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American Transcendentalism Essay, Research Paper

American Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism as espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson is essen tially an idealist philosophy, derived from Kant’s concept of the Tran scendental and opposed to the skepticism of Locke and the Empiricists. In the essay The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote, “[Kant showed] that there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which do not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Tran scendental forms.”1 According to Emerson’s understanding of Kant, Transcendentalism becomes a union of solipsism, under which the only verifiable reality is thought to be the self, and materialism, under which the only verifiable reality is the quantifiable external world of objects and sense data. Through this fusion of paradigms, Transcendentalism as a living and organic philosophy was transported to America. Emerson was the source of most of its poetry and mysticism, and fostered the growth of the New England variant.

Emerson separated the universe into two primary categories, nature and soul, and constantly sought to elucidate the interrelations of both. Man’s key to these relations, what Emerson called analogies, was individual intuition, which cannot fail because it is necessarily and origi nally linked to the universal spirit. Emerson’s Transcendentalism thus proposed a resolution of the duality that defines the human condition (self/other, self/world, material/spiritual) through the powers of human intuition. Eric Ericson, an Emersonian scholar, says this circular reason ing and contradiction posed no problem for Emerson. He writes, “Emerson, the chief celebrant of individuality and self-reliance, is thus the foremost teacher of the eternal unity and of the essential identity of the individual self with the oversoul, the universal self. This dual aspect poses no problem or contradiction for Transcendentalism, which sees a complementarity, a harmony, of the individual and the universal.” 2

The source of this complementarity and unity was the Over-Soul, which has a relationship of identiticality with man and nature. If man was somehow in touch with the Over-Soul, he would not see nature as separated into disjunctive parts, but as a unified whole capable of fusing the observer with the observed. There would be unity in variety. But, Emerson wrote in his treatise Nature, “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.”3


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