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A Reaction To Transcendentalism And Its Impact On The Way Society Thought

From Jonathan Edward's idea of a coherence theory of truth to Thomas Jefferson's

ideas of politics and government to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense", American philosophy has changed and has been expanded upon much throughout the centuries. When Transcendentalism gained recognition, though, the ways in which people began to think became much different. Much of American thought would not be what it is today without the Transcendentalist Movement.

The Transcendentalist Movement began in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, mainly in the New England states. The most renowned of the Transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson essays (chiefly Nature), and Henry David Thoreau and his Walden. Many people did not even know what Transcendentalism was. Transcendentalism came to be a new view for the mind, of the world, of culture, of religion, of thinking, etc. Followers of the movement believed that the mind is not built by experience, but rather experience is built by the mind.

In earlier times, philosophers believed that experiences shaped the mind. Jonathan Edwards, for example, believed that by seeing a big tall brown thing with a green, bushy top, one could pronounce that it is a tree. That encounter with the tree formed a notion of "treeness", so to speak, in the mind. Transcendentalists, though, believe that the mind is actually what shapes experience.

With Transcendentalism, the notion and experience of treeness is already in the mind. What is actually seen with the eye is already known through human intuition. For another example, take nature. The truth is already there - that nature is beautiful. Nature is beautiful. That idea is already in the mind, even when we have not yet experienced it. Then once we do experience it, we rise above our former idea of nature and come across new notions which transcend those ideas that we had before.

To restate, Transcendentalism is when what one knows with their own God-given human intuition and conscience "transcends" one's ideas of the empirical and material of what they see as true.

The Transcendentalist views of Henry David Thoreau (particularly those of "Civil Disobedience") have helped shape the views of those involved in the civil rights movement of the mid-1900s. Who knows? If Thoreau would never have spoken out about the importance of fighting with one's own self to correct an injustice rather than waiting for a majority to do so, many people today may have never stood up for what they believed in.

One does not really claim to be a transcendentalist anymore; it was just a movement. But its ideas still flourish in the minds of everybody, whether they know it or not.

For example, a high school math class may be given a math problem to be done for homework. Upon going over the homework the next day, all the students think that one answer is correct - except for one student who believes that his answer is correct. Whether his answer is right or wrong, the student still stands up for what he believes in, even when the rest of the class thinks another answer is correct.

The student may have never even heard the term "Transcendentalism", let alone know what it is, but his idea of representing his answer with only his own self demonstrates some Transcendentalist ideas, particularly those mentioned in Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience".

Now, Thoreau did not invent the notion of standing up for what one believes in, but he one can say he helped popularize it. People may not have begun to think in this way unless Thoreau had done so with the idea.

Through reading all of this, I wonder: Why do they call themselves Transcendentalists? Why not Descendentalists? They claim to have risen above their former views, and believe that experience is not necessary when we have our own intuition. But maybe they, with a better understanding of the world, and through actually experiencing things themselves, do not rise above, but rather actually bring down closer to themselves those experiences (since they've already experienced them.

Sure, I have an idea of treeness in my head, but that is because I have already experienced treeness. If I had never experienced treeness, I would not know what a tree is; I would have no notion of what it looks like, what it feels like, how it smells, etc. So must I not say that I have risen above? Shouldn't I say I have brought treeness to my level?

Be it the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, or any other Transcendentalist, the Movement has influenced American thought in many ways, even though some are not familiar with it.

by: Shirley Hendricks
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