Transcendentalism

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In the early to mid-nineteenth century, a philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism took root in America and evolved into a predominantly literary expression. The adherents to Transcendentalism believed that knowledge could be arrived at not just through the senses, but through intuition and contemplation of the internal spirit. As such, they professed skepticism of all established religions, believing that Divinity resided in the individual, and the mediation of a church was cumbersome to achieving enlightenment. The genesis of the movement can be accurately traced to 1836 and the first gathering of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The father of the movement, an appellation he probably did not relish, was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other prominent contributors included Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing, and George Ripley. In the grand scheme, the Transcendentalist’s moment on the literary stage was decidedly brief. With Fuller’s death in 1850, one of the movement’s great advocates was silenced. Emerson lacked the vitality and desire to follow in her path. Though their hold on the public imagination was short-lived, the long-lasting influence that the Transcendentalists had on American literature cannot be denied. Even the philosophy’s critics were forced to acknowledge the effects that the Transcendental Movement had on the world, particularly the American experience of the world. For Transcendentalism was a distinctly American expression, with concerns and ideals that perhaps did not fully translate in England or Continental Europe. The philosophy was inexorably bound together with American’s expansionist impulse, as well as the troubling question of slavery and women’s place in society. A philosophical-literary movement cannot solve such problems, but it can provide the vocabulary to discuss them reasonably.On the most basic level, Transcendentalism represented a new way of understanding truth and knowledge. The roots of the philosophy go back to Germany, specifically the writings and theories of Immanuel Kant. In contrast to the scientific revolutions which were daily adding to the store of facts, Kant concerned himself with the abstractions of existence – those things which cannot be known for sure. He argued that individuals have it in their power to reason for themselves whether a thing be true or not, and how to fit their reasoning into an overall view of the world. Kant set himself apart from those who believed the senses to be perfect measures of reality. He encouraged a healthy level of doubt and skepticism, but not to the point of nihilistic despair. Kant asserted that humans must embrace the fact that some things cannot be known with certainty, no matter how advanced science and technology become. Together with the spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg, a religious mystic gathering a large following in Western Europe, American intellectuals had the ingredients for a philosophical mélange that blended a powerful idealism with Puritanical humility and work ethic.In addition to their heady philosophical forebears, the Transcendentalists owed a great debt to the English Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many distinctly Romantic tropes echo through the pages of Transcendental literature. Obviously, the predilection to turn to the natural world for intimations of truth was a recurrent theme for the Romantics. In Transcendental philosophy, the grind of ordinary life and society are seen as barriers between the self and the spirit. Thus, Nature presents a way to free the mind of its typical distractions. The very word “transcend” connotes moving beyond some stultifying condition of mind or body. Another strongly Romantic concept that the Transcendentalists embraced was the renewed potency and potentiality of the individual. Specifically, the imagination was glorified as one of the defining, almost divine characteristics of consciousness....
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