean empiricism, it is rather an enhancement.

The case is not any different with regard to one of the most important American transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even though Emerson is usually considered by far the most idealist thinker of the movement, an empirical basis can also be detected in his works. Just like the other thinkers, Emerson assumes the existence of two different faculties which contribute to perception: “understanding” is responsible for the perception of the “property of matter,” whereas “Reason” advances to spiritual Truths (“Nature” 48). An Emersonian concept that is closely related to this definition of reason is the concept of poetic vision: according to Emerson, poetic vision is able to see “through surface” (“Verses” 391). This, however, implies the existence of such a surface which marks the limit of sense perception and knowledge for the “ordinary man” (“Poet” 393). Ultimately, poetic vision is described as “a very high sort of seeing” (“Poet” 400) which transcends the surface perception of empiricism and perceives the divine “spirit [...] behind nature” (“Nature” 61). The perceptive basis of this higher perception, however, is ordinary empirical sense perception. The knowledge of spiritual truths and eternal divine principles is only accomplished in a second step of poetic vision, a mode of perception which is available to but a few.

The Continuity of Romanticist/Transcendentalist Thought with Locke

The first step in the Emersonian process of successive perception encompasses “the simple perception of natural forms” and is available to “all men” (“Nature” 38). Poetic vision, however, transcends the natural appearance of things in a second step and adds “a higher [...] spiritual element” to ordinary sense perception (“Nature” 40). Ultimately, poetic vision leads to the perception of God “without mediator or veil” (“Divinity” 143), as Emerson emphasizes once and again: “we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth [...]. We apprehend the absolute” (“Nature” 58). In ordinary sense perception, in contrast, one has “bandages over [one’s] eyes” (“Divinity” 142), the eyes are veiled “with one or another handkerchief” (“Self-Reliance” 215). Thus, this first step in the Emersonian theory of perception is very similar to John Locke’s empirical conception of perception, the bandages and the handkerchief correspond to the Lockean veil of perception. Even in Emerson’s account of poetic vision, the veil of perception is the general human condition, only the poet is ultimately able to transcend the veil and perceive divine Truth—and this only in the very rare moments of “Imagination” (“Poet” 400).5

A necessary precondition to reach such moments of poetic imagination is the direct contact with the natural world, being in nature: “its attractions are the key,” as Emerson puts it, and only “experience” in nature leads to poetic vision (“American” 89). This aspect of Emerson’s theory has until recently been largely ignored. Emerson—as opposed to William Wordsworth or Henry David Thoreau—had always been considered the intellectual idealist who looked down upon any theory even under the slightest suspicion of mere naturalism. As one of the first scholars, Dieter Schulz ventured a first hint at the shared reliance on visuality as the basis of knowledge in Emerson and Thoreau, but he still mainly emphasizes the differences in the usual manner: Thoreau’s concept of perception is still grounded in the senses and views the process of perception as an opening-up of the self to external influences whereas, in Emerson’s theory, perception originates in the subjectivity of the individual (129-35). As late as 1999, Robert D. Richardson researched the role of physical nature in Emerson’s theory and points to “the importance of the primary connection between the writer and nature” (100), i.e. “physical, outward nature” (101). This direct contact with nature, the immediate empirical “experience of nature” in Emerson’s theory, is “a foundation for philosophy, art, language, education, and everyday living” (104), a necessary first step to gain divine insights into spiritual eternal ‘Truths.’ Nevertheless, the role of being in nature as a prerequisite for poetic vision is even more obvious in Henry David Thoreau’s works, especially in his essay “Walking” which elevates the sauntering in nature to “the art of Walking” (205) and labels every actual walk in nature a “crusade” into the “Holy Land” of spiritual knowledge (206). For Thoreau, only the direct contact with nature can lead to revelations of “prophetic” truth (233). Thoreau’s conception of perception, too, assumes a “higher sense” in addition to ordinary sense perception that is developed in direct contact with nature and ultimately leads to “Beautiful Knowledge” (239), just like in Emerson’s concept of poetic vision.

Percy Bysshe Shelley argues along the same lines and defines the capacity of poetic vision as follows: “it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms” (82). Beneath this romantic veil of perception slumbers not the material, but the spiritual world. Thus, the romanticist theory is in the end a continuation of Lockean empiricism: Besides Locke’s veil of perception over the physical world, there is a second veil over the spiritual. While the veil of perception continues to be the limit of perception and knowledge for the ordinary man, only poetic vision is able to recognize and ultimately transcend the second veil over the spiritual. The first veil of perception is relatively transparent and allows for the perception of the material world; thereby, idea and physical object are not congruent but relatively closely related. These material objects, however, reveal themselves to constitute just another veil over the divine spiritual essence of the world, which rests in nature and man alike.6 According to Emerson’s concept of poetic perception, this process of perception is first able to recognize the existence of such a veil and, in moments of poetic imagination, to transcend the veil and perceive spiritual Truth. Nevertheless, even in the process of poetic perception, empiric perception is the perceptive basis and the first step on the way to spiritual illumination.

A seldom quoted paragraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” describes the actual process of poetic perception:

Until this higher agency [Reason] intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects. If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. (54, emphasis added)

This quote from one of the key texts of American transcendentalism underlines the quintessence of the rather abstract examination of the epistemological basis of British romanticism and American transcendentalism which I find in Lockean empiricism. This process occurs in two steps and leads from the initial empirical sense perception universally shared by all human beings via moments of imagination—triggered by the physical being in nature—to the final condition of spiritual illumination and the consequent perception of divine Truth which ultimately transcends the empirical veil of perception.


1 This and all subsequent quotes from John Locke refer to An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

2 For a brief overview of the general ideas of corpuscularianism and the theory’s influence on John Locke’s epistemology, see Rogers (“Setting” 19-22). Jacovides even considers “corpuscularianism” the philosophical basis of the Essay, which is combined “with an epistemology, a philosophy of mind, a semantics, and a metaphysics” (102).

3 According to Derrida, any epistemological veil in postmodernism is necessarily “an opaque veil” (“Silkworm” 64); each unveiling only leads to “the unveiling of the veil itself” (Glas 212). Derrida defines this opaque veil as “a kind of textual veil” woven by a never ending chain of signifiers which do not point to any kind of material reality external to language (Glas 67). As a veil of perception in a cybernetic sense, postmodernism’s opaque veil can also be considered to point to the unbreakable epistemological circle: according to radical constructionist theories, “we cannot get out of the epistemological circle since we cannot get out of our [individual] consciousness” (Knirsch n.p.). A cybernetic veil of perception is thus necessarily opaque, too, since it radically cuts the individual consciousness off from the rest of the world.

4 In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, reason and understanding are used interchangeably. The differentiation between reason and understanding, which becomes crucial in the romantic age, was only developed by Immanuel Kant and, in his following, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I will come to that in more detail below.

5 Emerson gives different accounts of the incidence of this higher mode of perception. In his most restrictive definition, he limits it to, “[i]n a century, in a millennium, one or two men” (“Scholar” 95).

6 This interpretation of nature as a veil covering the divine spirit is very similar to the theological doctrine of “intelligent design,” according to Colin Jager an integral part of “mainstream theology” in the Christian world in the 19th century (x). The design argument essentially argues that nature is “the very Book of God,” i.e. a veil behind which the divine spirit resides (ix).

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