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Transcendentalism

TRANSCENDENTALISM

TRANSCENDENTALISM was a movement for religious renewal, literary innovation, and social transformation. Its ideas were grounded in the claim that divine truth could be known intuitively. Based in New England and existing in various forms from the 1830s to the 1880s, transcendentalism is usually considered the principal expression of romanticism in America. Many prominent ministers, reformers, and writers of the era were associated with it, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Theodore Parker (1810–1860), Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), and Orestes Brownson (1803–1876).

Various organizations and periodicals gave the movement shape. The earliest was the so-called "Transcendental Club" (1836–1840), an informal group that met to discuss intellectual and religious topics; also important was the "Saturday Club," organized much later (1854). Many transcendentalists participated in the utopian communities of Brook Farm (1841–1848; located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts), founded by George Ripley (1802–1880) and his wife, Sophia Dana Ripley (1803–1861), and the short-lived Fruitlands (1843–1844; located in Harvard, Massachusetts), founded by Alcott. A number of transcendentalist ministers established experimental churches to give their religious ideas institutional form. The most important of these churches were three in Boston: Orestes Brownson's Society for Christian Union and Progress (1836–1841); the Church of the Disciples (founded 1841), pastored by James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888); and Theodore Parker's Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society (founded 1845–1846). The most famous transcendentalist magazine was the Dial (1840–1844), edited by Fuller and then by Emerson; other major periodicals associated with the movement included the Boston Quarterly Review (1838–1842), edited by Brownson, and the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847–1850), edited by Parker.

Transcendentalism emerged from Unitarianism, or "liberal Christianity"—an anti-Calvinist, anti-Trinitarian, anticreedal offshoot of Puritanism that had taken hold among the middle and upper classes of eastern Massachusetts. The founders of transcendentalism were Unitarian intellectuals who came of age, or became Unitarians, in the 1820s and 1830s. From Unitarianism the transcendentalists took a concern for self-culture, a sense of moral seriousness, a neo-Platonic concept of piety, a tendency toward individualism, a belief in the importance of literature, and an interest in moral reform. They looked to certain Unitarians as mentors, especially the great Boston preacher William Ellery Channing. Yet transcendentalists came to reject key aspects of the Unitarian worldview, starting with their rational, historical Christian apologetic.

The Unitarian apologetic took as its starting point the thesis of the British philosopher John Locke that all knowledge, including religious knowledge, was based on sense data. The Unitarians were not strict Lockeans; under the influence of the Scottish "Common Sense" philosophers, notably Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, they held that some fundamental knowledge could be known intuitively—for example, that certain things were morally right and wrong, and that the world that human senses perceive in fact exists. Nonetheless, Unitarians held that only "objective" evidence could prove Jesus had delivered an authoritative revelation from God. They believed they had found such evidence in the testimony, provided in the Gospels, of Jesus' miracles. The Unitarians valued the historical study of Gospel accounts, in order to prove them "genuine" and therefore credible.

Transcendentalists rejected as "sensual" and "materialistic" Unitarianism's Lockean assumptions about the mind, and were inspired instead by German philosophical idealism. Its seminal figure, Immanuel Kant, argued that sense data were structured by the mind according to certain "transcendental" categories (such as space, time, and cause and effect), which did not inhere in the data, but in the mind itself. The transcendentalists liked the Kantian approach, which gave the mind, not matter, ultimate control over the shape of human experience. The name of their movement was derived from Kant's philosophical term. Yet the transcendentalists, unlike Kant but like other Romantics (and, to an extent, the Common Sense philosophers), held that religious knowledge itself could be intuitively known. According to this view, people could tell "subjectively" that Jesus had given a revelation from God, because his doctrine was self-evidently true and his life self-evidently good.

The transcendentalist apologetic turned out to have radical implications. Because transcendentalists believed religious truth could be known naturally, like any other truth, they tended to reject the idea of miraculous inspiration as unnecessary and to dismiss as false the claim made for the Bible that it had unique miraculous authority. Transcendentalists still respected Jesus, but the more radical of them, like Emerson in his Divinity School Address (1838), and Parker in Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841), attacked the miracle stories in the Gospels as pious myths. Such attacks were highly controversial; theologically conservative Unitarians accused the transcendentalists of being infidels and atheists. Meanwhile, the transcendentalists began to see religious value in sacred writings beyond the Bible, including those of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. The transcendentalists became pioneers in the American study of comparative religion.

Another implication of intuitionism had to do with the role of the artist. The transcendentalists believed all human inspiration, whether biblical or not, drew from the same divine source. They did not hold religious inspiration to be mundane, like artistic and intellectual inspiration; rather, they held that artistic and intellectual inspiration, like religious inspiration, were divine. The artist, in particular the poet, gained new importance to the transcendentalists as a potential prophet figure, and poetry as a potential source of divine revelation. Emerson was being characteristically transcendentalist when in his first book, Nature (1836), he sought to achieve wholly honest, beautiful, and original forms of expression. In his address "American Scholar" (1837), meanwhile, he called on American writers to stop imitating foreign models; actually, the transcendentalists promoted American interest in foreign Romantic writers, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832).

