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Transcendentalism was a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy that emerged in New England in the early to middle 19th century. It is sometimes called American transcendentalism to distinguish it from other uses of the word transcendental. Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Prominent transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Walt Whitman, Convers Francis, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Elizabeth Peabody, George Ripley, Amos Bronson Alcott, Jones Very and A.E. Waite.[1]

Contents

History

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay Nature is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote in his speech "The American Scholar": "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; Divine Soul which also inspires all men." Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy:

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ... Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.

In the same year, transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge. From 1840, the group published frequently in their journal The Dial, along with other venues. The movement was originally termed "Transcendentalists" as a pejorative term, suggesting their position was beyond sanity and reason.[2]

The practical aims of the transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change and, in the case of Brownson, it joined explicitly with early socialism, while others found it an exclusively individual and idealist project. Emerson believed the latter. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist", Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice:

You will see by this sketch that there is no such thing as a transcendental party; that there is no pure transcendentalist; that we know of no one but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels' food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. ... Shall we say, then, that transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish.

By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, especially after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. "All that can be said", Emerson wrote, "is, that she represents an interesting hour & group in American cultivation".[3]

Origins

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), which the New England intellectuals of the early 19th century embraced as an alternative to the Lockean "sensualism" of their fathers and of the Unitarian church, finding the alternative in Vedic thought, German idealism, and English Romanticism.

The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The transcendentalists were largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original, and relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de Staël, and other English and French commentators for their knowledge of it. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.

Thoreau in Walden spoke of the debt to the Vedic thought directly, as did other members of the movement:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water-jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

Criticism

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farm, a short-lived utopian community founded on transcendental principles.[4] Edgar Allan Poe had a deep dislike for transcendentalism, calling its followers "Frogpondians" after the pond on Boston Common.[5] He ridiculed their writings in particular by calling them "metaphor-run," lapsing into "obscurity for obscurity's sake" or "mysticism for mysticism's sake."[6] One of his short stories, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", is a clear attack on transcendentalism, which the narrator calls a "disease". The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets.[7]

Influence on other movements

Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics.

The movement directly influenced the growing movement of Mental Sciences of the mid 1800s which would later become known as the New Thought movement. New Thought draws directly from the transcendentalists, particularly Emerson. New Thought considers Emerson its intellectual father.[8] Emma Curtis Hopkins "the teacher of teachers", Ernest Holmes, founder of Religious Science, The Fillmores, founders of Unity, and Malinda Cramer and Nona L. Brooks, the founders of Divine Science, were all greatly influenced by Transcendentalism.[9]

Other meanings of transcendentalism

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Transcendental idealism

The term transcendentalism sometimes serves as shorthand for "transcendental idealism," which is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and later Kantian and German Idealist philosophers.

Transcendental theology

Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 A.D., "We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."

See also

References

  1. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 7–8. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  2. ^ Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0520226879. p. 185
  3. ^ Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981: 208. ISBN 0-300-02587-4
  4. ^ McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 149. ISBN 0802117767
  5. ^ Royot, Daniel. "Poe's humor," as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp. 61-2. ISBN 0521797276
  6. ^ Ljunquist, Kent. "The poet as critic" collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. p. 15. ISBN 0521797276
  7. ^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 170. ISBN 081604161X
  8. ^ New Thought at MSN Encarta. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
  9. ^ intachrt.htm INTA New Thought History Chart

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

TRANSCENDENTALISM (Lat. trans, across, scandere, climb, whence transcendere, to pass a limit), in philosophy, any system which emphasizes the limited character of that which can be perceived by the senses and is based on the view that true knowledge is intuitive, or supernatural. The term is specially applied to Kant's philosophy and its successors which hold that knowledge of the a priori is possible. It is traceable as far back as the schoolmen of whom Duns Scotus describes as "transcendental" those conceptions which have a higher degree of universality than the Aristotelian categories. Thus ens (being) is more universal than God or the physical universe because it can be predicated of both. Kant distinguishes as "transcendent" the world of things-in-themselves as being without the limits of experience; while "transcendental" is his term for those elements which regulate human experience, though they are themselves beyond experience; such are the categories of space, time, causality.

In general use the term is applied rather promiscuously and frequently by way of criticism to an attitude of mind which is imaginative, aloof from mundane affairs and unmoved by practical considerations. The most famous example of the pseudo-philosophic use of the term is for a movement of thought which was prominent in the New England states from about 1830 to 1850. Its use originated in the Transcendental Club (1836) founded by Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890), and others. This movement had several aspects: philosophical, theological, social, economic. Its main theme was regeneration, a revolt from the formalism of both Unitarian and Calvinist theology and a widening literary outlook. It took its rise to a large extent in the study of German (and to a less extent French) philosophy and spread widely among the cultured classes. In 1840 the club began to issue an official organ, The Dial, and the settlement of Brook Farm followed in 1841. These enterprises themselves did not receive general support even among the Transcendentalist leaders, and the real significance of the movement was the stimulus which it gave to philanthropy, to the Abolition movement, and to a new ideal of individual character. The chief names associated with it, besides those of Emerson and Hedge, are those of A. B. Alcott (q.v.), Margaret Fuller (q.v.), George Ripley, W. E. Channing (q.v.), and H. D. Thoreau (q.v.).


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