Thursday, September 30, 2010

Transcendentalism – Summary of Research #1

After reading module 1, I searched for some basic information about Transcendentalism.  Beginning with The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I found an article on Thoreau which only mentions in a single paragraph some rudimentary thoughts on Kant and the Romantic revival of passion.  This source did not contain a full article on the topic of this course, which prompted me (perhaps like many others) to turn to Wikipedia, which at least gives a good overview and some leads for further research.  Their article, entitled “Transcendentalism,” describes the movement in terms of time and place (New England, early to middle nineteenth c.), as well as shaping influences, including the protest against Unitarian and intellectual voices at Harvard.  The article names some key Transcendentalists (which, given the hyperlinked text, is quite handy), providing Emerson’s 1836 publication of Nature as the “watershed moment” for the movement.  It goes on to describe the Transcendentalist Club and to make a distinction between the various aims of some of its members, in terms of ideology and praxis.  The origins of the creed are also described, with mention being made of Kant and the German Idealists, along with their English and French interpreters, in addition to the Hindu Vedas.  The article ends with some notable criticism of the movement, along with a description of its influence on other movements, including Romanticism, New Thought and Divine Science.  As much as Wikipedia is scorned in academia for lack of rigor, I must confess it does a good job of providing both a basic overview and some useful links on the topic. 
Wondering if more “respectable” resources could be as complete and accessible, I checked The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which offered two articles, one general, and one specific to the American movement.  This was more useful, but presented only very limited hyperlinking.  I then looked into the Catholic Encyclopedia at, and was delighted to find a thorough, well-researched article with excellent links.  Their explanation of Kant and the a priori of intuitive knowledge is superior, giving clarity to this difficult concept.  A useful description of the succession of theorists in the field, including Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, leads to a critique of Transcendentalist thought from a Catholic perspective, based in Kant`s “epistemological error” – namely, that of undermining the value of physical experience and common-sense.  Finally, the American movement, characterised as being less philosophical and more cultural and social is briefly mentioned in a single paragraph.  This source appears to be more useful than some other Encyclopedias, more accessible by virtue of its hyperlinks and yet quite well-researched, though one must keep the Catholic bias in mind.
Desiring to pursue some specific ideas in the module, and having heard of Rousseau’s “noble savage” idea some years ago, I decided to read John Darling’s "Understanding and Religion in Rousseau's Emile" in the British Journal of Educational Studies Vol. 33 (1985):  20-34.  Darling presents Rousseau as being less obstructed by the value of a religious education than an objector to its appropriateness in youth incapable of abstraction in thought, an idea which anticipates Piaget.  The thought which plagued me as I read of Rousseau’s underlying theology was with regards to his low conception of Christ, whom he saw as “someone to admire rather than worship” (ibid, 20).  This led me back to seeking a broader overview of our topic, to Edwin Berry Burgum’s "Romanticism," in The Kenyon Review Vol. 3 (1941):  479-490.  The author gives an excellent presentation of Romanticism in the context of its various political, economic and social forces.  Here, one learns that a reaction against the establishment underlay much of the drive for the ideal, allowing for understanding, if not sympathy, with Transcendentalist sages who rejected church dogma.  Where Burgum stands out is in providing insight into the different manifestations of Romanticism in diverse nations, owing to a variety of historical parameters, including the French and Industrial Revolutions.

