Saturday, March 28, 2015
Many linguists, including Noam Chomsky, contend that language in the sense we ordinary think of it, in the sense that people in Germany speak German, is a historical or social or political notion, rather than a scientific one. For example, German and Dutch are much closer to one another than various dialects of Chinese are. But the rough, commonsense divisions between languages will suffice for our purposes.
There are around 5000 languages in use today, and each is quite different from many of the others. Differences are especially pronounced between languages of different families, e.g., between Indo-European languages like English and Hindi and Ancient Greek, on the one hand, and non-Indo-European languages like Hopi and Chinese and Swahili, on the other.
Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after the linguists who made it famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf's views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, contains a sampling of recent literature on the hypothesis).
The suggestion that different languages carve the world up in different ways, and that as a result their speakers think about it differently has a certain appeal. But questions about the extent and kind of impact that language has on thought are empirical questions that can only be settled by empirical investigation. And although linguistic relativism is perhaps the most popular version of descriptive relativism, the conviction and passion of partisans on both sides of the issue far outrun the available evidence. As usual in discussions of relativism, it is important to resist all-or-none thinking. The key question is whether there are interesting and defensible versions of linguistic relativism between those that are trivially true (the Babylonians didn't have a counterpart of the word ‘telephone’, so they didn't think about telephones) and those that are dramatic but almost certainly false (those who speak different languages see the world in completely different ways).
A Preliminary Statement of the Hypothesis
Interesting versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis embody two claims:
Languages, especially members of quite different language families, differ in important ways from one another.
Linguistic Influence on Thought:
The structure and lexicon of one's language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world, and they do so in a systematic way.
Together these two claims suggest that speakers of quite different languages think about the world in quite different ways. There is a clear sense in which the thesis of linguistic diversity is uncontroversial. Even if all human languages share many underlying, abstract linguistic universals, there are often large differences in their syntactic structures and in their lexicons. The second claim is more controversial, but since linguistic forces could shape thought in varying degrees, it comes in more and less plausible forms.
1. History of the Hypothesis
Like many other relativistic themes, the hypothesis of linguistic relativity became a serious topic of discussion in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germany, particularly in the work of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). It was later defended by thinkers as diverse as Ernst Cassirer and Peter Winch. Thus Cassirer tells us that
...the distinctions which here are taken for granted, the analysis of reality in terms of things and processes, permanent and transitory aspects, objects and actions, do not precede language as a substratum of given fact, but that language itself is what initiates such articulations, and develops them in its own sphere (1946, p. 12).
But the hypothesis came to prominence though the work of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. Indeed, it is often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or simply the Whorf hypothesis.
There are connections among some of these writers; for example, Sapir wrote his M.A. thesis on Herder's Origin of Language. Still, this is a remarkably diverse group of thinkers who often arrived at their views by different routes, and so it is not surprising that the linguistic relativity hypothesis comes in a variety of forms.
Sapir and Whorf
It will help to see why the linguistic relativity hypothesis captivated so many thinkers if we briefly consider the more arresting claims of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Sapir was an American anthropological linguist who, like so many anthropologists of his day, was a student of Franz Boas. He was also the teacher of Whorf, a businessman and amateur linguist.
Unlike earlier partisans of linguistic relativism, Sapir and Whorf based their claims on first-hand experience of the cultures and languages they described, which gave their accounts a good deal of immediacy. I will quote a few of the purpler passages to convey the flavor of their claims, for this was partly what galvanized the imagination of so many readers.
In a paper published in 1929 Sapir tells us:
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection (1929, p. 209).
Our language affects how we perceive things:
Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. …We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (p. 210).
But the differences don't end with perception:
The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached (p. 209).
The linguistic relativity hypothesis grained its widest audience through the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose collected writings became something of a relativistic manifesto.
Whorf presents a moving target, with most of his claims coming in both extreme and in more cautious forms. Debate continues about his considered views, but there is little doubt that his bolder claims, unimpeded by caveats or qualifications, were better suited to captivate his readers than more timid claims would have been.
