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Transcendentalism was a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy that emerged in New Englandmarker in the early to middle 19th century. It is sometimes called American transcendentalism to distinguish it from other uses of the word transcendental.

Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvardmarker and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity Schoolmarker. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

Prominent transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Convers Francis, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Elizabeth Peabody, George Ripley, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Jones Very.

History

The publication of Emerson's 1836 essay Nature is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote in his essay "The American Scholar": "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; Divine Soul which also inspires all men." Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy:

In the same year, transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge. From 1840, the group published frequently in their journal The Dial, along with other venues. The movement was originally termed "Transcendentalists" as a pejorative term, suggesting their position was beyond sanity and reason.

The practical aims of the transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change and, in the case of Brownson, it joined explicitly with early socialism, while others found it an exclusively individual and idealist project. Emerson believed the latter. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist", Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice:

By the 1850s, Emerson believed the movement was dying out, especially after the death of Margaret Fuller in 1850. "All that can be said", Emerson wrote, "is, that she represents an interesting hour & group in American cultivation".

Origins

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), which the New England intellectuals of the early 19th century embraced as an alternative to the Lockean "sensualism" of their fathers and of the Unitarian church, finding the alternative in Vedic thought, German idealism, and English Romanticism.

The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The transcendentalists were largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original, and relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de Staël, and other English and French commentators for their knowledge of it. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.

Thoreau in Walden spoke of the debt to the Vedic thought directly, as did other members of the movement:

Criticism

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farmmarker, a short-lived utopian community founded on transcendental principles. Edgar Allan Poe had a deep dislike for transcendentalism, calling its followers "Frogpondians" after the pond on Boston Commonmarker. He ridiculed their writings in particular by calling them "metaphor-run," lapsing into "obscurity for obscurity's sake" or "mysticism for mysticism's sake." One of his short stories, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", is a clear attack on transcendentalism, which the narrator calls a "disease". The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets.

Influence on other movements

Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics.

The movement directly influenced the growing movement of Mental Sciences of the mid 1800s which would later become known as the New Thought movement. New Thought draws directly from the transcendentalists, particularly Emerson. New Thought considers Emerson its intellectual father. Emma Curtis Hopkins "the teacher of teachers", Ernest Holmes founder of Religious Science , The Fillmores the founders of Unity: Malinda Cramer and Nona L. Brooks Founders of Divine Science were all greatly influenced by Transcendentalism.

Other meanings of transcendentalism

Transcendental idealism

The term transcendentalism sometimes serves as shorthand for "transcendental idealism," which is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and later Kantian and German Idealist philosophers.

Transcendental theology

Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 A.D., "We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."

See also



References

  1. Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 7–8. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  2. Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0520226879. p. 185
  3. Rose, Anne C. Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981: 208. ISBN 0-300-02587-4
  4. McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 149. ISBN 0802117767
  5. Royot, Daniel. "Poe's humor," as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp. 61-2. ISBN 0521797276
  6. Ljunquist, Kent. "The poet as critic" collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. p. 15. ISBN 0521797276
  7. Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 170. ISBN 081604161X
  8. New Thought at MSN Encarta. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
  9. intachrt.htm INTA New Thought History Chart


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