Transcendentalism.—The terms transcendent and transcendental are used in various senses, all of which, as a rule, have antithetical reference in some way to experience or the empirical order.
For the Scholastics, the categories are the highest classes of "things that are and are spoken of". The transcendentals are notions, such as unity, truth, goodness, being, which are wider than the categories, and, going beyond them, are said to transcend them. In a metaphysical sense transcendent is opposed by the Scholastics and others to immanent; thus, the doctrine of Divine Transcendence is opposed to the doctrine of Divine Immanence in the Pantheistic sense. Here, however, there is no reference to experience. (See Immanence.)
In the loosest sense of the word any philosophy or theology which lays stress on the intuitive, the mystical, the ultra-empirical, is said to be transcendentalism. Thus, it is common to refer to the New England School of Transcendentalism, of which mention is made further on.
In a stricter sense transcendentalism refers to a celebrated distinction made by Kant. Though he is not consistent in the use of the terms transcendent and transcendental, Kant understands by transcendent what lies beyond the limits of experience, and by transcendental he understands the non-empirical or a priori elements in our knowledge, which do not come from experience, but are nevertheless, legitimately applied to the data or contents of knowledge furnished by experience. The distinction is somewhat subtle. Yet, it may be made clear by an example. Within the limits of experience we learn the uniform sequence of acorn and oak, heat and expansion, cold and contraction, etc., and we give the antecedent as the cause of the consequent. If, now, we go beyond the total of our experience and give God as the cause of all things, we are using the category "cause" in a transcendent sense, and that use is not legitimate. If, however, to the data of sequence furnished by experience we apply the a priori form causation, we are introducing a transcendental element which elevates our knowledge to the rank of universal and necessary truth: "Every effect has its cause." Kant, as has been said, does not always adhere to this distinction. We may, then, understand transcendent and transcendental to refer to those elements or factors in our knowledge which do not come from experience, but are known a priori. Empirical philosophy is, therefore, a philosophy based on experience alone and adhering to the realm of experience in obedience to Hume's maxim, "'Tis impossible to go beyond experience." Transcendental philosophy, on the contrary, goes beyond experience, and considers that philosophical speculation is concerned chiefly, if not solely, with those things which lie beyond experience.
Kant himself was convinced that, for the theoretical reason, the transcendental reality, the thing-in-itself, is unknown and unknowable. Therefore, he defined the task of philosophy to consist in the examination of knowledge for the purpose of determining the a priori elements, in the systematic enumeration of these elements, or forms, and the determination of the rules for their legitimate application to the data of experience. Ultra-empirical reality, he taught, is to be known only by the practical reason. Thus, his philosophy is critical transcendentalism. Thus, too, he left to his successors the task of bridging over the chasm between the theoretical and the practical reason. This task they accomplished in various ways, eliminating, transforming, or adapting the transcendent reality outside us, the thing-in-itself, and establishing in this way different transcendentalisms in place of the critical transcendentalism of Kant.
Fichte introduced Egoistic Transcendentalism. The subject, he taught, or the Ego, has a practical as well as a theoretical side. To develop its practical side along the line of duty, obligation, and right, it is obliged to posit the non-Ego. In this way, the thing-in-itself as opposed to the subject, is eliminated, because it is a creation of the Ego, and, therefore, all transcendental reality is contained in self. I am I, the original identity of self with itself, is the expression of the highest metaphysical truth.
Schelling, addressing himself to the same task, developed Transcendental Absolutism. He brought to the problems of philosophy a highly spiritual imaginativeness and a scientific insight into nature which were lacking in Kant, the critic of knowledge, and Fichte, the exponent of romantic personalism. He. taught that the transcendental reality is neither subject nor object, but an Absolute which is so indeterminate that it may be said to be neither nature nor spirit. Yet the Absolute is, in a sense, potentially both the one and the other. For, from it, by gravity, light, and organization, is derived spirit, which slumbers in nature, but reaches consciousness of self in the highest natural organization, man. There is here a hint of development which was brought out explicitly by Hegel.
Hegel introduced Idealistic Transcendentalism. He taught that reality is not an unknowable thing in itself, nor the subject merely, nor an absolute of indifference, but an absolute Idea, Spirit, or Concept (Begriff), whose essence is development (das Werden), and which becomes in succession object and subject, nature and spirit, being and essence, the soul, law, the state, art, science, religion, and philosophy.
In all these various meanings there is preserved a generic resemblance to the original signification of the term transcendentalism. The transcendentalists one and all, dwell in the regions beyond experience, and, if they do not condemn experience as untrustworthy, at least they value experience only in so far as it is elevated, sublimated, and transformed by the application to it of transcendental principles. The fundamental epistemological error of Kant, that whatever is universal and necessary cannot come from experience, runs all through the transcendentalist philosophy, and it is on epistemological grounds that the transcendentalists are to be met. This was the stand taken in Catholic circles, and there, with few exceptions, the doctrines of the transcendentalists met with a hostile reception. The exceptions were Franz Baader (1765-1841), Johann Frohschammer (1821-1893), and Anton Gunther (1785-1863), who, in their attempt to "reconcile" Catholic dogma with modern philosophical opinion, were influenced by the transcendentalists and overstepped the boundaries of orthodoxy. It may without unfairness be laid to the charge of the German transcendentalists that their disregard for experience and common sense is largely accountable for the discredit into which metaphysics has fallen in recent years.
New England transcendentalism, sometimes called the Concord School of Philosophy, looks to William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) as its founder. Its principal representatives are Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Theodore Parker (1810-1860), Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890), George Ripley (1802-1880), and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). It had its inception in the foundation of the Transcendental Club in 1836. The chief influences discernible in its literary output are German philosophy, French sociology, and the reaction against the formalism of Calvinistic theology. Its sociological and economic theories were tested in the famous Brook Farm (1841), with which the names just mentioned and those of several other distinguished Americans were associated.