When languages are similar, Whorf tells us, there is little likelihood of dramatic cognitive differences. But languages that differ markedly from English and other Western European languages (which Whorf calls, collectively, “Standard Average European” or SAE) often do lead their speakers to have very different worldviews. Thus
We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. …The relativity of all conceptual systems, ours included, and their dependence upon language stand revealed (1956, p. 214f, italics added).
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds (p. 213).…no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free (p. 214).
In fairness it must be stressed that these passages come from a single essay, “Science and Linguistics,” of 1940, and in other places Whorf's tone is often more measured. But not always; elsewhere he also says thing like
…users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (1956, p. 221).
And in yet a third essay “facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them” (1956, p. 235).
The passages from Sapir and Whorf bristle with metaphors of coercion: our thought is “at the mercy” of our language, it is “constrained” by it; no one is free to describe the world in a neutral way; we are “compelled” to read certain features into the world (p. 262). The view that language completely determines how we think is often called linguistic determinism. Hamann and Herder sometimes seem to equate language with thought, and in these moods, at least, they came close to endorsing this view.
1.1 Linguistic Relativism and Metaphysics
Some writers have linked these themes directly to issues in metaphysics. For example Graham (1989, Appendix 2) argues that there are vast differences among human languages and that many of the concepts or categories (e.g., physical object, causation, quantity) writers like Aristotle and Kant and Strawson held were central, even indispensable, to human thought, are nothing more than parochial shadows cast by the structure of Indo-European languages. These notions, it is said, have no counterparts in many non-Indo-European languages like Chinese. If this is so, then a fairly strong version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis might be true, but the thesis hasn't been backed with strong empirical evidence and the most common views today lie at the opposite end of the spectrum. Indeed, Whorf himself held a similar view:
[Western] Science …has not yet freed itself from the illusory necessities of common logic which are only at bottom necessities of grammatical pattern in Western Aryan grammar; [e.g.,] necessities for substances which are only necessities for substantives in certain sentence positions …(1956, pp. 269-270).
It is worth noting, finally, that although Whorf was certainly a descriptive relativist he was not anormative relativist. He believed that some languages gave rise to more accurate worldviews than others. Indeed, he thought that the Hopi worldview was superior in various ways to that of speakers of Indo-European languages (e.g., 1956, p. 55, p. 262).
2. The Many Versions of Linguistic Relativism
Any serious discussion of the linguistic relativity hypothesis requires us to answer three questions
- Which aspects of language influence which aspects of thought in some systematic way?
- What form does that influence take?
- How strong is that influence?
For example, certain features of syntax or of the lexicon might exert a causal influence on certain aspects of visual perception (e.g., on which colors we can discriminate), classification (e.g., on how we sort things by their color), or long-term memory (e.g., on which differences among colors we remember most accurately) in clearly specifiable ways. If there is such an influence we would also like to know what mechanisms mediate it, but until we have clearer answers to the first three questions, we are not well positioned to answer this.
Human languages are flexible and extensible, so most things that can be said in one can be approximated in another; if nothing else, words and phrases can be borrowed (Schadenfreude, je ne sais quoi). But what is easy to say in one language may be harder to say in a second, and this may make it easier or more natural or more common for speakers of the first language to think in a certain way than for speakers of the second language to do so. A concept or category may be more available in some linguistic communities than in others (e.g., Brown, 1956, pp. 307ff). In short, the linguistic relativity hypothesis comes in stronger and weaker forms, depending on the hypothesized forms and the hypothesized strength of the hypothesized influence.
Various aspects of language might affect cognition.
Languages can differ in their grammar or syntax. To take a simple example, typical word order may vary. In English, the common order is subject, verb, object. In Japanese it is subject, object, verb. In Welsh, verb, subject, object. Languages can differ in whether they make a distinction between intransitive verbs and adjectives. And there are many subtler sorts of grammatical difference as well. It should be noted that grammar here does not mean the prescriptive grammar we learned in grammar school, but the syntactic structure of a language; in this sense, a grammar comprises a set of rules (or some equivalent device) that can generate all and only the sentences of a given language.
