Victor Nuovo: Transcendentalism
23rd in a series
During the middle of the third decade of the 19th century, there occurred in New England a third great awakening. It did not pertain only to religious sentiment; rather it involved a renewal of the human mind, a renaissance, even a revolution. It ranged over every aspect of human life, and caused social as well as religious and intellectual reform, notably the moves towards abolishing slavery and establishing women’s equality. Its principal movers were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May), Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker and others). They called themselves Transcendentalists, a term loaded with philosophical meaning of which they were all well aware.
Anyone who hopes to understand this great moment in American intellectual history, must first understand the meaning of its name: “Transcendentalism,” and I ask for my readers’ indulgence for this digression into philosophical abstraction. What follows may not be edifying, but I hope it will be pertinent, even instructive.
The term “transcendental” was coined by the Medieval “Schoolmen” or “Scholastics,” scholars and philosophers at the great Universities of Europe, whose wisdom was nourished by a revival of Aristotelean philosophy. They used it to represent a set of the most general terms that could be predicated of any object of inquiry or discourse, whatever its situation, location, size or special character. These terms were supposed to transcend or be over and above the predicates that distinguish every thing whatever its place in the chain of being, and in this very narrow logical respect these terms were designated transcendental.
All Schoolmen agreed that there were at least three such terms: one, true, and good (which signified not a thing’s value but its intrinsic purpose or use). In sum, one, true, and good may be predicated of any object of discourse, indeed, of anything at all. Thus, every thing is one thing, not another; every thing is true to itself, and not to be confused with any other thing; and every thing has some essential purpose or use. The Schoolmen were at one in believing that the universe was in every respect rationally designed and full of purpose. Some Schoolmen added beauty (aesthetic value) as another transcendental predicate, and still others added “thing” or “something” to this class of terms, which seems redundant; they meant to say by this that every thing is some sort of thing. Redundancies like this are often needed for greater clarity, and the Scholastics took great pains to be clear.
Time passed, and the debates over transcendentals among the medieval Schoolmen were generally forgotten, or deliberately ignored, or even scorned. But during the latter half of the 18th century, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) revived the term “transcendental” and gave it a new meaning and currency. In his classic work, “Critique of Pure Reason” (first published in 1781) he distinguished between the terms “transcendent” and “transcendental.”
According to Kant, “transcendent” denotes anything that is beyond the realm of nature, which is unchanging, even necessary, for example, God, heaven, the heavenly host, or the Platonic ideas. “Transcendental” denotes a capability of the mind to know itself. This capability consists of more than self-reflection and memory and conscience. He had read John Locke’s “Essay concerning Human Understanding,” and David Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature,” which is a skeptical response to Locke’s empirical theory of knowledge. Hume left him with grave doubts about the possibility of knowing anything at all, that is, really knowing it, being certain of it. He seized upon Locke’s distinction between things as they appear to us and things as they are in themselves, for example, an apple is round, firm (when fresh), and sweet to the taste, but he added, these are only about appearances (phenomena); they do not give us knowledge of things as they are in themselves (which he labeled “noumena”), that is, of their essential natures. He imagined that the realm of beings beyond our perception is to us a vast cognitive wasteland that we can never enter. He concluded that all that we can be certain of is appearances. Nevertheless, he was sure that the mind, through powers that it can directly intuit, provides the order of our perceptions and warrants their validity.
This skeptical conclusion was seized by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and he used it as warrant for a bold new theory. He denied that there is a cognitive wasteland (or heaven) beyond the phenomena of the mind. In reality, there are only appearances (phenomena) and minds. Further, he asserted that there is but one universal mind, and that the history of being, natural and human, is just the biography of this universal mind in which we all participate when we think philosophically. He made his case in a work entitled “Phenomenology of Mind” (first published in 1807) and in other massive works that followed. His system was the acme of what is know as Post-Kantian German Idealism, or as it came to be known in the United States, Transcendentalism. In a talk, given in 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) declared “What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism, Idealism as it appears in 1842.” This would have pleased Hegel, for it shows that Emerson understood Idealism to be not a static system of reality, but dynamic, historical, evolving, unfolding.
This in sum is the philosophical background of American Transcendentalism, which deserves to be regarded as a major philosophical movement, not only in America but in the world. Emerson declared it to be a triumph over materialism. But the exuberance and confidence that marked its beginning did not last. Even among the Transcendentalists themselves, most especially Emerson, doubts began to arise, and during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, empiricism and philosophical naturalism (a.k.a., materialism) saw a revival, and the struggle continued throughout this period between idealism and materialism, naturalism and supernaturalism. This is the tale of the life of the mind in America that I will try to tell in the essays that follow. To be continued.
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