Dennis Sölch, and Laura Wackers, eds., Der amerikanische Transzendentalismus: Eine Anthologie (Berlin: Lang, 2018), 678 pp.
This bulky volume presents twenty-three essays, written and published between 1828 and 1860, all of them attributed to the traditional but mistakable title of “American transcendentalism,” and translated into German by the editors. The first chapter is a long essay by the editors (10-106), which introduces the history of the movement and, in the last section, the history of its reception. The following four chapters include more or less long transcendentalist essays: “Von der Theologie zur Philosophie,” “Philosophische Positionsbestimmungen,” “Selbstkultur und Bildungsreform,” and finally “Gesellschaftskritik und Sozialreform.” A list of references, a bibliography about transcendentalism, and two indexes (about persons and topics) complete the volume. Every essay is introduced with a short résumé of the life and the context of the author.
Transcendentalism means the beginning of original American philosophy, but, in the first place, this title is a disparagement. Neither was Immanuel Kant the initiator (spiritus rector) of this movement—as readers might think when they read the title of Emerson’s “Transcendentalism”—nor were the philosophers of German idealism examples to American philosophers. The introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Der Transzendentalist” shows that for Emerson the attitude of life was the most important point. Admittedly, the transcendentalists understood themselves as idealists in a philosophical sense, and in reality they were under the influence of the Kantian philosophy (especially important was Kritik der Urteilskraft), and in this sense they harmonized with Immanuel Kant. But epistemology or ontology did not play any role whatsoever, and in addition the transcendentalists expressed thoughts that remind the modern reader of early existentialism (Kierkegaard) and pragmatism (William James). At last, the admiration of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) marks a big gap to Kantian philosophy. Kant published a scathing critique of Swedenborg (Träume eines Geistersehers). The character of American transcendentalism is completely different from the thinking of Kant.
The second chapter, “Von der Theologie zur Philosophie,” describes—via nine essays—transcendentalism’s way from rational theology to a more emotional approach to belief. William Ellery Channing’s “Ebenbildlichkeit mit Gott” (“Likeness to God” ) represents the more liberal position, from which Emerson distanced himself with his sermon “Das heilige Abendmahl” (“The kingdom of God Is not Meat and Drink” ). In 1836, Emerson delivered the address “Before the Senior Class in Divinity College,” which provoked a scandal at Harvard University. It is not easy for contemporary readers to understand the reason why, and accordingly the editors write: “Der provokante Gehalt der einleitenden Sätze […] entgeht dem heutigen Leser leicht” (24). All these essays about religion urgently need commentary and the book provides it. In this case, Emerson offended his audience (Harvard was at that time the center of Unitarian theology) with his commitment to personal moral intuition; in contrast to the conventional theology of Unitarianism he emphasized the importance of the individuality of belief.
In their introductory essay, the editors inform readers about different transcendentalist clubs, magazines, and reviews—the movement needed platforms to discuss its dissenting positions, understanding itself as a philosophy “die sich als Experiment versteht” (37). Many of the contemporaneous essays in this anthology are modern in a surprising way; they are closer to us than later movements and positions. Because of that the historical influence on the philosophy of William James is not the main point (there are some connections to pragmatism); more important seems to be the closeness to modern concepts of how to conduct one’s life, which is especially remarkable in the essays of Emerson (“Circles”) and in Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” (the questionable German translation of the title is “Vom Flanieren”). The role of nature and the attitude towards life appear extremely modern. In the introductory commentary to “Der Transzendentalist,” the editors write: “Vor diesem Hintergrund versteht sich der Transzendentalismus als eine Ethik oder gar als eine Ästhetik der Existenz, deren Ziel darin besteht, dass der Mensch sich mit sich selbst und der Welt um ihn herum im Einklang erfahren kann” (257). As far as philosophy is concerned, the most important point is that the mind opens to all kinds of experiences (in the original Emerson wrote: “in the perpetual openness of the human mind”). This was of importance for William James, especially in his psychology of religion (The Varieties of Religious Experience). As Emerson states in “Circles”: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth” (translated by Sölch and Wackers as: “Unser Leben ist eine Lehrzeit für die Wahrheit” ).
Educational reform, the content of the fourth chapter, was one of the most important items on the list of activities of the transcendentalists. One author in chapter four is Sampson Reed (1800-1880), who like other transcendentalists was a supporter of Swedenborg and argued for a correspondence between human mind and nature; his influence on Emerson was remarkable. In the shorter articles by Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894), transcendentalism leads to a more liberal and open education; and introductory chapters by the editors inform about the consequences. Especially Alcott encountered some problems with his religious lessons, and some of his projects quickly came to an end. And Peabody wrote about “kindergärten” (using the German spelling) in a detailed and practical way about a liberal education of small children.
The fifth and last chapter of the anthology presents political articles, the motives of which seem astonishingly modern to social criticism in many respects. And there are also some themes in transcendentalist writing that are still relevant today; especially the life and work of Thoreau in terms of civil disobedience. Other points in this section are the role of work, abolitionism, and the position of women.
The volume is edited in an extremely careful way; not only with regard to the work of translation but also in terms of the annotations. Among other things, they reveal religious and theological aspects that are somewhat more hidden in the original; as in the word “generation” that is translated to “Zeugung” or the citation of William Blake’s Jerusalem (314) by Emerson. Everything in transcendental writings is interspersed with religious allusions, and the editors have done their readers a great service in uncovering them in their translation and annotations. The anthology is almost completely free from all kinds of errata. It presents not only works with great influence on the history of American (and European) philosophy, but also stimulating and surprisingly modern essays. The transcendentalists renounced the claim to stable and strict categories in favor of a more fluid and volatile view on nature. This impulse was taken up in the work of William James and, more importantly today, Alfred North Whitehead. Categories are not for eternity. This idea was natural for traditional ontology, but in “Circles” Emerson defends the argument that nothing is for eternity—nothing. Everything is fluid. In this respect, his position is much closer to contemporary philosophy, to Nicolai Hartmann or Whitehead; these philosophers argued strictly for the permanent change of categories. We almost believe to hear them, when Emerson writes in “Circles”: “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. […] There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness.” As Sölch and Wackers translate: “Es gibt nichts Feststehendes in der Natur. Das Universum ist fluide und flüchtig. Permanenz ist nur ein gradueller Begriff. […] Es gibt nichts Feststehendes für den Menschen, wenn wir an das Bewusstsein appellieren” (315).
Stefan Diebitz (Lübeck)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles.” Emersoncentral.com, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2021. Web. Mar. 2021. https://emersoncentral.com/texts/essays-first-series/circles/.