Frontier Kantianism : Autonomy and Authority in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Smith
Davis, Ryan W.
Journal of Religious Ethics
Ralph Waldo Emerson is often seen as the early American prophet of autonomy. This essay suggests a perhaps surprising fellow traveler in this prophetic call: Joseph Smith. Smith opposed religious creeds for the same reason that Emerson denounced them, namely that creeds represent a threat to the autonomy of a person's beliefs. Smith and Emerson also forward similar defenses of individual autonomy in action. Furthermore, they encounter a shared problem: how can autonomy be possible in a society where other individuals hold some kind of authority? I propose that each thinker resolves this tension through an insight with a Kantian echo. A suitably qualified version of authority can sometimes count as an expression of, rather than hindrance to, autonomy. I describe the overlap in Emerson and Smith as a “frontier” version of Kantianism. They favor determining one's own beliefs and actions in a way that looks forward to an open future of possibility.