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Transcendental Ideas: Definitions

"American Transcendentalism"

James Murdock, 1842

That species of German Philosophy which has sprung up among the Unitarian Clergy of Massachusetts, and which is advocated especially in a recent periodical called the Dial, is known by the appellation TRANSCENDENTALISM. The propriety however of the appellation, may be questioned. KANT, who, so far as I know, first brought the term Transcendental into philosophy, would certainly not apply it to this or to any similar system. He would denominate it TRANSCENDENT, not Transcendental. The difference, according to his views, is immense. Both terms indeed denote the surpassing or transcending of certain limits; but the limits surpassed are entirely different. That is called Transcendental, which surpasses the limits of sensible or empirical knowledge and expatiates in the region of pure thought or absolute science. It is therefore truly scientific; and it serves to explain empirical truths, so far as they are explicable. On the other hand, that is called Transcendent, which not only goes beyond empiricism, but surpasses the boundaries of human knowledge. It expatiates in the shadowy region of imaginary truth. It is, therefore, falsely called science: it is the opposite of true philosophy. A balloon sent up by a besieging army to overlook the ramparts of a fortification, if moored by cables, whereby its elevation, its movements, and its safe return into camp are secured, is a transcendental thing; but if cut loose from its moorings and left to the mercy of the winds, it is transcendent; it has no connection with any thing stable, no regulator; it rises or descends, moves this way or that way, at hap-hazard, and it will land, no one knows where or when. Now, according to the Critical Philosophy, all speculations in physical science that attempt to go beyond phenomena, and all speculations on supersensible things which attempt to explain their essential nature, are transcendent; that is, they overleap the boundaries of human knowledge. In violation of these canons, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel plunged head-long into such speculations, and yet called them Transcendental; and the new German Philosophers of Massachusetts follow their example.

Waiving however this misnomer,--as every real Kantian must regard it, we will call this philosophy Transcendental since its advocates choose to call it so, and seeing the name has become current in our country. And we will first inquire into its origin among us, and then proceed to notice its prominent characteristics.


According to their own representations, the believers in this philosophy are Unitarian clergymen, who had for some time been dissatisfied with the Unitarian system of theology. They tell us, they found it to be a meagre, uninteresting system, which did not meet the religious wants of the community. While laboring to improve their system of theology, or to find a better, they cast their eyes on foreign countries. There they discovered a different philosophy prevailing; a philosophy which gives an entirely new version to Christianity, invests it with a more spiritual character, with more power to move the soul, to call forth warm emotions, and to produce communion with God. This philosophy they have now embraced. Such, they inform us, was the origin of Transcendentalism among them.--But it may be more satisfactory to give their own statements on this head. . . .


None of the Transcendentalists of this country are Philosophers by profession. Nearly all of them are clergymen, of the Unitarian school;, and their habits of thought, their feelings, and their aims, are manifestly theological. Nor do they give us proof that they have devoted very great attention to philosophy as a science. They have produced, I believe, no work professedly on the subject, not even an elementary treatise; and, if I do nor mistake, they have brought forward no new views or principles in philosophy. So far as I can judge, they have merely taken up the philosophy of Victor Cousin, and, after comparing it according to their opportunity with that of the more recent German schools, have modified a little some of its dicta, and applied them freely to scientific and practical theology. At the same time they take little pains, to elucidate and explain the principles of their new philosophy. They address us, as if we all read and understood their favorite ·Cousin, and were not ignorant of the speculations of the German pantheists: and their chief aim seems to be, to shew us how much better this Gallo-Germanic philosophy explains the religion of nature and of the bible, than the old philosophy of Locke and the Scottish school. Whoever, therefore, would understand the Transcendental writers, must first understand, if he can, the French philosopher Cousin and the German pantheists.

The philosophy of Cousin, as well as that of the modern Germans, we have attempted to describe very briefly, in the preceding chapters; and to them the reader is referred.

Cousin maintains that, by taking a higher point of observation, he has brought all previous systems of philosophy to harmonize with each other. [See his Introd. to Hist. of Phil. by Linberg, page 414.] He therefore adopts, and uses at pleasure, the peculiar phraseology of all the systems, as being all suited to express his own new views. This causes his writings to exhibit, not only great variety, but apparently, if not really, great inconsistency of terminology. And hence different persons, aiming to follow him as a guide, may easily mistake his meaning, and adopt different principles; or, if they adopt the same principles, they may express themselves in a very different manner. And, if we suppose the same persons, with only a moderate share of philosophic learning and philosophic tact, to attempt to reconstruct the philosophy of Cousin, by comparing it with the German systems from which it is taken, and at the same time to adopt Cousin's lax use of language; we may easily conceive, what confusion of thought and obscurity of statement may appear on their pages. Now the Transcendentalists, if I do not mistake, have thus followed Cousin. Of course, they differ considerably from one another; some following Cousin more closely, and others leaning more towards some German; some preferring one set of Cousin's terms, and others another, or coining new ones to suit their fancy. After all, Linberg's translation of Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy may be considered as the great store house, from which most of them--e,g. Brownson, Emerson, Parker, etc-.-have·derived their peculiar philosophical opinions, their modes of reasoning, and their forms of thought and expression.