Different languages have different lexicons (vocabularies), but the important point here is that the lexicons of different languages may classify things in different ways. For example, the color lexicons of some languages segment the color spectrum at different places.Semantics
Different languages have different semantic features (over and above differences in lexical semantics)Metaphor
Different languages employ different metaphors or employ them in different ways.Pragmatics
It is increasingly clear that context plays a vital role in the use and understanding of language, and it is possible that differences in the way speakers of different languages use their languages in concrete settings affects their mental life.
For the most part discussions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have focused on grammar and lexicon as independent variables. Thus, many of Whorf's claims, e.g., his claims about the way Hopi thought about time, were based on (what he took to be) large-scale differences between Hopi and Standard Average European that included grammatical and lexical differences (e.g., 1956, p. 158). Subsequence research by Ekkehart Malotki (e.g., 1983) and others suggests that Whorf's more dramatic claims were false, but the important point here is that the most prominent versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis involved large-scale features of language.
Language might influence many different aspects of thought. Most empirical work has focused, appropriately enough, on those aspects that are easiest to assess without relying on language. This is important, since we otherwise risk finding influences of one aspect of language on some related aspect of language, rather than on some aspect of thought. Commonly studied cognitive variables include perceptual discrimination, availability in memory, and classification.
2.1 Testing the Linguistic Relativity Hypotheses
In light of the vast literature on linguistic relativity hypotheses, one would expect that a good deal of careful experimental work had been done on the topic. It hasn't. Often the only evidence cited in favor of such hypotheses is to point to a difference between two languages and assert that it adds up to a difference in modes of thought. But this simply assumes what needs to be shown, namely that such linguistic differences give rise to cognitive differences. On the other hand, refutations of the hypothesis often target implausibly extreme versions of it or proceed as though refutations of it in one domain (e.g., color language and color cognition) show that it is false across the board.
2.2 Many Versions of the Hypothesis have not been Tested
A linguistic relativity hypothesis says that some particular aspect of language influences some particular aspect of cognition. Many different aspects of language could, for all we know, influence many different aspects of cognition. This means that a study showing that some particular aspect of language (e.g., the color lexicon of a language) does (or does not) influence some particular aspect of cognition (e.g., recognition memory of colors) does not tell us whether other aspects of language (e.g., the lexicon for spatial relations) influence other aspects of cognition (e.g., spatial reasoning). It does not even tell us whether the single aspect of language we focused on affects any aspects of thought besides the one we studied, or whether other aspects of language influence the single aspect of thought we examined.
The point here is not merely a theoretical one. When the mind is seen as all of a piece, whether it's the result of stepping through Piaget's universal stages of development, the output of universal learning mechanisms, or the operation of a general-purpose computer, confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis in one area (e.g., color) might bear on its status in other areas. But there is increasing evidence that the mind is, to at least some degree, modular, with different cognitive modules doing domain specific work (e.g., parsing syntax, recognizing faces) and processing different kinds of information in different kinds of ways. If this is right, there is less reason to expect that findings about the influence of language on one aspect of cognition will generalize to other aspects.
Only a handful of versions of the claim that linguistic feature X influences cognitive feature Y in way Z have ever been tested. Some can doubtless be ruled out on the basis of common sense knowledge or previous investigation. But many remain that have yet to be studied. Moreover, those that have been studied often have not been studied with the care they deserve. A few have, though, and we will now turn to them.
Example: Color Language and Color Cognition
Much of the most rigorous investigation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis involves color language and color cognition. In the 1950s and 60s, this was an area where linguistic relativity seemed quite plausible. On the one hand, there is nothing in the physics of light (e.g., in facts about surface spectral reflectances) that suggests drawing boundaries between colors at one place rather than another; in this sense our segmentations of the spectrum are arbitrary. On the one hand, it was well known that different languages had color terms that segmented the color spectrum at different places. So since nothing in the physics of color could determine how humans thought about color, it seemed natural to hypothesis that color cognition followed the grooves laid down by color language.
