What is Transcendentalism?

Concord School of Philosophy. Photograph by Barry M. Andrews.

Concord School of Philosophy

Most people think of Transcendentalism as a literary movement that produced some of our best writers, including Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. But at its core, it was a spiritual movement that developed within 19th century Unitarianism, in reaction to the reigning theology of the time. A group of younger, second-generation Unitarians—most of them ministers—first got together in 1836 to discuss their dissatisfaction with Unitarian theology and the state of the church.

This group grew to forty or fifty members and met occasionally for a period of four years. It included women as well as men, and lay people as well as clergy. With a few exceptions, the membership continued to be Unitarian. It was called the Transcendental Club, although that was not a name they had chosen for themselves.

The name was suggested by philosopher Immanuel Kant’s usage of the term, “transcendental reason.” The Transcendentalists were familiar with Kant’s writing, but they understood the term in a broader sense than Kant did. They said there are ways of knowing that transcend the senses; hence the word Transcendentalism.

Unitarianism, at that time, was based on the philosophy of John Locke who argued that in infancy the human mind is a blank slate and that knowledge comes to us from without, through the senses. Knowledge is empirical. The Transcendentalists argued that Locke’s philosophy led inevitably to skepticism, since religious beliefs could not be justified on empirical grounds. Instead, they held that there are intuitive ways of knowing that validate spiritual truths. Moreover, they believed that intuition represented a higher way of knowing than empiricism.

Two ways of knowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the best-known exponent of this point of view. Emerson called these two ways of knowing the Reason and the Understanding. Today we might think of this distinction in terms of the difference between right-brain and left-brain modes of thought.

Studies show that the left hemisphere of the brain processes sensory data, using language to describe, define, categorize and communicate information about everything. It is analytical. It puts everything into an orderly sequence, thereby creating the concept of time. The left hemisphere is also the locus of the ego and our sense of self. By means of brain chatter, it continually reminds us of the details of our life. Because of its ability to create and understand language, the left hemisphere predominates over the right.

In contrast to the analytical operations of the left brain, the right brain is holistic. Absent the logical constraints imposed by the left side of the brain, the right side is spontaneous, carefree and imaginative, and expresses itself in artistic and creative ways. The right brain has no sense of time, only of what is happening in the present moment. It perceives us as one with the universe and as equal members of the human family. Intuitively, we see that everything is interconnected and that we are a part of the cosmic whole. In right brain cognition we lose the awareness of being an individual, isolated self, and gain a sense of kinship, compassion and empathy for others.

It is Emerson’s genius that he perceived and expressed in his writings the importance of the right brain mode of consciousness, or, as he put it, the Reason. In doing so he paved the way for a greater appreciation of spirituality in an increasingly secular world.

In his first book, Nature, he described an experience he once had while crossing the Boston common at twilight on a cloudy winter’s day. Quite unexpectedly, he enjoyed what he called “a perfect exhilaration,” which he described in the following way: “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Mystical vision

Such visions come rarely and unannounced, but when they do they profoundly alter our way of viewing and relating to the world. Reflecting back on his experience Emerson observed, “When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf; ... for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and study of every fine genius since the world began.” And it is this problem that engaged Emerson’s attention throughout the course of his life and writing.

If the right-hand side of the brain is the seat of the Reason, the left-hand side is that of the Understanding. By Reason, he meant intuitive reason, not discursive reason; unitary vision, not dualistic thinking. The Understanding, on the other hand, was a rational, intellectual process, in keeping with left-brain mental activity. For Emerson these two modes of consciousness were complementary. The Reason provided intuitive knowledge of spiritual realities, whereas the Understanding produced empirical knowledge about the material world.

But in the same way and for the same reason that the mental operations of the left brain take precedence over those of the right, the Understanding trumps the Reason in all areas of life and thought. We give more “weight” to things that can be quantified and measured. Analytical reasoning is more to be trusted than “mere” intuition. Instrumental values count for more than intrinsic ones. Technology and the hard sciences are more esteemed and highly rewarded than literature and the arts. The selfish desires of the ego predominate over altruism and selfless compassion. Materialism “matters” more than spirituality. Human beings as individuals and as a species are valued more for their exceptionalism and independence than for what they share in common with one another and the natural world.

In Emerson’s view, the predominance of rational materialism results in a fallen human condition. We are alienated from nature and one another because we are disunited within ourselves. “The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit,” he insists. “We distrust and deny inwardly our sympathy with nature.” At present, “man is a god in ruins,” he says, a “dwarf of himself,” and “works on the world with his understanding alone. He lives in it, and masters it by a penny-wisdom; and he that works most in it, is but a half-man.”

However, in this darkness there are gleams of a better light. “The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul,” Emerson argues. “The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.”

A lack of balance

There is a lack of balance or harmony between the two modes of consciousness that can only be remedied by opening the doors of right-brain perception. Aldous Huxley once wrote: “To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large — this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.” Unfortunately, as Emerson notes in another of his lectures, “the community in which we live will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstacy or a divine illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world.”

Were we to resolve this dilemma, we would face yet another paradox of the spiritual life. Granted that moments of vision are revelations of supreme reality, as Emerson, Huxley and many others insist, the fact remains that in the course of an average life they are few and far between. “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual,” Emerson observes in his essay on “The Over-Soul.” “Yet there is more depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than all other experiences.”

The two modes of consciousness stand in marked contrast to each other. Emerson goes on to say, “The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other, never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise; and with the progress of life, the two discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves.”

If such moments come seldom and unannounced, and if they represent insights into the true nature of reality, how might they be summoned and sustained? Emerson made it his mission to discern and delineate the means by which this dilemma might be resolved and the two modes of consciousness reconciled with each other. To this end he developed a spiritual practice consisting of solitude, contemplation, journal writing, reading, conversation, communing with nature, self-reliance, and simple living. In the language of the time, this practice was called “self-culture,” or the cultivation of the soul.