From Kant to Emerson: A Transcontinental Exploration of the Evolution of Transcendentalism

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by Kristen A. Bennett

UMASS Boston


“There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this
poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that
which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and
said.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar


When we call to mind the word “transcendentalism,” we generate images of
transparent eyeballs, Walden Pond, and perhaps the well-known profile of the
elder Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet these simulacra remain amorphous, and
philosophically anomalous, when abstracted from the intertextual historicity in
which they evolved. The connotations associated with the foregoing images are
not limited to the 19th Century American version of
transcendentalism, but represent instead a progression of philosophical thought.
This progression originated in the work of 18th Century German author
Immanuel Kant, and was later translated by the British Romantic writer Samuel T.
Coleridge. Coleridge’s seminal interpretations of Kant were those that were most
widely ready by his contemporaries William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, as
well as the primary progenitor of American transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo
Emerson. Although Kant’s ideas about how we generate knowledge
greatly appealed to these authors, they contend that he should have continued to
transcend his strictly cognitive conceptions, and integrate the sensual and
emotional dimensions of the intellect. Coleridge reminds us that philosophy is,
after all: “…an affectionate seeking after the truth” (BL, IX 228).
Inspired by Coleridge’s revision of Kant’s theory, as well as the interpretive
incarnations thereof generated by Wordsworth and Carlyle, Emerson himself
translated “transcendentalism” into a uniquely American way of thinking,
and being characterized quite literally by enthusiasm. In this paper,
we will explore the contextual evolution of philosophical and literary
“transcendentalism” that culminates in Emerson’s work.

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