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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards and Conductive Imaginaries

Andrea Knutson, American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This sophisticated reading of the legacy of the Puritans in later spiritual writing will appeal mainly to academics interested in the history of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the advancing spirit” in modern American intellectual life. Knutson traces the ways in which Puritan understandings of conversion, especially as refracted through the thought of Jonathan Edwards, continued to shape and animate American life and letters through the writings of Transcendentalists (such as Emerson himself) and pragmatist philosophers (such as Harvard’s William James) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Knutson focuses primarily on human religious consciousness, theorized here in terms of what she labels vaguely as “a conductive imaginary: a conscious space organized, or that self-organizes, around the dynamics and tensions between emergent and stored up truth, uncertainty and certainty, and perception and objects perceived” (p. 4). Edwards’ doctrine of conversion, for Knutson, “explore[d] the matrix of thought, feeling, and perception that is consciousness, characterizing it as expansive, and, therefore, redemptive, only insofar as an individual continually exercised its potential” (p. 9). Edwards dwelt, that is, in consciousness more boldly, resolutely, than did most who went before him, studying the subjective side of spiritual experience, seeking after truth by reflection on the soul, blazing a trail for kindred spirits and for later, more secular writers who would render human consciousness “an ever-evolving, originating process whose continual production of perceptual truths patterns the operations of grace” (pp. 9, 90).

In Knutson’s account, Edwards’ idealism (i.e. epistemological idealism) distanced him from the Puritan orthodoxies he inherited and led him to “[embrace] the uncertain nature of knowledge of God” (p. 79). It “created a horizon in the mind,” she explains, “toward which the understanding should always be straining in search of the truth” (p. 80). Edwards dared to swim in the murky depths of mind, one might say, in which certainty and clarity are not always easy to find and in which one must continue to move in order to thrive. Consequently, he engendered a tradition of epistemological thought that proved unusually creative and “conductive.”

Edwards would probably not recognize himself in Knutson’s book. In order to make sense of his legacy in modern American letters, she has had to compare her subjects in a rather abstract mode of literary-religious criticism, ignoring most of the ways in which a clergyman like Edwards maintained roots in Protestant history and dogma. Still, she is onto something important. Edwards’ writings on experience did continue to haunt modern American spiritual life and literature for decades after his death—both within and well outside of evangelicalism. Indeed, it does so even now. Knutson helps us understand this in a new and compelling way, proving again that Edwards’ inventiveness bore fruit that even he could not have imagined.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS