views updated May 21 2018


From the Latin transcendere, meaning to climb over, to surpass, or to go beyond, a term describing the relation existing between two things when one is superior and extrinsic to the other, e.g., God and the world, animal and plant, and knower and thing known. It implies an aspect of discontinuity, hiatus, or break between both the realities involved and the means of passing from the one to the other, and this either in reality or in knowledge. Transcendence is opposed to immanence, which stresses remaining within or under, although the two can be regarded as complementary. Thus God is transcendent, since He is above the world as the highest being and the ultimate cause; He is also immanent, since He is present in the world through participation and through causality. The notion of transcendence is basic in theology and religion in their treatment of God and to philosophy in its treatment of knowledge and of being.

Kinds. An understanding of the notion of transcendence requires that one distinguish its various meanings, namely, cosmological, ontological, epistemological, phenomenological, and mathematical.

Cosmological Transcendence. The first meaning of transcendence is one of relative comparison. It indicates a certain hierarchy, whether in place or time, or of being or activity. The transcendence is determined by the way one thing is related to another and can lead from the existence of the one to the existence of the other. Thus "going beyond" in this sense suggests the hierarchical steps passed over in a dialectical consideration of realities from the lower type to the higheste.g., the ideas of Plato transcending the world of appearances. Another instance is that based on the relationship between effect and cause; thus St. Thomas Aquinas's "five ways" conclude to the existence of an ultimate being who, as ultimate efficient cause, transcends all beings (see god, proofs for the existence of). Similarly, the existence of a transcendent being without causal implications may be established (via eminentiae ). In each case there is a factual transcendence in the relationship of a multiplicity of beings to a higher being beyond them. This is opposed to the notion of cosmological immanence, which stresses, for example, that God is in fact within the universe even though He is qualitatively a higher type of being.

Ontological Transcendence. Transcendence is used also to indicate the value or quality that makes one being superior to another and to explain why this is so. It is primarily concerned with degrees of perfection (see perfection, ontological). Ontological transcendence thus has reference to the above average or the above normal, and is determined by what the transcendent thing is in itself or in its ontological value. God is transcendent as the being who is greatest in perfection, considering that perfection absolutely; all limitation in perfection is denied of Him (via negationis, via remotionis ).

Epistemological Transcendence. Transcendence also signifies what is beyond thought as its object, i.e., something known or knowable by man. Epistemological transcendence signifies "going beyond" mind either (1) to some being known as an object existing in reality, (2) to some reality beyond sense data such as an underlying substance or the exercise of causality, or (3) to some being above the world, such as God. It is opposed to the immanence of knowledge, i.e., the enclosing of self within the mind, and frequently implies a rejection of phenomenalism, materialism, and naturalism.

Phenomenological Transcendence. Transcendence also signifies something beyond consciousness as its object. Phenomenological transcendence stresses the value of intentionality in the knowing subject and assures both the objectivity of the activity of knowing and the objective reality of the thing known. It analyzes human subjectivity to discover the contents of man's awareness and their extramental foundations. Phenomenological transcendence thus aims at overcoming the difficulties of the critique of reason that lead to epistemological immanence.

Mathematical Transcendence. Finally, transcendence is used in mathematics to designate functions and numbers that are transfinite or indefinite according to particular operational norms. Thus a transcendental number is defined as a number that is not the root of an algebraic equation with rational coefficients.

Problem of Transcendence. The problem of transcendence consists in finding out whether there is an absolute transcendent being, and, if so, in determining what this being is and why it is higher and better, yet knowable, or enigmatic yet attainable. The absolute that is conceived as transcendent may be considered in many ways, namely, (1) simply as a more perfect nature that stands apart from this world (plato); (2) as a justification of the value of human knowledge in its truth, necessity, and certainty (St. augustine); (3) as the cause of this world in its beginning and in its continuance, as regards both its existence and its essence (St. thomas aquinas);(4) as the object implied in human consciousness that demands the presence of the other, namely, as cause of and horizon for the meaningfulness in one's consciousness (phenomenology); or (5) as the explicit infinite reality that is implicit in any knowledge or expression concerning the finite universe (St. bonaventure).

The dialectical movements and the reasoning processes that lead to the absolute as an existent whose reality cannot be denied vary according to the framework in which thought about the transcendent is developed. Such inquiry is prominent in contemporary thought, with its concern over the ontological question of extramental existence and the related epistemological question of the possibility of knowing anything beyond consciousness. Both in contemporary thought and throughout history, however, philosophers vary greatly in the solutions they offer.

Historical Solutions. A survey of various theories of transcendence may best be given in terms of the answers of philosophers to questions concerning the possibility of mind's transcending itself (1) to know anything other than itself, (2) to know substance or soul, and (3) to know God.

Objects beyond Thought. Is there any thing or object beyond thought? "Un au-delà de la pensée est impensable" expresses the negative answer of E. le roy and of L. brunschvicg. Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle and medieval thinkers such as Bonaventure, St. Thomas, and J. duns scotus accepted as a matter of fact that knowledge can grasp things existing in the world. Modern philosophy, beginning with R. Descartes's reflective Cogito, ergo sum, introduced a chasm between mind as spirit and matter as extension. The objectivity of knowledge thenceforth had to be certified or guaranteed by a higher power that did not depend on the very activity of knowing. The agnostic attitude of British empiricism had its influence on the phenomenalism of I. Kant, who limited valid knowledge to the phenomena of verifiable sense perception.

The theory of intentionality developed by St. Thomas served as a metaphysical explanation of the nature of knowledge. His theory of reflection on the activity of knowing and its subject also provided the psychological means of verifying knowledge by a process within the range of human activity. Contemporary phenomenology, readapting the theory of intentionality, seeks to recover the objectivity of knowledge by a reflection on subjectivity; this opens, through intentionality, to objectivity itself. Such intentionality assures the presence of the object known as something in reality and avoids the Kantian formalities of sensation and thought that serve as substitutes for the existent in the elaboration of knowledge. The subject-object dichotomy, with its hiatus requiring a jump from the self to the other, is there replaced by a subjectivity-objectivity couplet that is linked, from within, by intentionality.

Substance and Soul. Ancient and medieval thinkers for the most part accepted the possibility of the human mind's grasping intrinsic principles or transphenomenal factors in the universe. Yet the late Middle Ages, as seen in william of ockham and nicholas of autrecourt, proposed theories that questioned the power of the human mind to grasp universals, underlying substance, and intrinsic principles such as the soul. The history of the concept of substance from R. descartes to D. hume again shows a slow disintegration of the notion and a questioning of its validity. With Kant, theoretical knowledge of any object not verifiable by sense perception becomes impossible. The critical problem of the possibility of knowing the thing-in-itself or its underlying principles has been accentuated by the skeptical stands taken by proponents of logical positivism and of linguistic analysis.

God. Can the mind transcend itself to know something beyond both the world of material reality and itself, namely, God? Again theories of intentionality and self-reflection seek to assure the objectivity of knowledge and to extend its validity further into the realm of the immaterial. Yet the God suggested in Plato and Aristotle and affirmed as discoverable by medieval Christian thinkers has slowly come to be regarded as beyond attainment. Reasons alleged by later thinkers include that such a being would be meaningless as an object of thought or irrelevant as an explanation of the universe or simply would involve a contradiction. Again, the need of appealing to God to explain or justify the world seems no longer to be felt. The basic choice has become that between God and the self: the existence of God seems to imply, for some, an alienation and a belittling of self. Thus agnosticism and atheism have developed as modern rejections of transcendence.

On the other hand, the existence of a transcendent God is affirmed in the many forms of religious and philosophical transcendentalism, albeit with great variations as to God's knowability. Some, considering God to be knowable only by way of negation, hold that nothing positive can be known about God; others, considering God to be knowable by analogy and by causality, hold that God is knowable as an ideal toward which man must tend; still others, considering human knowledge to be a simple participation of God's knowledge, feel that an adequate understanding of God is attainable through the development of human insights; and finally some, despairing of attaining God through reason, seek the pathway to a transcendent God through the heart and through human emotions.

The "five ways" of St. Thomas serve as a basis for developing a knowledge of God by way of causality, of remotion, and of super excellence and through the use of analogy of attribution, of participation, and of proportionality. Contemporary personalist and existentialist philosophers, avoiding the problems posed by causality and starting their philosophizing with things and objects, attempt to develop proofs for the existence of God through reflection on the person and consciousness. Whereas for modern philosophers the notion of a transcendent God was unacceptable, for many contemporary thinkers the affirmation of a transcendent God is again considered meaningful and legitimate. The ontological God of the earlier philosophers, however, tends to give way to a living God in the tradition of biblical thought. Again, with the phenomenological investigations of M. Heidegger and K. Jaspers, a new approach to the transcendent is visible, even though this is not properly theistic (see existentialism, 2, 5). Somewhat similar is the effort made within personalism to rediscover, by use of new methods and with different emphases, a personal God who is truly transcendent.

See Also: motion, first cause of; transcendental (kantian); transcendentalism; transcendentals.

Bibliography: p. foulquiÉ and r. saint-jean, Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique (Paris 1962) 731734. d. mackenzie, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 12:419425. a. carlini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:128994. g. giannini, ibid. 12971306. h. blumenberg, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:989997. a. dondeyne, Contemporary European Thought and Christian Faith, tr. e. mcmullin and j. byrnheim (Pittsburgh 1958; repr. 1963). h. spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 2 v. (The Hague 1960). a. banfi, Immanenza et trascendenza come antinomia filosofica (Alessandria 1924). g. bontadini, "Critica dell antinomia di trascendenza e di immanenza," Giornale critico filosofia italiana 10 (1929) 226236. p. thÉvanez, "La notion de transcendance vers l'intérieur," in his L'Homme et sa raison, 2 v. (Neuchâtel 1956) 1:2955.

[b. a. gendreau]


views updated May 21 2018


The term "transcendence" is used in philosophical and theological discussions about the relationship of God to the world. Its opposite is "immanence." Recently transcendence has been used as a technical umbrella term to designate the divine dimension as sensed by all religions, a generic term to include not only the God of monotheism, but also such "things" as the Hindu Brahman, the Taoist Tao, possibly the nirvāṇa of Buddhists, and any other ultimate or sacred dimension in religion, philosophy, or spiritual practice. In fact, a reference to some transcendent dimension in faith, ritual, obedience, prayer, or other acts might even be a way to define religion.

In the earlier discussions it was often said that Deists conceived of a transcendent God who created the world and then "withdrew" to let the world run its course. The opposite view was that of pantheists, who identified God with the world or with part of the world. Theists occupied a middle position, God creating the world and then having either a constant sustaining relation to the world or else occasional relationships to the world in acts of revelation, miracles, and, for Christians, the incarnation of Christ. God could also be conceived as having both a constant sustaining relationship and occasional special relations. "Transcendence" and "immanence" are, of course, metaphors, spatial terms for the superiority or identity of God's metaphysical or moral character with the world, especially humanity. Recently process philosophers think of all existents, including God, as both transcendent and immanent to each other.

Simplifying the complexities of historical traditions, transcendence of the divine can be seen in most of the world's religions. This transcendence often has a dual aspect of gift and demand, which can be seen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, three major monotheistic faiths. Thus for the early Hebrews God's election of and continuing faithfulness to his people "transcended" or exceeded their worth or merit to earn this election and faithfulness. At the same time, the demand that Israel be faithful "transcended" Israel's ability to maintain complete faithfulness. In the later Jewish rabbinical tradition the Torah is a sign of God's favor, again transcending Israel's merit, combined with the demand that the laws of God be obeyed, a demand exceeding Israel's capacity to completely fulfill. In the teachings of Jesus there is the Kingdom of God, which transcends human power to bring it about, plus the transcendent call for perfection. In Paul and the later Christian tradition both the law and the gospel, good works and grace, are beyond human power. At the heart of Islam is the cry that Allah is greater than any creature, that his mercy and judgment are far beyond any human mercy or judgment.