Color was also an auspicious object of study, because investigators could use Munsell color chips (a widely used, standardized set of chips of different colors) or similar stimulus materials with subjects in quite different locations, thus assuring that whatever differences they found in their dependent variables really did involve the same thing, color (as anchored in the chips), rather than something more nebulous.
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work (1969) on basic color terms did much to raise the quality of empirical work on the linguistic relativity hypothesis. And together with much subsequent work it strongly suggests that the strongest, across-the-board versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis are false when it comes to color language and color cognition. We now know that colors may be a rather special case, however, for although there is nothing in the physics of color that suggests particular segmentations of the spectrum, the opponent-process theory of color vision, now well confirmed, tells us that there are neurophysiological facts about human beings that influence many of the ways in which we perceive colors. We don't know of anything comparable innate mechanisms that would channel thought about social traits or biological classification of diseases in similarly deep grooves. There may well be cross-cultural similarities in the ways human beings think about these things, but we can't conclude this from the work on color.
3. Innateness and Linguistic Universals
The linguist Noam Chomsky has argued for almost half a century that human beings could only learn natural languages if they had a good deal of innate linguistic equipment to guide their way. He has characterized this equipment in different ways over the years, but the abiding theme is that without it children could never get from the sparse set of utterances they hear to the rich linguistic ability they achieve.
3.1 Poverty of the Stimulus Arguments
In just a few years all normal children acquire the language that is spoken by their family and others around them. They acquire a very complex and virtually unbounded ability to distinguish sentences from non-sentences and to understand and utter a virtually unlimited number of sentences they have never thought of before. The child acquires this ability on the basis of the utterances she hears and the feedback (rarely in the form of corrections) she receives. The problem is that the child's data here are very unsystematic and sparse compared to the systematic and nearly unbounded linguistic competence the child quickly acquires.
Hence, the argument continues, the child needs help to get from this impoverished input to the rich output (the acquisition of a grammar of a complex natural language), and this help can only be provided by something innate that constrains and guides the child in her construction of the grammar. The point is quite general: if the input, or data stream, is exiguous then (barring incredible luck) it is only possible for someone to arrive at the right theory about the data if they have some built-in inductive biases, some predispositions to form one kind of theory rather than another. And since any child can learn any human language, the innate endowment must put constraints on which of the countless logically possible languages are humanly possible.
If the features of human languages are limited by such innate, language-acquisition mechanisms, there is less scope for the large differences among languages that the more extreme linguistic relativists have imagined. But might linguistic universals leave room for less extreme versions of linguistic relativism that are still interesting? That depends on what linguistic devices there are and on their relationships to other cognitive mechanisms.
From the perspective of nativist accounts of language, many of the questions about linguistic relativity boil down to questions about the informational encapsulation of mental modules. To say that a module is encapsulated means that other parts of the mind cannot influence its inner workings (though they can supply it with inputs and use its outputs). What are the implications of this for the linguistic relativist's claim that a person's language can exert a dramatic influence on his perception and thought?
The answer may be different for perception, on the one hand, and the higher mental processes, on the other. For example Jerry Fodor (1984) argues that there is a module (or modules) for visual perception and that information from other parts of the mind cannot influence it in the way that many psychologists have supposed. For example, even though I know that the two lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion
are the same length, I cannot help seeing the line on the left as longer than the line on the right. Iknow the lengths are the same, but my visual module (or models) does not. It is encapsulated; this information can't get through to it, so it can't influence how I see the figure. If this is so, then linguistic information could not penetrate any vision modules, and so versions of linguistic relativism which hold (as most do) that our language can influence how we see things is wrong.
By contrast, Fodor holds that there is no special module for higher mental processes and, indeed, that we are a long way from having any account of how thinking and reasoning work (e.g., 2000). If this is right, then for all we know now, some aspects of linguistic relativism could be right. The workings of various linguistic modules might influence thought in interesting ways.
