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What is transcendentalism?

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Transcendentalism is a philosophy that says that our knowledge of reality comes from an analysis of our own thought processes, rather than from scientific evidence. According to the transcendentalist, if God exists, He can be found through human intuition. Transcendentalism is most commonly associated with a philosophical/religious view developed in the mid-1800s by a group of mainly Unitarian and agnostic intellectuals in New England, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Much of transcendental thinking comes from German idealism and the writings of Immanuel Kant, the philosopher generally seen as laying the foundation of all modern philosophy. Kant used the term transcendental to describe those a priori (nonanalytic) elements involved in empirical experience. Kant did not believe these elements to be “spiritual” in any sense, but he held that they did not originate with empiric observation and so were, in some sense, intuitive.

The transcendentalism of 1830–60s New England essentially hijacked Kant’s philosophy and applied his “transcendentals” to ideas as well as to the phenomenological realm. Thus, intuition was valued as a necessary guide in the understanding of all reality, including science, philosophy, and religion. This idea came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge as interpreted by Unitarian Minister Frederic Henry Hedge.

Hedge started a group that became the Transcendental Club, originally a discussion group for disenchanted Unitarian ministers and some others. Important transcendentalists include Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker—who ultimately rejected even a Unitarian understanding of the supernatural—James Marsh, Caleb Henry, and Hedge himself. Margaret Fuller was also influential in the movement through her writing, editing, and organizing efforts.

Defining transcendentalism has been troublesome from its beginning. Emerson himself had great difficulty putting it succinctly, complaining in letters to his mother that people always asked him to define it because he was identified as a transcendentalist. It does not help that the only truly consistent belief among the original transcendentalists was Hedge’s adaptation of Coleridge’s interpretation of Kant—an already confusing chain of ideas! A conglomeration of many different definitions could be boiled down to “a philosophy of intuition as a guide for spirituality.”

Some transcendentalists have claimed to be Christian; however, the idea that a human, intuitive understanding of “the transcendental” can bring us to the truth is misguided. Transcendentalism directly conflicts with the biblical command to “lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). But the transcendentalists did more than trust their feelings. They also received guidance from Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and from the sacred texts of Hinduism. Thoreau, in Walden, spoke of how “in the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.”

The Bible is truth (John 17:17). The heart of man is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). Those who rely on their own intuition and “good sense” to lead them to spiritual truth will find themselves being led astray (Isaiah 53:6).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022