Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Common Sense in Transcendentalism

At the Time 100 Gala US Senator Rand Paul toasted to David Henry Thoreau saying:
'because I think that people who will stand up for principle, who fill fight for justice should be supported wether it's popular or unpopular, here is to David Henry Thoreau'
Allthough the toast is not an endorsement of Henry David Thoreau's ideas, it does point to Thoreau's popularity among a segment of American Libertarians. The question remains wether there is a direct link between libertarianism and transcendentalism? And if there is, what is it?

In his blogpost Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought Jeff Riggenbach points to the direct link between David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson's thought:
'Yet where had Thoreau picked up such radical ideas in the first place? Wasn't it, at least in part, from Emerson himself? It was Emerson, after all, who wrote in 1833, when Thoreau was a teenage student at Harvard, that "a man contains all that is needful to his government within himself.'
One could argue that (Emerson's) transcendentalism is just 'the most philosophically subtle and intellectually cosmopolitan' of 'an array of iconoclastic spiritual movements that spread across the northeastern United States during the Second Great Awakening'.

However, from reading a brief introduction into Ralph Waldo Emerson's 'Transcendentalism'(in A History of Philosophy, volume 8 by Frederick Copleston, S.J.) I get the impression he merged Scottish Common Sense Realism with Unitarian theology, and he was being admirably consistent.

In 1938 Odell Shepard remarked "We may yet come to realize that the entire Transcendental Movement was a revolt against Locke". This points to a common denominator with Thomas Reid who  argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by John Locke. The fact that Ralph Waldo Emerson was clearly influenced by Thomas Reid is illustrated in this short quote:
'Ralph Waldo Emerson treated John Locke as an exponent of “the old school” (“Historic Notes” 500) and repeatedly uttered his dislike of Locke’s theory because it imposes its absolute and all-encompassing “classification[s] on other men” (“Self-Reliance” 226).'
This reminds of Thomas Reid's rejection of Locke's 'idea of an apple' over against the common sense awareness, without mediation, of the apple. Thomas Reid is also 'well known for his criticisms of Locke's view of personal identity' which is called the 'Storehouse Model'. Toni Vogel Carey writes in his essay 'Scotland and Harvard Yard: The dominance and decline of Scottish common sense':
'Thoreau and Emerson were schooled in this philosophy (Reidian Thought) at Harvard and Emerson specifically praised Reid and Stewart in his 1821 Bowdoin prize essay.'
Very interesting! And certainly a good idea to read "The American Scolar" Oration, 'his first great public address and the most celebrated talk in American academic history' (ahum). 

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