General Information

The general philosophical concept of transcendence, or belief in a higher reality not validated by sense experience or pure reason, was developed in ancient times by Parmenides and Plato. Plato referred to a realm of ideal Forms that was unknowable through the senses, and theologians since have spoken of God in the same way. The term transcendentalism is sometimes used to describe Immanuel Kant's philosophy and the philosophies of later German Idealists influenced by Kant.

New England Transcendentalism was a religious, literary, and philosophical movement that flourished especially between 1836, when Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature was published, and 1844, when the semiofficial journal of the movement, the Dial, ceased publication. Influenced by Unitarianism, Transcendentalists denied the existence of miracles, preferring a Christianity that rested on the teachings of Christ rather than on his supposed deeds. Many Transcendentalists, in fact, were Harvard - educated Unitarian ministers who were dissatisfied with their conservative Unitarian leaders as well as with the general conservative tenor of the time.

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With a membership that included Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalists experimented with communitarian living and supported educational innovation, the abolitionist and feminist movements, and a reform of church and society generally. They were committed to intuition as a way of knowing, to individualism, and to belief in the divinity of both man and nature.

Although philosophically based on Kant, the Boston - centered movement was more influenced by the romantic literary movement than by the systematic methodologies of philosophical Idealism. That is, Transcendentalism owed more to Goethe, Coleridge, and Carlyle than to Hegel and Schelling. The mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg also fed into the ideology of the movement.

L Buell, Literary Transcendentalism (1973); O B Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England(1876); W R Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers (1959); P Miller, ed., American Transcendentalists (1957); R A Smyth, Forms of Intuition: An Historical Introduction to the Transcendental Aesthetic (1978).


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Transcendentalism is an idealistic philosophy that in general emphasizes the spiritual over the material. By its very nature, the movement is hard to describe and its body of beliefs hard to define. Its most important practitioner and spokesman in the New England manifestation, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called it "the Saturnalia or excess of Faith." That which is "popularly called Transcendentalism among us," he wrote, "is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842." That description mentions two of the very elements, an emphasis upon heightened spiritual awareness and an interest in various types of philosophical idealism, that make transcendentalism so difficult to describe.

In actuality, we cannot speak of a well organized and clearly delineated transcendentalist movement as such. Instead, we find a loosely knit group of authors, preachers, and lecturers bound together by a mutual loathing of Unitarian orthodoxy, a mutual desire to see American cultural and spiritual life freed from bondage to the past, and a mutual faith in the unbounded potential of American democratic life. Located in the Concord, Massachusetts, area in the years between 1835 and 1860, the transcendentalists formed not a tight group but, rather, a loose federation.

Though a movement such as transcendentalism cannot be said to have had one distinct leader, Emerson (1803 - 82) was clearly its central figure. The publication of his Nature in 1836 is generally considered to mark the beginning of an identifiable movement. The next two decades were to see numerous new works from Emerson and poems, essays, and books from other transcendentalist figures, such as Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 62), Orestes Brownson (1803 - 76), Amos Bronson Alcott (1799 - 1888), Margaret Fuller (1810 - 50), George Ripley (1802 - 80), and Theodore Parker (1810 - 60). Never forming an official affiliation, these figures and others associated with them banded together for the formation of an informal discussion group called the Transcendental Club; the publication of the transcendentalist literary and philosophical journal, The Dial; and the establishment of an experiment in utopian communal living, Brook Farm.

One thing almost all those associated with the movement did share, however, was a common heritage of Unitarianism. Perhaps more than anything else, this fact helps to explain the development of transcendentalism and its later and larger significance for American culture. The transcendentalists broke with Unitarianism for two reasons. First, they objected to the Unitarian desire to cling to certain particulars of Christian history and dogma. Emerson called this clinging a "noxious" exaggeration of "the personal, the positive, the ritual," and he asked instead for a direct access to God, unmediated by any elements of Scripture and tradition. And second, the transcendentalists lamented the sterility of belief and practice they found in the Unitarian faith.