It bears stressing that many of the issues involving cognitive architecture are vigorously contested. Among other things, not all champions of modules see them as Fodor does. According to them what is special about visual modules may just be that they process visual information, not that they lack access to other kinds of information (indeed, top-down aspects of perception suggest that they often do have such access). If this is so, there is more room for language to influence perception and other cognitive processes than there is if modules are tightly insulated.
The dust here hasn't begun to settle, but one general moral is clear. If at least moderately strong nativist and modular views of the mind are on the right track--and there is now certainly some reason to think that they are--then many of the empirical issues about linguistic relativity will translate into issues concerning the ways in which various modules can influence one another.
4. Morals for other Independent Variables: Modularity and Encapsulation
We have gone into detail about the linguistic relativity hypothesis, because the main lessons here carry over to the study of the impact of other variables, e.g., culture, on cognition. Some of these emerged above; others are obvious once they are noted. They are
- Questions about the impact of a variable on cognition are empirical and causal questions.
- Such questions can only be answered with care once we specify which aspects of an independent variable, say culture, influence which aspects of thought and what form that influence takes.
- Such hypotheses can vary greatly in specificity, strength, and scope.
- Testing a specific version of the hypothesis requires a combination of skills, including those of a good ethnographer, linguist, and experimental psychologist.
- A comparison of more than two cultures is needed to draw any firm conclusions.
- The truth of specific hypotheses may turn on issues involving the modularity of mind and the degree of modular encapsulation.
- If the mind is highly modular, finding an influence of one aspect of language or culture of some aspect of cognition may tell us little about the influence of other aspects of language or culture on cognition.
These lessons are easier with some variables than with others. It is probably easiest with some aspects of language, because a good deal is now known about many of the languages of the world. It will often be more difficult in the case of culture, where things are more difficult to pin down than they are in the case of language. And it will be virtually impossible when history is the relevant variable; here much more speculative interpretations of historical documents may be the best we can do. But the basic point remains. Relativistic claims are empirical causal claims and they can only be settled by empirical evidence.
It is not always easy to strike the proper balance when thinking about empirical work on these matters. On the one hand it is useful to cultivate an “it-can't-be-that-simple” reflex for use when reading an isolated study or two. But on the other hand empirical investigation is the only thing that can answer many of the difficult questions about the complex, entangled processes of language, culture, and thought.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Transcendentalism is an American literary, political, and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century, centered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other important transcendentalists were Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Theodore Parker. Stimulated by English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume, the transcendentalists operated with the sense that a new era was at hand. They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson's words, “an original relation to the universe” . Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing. By the 1840s they, along with other transcendentalists, were engaged in the social experiments of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; and, by the 1850s in an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery.
- 1. Origins and Character
- 2. High Tide: The Dial, Fuller, Thoreau
- 3. Social and Political Critiques
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- Related Entries
1. Origins and Character
What we now know as transcendentalism first arose among the liberal New England Congregationalists, who departed from orthodox Calvinism in two respects: they believed in the importance and efficacy of human striving, as opposed to the bleaker Puritan picture of complete and inescapable human depravity; and they emphasized the unity rather than the “Trinity” of God (hence the term “Unitarian,” originally a term of abuse that they came to adopt.) Most of the Unitarians held that Jesus was in some way inferior to God the Father but still greater than human beings; a few followed the English Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) in holding that Jesus was thoroughly human, although endowed with special authority. The Unitarians' leading preacher, William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), portrayed orthodox Congregationalism as a religion of fear, and maintained that Jesus saved human beings from sin, not just from punishment. His sermon “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) denounced “the conspiracy of ages against the liberty of Christians” and helped give the Unitarian movement its name. In “Likeness to God” (1828) he proposed that human beings “partake” of Divinity and that they may achieve “a growing likeness to the Supreme Being”.
The Unitarians were “modern.” They attempted to reconcile Locke's empiricism with Christianity by maintaining that the accounts of miracles in the Bible provide overwhelming evidence for the truth of religion. It was precisely on this ground, however, that the transcendentalists found fault with Unitarianism. For although they admired Channing's idea that human beings can become more like God, they were persuaded by Hume that no empirical proof of religion could be satisfactory. In letters written in his freshman year at Harvard (1817), Emerson tried out Hume's skeptical arguments on his devout and respected Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, and in his journals of the early 1820's he discusses with approval Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion and his underlying critique of necessary connection. “We have no experience of a Creator,” Emerson writes, and therefore we “know of none”.