Intuitionism also affected the transcendentalist approach to social and political problems. Transcendentalists


believed laws should be disobeyed if moral intuition held them to be unjust. Thoreau famously argued this point in his essay "Civil Disobedience" (1848; also called "Resistance to Civil Government"). He here advised individuals to disobey unjust laws so as to prevent their personal involvement in evil.

More broadly, the transcendentalists held that inspiration was blunted by social conformity, which therefore must be resisted. This is a theme of Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) and Thoreau's book Walden (1854). When approaching the education of children, the transcendentalists advocated innovative methods that supposedly developed a child's innate knowledge; Alcott tried out transcendentalist methods at his famous experimental Boston school in the mid-1830s. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), who later played a major role in bringing the European kindergarten to America, described Alcott's approach in her Record of a School (1835), as did Alcott himself in his Conversations with Children on the Gospels (1836).

Transcendentalists also came to criticize existing social arrangements, which they thought prevented individual spiritual development. There were calls and attempts to change what were seen as oppressive economic structures. Orestes Brownson, in his Boston Quarterly Review articles on the "Laboring Classes" (1840), advocated abolition of inherited private property. George and Sophia Ripley, with others, tried to make Brook Farm a place with no gap between thinkers and workers. Eventually, the Farmers adopted a system inspired by the French socialist Charles Fourier, who believed that in a properly organized society (one he planned in minute detail), people could accomplish all necessary social work by doing only what they were naturally inclined to do. Margaret Fuller, meanwhile, criticized the lack of educational, political, and economic opportunities for women of the era. In the famous series of "conversations" she led for women (1839–1844), Fuller set out to encourage their intellectual development, and in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1846), issued a famous manifesto in favor of women's rights. She came to embody many of the principles she advocated, and became a significant literary critic and journalist, as well as a participant in the Roman Revolution of 1848.

The transcendentalists saw slavery as inherently wrong because it crushed the spiritual development of slaves. They protested against slavery in various ways and a few of them, most notably Parker, became leaders of the abolitionist movement. Finally, the transcendentalists laid great value on the spiritual value of nature; Thoreau, particularly, is regarded as a principal forerunner of the modern environmental movement.

Transcendentalism has always had its critics. It has been accused of subverting Christianity; of assessing human nature too optimistically and underestimating human weakness and potential for evil; of placing too much emphasis on the self-reliant individual at the expense of society and social reform. Yet even those hostile to transcendentalism must concede that American literature, religion, philosophy, and politics have been shaped by the movement in profound ways.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Capper, Charles, and Conrad E. Wright, eds. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999.

Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Packer, Barbara, "The Transcendentalists." In The Cambridge History of American Literature. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Vol. 2: Prose Writing 1820–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

DeanGrodzins

See alsoIndividualism ; Philosophy ; Romanticism ; Utopian Communities ; Walden .

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Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism

Sources

Origins. Transcendentalism was a literary, religious, and philosophical movement that began in New England in the 1830s. It had no formal structure or doctrine but rather consisted of the ideas of a group of people who shared a common outlook and interests. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Augustus Brownson, and many others met frequently near Boston for conversation and in 1840 began publishing a periodical, The Dial, to express their views. While topics of discussion ranged over a variety of subjects from education to slavery to the distinctiveness of the American character, most Transcendentalists saw the movement as essentially spiritual. Like many others of their day, they were religious seekers with enthusiasm for utopianism and social reform. They were distinguished, however, by the intellectual rigor with which they explored their interests and their incorporation of a wide variety of traditions, including ancient mysticism and other nonChristian beliefs, in their quest for spiritual truth.

Inward Experience. Although several Transcendentalists, notably James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and William Henry Channing, were Unitarian ministers, as a general rule the movement was not based around the practice of public worship in a church. Dissatisfied with the doctrines and styles of worship of the established churches, most Transcendentalists rejected religious dogma in favor of a simple belief in human moral potential and intuitive capacity for discovering spiritual truth. They believed that divinity lay in man and nature, and so true religion meant seeking the divine in oneself and ones surroundings. Inward experience was seen as the ultimate path to spiritual satisfaction, and thus they cultivated a lifestyle that encouraged contemplation, communing with nature, continuing education, and creative expression. Many kept regular journals, which they considered invaluable tools in the process of self-examination.

Communal Interests. Along with their commitment to the development of the individual, many Transcendentalists also held a deep appreciation for communal activities. They shared their private journals with one another and laid almost ritual significance on their regular meetings for conversation. Several became involved in the development of Utopian communities, which they believed might provide ideal conditions for personal growth and living in harmony with nature. In 1841 Unitarian minister George Ripley established a 160-acre community called Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where all members worked together at agriculture, industry, and crafts. Many Transcendentalists became frequent visitors or members of the farm, where they created a well-respected school and held cultural events and public conversations, until a fire destroyed much of the community in 1846. In 1843 Alcott established another community, Fruitlands, thirty miles from Boston. Members were required to conform to restrictive patterns of eating, dress, and hygiene that were intended to be socially conscious (cotton was forbidden because it was produced by the slavery of people, wool because of the slavery of sheep) and conducive to personal development. Some of the ideals set for the community proved hard to meet, and when one influential member sought to introduce celibacy, the experiment came to an end after only seven months.