The radical principle of the Transcendental philosophy, the corner stone of the whole edifice, is, Cousin's doctrine that Spontaneous Reason acquaints us with the true and essential nature of things. According to this doctrine, Reason, when uncontrolled by the Will, or when left free to expatiate undirected and uninfluenced by the voluntary faculty, always apprehends things as they are, or has direct and absolute knowledge of the objects of its contemplation. This clairvoyance of Reason, Cousin calls "an instinctive perception of truth, an entirely instinctive development of thought, - an original, irresistible, and unreflective perception of truth," "pure apperception, and spontaneous faith"--"the absolute affirmation of truth, without reflection,--inspiration,--veritable revelation."- [Introd. &c. pages 183, 187, 172, 166.] The characteristics of this kind of knowledge, as being immediate, and infallible, though not always perfectly distinct at first, and as being divine, or as coming from God either directly or indirectly, all Transcendentalists maintain. But in what manner, or by what mode of action, our Reason acquires this knowledge, they do not distinctly inform us. Whether our Creator has endowed us with an intellectual instinct, a power of rational intuition; or whether the rational soul, as itself partaking of the divine nature, has this inherent sagacity in and of itself; or whether the divine Being, God himself, is always present in the soul and acting in it by way of inspiration, these philosophers seem not to have decided. They use terms, however, which fairly imply each and all of these hypotheses, and specially the last. But however undecided on this point, which is of so much importance in a philosophic view, on the general fact that all rational beings do possess this knowledge, they are very explicit; and some of them attempt to prove it, by reasoning from the necessity of such knowledge to us, and from the current belief of mankind. [See Cousin's Psychology, Chap. vi and a writer in the Dial, vol. ii. page 86, &c.]

The effects of this principle, when carried into theology, are immense. It dispels all mysteries and all obscurities from this most profound of all sciences, and gives to human Reason absolute dominion over it. For, it makes the divine Being, his government and laws, and our relations to him, and all our religious obligations and interests,--every part of theology, theoretical or practical,--perfectly comprehensible to our Reason in its spontaneous operation. It makes all the doctrines of natural religion the objects of our direct, intuitive knowledge: we need no explanations and no confirmations from any books or teachers; we have only to listen to the voice of spontaneous Reason, or to the teachings of our own souls, the light that shines within us, and all will be perfectly intelligible and absolutely certain. And hence, we need no external revelation, no inspired teacher, to solve our doubts and difficulties, or to make any part of natural religion, or any principle of moral duty, either more plain or more certain. We are, all of us, prophets of God, all inspired through our Reason, and we need no one to instruct and enlighten us. The great Seers of ancient times, Moses and the prophets, Christ and the apostles, were no otherwise inspired than we all are; they only cultivated and listened to spontaneous Reason more than ordinary men; and this enabled them to see further and to speak and write better than other men on religious subjects. If we would determine whether the bible was written by inspired men, we need not pore upon the so called external evidences, miracles, prophecies, &c. but merely listen to the testimony of our own souls, the teachings of spontaneous Reason, or what is called the internal evidence, and we shall at once see the clear and infallible marks of inspiration. And to understand the bible, we need no aid from learned interpreters. Only give us the book in a language we can read, and the suggestions of our own inspired minds will enable us to comprehend perfectly the import of every sentence, and to see clearly what is divine and what is human, or what originated from spontaneous Reason and what from human infirmity in the holy scriptures. And of course, every man is competent to decide, definitely and infallibly, all the controversies among theologians and all the disputes between sects of Christians, respecting the doctrines taught in the bible. In short, not only the profound researches of philologists, antiquarians, and biblical commentators, but also the elaborate discussions of didactic theologians, polemic, apologetic, and metaphysical, are all of little or no value in theology. Instead of depending on them, the theological inquirer should rather retire to solitude and silence, and while musing on religious subjects, with the bible and the book of nature before him, he should refrain from giving any determinate direction to his thoughts, and allowing them to flow on spontaneously, he should listen to the voice of Reason as she expatiates freely in the open field of visions; then he will be caught up, as it were, to the third heaven, and will see all that the inspired prophets saw; his knowledge will be superhuman and divine.

