The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Transcendental Philosophy

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TRANSCENDENTAL PHILOSOPHY, that type of philosophy which holds understanding to be the creative activity in the real world. To understand the use of the term transcendental during the past century, we must refer back to Kant and his distinction between transcendental and transcendent. Kant applied the term transcendent to such ideas as he believed were beyond the range of any possible experience. On the other hand, he designated as transcendental those elements which were necessary constituents of experience, but which could not come from sense-perception. These transcendental elements are the organizing principles or concepts which are the inherent property of the mind as an active understanding. Such organizing principles could never be furnished by sensation; for it is only by their agency that the material of sensation is built up into a comprehensible experience. Thus Kant maintained that the world of actual experience as far as its form is concerned is the result of the logically necessary structure of our minds, and consequently that this world is formed according to the laws of thought. Just because it is such a thought-construction Kant did not believe that the world of our experience had true reality. This true reality, he affirmed, exists beyond the world of experience and we can know nothing of it except its existence. Thus for Kant the transcendental represented that activity of understanding which is instrumental in the construction of human experience, but not in production of reality. Kant's successors of the Idealistic School (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel) rejected his theory of an ultimate reality beyond experience, and held that the true and only reality was given within the unity of experience. Since the world of experience is formed according to the active principles of understanding, these transcendental principles become, in this case, active not only in the construction of experience, but also in the construction of reality. Thus in the first half of the last century, transcendental acquired a broad and important meaning, signifying in general, a spiritual interpretation of the universe, and more strictly, that philosophy which affirms the activity of reason or understanding in the nature and development of reality. Chiefly through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle, the ideas of Kant and his successors were made known in England. Through the same medium the transcendental philosophy became known to America and inspired a definite movement in New England. This movement, called New England Transcendentalism, was a reaction from the prosaic orthodoxy and utilitarianism of the time toward a deeper and more ideal interpretation of reality. W. E. Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson (qq.v.) were prominent in the inauguration of this movement; and there became associated in it a remarkable coterie of congenial spirits. The Transcendental Club, founded in 1836, and Brook Farm (q.v.), a social community organized in 1841, were immediate results of the movement. The first literary organ of the school was the Dial, founded in 1840. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, founded in 1871, and the Concord School of Philosophy (1879) were later expressions of the same. The philosophy of this school was not systematically set forth, nor was it derived wholly from German sources. It was an idealism, rather vague, and often incoherent, which owed almost as much to the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonic mysteries as to modern thought. Abolitionism and philanthropy owe much to the New England Transcendentalists. See Alcott, A. B.; Hedge, F. H.; Ossoli, Sarah Margaret Fuller, Marchioness; Ripley, George and Thoreau, H. D.

Bibliography. — Caird, ‘Hegel’ (Philadelphia 1883); Carlyle, ‘Sartor Resartus’; Coleridge, ‘Biographia Literaria’; Emerson, ‘Essays’; Frothingham, O. B., ‘Transcendentalism in New England’ (Boston 1876); Kant, ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’