Victor Nuovo: Transcendentalism and moral duty

Editor’s note: This is the 30th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.

“Transcendentalism” signifies the flowering of culture in New England during the first half of the 19th Century when it threw off the burden of Calvinism, indeed of all institutional religion — even Unitarianism was felt to be too limiting. Among its leading figures were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, who will be featured in this series, and there was a host of others. It was a powerful cultural movement; its influence has been broad and deep; it has persisted to the present day, so that reading about it will often involve a measure of self-discovery, and a longing to be as they were.

But Transcendentalism was not a homegrown product. It roots were in European literature and philosophy. Transcendentalists admired and borrowed from the English Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. But they were even more indebted to European philosophers. One can trace their genealogy from Renè Descartes to Immanuel Kant and forward to G. W. F. Hegel.

Kant was the first to employ the term philosophically. He used it to describe knowledge that does not derive from things external to us, like fields and fountains and flowery meadows, or from the many familiar objects that surround us, but a knowledge we must already possess in order to know anything at all. In the opening section of his great work, Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote that although our knowledge begins with experience, not all of it derives from experience, rather there are certain things we know before we can ever know anything. The aim of transcendental philosophy is to discover this knowledge that is prior to all other knowing. Accordingly, Kant embarked on a search for what he called the à priori presuppositions of two other sorts of knowledge: knowledge the external world and knowledge of our moral duty. The place where the search for this prior knowledge takes place is in ourselves, in our consciousness, and it involved an ascent to ever higher levels of selfhood, or self-transcendence.

The outcome of the first enquiry was disappointing. Kant concluded that we will never come to a perfect knowledge of the external world and of external things. We are not able ever to know them as they are in themselves, but only as they appear to consciousness, only as they affect us, mere appearances. This led him on a kind of archaeological search of human consciousness. And after much labor of self-examination, he discovered a system of general categories or rules rooted in the mind that frame its perceptions of the external world. He concluded that this was the prior knowledge he sought.

Of course, appearances are not illusions, and through hypothesis, experiment, and analysis we can learn very much about the nature of things so far as they relate to us. And we can experience the infinite expanse of nature and its sublime beauty. But underlying all of this, there is also a knowledge of general concepts that we use to make sense of what we see, and hear, and touch: the idea of a thing, of one or many, and composite things, of processes, of change and causation, of reality and illusion, of yes and no and a host of logical distinctions. He called them categories or rules of consciousness; by employing them, we are able to understand the universe that surrounds us and in which we have our being.

The search for knowledge of our moral duty discloses something far more sublime; we discover our moral selves, our being as persons, through which we have access to a higher world, one that is governed by a higher moral law. This ascent to a higher law is the goal of transcendentalism.

Here is Kant’s summary of his discoveries:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense and extends the connection in which I stand into an unbounded magnitude with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into the unbounded times of their periodic motion, their beginning and their duration. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and presents me in a world which has true infinity but which can be discovered only by the understanding, and I cognize that my connection with that world (and thereby with all those visible worlds as well) is not merely contingent, as in the first case, but universal and necessary. The first view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital force (one knows not how) must give back to the planet (a mere speck in the universe) the matter from which it came. The second, on the contrary, infinitely raises my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as this may be inferred from the purposive determination of my existence by this law, a determination not restricted to the conditions and boundaries of this life but reaching into the infinite.”

Transcendentalists seized upon these words; the words became for them a confession of faith, a creed. Emerson may have memorized them; for I am repeatedly reminded of them as I read his writings.

What has all this to do with political thought? Very much. A Transcendentalist regards every human person as a moral being, a free agent guided by reason, a person capable of self-knowledge and limitless self-transcendence. Anyone who knows this cannot be a slave or enslave anyone else. Freedom and equality for all is the only conclusion one can draw from this; and thus the blessings of liberty may be secured for all.

Postscript: Kant wrote three Critiques, the first concerning the knowledge of external things, and the second concerning moral knowledge, Critique of Practical Reason; the third, Critique of Judgment, concerns judgments of value, especially aesthetic values, the beautiful and the sublime.

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