Sunday, November 25, 2007




Transcendentalism, in philosophy and literature, belief in a higher reality than that found in sense experience or in a higher kind of knowledge than that achieved by human reason. Nearly all transcendentalist doctrines stem from the division of reality into a realm of spirit and a realm of matter. Such a division is made by many of the great religions of the world.


Philosophic Development and Applications

The philosophical concept of transcendence was developed by the Greek philosopher Plato. He affirmed the existence of absolute goodness, which he characterized as something beyond description and as knowable ultimately only through intuition. Later religious philosophers, influenced by Plato, applied this concept of transcendence to divinity, maintaining that God can be neither described nor understood in terms that are taken from human experience. The doctrine that God is transcendent, in the sense of existing outside of nature, is a fundamental principle in the orthodox forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The terms transcendent and transcendental were used in a more narrow and technical sense by Scholastic philosophers late in the Middle Ages to signify concepts of unrestricted generality applying to all types of things (see Scholasticism). The Scholastics recognized six such transcendental concepts: essence, unity, goodness, truth, thing, and something (Latin ens, unum, bonum, verum, res, and aliquid).

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was the first to make a technical distinction between the terms transcendent and transcendental. Kant reserved the term transcendent for those entities such as God and the soul, which are thought to exist outside of human experience and are therefore unknowable; he used the term transcendental to signify a priori forms of thought, that is, innate principles with which the mind gives form to its perceptions and makes experience intelligible. Kant applied the name transcendental philosophy to the study of pure mind and its a priori forms. Later German idealist philosophers who were influenced by Kant, particularly Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Edmund Husserl, described their views as transcendental. Consequently, the term transcendentalism came to be applied almost exclusively to doctrines of metaphysical idealism.


Transcendental Literature

In its most specific usage, transcendentalism refers to a literary and philosophical movement that developed in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century. While the movement was, in part, a reaction to certain 18th-century rationalist doctrines, it was strongly influenced by Deism, which, although rationalist, was opposed to Calvinist orthodoxy. Transcendentalism also involved a rejection of the strict Puritan religious attitudes that were the heritage of New England, where the movement originated. In addition, it opposed the strict ritualism and dogmatic theology of all established religious institutions.

More important, the transcendentalists were influenced by romanticism, especially such aspects as self-examination, the celebration of individualism, and the extolling of the beauties of nature and humankind. Consequently, transcendentalist writers expressed semireligious feelings toward nature, as well as the creative process, and saw a direct connection, or correspondence, between the universe (macrocosm) and the individual soul (microcosm). In this view, divinity permeated all objects, animate or inanimate, and the purpose of human life was union with the so-called Over-Soul. Intuition, rather than reason, was regarded as the highest human faculty. Fulfillment of human potential could be accomplished through mysticism or through an acute awareness of the beauty and truth of the surrounding natural world. This process was regarded as inherently individual, and all orthodox tradition was suspect.

American transcendentalism began with the formation (1836) of the Transcendental Club in Boston. Among the leaders of the movement were the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, the feminist and social reformer Margaret Fuller, the preacher Theodore Parker, the educator Bronson Alcott, the philosopher William Ellery Channing, and the author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendental Club published a magazine, The Dial, and some of the club's members participated in an experiment in communal living at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1840s. Major transcendentalist works of the American movement include Emerson's essays “Nature” (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841), as well as many of his metaphysical poems, and also Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), which is an account of an individual's attempt to live simply and in harmony with nature.

"Transcendentalism," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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