Transcendence may also be a useful term in understanding other religions. For example, Brahman seems to be a nonpersonal superior reality for some Hindus. Likewise, the transcendent Buddha body goes beyond this phenomenal world, and perhaps nirvana itself is transcendent. Also the Tao, which is unknowable and cannot be named, seems to transcend the myriad things of this world for Taoism.

Scholars disagree on the usefulness of transcendence as a term for understanding the religions of many indigenous peoples or contemporary Neopaganism. Is there a transcendent dimension in these religions, or does their apparent polytheism prevent a full disclosure of transcendence? There is evidence that these religions have as strong a sense of both the transcendence and immanence of the divine as any other. There is also controversy on whether the Confucian tradition has a sense of transcendence. Some interpreters see the wisdom of past sages and the goal of sagehood as elements of transcendence. A full treatment of transcendence in the world's religions would also have to show when and how the transcendent is immanent within this world.

Transcendence can be thought of as helpful, useless, or dangerous. In one's personal life transcendence might be thought of as a helpful source of safety, power, or joy that goes beyond the merely finite resources of this world. However, as removed and distant, transcendence might be seen as irrelevant to this life. It might also be felt as dangerously oppressive, squelching the joys of life in the name of a fossilized tradition. In social and political affairs transcendence can also be thought of in these three ways. As blessing one's nation or cause it is helpful. As an impossible ideal it may be seen as irrelevant and thus needing to be separated from the affairs of the everyday world. It might also be seen as giving sanction to tyranny and the violence of hate groups. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, has always been a religious group. For various liberation movements the transcendent element in religion provides a fulcrum to challenge the status quo. Another debate concerns whether the transcendence of God alienates us from the significance of the natural world and thus increases the environmental crisis, or whether transcendence can challenge consumerism, habitat destruction, population explosion, and the depletion and poisoning of resources.

Recently a movement that could be called religious naturalism has gained momentum. This approach sees the divine as totally immanent (inherent) in all or part of the world. Typically in this view the divine or sacred is the aspect of the world that leads to the increase of value or the flourishing of creatures, instead of a special being called "God." This movement had its origins in Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth century; its twentieth-century advocates include the British Samuel Alexander, George Burman Foster, Edward Scribner Ames, Henry Nelson Wieman, and later Bernard Loomer of Chicago, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, and Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Recent proponents include Charley Hardwick, Henry Levinson, Robert Mesle, Wes Robbins, Marvin Shaw, and Jerome Stone. Biologist Ursula Goodenough's feelings of mystery, wonder, and awe over the "infinite and infinitesimal" are close to this. Religious naturalists disagree as to whether the divine is all or only part of this world and also whether it is a process, network, or plurality.

See alsoCreationism; Divinity; God; Hinduism; Judaism; Nature Religion; Neopaganism; NirvĀṆa; Pantheism; Process Theology; Religious Experience; Taoism; Theism; Theodicy.


Goldsmith, Emanuel, and Mel Scult. Dynamic Judaism:The Essential Writings of Mordecai Kaplan. 1985.

Hardwick, Charley. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. 1996.

Levinson, Henry S. "Naturalism." In Blackwell's Companion to American Thought; edited by Richard Wrightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg. 1995.

Stone, Jerome A. The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion. 1992.

Jerome A. Stone


views updated May 11 2018


The term transcendence, from the Latin transcendere (to climb up), means to go beyond, surpass, or rise above, particularly what is given in personal experience. In theology, transcendence is associated with the beyondness and holiness of God, in the sense of the existence of God being prior to the physical cosmos and exhalted above it. Referring to divine ascent beyond the world, transcendence is frequently contrasted with immanence, the presence of God in the world. Historically, deism emphasized total transcendence of the world while pantheism stressed the total immanence of God in the world. Most theistic traditions seek a balance between the two.

See also Deism; God; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Immanence; Pantheism

ernest simmons