According to Thoreau, it is not man's sin but his boredom and weariness that are "as old as Adam." The American Adam needs to exchange his bondage to tradition for a freedom to experiment: "old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new."

In some ways transcendentalism attempted to recapture for the American spirit the fervor of the original Puritan enterprise. That zeal, with its attendant bliss and agony, had been suppressed or exiled to the wilderness of the American religious experience by the end of the eighteenth century. Transcendentalism was one of the first and most dramatic protests against civil religion in America. Though it did not live up to the expectations of its adherents, many of them expected nothing less than a total regeneration of social and spiritual life through the application of the principles of idealism in America, transcendentalism has had a lasting impact. In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, several of the transcendentalists were important participants in the abolitionist movement, and in the decades to follow, widely divergent individuals and movements would find inspiration in the transcendental protest against society.

For example, Henry Ford, who once said "history is bunk" and declared Emerson's essays to be his favorite reading, dwelt upon the transcendentalists' disdain for convention and their exaltation of self reliant power, while both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King drew deeply upon the resources of Thoreau's famous essay, "Civil Disobedience."

Perhaps even more significantly, transcendentalism marked the first substantial attempt in American history to retain the spiritual experience and potential of the Christian faith without any of the substance of its belief. By claiming an essential innocence for man, by substituting a direct intuition of God or truth for any form of revelation, and by foreseeing a future of ill defined but certain glory for humankind, transcendentalism paved the way for the many romantic notions about human nature and destiny that have become such a central part of the American experience in the last hundred years.

R Lundin
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

P Miller, "From Edwards to Emerson," NEQ 13:587 - 617, and (ed.) The Transcendentalists: An Anthology; O B Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England: A History; F O Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman; L Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance; J Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and The Dial.


Catholic Information

The terms transcendent and transcendental are used in various senses, all of which, as a rule, have antithetical reference in some way to experience or the empirical order.

(1) For the Scholastics, the categories are the highest classes of "things that are and are spoken of". The transcendentals are notions, such as unity, truth, goodness, being, which are wider than the categories, and, going beyond them, are said to transcend them. In a metaphysical sense transcendent is opposed by the Scholastics and others to immanent; thus, the doctrine of Divine Transcendence is opposed to the doctrine of Divine Immanence in the Pantheistic sense., Here, however, there is no reference to experience. (See IMMANENCE.)

(2) In the loosest sense of the word any philosophy or theology which lays stress on the intuitive, the mystical, the ultra-empirical, is aid to be transcendentalism. Thus, it is common to refer to the New England School of Transcendentalism, of which mention is made further on.

(3) In a stricter sense transcendentalism refers to a celebrated distinction made by Kant. Though he is not consistent in the use of the terms transcendent and transcendental, Kant understands by transcendent what lies beyond the limits of experience, and by transcendental he understands the non-empirical or a priori elements in our knowledge, which do not come from experience but are nevertheless, legitimately applied to the data or contents of knowledge furnished by experience. The distinction is somewhat subtle, Yet, it may be made clear by an example. Within the limits of experience we learn the uniform sequence of acorn and oak, heat and expansion, cold and contraction, etc., and we give the antecedent as the cause of the consequent. If, now, we go beyond the total of our experience and give God as the cause of all things, we are using the category "cause in a transcendent sense, and that use is not legitimate. If, however, to the data of sequence furnished by experience we apply the a priori form causation, we are introducing a transcendental element which elevates our knowledge to the rank of universal and necessary truth: "Every effect has its cause." Kant, as has been said, does not always adhere to this distinction. We may, then, understand transcendent and transcendental to refer to those elements or factors in our knowledge which do not come from experience, but are known a priori. Empirical philosophy is, therefore, a philosophy based on experience alone and adhering to the realm of experience in obedience to Hume's maxim, "'Tis impossible to go beyond experience." Transcendental philosophy, on the contrary, goes beyond experience, and considers that philosophical speculation is concerned chiefly, if not solely, with those things which lie beyond experience.

