A History of the Transcendentalism Movement in Philosophy

Categories: Transcendentalism

For the transcendentalist, the “I” transcends the corporeal and yet nature is the embodiment of the transcendence and, or, the means to achieving transcendence, which gives way to a belief that the physical “T” is at the root of all transcendence. In practical terms, the transcendentalist is occupied with the natural over the synthetic (though it is doubtful that either Kant or Emerson would have couched it in those terms) and determines value as it relates to the individual.

Among the most noted of the Transcendentalist philosophers have been Emmanual Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The connection between transcendentalism and utopian thinking is not always clear; inasmuch as the individual holds the highest measure of transcendence; however, the importance that is placed on nature and natural living within nature has spawned communal beliefs based on transcendental thought. As Catherine Keller sees it, “Our civilization,” she writes, “is centered on the assumption that an individual is a discrete being: I am cleanly divided from the surrounding world of persons and places….

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For our culture it is separation which prepares the way for selfhood. Realizing that “real” selfhood has thus been reserved for men (whose masculinity is culturally defined by such separation), … To be “on one’s own” does not necessarily mean to be out of relation. Is there even such a thing as a separate self at all-or only a posture?” (quoted in Zimmerman 646). The current debate is centered on the discussion of the future and whether the ‘utopia’ that evolves will be valid and, or, founded on transcendentalist philosophies.

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Brook Farm, the New England Transcendentalists’ experiment in communal living is perhaps the most famous of America’s intentional communities. Fruitlands, a smaller contemporary of Brook Farm, was also based on the transcendental thought of early American philosophers. Richard Francis has examined these two, as well as Walden (Thoreau’s “Community of One”) (218), in terms of Transcendental utopian thought. He gives an in-depth analysis of such themes as the relationship between individuality and community and between order and disorder. He first presents what he labels ‘The Transcendental paradox’ as a combination of the exaltation of the individual with the search for perfect community, or, put differently, its simultaneous affirmation of order and disorder (ixX, 2). He defines Fourierism as the highly ordered type of communitarianism that Brook Farm adopted and posits that it was the best solution to the paradox the

Transcendentalists could find. “In short, what Fourierism had to offer was not the replacement of poetry with substantiality … but a substantial rendering of the poetic vision that was at the heart of Transcendentalism from its early days. It turns a mystical intuition of a patterned world into a practical program” (71). He believes that Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden were originally conceptualized through the Transcendentalist precepts and “what Fourierism did was to give a formal basis to the assumptions on which [the Brook Farmers] had been working all along” (88).

Edward Wilson presents the observation that transcendentalism and religious thought is in opposition to empiricism and that the human mind and culture rose from millions of years of combined genetic and cultural evolution. He sets this as the “empiricist world view of the human condition” (30). He proposes that Transcendentalism will lose its followers and believers in the natural utopian order. He states, “I believe that the clear expression of the competition between the two hypotheses–transcendentalism and empiricism–will be the twenty-first century’s version of the struggle for human souls. I believe also that the winner of this struggle will be empiricism, with the recognition that, while throughout the genetic history of the human brain we evolved to believe one truth, in the end, with courage and intellect and luck, we have discovered another truth” (33).

Stella Gaon has provided a scholarly discourse examining the relationship between Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative ethics and the Transcendentalist’s thought on community. Habermas’s shift from solitary reflection to inter-subjective agreement on moral norms explicates the moral “dignity” of the ability to universalize in the terms of inter-subjectivity. “In contrast to Kantian morality then, discourse ethics attempt to treat the reality of moral pluralism in a post-traditional world, and it does so precisely through a shift from monologic to dialogic modes of normative legitimization. Now, once the actuality of moral pluralism is acknowledged, and once it is agreed that normative claims may be contingent upon one’s social, historical, or cultural context, it becomes apparent that the possibility of universal moral validity depends directly on the difference between contingent and universal norms. In other words, if he is to de-transcendentalize Kantian moral theory by discarding the doctrine of the two realms without, at the same time, sacrificing the possibility of moral universalism, Habermas must draw a sharp distinction – here and now in everyday practice, so to speak; he must be able to distinguish between norms that are amenable to rational argumentation and therefore may be said to be universally justified- norms that constitute the so-called moral sphere – and norms that follow from particular notions of the good life and, as such, resist rational, consensual resolution (i.e., so-called ethical norms)” (686).

According to Gaon, “Habermas formulates the principle as follows: a contested norm cannot meet with the consent of all of the participants in a practical discourse unless (U) holds, that is, unless all affected can freely accept the consequences and the side effects that the general observance of a controversial norm can be expected to have for the satisfaction of the interests of each individual” (quoted in Goan 688). Her argument, based on Habermas, follows that of Wilson in the belief that empiricism will have a greater effect on future utopian constructs than will transcendentalist thought. In his Selected Essays, Karl Otto Apel has argued for an approach to philosophy, which he calls ‘transcendental semiotics’. The book focuses on a discussion of central issues in theoretical philosophy (such as meaning, reference, truth, etc.); and offers methodological reflections on the advantages of the linguistic paradigm in transcendental philosophy. The aim of Apel’s analysis is to confront the postmodern tendency to interpret the debate between metaphysics and empiricism. His argument is centered on the need for Transcendental examination of the empirical world in order to continue the process of theory into content as it applies to universality and, or, utopian considerations in future community planning.

