|Kant, Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Kantian Idealism, Transcendental Idealism, New England Transcendentalism
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In 1781 Immanuel Kant saw his Critique of Pure Reason published and western philosophy
was greatly influenced over the subsequent decades by what became known as Kantian or Transcendental Idealism.
Kantian Idealism held that there was a Moral Law within people that shapes their impressions and that there was a set of innate principles with reference to which the mind gives form to its perceptions and interprets life experiences. Kant was sure that he had effected a "Copernican Revolution," persuasively suggesting that is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. Kant said there were experiences that could be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." This introduced the human mind as an active originator of experience rather than a passive recipient. It also leaves the way dramatically open for the mind to be viewed as a creative, intuitive, and interpreting organism rather that a reactive and logical machine.
Kant's complex ideas and insights as contained in his German language Critique (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) filtered widely, in Europe initially, but also reached the Americas.
In 1829 James Marsh published an American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection. This book, which almost single-handedly laid the ground work for the New England Transcendentalism movement, fused the material and the spiritual, and advanced the crucial distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. Marsh added his own "Preliminary Essay," underscoring the distinction between "the understanding," that distinctly Lockean faculty of rationalizing from the senses and "the Reason," those higher intuitions valued not only by German idealists but by mystics through the ages.
Soon afterward, Frederic Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister equally conversant with German thought, wrote for that denomination's journal, The Christian Examiner, a laudatory article on Coleridge that Hedge claimed was "the first word, so far as I know, which any American had uttered in respectful recognition of the claims of Transcendentalism." This article made a very great impression on Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called it "a living leaping Logos."
Various essays by Thomas Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review were deeply appreciated by Emerson reading them in New England in 1832, and by 1833 he had set out for Europe in hopes of meeting Carlyle in Scotland, which he did. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship and correspondence. The relationship between Emerson and Carlyle was based in a deep stratum, for "in the irrational depths of their own minds there was a profound identity between them." They both attempted to find a skepticism-refuting faith and to combine philosophy and theology with literature.
A detailed statement of Emerson's subsequent beliefs appeared in his first book, Nature (1836). The volume received little notice, but it has come to be regarded as Emerson's most original and significant work, offering the essence of his philosophy of transcendentalism.
The opening paragraph of this (anonymously self-published) major essay read as follows:-
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.The following quote is gleaned from Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalist" (1842).
"What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism... It is well known to most of my audience that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms. The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man's thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcendental."Emerson had two major volumes of essays published in the 1840s. The first volume opens with an essay entitled History which contains the following passage:-
"There is one mind common to all individual men.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Kantian or Transcendental Idealism