Skepticism about religion was also engendered by the publication of an English translation of F. D. E. Schleiermacher's Critical Essay Upon the Gospel of St. Luke (1825), which introduced the idea that the Bible was a product of human history and culture. Equally important was the publication in 1833—some fifty years after its initial appearance in Germany—of James Marsh's translation of Johann Gottfried van Herder's Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782). Herder blurred the lines between religious texts and humanly-produced poetry, casting doubt on the authority of the Bible, but also suggesting that texts with equal authority could still be written. It was against this background that Emerson asked in 1836, in the first paragraph of Nature: “Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs” . The individual's “revelation”—or “intuition,” as Emerson was later to speak of it—was to be the counter both to Unitarian empiricism and Humean skepticism.
An important source for the transcendentalists' knowledge of German philosophy was Frederic Henry Hedge (1805–90). Hedge's father Levi Hedge, a Harvard professor of logic, sent him to preparatory school in Germany at the age of thirteen, after which he attended the Harvard Divinity School. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Hedge wrote a long review of the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the Christian Examiner in 1833. Noting Coleridge's fondness for “German metaphysics” and his immense gifts of erudition and expression, he laments that Coleridge had not made Kant and the post-Kantians more accessible to an English-speaking audience. This is the task—to introduce the “transcendental philosophy” of Kant, —that Hedge takes up. In particular, he explains Kant's idea of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy: “[S]ince the supposition that our intuitions depend on the nature of the world without, will not answer, assume that the world without depends on the nature of our intuitions.” This “key to the whole critical philosophy,” Hedge continues, explains the possibility of “a priori knowledge” . Hedge organized what eventually became known as the Transcendental Club, by suggesting to Emerson in 1836 that they form a discussion group for disaffected young Unitarian clergy. The group included George Ripley and Bronson Alcott, had some 30 meetings in four years, and was a sponsor of The Dial and Brook Farm. Hedge was a vocal opponent of slavery in the 1830's and a champion of women's rights in the 1850's, but he remained a Unitarian minister, and became a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.
Another source for the transcendentalists' knowledge of German philosophy was Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker) (1766–1817), whose De l'Allemagne (On Germany) was a favorite of the young Emerson. In a sweeping survey of European metaphysics and political philosophy, de Staël praises Locke's devotion to liberty, but sees him as the originator of a sensationalist school of epistemology that leads to the skepticism of Hume. She finds an attractive contrast in the German tradition that begins with Leibniz and culminates in Kant, which asserts the power and authority of the mind.
James Marsh (1794–1842), a graduate of Andover and the president of the University of Vermont, was equally important for the emerging philosophy of transcendentalism. Marsh was convinced that German philosophy held the key to a reformed theology. His American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1829) introduced Coleridge's version—much indebted to Schelling—of Kantian terminology, terminology that runs throughout Emerson's early work. In Nature, for example, Emerson writes: “The Imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world” .
German philosophy and literature was also championed by Thomas Carlyle, whom Emerson met on his first trip to Europe in 1831. Carlyle's philosophy of action in such works as Sartor Resartusresonates with Emerson's idea in “The American Scholar” that action—along with nature and “the mind of the Past” is essential to human education. Along with his countrymen Coleridge and Wordsworth, Carlyle embraced a “natural supernaturalism,” the view that nature, including human beings, has the power and authority traditionally attributed to an independent deity.
Piety towards nature was also a main theme of William Wordsworth, whose poetry was in vogue in America in the 1820s. Wordsworth's depiction of an active and powerful mind cohered with the shaping power of the mind that his collaborator in the Lyrical Ballads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, traced to Kant. The idea of such power pervades Emerson's Nature, where he writes of nature as “obedient” to spirit and counsels each of us to “Build … your own world.” Wordsworth has his more receptive mode as well, in which he calls for “a heart that watches and receives” (in “The Tables Turned”), and we find Emerson's receptive mode from Nature onward, as when he recounts an ecstatic experience in the woods: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all; The currents of the universal being circulate through me.”.