Roderick Nash’s, The Rights of Nature proposes that a futuristic model of community based on the environmental movement is possible by integrating current environmental precepts with the religious model for environmentalism already existing within the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He believes that the theoretical problems Emerson faced in establishing transcendentalism anticipate elements of the contemporary debate about environmental concerns. Nash explains the purpose of the book in the preface: “I am not trying to write philosophically about environmental ethics or natural rights or liberalism; I am not prescribing ways to think about the rights of human beings balanced against those of nature” (xi). What he is able to do is to offer a history of environmental ethics through comparison with the transcendental beliefs of inclusion and importance of nature as an essential component of community. Environmental ethics represents “the farthest limits of American liberalism,” the product of an evolution that has moved “from the natural rights of a limited group of humans to the rights of parts or, in some theories, all of nature.” By 1985, according to Nash, “the idea of extending natural rights to include the rights of nature could no longer be brushed aside as a perversion of liberalism. For increasing numbers it was the new frontier of that philosophy”(4, 32).

A comprehensive review of the Transcendental position on nature and community is provided in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, including the original essay Nature, first published in 1836. The essays found in this collection reflect the foundation of Transcendental thought: the notion of self-culture, the highest development of the human nature found within individuals – a human nature that is meant to be explored and nourished through community. The religious rhetoric of Emerson’s Transcendentalism supplies a surprising and complex understanding of contemporary environmentalism that meshes well with the writings of Nash. The essay on Nature, specifically, provides a foundation for the conceptualization and integration of nature, spirit and idealistic beliefs in community. Nature, to Emerson, is empirical as well as spiritual. It possesses an objective status that bridges the empirical and the sacred, or divine. “Crossing a bare common” brought Emerson “a perfect exhilaration,” and the woods gave him “perpetual youth.” He could stand “on the bare ground,” with his head “bathed by the blithe air,” and confess to becoming “a transparent eye-ball.” It was through the experience of nature that he found transcendence: “I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”(1-10). For Emerson, the answer began in an acknowledgment of “an occult relation between man and the vegetable”(1:10). The human world reflected nature, and Emerson searched the empirical processes of nature to find the a priori meaning of human life. He found no contradiction in the belief that empiricism and transcendentalism were cohabitors of the same philosophical base for community.

Surprisingly, a similar belief is found in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, according to Gordon Miller, “Consideration of natural phenomena in themselves thus often occupied Edwards’ mind, but they could never fully satisfy his spirit: the light of the world was only truly interesting to him as an occasion for increasing the light of the soul. From his earliest walks in his father’s pasture, however, nature and spirit occasionally coalesced: he remarked in one instance that as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express’. … In accordance with his Calvinistic division of humanity into the spiritual and the natural, Edwards distinguished between a first-class and a second-class dimension of knowing” (30-31). “For Emerson, insight into the divine presence in nature involved escaping egotism and becoming a transparent eyeball’ so that the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me’. Edwards had borne witness to a divine and supernatural light’, but he would have thought it impossible for the human soul, darkened by the stain of sin, to have become so transparent as to disappear in the brilliance of that beam” (34). Both Emerson and Edwards were able to understand empirical experience through the auspices of transcendental thought.

Quentin Anderson’s book, Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money, gives a historical perspective of Transcendental thought including, among others, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, John Dewey, Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, and William Carlos Williams. His thesis is that the claim to “possess all in vision,” by Emerson was an attempt, doomed from the start, to counter the prevailing cultural ethos of unrestricted commercialism. He argues that the utopian beliefs of the Transcendentalist were a result of the rejection of commercialism in pursuit of an identity outside of the quest for material acquisition. He sees the transcendental movement as a sign of the idealistic notion of freedom that most Americans had during the establishment of independent government. The title of the first chapter is “Builders of their Own Worlds,” the builders being Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, who are seen as the initiators of a movement bent on defining an American identity. Anderson posits the belief that the Transcendentalist, and other idealistic movements, efforts to change society were ineffectual because they were driven by individual emotional needs and ignored the necessities of social structure. He seems to be arguing against the transcendental idealistic community while also negating the importance of empiricism. His argument is interesting in that he ignores the primary ingredient of nature and does not see the evolution of the Transcendentalist community within the modern environmental movement.

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, Quentin. Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.
  2. Apel, Karl Otto. “Selected Essays”, vol 1: Towards a Transcendental Semiotics. New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1994.
  3. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature, Addresses, and Lectures”, vol. I of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ferguson, Alfred R. et al. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, Belknap, 1971.
  4. Francis, Richard. Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.
  5. Gaon, Stella. “Pluralizing universal ‘man’: the legacy of transcendentalism and teleology in Habermas’s discourse ethics.” The Review of Politics, September 1998: pp. 685- 727.
  6. Miller, Gordon. “Jonathan Edwards’ sublime book of nature.” History Today, July 1996: pp. 29-37.
  7. Nash, Roderick Frazier. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics, History of American Thought and Culture. Madison, WS: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  8. Wilson, Edward O. “The Two Hypotheses of Human Meaning.” 
  9. The Humanist September 1999: pp. 30-40.
  10. Zimmerman, Lee. “An eye for an I: Emerson and some “true” poems of Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Robert Penn Warren, and Adrienne Rich.”
  11. Contemporary Literature December 1992: pp. 645-720.

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A History of the Transcendentalism Movement in Philosophy. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-history-of-the-transcendentalism-movement-in-philosophy-essay

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