Reform and Influence. The impulse toward improving or even perfecting society that drew many Transcendentalists to utopianism was also manifest in their involvement in social reform movements and educational endeavors. Drawing on the liberal, rationalistic tradition of Unitarianism, they rejected the widespread Calvinist notion that humans are innately sinful and helpless before God, accepting instead that man is a moral creature with a natural capacity to do good. Seeking to cultivate this capacity in themselves and others, they spoke out on social issues from economic inequality to slavery to womens rights. While Transcendentalist publications were poorly circulated in their time, Emerson and others drew public attention to their ideas on religion, literature, philosophy, and social issues by traveling the country on a lecture circuit where they addressed as many as fifty thousand people at a time. Many of their listeners were undoubtedly moved by what they heard, but the diffuse and informal nature of the Transcendentalist movement makes its popular influence difficult to gauge. It is clear, however, that Transcendentalism had a lasting impact on American literature, particularly through the works of Emerson, and laid the groundwork for new movements as diverse as the tradition of theological liberalism of the later nineteenth century and the environmental conservation movement of the early twentieth century.

Sources

Catherine L. Albanese, Corresponding Motion: Transcendental Religion and the New America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977);

Paul F. Boller Jr. American Transcendentalism, 18301860: An Intellectual Inquiry (New York: Putnam, 1974).

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transcendentalism (American literary and philosophical movement)

transcendentalism (trăn´sĕndĕn´təlĬzəm) [Lat.,=overpassing], in literature, philosophical and literary movement that flourished in New England from about 1836 to 1860. It originated among a small group of intellectuals who were reacting against the orthodoxy of Calvinism and the rationalism of the Unitarian Church, developing instead their own faith centering on the divinity of humanity and the natural world. Transcendentalism derived some of its basic idealistic concepts from romantic German philosophy, notably that of Immanuel Kant, and from such English authors as Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Its mystical aspects were partly influenced by Indian and Chinese religious teachings. Although transcendentalism was never a rigorously systematic philosophy, it had some basic tenets that were generally shared by its adherents. The beliefs that God is immanent in each person and in nature and that individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional authority.

The ideas of transcendentalism were most eloquently expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in such essays as "Nature" (1836), "Self-Reliance," and "The Over-Soul" (both 1841), and by Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden (1854). The movement began with the occasional meetings of a group of friends in Boston and Concord to discuss philosophy, literature, and religion. Originally calling themselves the Hedge Club (after one of the members), they were later dubbed the Transcendental Club by outsiders because of their discussion of Kant's "transcendental" ideas. Besides Emerson and Thoreau, its most famous members, the club included F. H. Hedge, George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and others. For several years much of their writing was published in The Dial (1840–44), a journal edited by Fuller and Emerson. The cooperative community Brook Farm (1841–47) grew out of their ideas on social reform, which also found expression in their many individual actions against slavery. Primarily a movement seeking a new spiritual and intellectual vitality, transcendentalism had a great impact on American literature, not only on the writings of the group's members, but on such diverse authors as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

See anthologies ed. by G. W. Cooke (1903, repr. 1971) and P. Miller (1950; 1957, repr. 1981); O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876, repr. 1972); J. Porte, Emerson and Thoreau (1966); M. Simon and T. H. Parsons, ed., Transcendentalism and Its Legacy (1966); L. Buell, Literary Transcendentalism (1973).

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transcendentalism

tran·scen·den·tal·ism / ˌtranˌsenˈdentlˌizəm/ • n. 1. (Transcendentalism) an idealistic philosophical and social movement that developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were central figures. 2. a system developed by Immanuel Kant, based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience. DERIVATIVES: tran·scen·den·tal·ist (also Tran·scen·den·tal·ist) n. & adj.

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transcendentalism (in philosophy)

transcendentalism, in philosophy, term descriptive of systems that hold that there are modes of being and principles of existence beyond the reach of mundane experience and manipulation. The term is now closely associated with Kantian theory, although some conception of transcendent being has been common to most forms of philosophical idealism. Kant argues that perception of sense data depends on a priori intuitions, which include conception of space and time and categories of judgment. For Kant, "transcendental" refers to conditions necessary for the possibility of experience, while "transcendent" refers to a noumenon, something unknowable and beyond the realm of possible experience.

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transcendentalism

transcendentalism School of philosophy that traced its origin to the idealism of Immanuel Kant. It concerned itself not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects. It spread from Germany to England, where Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle came under its influence. In the mid-19th century, it spread to the USA, where its proponents included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In general, it emphasized individual (as opposed to collective) moral and spiritual responsibilities and rejected materialism, returning to nature for spiritual guidance.

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transcendentalism

transcendentalism This is the belief that God stands outside and independent of the universe of which He is the Creator. It is normally contrasted with the idea of immanence—the belief that God dwells in the world. The doctrine of immanence is common in pantheism, in which human beings and Nature are thought to be aspects of an all-inclusive divinity. Monotheism is normally transcendentalist. See also RELIGION; THEISM.

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