Meaning: A mid-19th century literary and philosophical movement pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and so on.
Usage: “Is New England transcendentalism identical with the philosophy of the German thinkers Kant, Fichte, and Jacobi? If not, why does it employ their terminology? Or is transcendentalism a “Saturnalia or excess of faith?” — Harold Bloom in How to Write about Ralph Waldo Emerson
You should know it because: Transcendentalism, like Romanticism, originally blossomed in opposition to the Enlightened Industrial-Revolutionized era of rational thought, then became entangled with pop philosophy and Books Oprah Likes forever. It was a loose collection of views held mostly by writers and philosophers, but probably the central tenant was that the spiritual (what we feel when we are very quiet) transcends the empirical (what we see and “know” to be real). Transcendentalism is why people do yoga and go on nature retreats and earnestly read articles like this one in the Globe & Mail, about why we need “Walden Zones” (see: Thoreau) to “unplug” from contemporary multi-channel and “reconnect” with our interior selves. It’s also why, according to this NY Mag profile, Arianna Huffington goes to New Age, New York relaxation stations where you have to check your phone at the desk to experience calm.
But you know, if Arianna Huffington ever took the subway, she’d know phones don’t work there either. Also, there’s an “off” button. If transcendentalism in all its permutations still values interior discovery over empirical stuff, then who needs to go to a pond or spa? Just close your eyes, people.
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