But to understand more fully the metaphysics of the Transcendental writers, we must not overlook their ontological doctrines. If Reason acquaints us with the true and essential nature of all things, then the field of ontology is open fully to our inspection, and we may form there a perfectly solid and safe science. Accordingly, all Transcendentalists, on both sides of the Atlantic, assume some system of ontology as the basis of their speculations. The prevailing system among the modern Germans, and that to which Cousin and his American followers assent, is pantheistic: that is, it resolves the universe into one primordial Being, who develops himself in various finite forms: in other words, it supposes God and the developments of God, to be the only real existences, the Τ Ο ΠΑΝ, the entire universe. But when they attempt to explain this general statement, the Germans bring forward different hypotheses. Some, following Spinoza, invest the primordial Being with the essential attributes of both a substance and a person; and they suppose him to create from himself, or to form out of his own substance, all rational and sentient beings and all material things. Others, with Schelling, suppose him to be originally neither a person nor a substance, but the elementary principle of both, which, in developing itself, becomes first a person and a substance, and then a universe of beings and things. Others follow Hegel, and adopt a system of pure idealism. They suppose concrete ideas to be the only real existences, and the logical genesis of ideas to be the physical genesis of the universe. Take the simple idea of existence, and abstract from it every thing conceivable, so that it shall become evanescent; and in that evanescent state, while fluctuating between something and nothing, it is the primitive, the generative principle of all things. For it is the most comprehensive or generical of all ideas, including all other·ideas under it as subordinate genera and species; and therefore, when expanded or drawn out into, the subordinate genera and species, it becomes the Τ Ο ΠΑΝ, the universe of beings and things. Vacillating among all these theories, especially between the two last, and trying to amalgamate them all in one, Cousin, without exhibiting any very definite ideas, merely declares the Infinite to be the primitive, and all that is finite to be derivative from the Infinite, while yet both the Infinite and the finite are so inseparable that neither can exist without the other.--The appellation Pantheists, it appears, is unacceptable to Cousin, and to most of his American followers; but some of the latter voluntarily assume it; and they unscrupulously apply it to all Transcendentalists. That the doctrines of the Transcendentalists, as well as those of Spinoza, Schelling, and Hegel, are really and truly pantheistic, appears from the fact that they hold to but one essence, or one substance, in the universe. They expressly deny, that God created or produced the world out of nothing, or that he gave existence to beings and things the substance or matter of which had no previous existence: they say, he created or brought forth the world from himself, or formed it out of his own substance; and also, that he still exists in the created universe, and the created universe in him, thus constituting an absolute unity, as to essence or substance. That the epithet pantheistic may properly be applied to such doctrines, seems not to be deniable. [See Krug's Philos. Lexikon; art. Pantheismus.]

As Pantheists, the Transcendentalists must behold God, or the divine nature and essence, in every thing that exists. Of course, none of them can ever doubt the existence of God, or be in the least danger of atheism; for they cannot believe any thing to exist, without finding God in it: they see him, they feel him, they have sensible perception of his very substance in every object: around,--Moreover, if our souls are only portions of the Divinity, if they are really God working in us, then there is solid ground for the belief that spontaneous Reason always sees the true nature of things, or has divine knowledge of the objects of its contemplation.-- And again, if it is the Divine Nature which lives and acts in all creatures and things, then all their action is Divine action. All created intelligences think, and feel, and act, as God acts in them; and of course, precisely as He would have them. There can, then, be nothing wrong, nothing sinful, in the character or conduct of any rational being. There may be imperfection, or imperfect action, because the whole power of God is not exerted; but every act, so far as it goes, is just what it should be, is just such as best pleases God. And hence, though men may sigh over their imperfections, or may ardently desire and strive to become more perfect, yet they can have no reason for repentance for sorrow and shame and self-condemnation, for any thing they have done or have omitted to do. Neither can they feel themselves to need any radical change of character, to make them acceptable to God; or any Redeemer, to rescue them from impending perdition. All they need, is, to foster the divinity within, to give it more full scope and more perfect action; then they will become all that it is possible they should be, and all they can reasonably desire.--These inferences from their principles, are not palmed upon Transcendentalists by their adversaries, but are admitted and defended by their ablest writers. Says one of them, whom we have before quoted, [Dial, vol. i. pages 423-4,1 "Holding as they do but one essence of all things, which essence is God, Pantheists must deny the existence of essential evil. All evil is negative,--it is imperfection, non-growth. It is not essential, but modal. Of course there can be no such thing as hereditary sin,--a tendency positively sinful in the soul. Sin is not a wilful transgression of a righteous law, but the difficulty and obstruction which the Infinite meets with in entering into the finite. Regeneration is nothing but an ingress of God into the soul, before which sin disappears as darkness before the rising sun. Pantheists hold also to the atonement, or at-one-ment between the soul and God. This is strictly a unity or oneness of essence, to be brought about by the incarnation of the spirit of God, [in us,] which is going on in us as we grow in holiness. As we grow wise, just, and pure,--in a word, holy,--we grow to be one with him in mode, as we always were in essence. This atonement is effected by Christ, only in as far as he taught the manner in which it was to be accomplished more fully: than any other, and gave us a better illustration of the method and result in his own person than any one else that has ever lived."

Taken from Sketches of Modern Philosophy. Hartford: John C. Wells, 1842, pp. 167-188. Reprinted in Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson, editors. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, pp. 23-29.

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