After reading module 2, I decided to check for information on Wordsworth and Coleridge on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Both of these searches led back to a single article on Transcendentalism.  The article appears very well-researched and informative, although most of the ideas will be discussed later on in the course, so I decided to return to this afterward.  A discussion of the influence of Hume and Schleiermacher did help to clarify the theology of the American movement, however.  Getting back to England, I decided to read Hoxie N. Fairchild’s "The Romantic Movement in England," in PMLA Vol. 55 (1940):  20-26.  The author presents the religious influences which shaped the English Romantics, namely nonconformity, latitudinarianism, sentimentalism, and finally, pantheism (p. 21), as well as the historicopolitical, experiential and personal genius which characterized their writings (p. 22).  The mystical tone of poetry such as Kubla Khan as well as a question posed by a classmate led me to read from the first few pages from Clarence L.F. Gohdes’, Periodicals of American Transcendentalism, Whitefish, 2003 (available online via Google Books preview).  The work focuses mainly, as the title suggests, on the Americans, but a suggestion of the brotherhood between Eastern religious traditions and the Western Romantics is helpful.  I felt something of a gap in my personal knowledge of the English poets, and think it best to read some of their primary works, if possible, in the future.
Module 3 prompted me to read George R. Havens’  "Romanticism in France," in PMLA Vol. 55 (1940):  10-20.  The author presents a range of forces in play on the movement, from the stifling classical influence of Napoleon to Mme. de Staël’s bridge to German Idealism, De L’Allemagne.  His conclusion that the power of Romanticism in France flourished most enthusiastically in the field of literature is captured in his emphasis on Hugo’s parallel between “the Sublime and the Grotesque” (p.17).  The French Revolutionary theme of removing the shackles of the old aristocracy in favor of elevating the humble is especially reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah filling the valleys and bringing low the hills (Is. 40:3-4).  With so much upheaval and vision for change in mind, a classmate’s question on Fourier led me to Jonathan Beecher’s “Parody and Liberation in The New Amorous World by Charles Fourier,” in the History Workshop Journal 1985 20(1): 125-133.  In it, Beecher explains that Fourier’s utopia is not necessarily prescription so much as parody, specifically designed to mock institutions such as the Catholic church.  The article is useful to understand the motivating force behind Fourier’s writing, as well as providing background information to the establishment of communes in America.
The topic of module 4 led me to three articles.  The first, Arthur I. Ladu’s "Channing and Transcendentalism," in American Literature Vol. 11 (1939):  129-137, gave insight into Channing’s progression of thought, from Unitarianism to Transcendentalism.  Ladu argues that while Channing accepted the latter’s “free inquiry of thought”, he could not digest their rejection of Christ’s divinity and miracles.  The preacher is clearly presented, as the title to the module suggests, as a bridge linking two worlds.  The tension between the reality of a young nation bustling with materialist values and the hope of a society where individual conscience is developed enough to allow for idealist liberality is presented well in John E. Reinhardt’s “The Evolution of William Ellery Channing's Sociopolitical Ideas," in American Literature, Vol. 26 (May 1954):  154-165.  From here, prompted by a classmate’s posting, I read D. H. Meyer’s "The Saint as Hero: William Ellery Channing and the Nineteenth-Century Mind," in The Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 8, (1973), pp. 171-185.  Meyer posits that the minister was not an innovator, nor a great thinker, but rather, “Channing summed up well what many people were thinking and wanted to hear” (p. 173) – in other words, he represented American thought in his day.  Here was “the best of the Puritan past” moving towards “intelligent adaptability to change and a spirit of sensible optimism concerning the future of the still new nation” (ibid).  This module seems to be key in bringing together various threads of thought from previous modules and in demonstrating the dynamics of change in a young America as symbolized in Channing.
The progression to module 5 seemed natural enough - after reading of Channing, Marsh and Hedge completed the migration in American thought towards Idealism.  Recalling the importance of primary sources, I decided for this module to read two of Hedge’s tracts, “Progress of Society” (1834) and “Coleridge” (1833).  In “Progress”, Hedge sets out a theory in which successive “pulsations” of mind send out “into the world some new sentiment or principle, some discovery or invention, which, like small portions of leaven, have successively communicated their quickening energy to the whole mass of society.”  Many questions arose from this idea, but it seemed clear that Hedge was voicing a passionate optimism in the human intellect, beyond the confines of institutions, which are merely temporal, and accessory to the greater project of ascension.  In “Coleridge”, Hedge expounds on the virtues of interiority, as given by Coleridge, pointing out that its impenetrability of method is due only to want of depths in its critics.  To the charge that no discernible good is produced by mimicking the Germans’ philosophy, Hedge answers, “More than metaphysics ever before accomplished, these men have done for the advancement of the human intellect.”  These echoes of Kantian Idealist thought, carried forth over the waters by Coleridge, appear, in Hedge, to have found a place among nineteenth century Boston literati.  As a matter of critique, I found that reading the source materials for oneself affords a taste of the writing/thinking style of the day, calling one to look about and share in the sheer sweep of the vision which Transcendentalists aspired to.  It would have been helpful, I must confess, to have also read some contemporary articles on Marsh and Hedge, to see with the lens which retrospective offers, what outcomes their ideas wrought.

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