Men and Movements in American Philosophy

By Arthur E. Murphy | Go to book overview
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4
NEW ENGLAND'S WILD OATS

I. TRANSCENDENTALISM

The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a revolt against the enlightened ideals of the Revolutionary era. This revolt took the form of a return to orthodox and somewhat dogmatic ideas in many fields, including academic philosophy. In this chapter we are to consider another reaction against the age of Enlightenment occurring in the same period as the orthodox reaction, but centering largely in New England, and stemming from the romantic movement in Germany and England. The sources of this American romanticism were various New England's wild oats were drawn from many a foreign clime. Even Oriental, and particularly Hindu, writings were drawn upon by the transcendentalists to feed their ranging imaginations. But their chief sources were the ideas of the post-Kantian German philosophers, especially Friedrich W. J Schelling ( 1775-1854), as these ideas were interpreted by the English poet, theologian, and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge ( 1772-1834).

There is a certain sense in which transcendentalism should not be considered as a movement at all. There was a great deal of disparity among the transcendentalists. James Freeman Clarke, who was one of the group, is reported to have said

"We called ourselves the club of the like-minded, I suppose because no two of us thought alike."'
This is certainly an exaggeration, but there were differences of opinion sufficient to justify the criticism that the only agreement among the transcendentalists was an agreement to disagree. If, then, we consider the criterion of a movement the adherence of its members to any set of common beliefs, it is difficult to find a basis for calling transcendentalism a movement. In another sense, however, the transcendentalists had much in common. They shared certain antagonisms and no better bond of union than a common enemy

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