Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist”:


In an essay entitled, “What is the Enlightenment?” (1784) Immanuel Kant declared his credo for the coming intellectual reforms of the Nineteenth Century, which he believed would mark a transition from stale religious and intellectual forms of rote custom and bureaucracy into a new kind of human consciousness. This new consciousness, secure in its method, assured of its theoretical grounding, was the culmination of the Aristotelian project in analytical philosophy: an Organon, or science of thinking, which would equip every user and proficient practitioner with the ability to process reality minus the varying creeds, illusions, lies, errors, and propaganda that seek the oppression, beguilement, and delusion of the human mind in order to secure compliance with established authority. In other words, Kant envisioned a new century governed by self-government and personal responsibility; a world that could transcend the norms of culture with the freedom of self-appointed philosophers found in anarchy:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction, nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay—others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. (1)

The Enlightenment, which proceeded somewhat chaotically throughout the late 1700s in Europe and America with varying degrees of success, and with varying degrees of commitment to the contending ideals of liberty and equality, unseated empires and created new hegemonies. It led to the Lockean reforms of the American continent and the dystopian, secularist, totalitarian Jacobins of the French Revolution, with the attendant collapses and reconstitution of the ancien regime throughout Europe. It is true that revolutions are messy, and are generally opportunist and populist in nature. The intellectuals who whip up agitation and radical change are rarely the same individuals who direct philosophical reform. For every Kant, Jefferson, Burke, and Thomas Paine, there is a Sam Adams—an opportunist, propagandist, and pedagogue who can whip up popular sentiment in order to effect violent change for good or ill.

Kant’s lasting philosophical achievement was the system of thought he put into action in The Critique of Pure Reason. By means of analytical philosophy and logical deduction, he set into place the certain grounds from which a philosophy might be justified by reason alone through several self-evident axioms. By this criticism, Kant tried to embody the systematic method of thought more so than a codified art of professional complaining. As Peter Gay wrote of the Enlightenment in his history of the era:

The Enlightenment, the Age of Philosophy was also, and mainly, the Age of Criticism. These two names did not merely designate allied activities: they were synonyms, “different expressions,” as Ernst Cassirer has said, “of the same situation, intended to characterize from diverse angles the fundamental intellectual energy which permeates the era and to which it owes its great trends of thought.” This energy was the drive for knowledge and control, a restless Faustian dissatisfaction with mere surfaces, or mere passivity. Its favorite instrument was analysis, its essential atmosphere freedom, its goal reality. For all their brave talk about their need to destroy the wild beasts of superstition, talk that soon gave rise to the charge that the Enlightenment was “merely negative,” the philosophes did not sharply separate their work into tearing down and building up.(2)

For Kant, his personal mission was to justify the rationalist foundations of philosophical investigation sketched out by Aristotle. He was by turns intrigued by the work of the English skeptics, John Locke and David Hume, and horrified by some of their negligences and the implications of their purely empirical philosophy. He very much saw himself as building up towards something secure and true after a great tearing-down had been attempted by the Empiricists. For the Empiricists, much like the modern materialists and atheists, the world consisted only of facts justified by observation and experience. Everything had to be tested. Logic itself, perhaps, was nothing but organized habit and custom—the outgrowth of culture and prejudice. And if Logic could be doubted—if there were no such thing as a “right” or a “self-evident” truth—then criticism was nothing but a constant griping with reality. There were no time-invariant truths; no apodeictic certainties; no laws that we could hold as a priori true regardless of the conditions of the environment in which an event takes place.

But with this Empirical dogma in place, a greater untruth now presented itself: If one could not perceive untrammeled truth, since one could not trust the veracity of one’s senses, then how could one justify the Empiricist’s dogma, which held that there was no time-invariant truth, since this dogma would require of the universe a single time-invariant truth; namely: “There is no time-invariant truth.” As Kant argued in his critique of Reason, one could not hold this truth as binding upon the human subject—the thinker as well as the object of the contemplation. Things are either true or they are not. They cannot be both. And in order to get sure grounds for his theory, Kant tackled the concepts of Space and Time. These, he argued, could not belong to empirical reality. They had to be properties of the mind; things in the mind, and not out there in the things-in-themselves that have traditionally been examined as the objects of “objective reality.” Two trees standing on a bank do not contain in themselves the properties of space; for space will be defined by the observer, by his frame of reference in space and time, and will not be found in objects themselves. There is no concept of space without an observer. Hence, one could deduce a truth that escaped space and time; and if one could deduce one truth, others should surely follow.

Kant did not set out to refute Empiricism, but to show that within Empirical reality, one can find synthetic a priori truths underneath the grounds of sensible information. For if one only accounts for what is observed and what is experienced (both passive-propositions), one has to query prior to the reception of information, what it is that observes and experiences as an active agency. Amongst all of our sensible experiences and observations, there is an intuitive apparatus of mind that, in the absence of which, there could be no experience and observation.

