Transcendentalism was a short-lived philosophical movement that emphasized transcendence, or “going beyond.” The Transcendentalists believed in going beyond the ordinary limits of thought and experience in several senses:
- transcending society by living a life of independence and contemplative self-reliance, often out in nature
- transcending the physical world to make contact with spiritual or metaphysical realities
- transcending traditional religion by blazing one’s own spiritual trail
- even transcending Transcendentalism itself by creating new philosophical ideas based on individual instinct and experience
II. Transcendentalism vs. Empiricism vs. Rationalism
When the Transcendentalists first came on the scene, philosophy was split between two major schools of thought: empiricism and rationalism. Transcendentalism rejected both schools, arguing that they were both too narrow-minded and failed to account for different kinds of transcendence.
|Main Arguments||Transcendentalist Critique|
We only (or at least mainly) understand the world through experience and the senses.
Philosophy and science should proceed by carefully observing the world, building up a supply of concrete facts, and then analyzing those facts.
The human mind is above all an organ of perception.
The best form of reasoning is inductive.
The senses only tell us about the physical world, but the most important realities are those that lie beyond the physical world – things that we cannot see, feel, or hear, but must sense through our spirituality.
If we place too much trust in the senses, we will end up forgetting that these other realities even exist, and this will cause both philosophical errors and spiritual pain.
We only (or at least mainly) understand the world through logical deduction from a set of basic, immutable truths.
Philosophy and science should proceed by working out what the fundamental truths of reality are, and then working downwards in logical, mathematical steps from there.
The human mind is above all an organ of thought.
The best form of reasoning is deductive
Rationality is always imperfect. What we think of as “logic” is really just a heavily formalized version of instinct or intuition.
While some logic is helpful in clearing up our thoughts, we shouldn’t be too dependent on it. After all, the real world is messy and constantly changing, and logic tries to make things appear clean and constant. This is a helpful illusion sometimes, but an illusion nonetheless.
III. Quotes About Transcendentalism
“Go alone…refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Probably no one is more strongly associated with transcendentalism than the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote fiery essays arguing for independence, self-reliance, and going beyond the boundaries of society. In this short quotation, Emerson expresses two of his central ideas: first, that you should follow your own path rather than imitating others, no matter how noble or admirable they may be; and second, traditional religious organizations are unnecessary in our spiritual path and we should seek an independent, one-to-one relationship with God.
“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” (George Carlin)
Stand-up legend George Carlin brought a strong Emersonian flavor to his comedy, a style that continues to be popular with modern stand-up comics. Like Emerson, Carlin hated social rules and was constantly pushing limits – using cursewords in his routines and talking about taboo subjects like race and sexuality at a time when standup comics almost never dared to broach these uncomfortable topics. Emerson would have liked the quote, which celebrates both social awkwardness (talking to yourself) and independent thinking.
IV. The History and Importance of Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism was America’s first major intellectual movement. It arose in the Eastern U.S. in the 1820s, when America had fully established its independence from Britain. At that time, the country was led by the first generation to have been born after the Revolutionary War – a generation that had never known anything other than independence. People in this generation couldn’t understand their parents’ reverence for European culture and philosophy, a reverence that was still strong in spite of the Americans’ desire for political independence. To them, America was its own nation, on its own continent, with its own laws and customs, and it needed to have its own art, culture, and philosophy as well – even its own religion! Transcendentalism was designed to fill all of these roles.
Although Transcendentalism didn’t grow into a flourishing philosophical school as its founders hoped (more on that in section 6), Transcendentalist ideas heavily influenced other movements and continue to have echoes today. The Transcendentalist movement was the main inspiration for William James and other founders of the Pragmatist school, which has been by far America’s most significant contribution to global philosophy.
The Transcendentalists even influenced European philosophy – Nietzsche, a revered if eccentric German philosopher, cited Transcendentalists as one of his main influences. Ironically, this means that the American thinkers were a strong philosophical inspiration to German nationalism and even Nazism, with their themes of strong individual leadership, rejecting traditional religion and morality, and breaking down limits so as to usher in a glorious future. Clearly, Emerson and Nietzsche would have strongly disapproved of Hitler and the Third Reich, but it goes to show how philosophers’ ideas can have unexpected consequences when they enter the realms of society, culture, and politics.
V. Transcendentalism in Popular Culture
There are many Transcendentalist themes in the sci-fi action movie Equilibrium starring Christian Bale. In the movie, John Preston is a Cleric, a law-enforcement officer required to take an emotion-suppressing pill every day so that he can carry out his duties without the interference of feelings. But when he misses his dose, Preston becomes increasingly aware of flaws in the system.
The film is Transcendentalist in a couple of ways: first, the emphasis on emotions rather than logic and duty. Preston’s moral awakening comes when he gets in touch with his emotions, which suggests that true morality is an emotional experience. Second, Preston ends up rejecting authority, social expectations, and the whole system that he’s been raised in. That makes him a very Emersonian sort of hero.
Many video games have “ranger” or “druid” characters (e.g. Dota 2, Warcraft, or Neverwinter Nights), and they often seem a little like transcendentalists. They live out in nature, or on the fringes of society, surviving by their own skills and living by their own rules – transcending the limits of civilization. In some cases, they also have spiritual or magical abilities that allow them to transcend the ordinary, physical world.
Is Transcendentalism Philosophy?
Transcendentalism never really caught on in professional philosophy, possibly because of the structure of its arguments. As we saw in section 2, transcendentalism rejected both rationalism and empiricism, pointing out the limitations in both logic and observation. But logic and observation are our main ways of attaining the truth, and if you push back against both of them, then what is the foundation of your own argument?
In other words, Transcendentalism was based on an intuition, a feeling – several philosophers got together and had similar feelings about society, religion, and truth, but what they didn’t have was a set of arguments. As a result, they were not able to persuade new followers other than those who already shared their feelings. The Transcendentalists were brilliant writers, crafting expressive essays and compelling poetry, but they did not write philosophical arguments in the traditional sense.
As a result, some people have argued that Transcendentalism was more of a literary or artistic movement than a philosophical one. Whether or not that’s true really comes down to your definition – if you see philosophy as defined by a method of argument, then Transcendentalism isn’t philosophy. If you see philosophy as defined by an interest in musing about life, then Transcendentalism definitely belongs.