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Saturday, November 27, 2010


An interesting thing about the movie I mentioned yesterday is its relation to American Transcendentalism. In the film Little Women, Joe tells her friend, the German philosophy professor, that her family are transcendentalists. No surprise there .... the author of Little Women, Louisa MayAlcott, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott .... an American teacher, writer, philosopher, and reformer .... He hoped to perfect the human spirit and, to that end, advocated a vegan diet before the term was coined. He was also an abolitionist and an advocate for women's rights .... Alcott became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and became a major figure in transcendentalism.

Here's a bit about transcendentalism from Wikipedia ....

The movement developed in the 1830s and 40s as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was the belief in an ideal spiritual state that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. The major figures in the movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott ....

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally) .... The transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." .... they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.

It will probably come as no surprise that transcendentalism and Catholicism seem in some ways antithetical. The Catholic Encyclopedia states ...

The transcendentalists one and all, dwell in the regions beyond experience, and, if they do not condemn experience as untrustworthy, at least they value experience only in so far as it is elevated, sublimated, and transformed by the application to it of transcendental principles. The fundamental epistemological error of Kant, that whatever is universal and necessary cannot come from experience, runs all through the transcendentalist philosophy, and it is on epistemological grounds that the transcendentalists are to be met. This was the stand taken in Catholic circles, and there, with few exceptions, the doctrines of the transcendentalists met with a hostile reception.

If only I understood Kant ... must read more on this stuff.


Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Continue on... there's a lot of good stuff in Kant. I spent a lot of time with him in college. Metaphysics, Ethics, Logic, Epistemology... Often heavy, though, & difficult to follow.

5:31 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

I did see a pretty good video on Kant by Keith Ward - link. All I had in college about Knat was one semester on The Critique of Pure Reason, which I found really hard. Ward's video helped me understand Kant better than that whole semester did :)

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Paul Martin said...

I hadn't been aware of the connection by way of transcendentalism between Emerson and Thoreau on the one hand and the English Romantics on the other. But they were always connected in my mind because of how wonderfully all of them evoke our responses to nature with language.

8:22 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

Yes, I didn't know that either.

1:39 AM  

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