(4) Kant himself was convinced that, for the theoretical reason, the transcendental reality, the thing-in-itself, is unknown and unknowable. Therefore, he defined the task of philosophy to consist in the examination of knowledge for the purpose of determining the a priori elements, in the systematic enumeration of those elements, for forms, and the determination of the rules for their legitimate application to the data of experience. Ultra-empirical reality, he taught, is to be known only by the practical reason. Thus, his philosophy is critical transcendentalism. Thus, too he left to his successors the task of bridging over the chasm between the theoretical and the practical reason. This task they accomplished in various ways, eliminating, transforming, or adapting the transcendent reality outside us. the thing-in-itself, and establishing in this way different transcendentalisms in place of the critical transcendentalism of Kant.

(5) Fiche introduced Egoistic Transcendentalism. The subject, he taught, or the Ego, has a practical as well as a theoretical side. to develop its practical side along the line of duty, obligation, and right, it is obliged to posit the non-Ego. In this way, the thing-in-itself as opposed to the subject, is eliminated, because it is a creation of the Ego, and, therefore all transcendental reality is contained in self. I am I, the original identity of self with itself, is the expression of the highest metaphysical truth.

(6) Schelling, addressing himself to the same task, developed Transcendental Absolutism. He brought to the problems of philosophy a highly spiritual imaginativeness and a scientific insight into nature which were lacking in Kant, the critic of knowledge, and Fiche, the exponent of romantic personalize. He taught that the transcendental reality is neither subject or object, but an Absolute which is so indeterminate that it may be said to be neither nature nor spirit. Yet the Absolute is, in a sense, potentially both the one and the other. For, from it, by gravity, light and organization, is derived spirit, which slumbers in nature, but reaches consciousness of self in the highest natural organization, man. There is here a hint of development which was brought out explicitly by Hegel.

(7) Hegel introduced Idealistic Transcendentalism. He taught that reality is not an unknowable thing in itself, nor the subject merely, nor an absolute of indifference, but an absolute Idea, Spirit, or Concept (Begriff), whose essence is development (das Werden), and which becomes in succession object and subject, nature and spirit, being and essence, the soul, law, the state, art, science, religion, and philosophy.

In all these various meanings there is preserved a generic resemblance to the original signification of the term transcendentalism. The transcendentalists one and all, dwell in the regions beyond experience, and, if they do not condemn experience as untrustworthy, at least they value experience only in so far as it is elevated, sublimated, and transformed by the application to it of transcendental principles. The fundamental epistemological error of Kant, that whatever is universal and necessary cannot come from experience, runs all through the transcendentalist philosophy, and it is on epistemological grounds that the transcendentalists are to be met. This was the stand taken in Catholic circles, and there, with few exceptions, the doctrines of the transcendentalists met with a hostile reception. The exceptions were Franz Baader (1765-1841), Johann Frohschammer (1821-1893), and Anton Günther (1785-1863), who in their attempt to "reconcile" Catholic dogma with modern philosophical opinion, were influenced by the transcendentalists and overstepped the boundaries of orthodoxy. It may without unfairness be laid to the charge of the German transcendentalists that their disregard for experience and common sense is largely accountable for the discredit into which metaphysics has fallen in recent years.

New England transcendentalism, sometimes called the Concord School of Philosophy, looks to William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) as its founder. Its principal representatives are Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Theodore Parker (1810-1860), Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-890), George Ripley (1802-1880), and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). It had its inception in the foundation of the Transcendental Club in 1836. The chief influences discernible in its literary output are German philosophy, French sociology, and the reaction against the formalism of Its sociological and economic theories were tested in the famous Brook Farm (1841), with which the names just mentioned and those of several other distinguished Americans were associated.

Publication information Written by William Turner. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


For the history of German transcendentalism see Ueberweg, Hist. of Philosophy, tr. Morris (New York, 1892); Falckenberg, Hist. of Modern Philosophy, tr. Armstrong (New York, 1893); Turner, Hist. of Philosophy (Boston, 1903); Stöckl, Gesch. der Phil. (Mainz, 1888). For New England transcendentalism see Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (New York, 1876); Codman, Brook Farm (Boston, 1894).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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