The influence of German Idealism on the American public, and particularly the Transcendentalists of Boston, was unique in its revelation there—as if in demonstration of a time-invariant theoretical truth’s subjective application in different environmental constraints. The first characteristic of American Transcendentalism was that it was fiercely individualistic and self-defining. By self-defining, I mean that the movement—like modern libertarianism—was a collection of people, and not some seamless aggregate of ideology with regard to its particulars. The label “Transcendental” was slapped upon the movement of letters, aesthetics, and latitudinarianism by its critics, who wished to classify it as a foreign and strange means of philosophizing. Because it was not attached to an aggregate movement or activism, it was charged with being lazy. Because it was not bound by empirical characteristics, but instead by a spirit of criticism, it was charged with being negative. Because it preached a kind of paganized Christian ethic, it was non-doctrinal and without a theological component. It was a spirit of Reform, and not an ethic of mere Conservatism. And like all individualistic philosophies without a centralizing principle, it was decried as solipsistic and esoteric. It was perfectly “German.”

More than anything, Transcendentalism demarcated a particular kind of libertarian individualism that did not bind the group to participation in a social rite or promote any kind of activism in and of itself. It was open to suggestion, and Henry David Thoreau, with others, did push towards civil disobedience with regard to national laws if slavery were justified by that national legislature (even in some untenable compromise). The Transcendentalists were seeking something above even the old forms and usages of social contracts, compacts, typical nationalistic traditions and factionalism. They held themselves to a higher ethic than the Constitution. They had no spiritual book to bind their thoughts. Theirs was a kind of declaration of independence in the spirit, in the constant revolution that is required to maintain and nourish a spiritual people in perpetual revolution. It was one of the first truly anarchic expressions of high culture on the American continent, which was not apologetic for its audacity to think for itself and care nothing for the pedagogy of the herd.

Emerson saw an inherent link between the stale traditions of the Congregationalist church establishment, the Calvinist majority of Massachusetts, and the philosophy of Locke. Both, Emerson believed, were limitary in scope; they promoted, in their disparate determinisms, the excesses of materialism and predestination. Locke’s contention that the mind was unable to perceive sensible truth, being always under the bombardment of new information, was deterministic in the sense that it reduced the human spirit (be it mind or matter, or some combination) to outside influence drawn from the past only, entirely without prior capacity to reason. There was something disturbingly similar in the Congregationalist’s contention that humans cannot perceive sensible or logical truths in a universe foreordained by God, but only divine truths in scripture and tradition. For someone with a restive spirit, like Emerson himself, Kant was a bulwark against these crass determinisms. For though, in German Idealism, one accepted the basic reality of Empiricism, one situated within that world of sensible information the Aristotelian Organon, the logical apparatus of mind, which could know the form of knowledge and rational argumentation apodeictically, with absolute and unquestionable certainty, yet without knowing the sure path to the good life or to the salvation of the spirit, or even the objective of objective reality. It was an experimental mindset; the perfect market mechanism; the present-tense active power of man without a doctrine to bind it wholly and completely. Its motto was the motto of the Enlightenment: Sapere aude.

By and large, what Transcendentalism promoted was the active spirit of man, his active power, his ability to reason to certainty and self-reliant, self-evident truths, over and against inherited wisdom. Life became a grand experiment, which, in contradistinction to the old governmental and hegemonic world orders, was now directed at controlling only oneself and making change as an individual—rather than as a mob. This was always most apparent in Emerson’s critique of religious conservatism; for he sought something more in line with the Quaker’s self-definition and the spiritual quests of the New Lights; of Unitarian non-denominationalism. He sincerely and honestly believed in a unity of values in disparate, diverse cultures. He sought wisdom across cultural, national, and racial lines. And while one could make the case that certain constraints upon human action are prized by all cultures (proscriptions of murder and theft within that culture, even though the culture makes allowances for murder of and theft from the representatives of another culture), and that there might be something like a rational ethic for human interaction and exchange (property rights, self-ownership, and keeping one’s word: life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness), it tended at times towards extremes of constructivist rationalism and universalism. If it had an element of social justice, however, it was the benign reform of the individual, and not faction. Still, it was a movement of voluntarism at root, with no central impetus to coercive state policy. It was the ultimate secession from custom and culture by those who trusted most to the power of reason: the individualists. The prototypical American Anarchists who evolved into the continent’s first intellectual libertarians; the unapologetic, non-nationalistic, non-identitarian liberals, who without a centralizing dogma pursued the agorist lifestyle in actual practice. These were those who could see beyond party, faction, positive law, traditional practice, materialist determinism, religious establishment, and clerical dogma.

Last week, we explored Emerson’s essay, “The Conservative,” which is an exploration of the tension between sensible culture and anarchic reason; between old usage and new discovery; between social justice and individualism; between egalitarianism and self-determination; between historic impressions and the spirit of innovation. In “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson gives life to the new generation of individualists who abandoned the lifeless chrysalides of historical limitation to live the life of the transcendental aesthetic; the criticism that dares to know, without fear of retribution; that even in a world of heartache and disappointment, did not fear to fashion new life in enterprises of great pith and moment, though the world might never heap praise upon the individualists in a world fought over by tyrants, factions, and sycophants. In Emerson we see true intellect; and though German Idealism has somewhat lost its shine, we can still capture its essence. It is an essay upon human existence and self-knowledge, entirely without an editor or a footnote, with no references, bylines, publishers, or subscribers. It has no bibliography; no citations; no Works Cited page. In Emerson we see the mind that dares to know, to make mistakes, to reflect, and to live. It is the credo of the autodidact; the antithesis to the modern-day scholar—the ostrich that today buries its head in statistics and seeks to bind the sprinters to the herd. In Emerson’s essay we can, for a moment, recover our legacy of anarchism and ideals, to live without master, and meet him, if we dare, as peers, and not mere paupers.

(1) Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?” In The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
(2) Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. Print.

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