Emerson's sense that men and women are, as he put it in Nature, gods “in ruins,” led to one of transcendentalism's defining events, his delivery of an address at the Harvard Divinity School graduation in 1838. Emerson portrayed the contemporary church that the graduates were about to lead as an “eastern monarchy of a Christianity” that had become an “injuror of man” . Jesus, in contrast, was a “friend of man.” Yet he was just one of the “true race of prophets,” whose message is not so much their own greatness, as the “greatness of man” . Emerson rejects the Unitarian argument that miracles prove the truth of Christianity, not simply because the evidence is weak, but because proof of the sort they envision embodies a mistaken view of the nature of religion: “conversion by miracles is a profanation of the soul.” Emerson's religion is based not on testimony but on a “perception” that produces a “religious sentiment”.
The “Divinity School Address” drew a quick and angry response from Andrews Norton (1786–1853) of the Harvard Divinity School, often known as the “Unitarian Pope.” In “The New School in Literature and Religion” (1838), Norton complains of “a restless craving for notoriety and excitement,” which he traces to German “speculatists” and “barbarians” and “that hyper-Germanized Englishman, Carlyle.” Emerson's “Address,” he concludes, is at once “an insult to religion” and “an incoherent rhapsody”.
An earlier transcendentalist scandal surrounded the publication of Amos Bronson Alcott'sConversations with Children Upon the Gospels (1836). Alcott (1799–1888) was a self-taught educator from Connecticut who established a series of schools that aimed to “draw out” the intuitive knowledge of children. He found anticipations of his views about a priori knowledge in the writings of Plato and Kant, and support in Coleridge's Aids to Reflection for the idea that idealism and materiality could be reconciled. Alcott replaced the hard benches of the common schools with more comfortable furniture that he built himself, and left a central space in his classrooms for dancing. The Conversations with Children Upon the Gospels, based on a school Alcott (and his assistant Elizabeth Peabody) ran in Boston, argued that evidence for the truth of Christianity could be found in the unimpeded flow of children's thought. What people particularly noticed about Alcott's book, however, were its frank discussions of conception, circumcision, and childbirth. Rather than gaining support for his school, the publication of the book caused many parents to withdraw their children from it, and the school—like many of Alcott's projects, failed.
Theodore Parker (1810–60) was the son of a farmer who attended Harvard and became a Unitarian minister and accomplished linguist. He published a long critical essay on David Friedrich Strauss'sDas Leben Jesu, and translated Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette's Introduction to the Old Testament, both of which cast doubt on the divine inspiration and single authorship of the Bible. After the publication of his “A Discourse Concerning the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” (1841) he was invited to resign from the Boston Association of Ministers (he did not), and was no longer welcome in many pulpits. He argued, much as Emerson had in the “Divinity School Address,” that Christianity had nothing essential to do with the person of Jesus: “If Jesus taught at Athens, and not at Jerusalem; if he had wrought no miracle, and none but the human nature had ever been ascribed to him; if the Old Testament had forever perished at his birth, Christianity would still have been the Word of God … just as true, just as lasting, just as beautiful, as now it is…” . Parker exploited the similarities between science and religious doctrine to argue that although nature and religious truth are permanent, any merely human version of such truth is transient. In religious doctrines especially, there are stunning reversals, so that “men are burned for professing what men are burned for denying”.
Surveying the scene in his 1842 lecture, “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson begins with a philosophical account, according to which what are generally called “new views” are not really new, but rather part of a broad tradition of idealism. It is not a skeptical idealism, however, but an anti-skeptical idealism deriving from Kant:
It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg [sic], who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms .
Emerson shows here a basic understanding of three Kantian claims, which can be traced throughout his philosophy: that the human mind “forms” experience; that the existence of such mental operations is a counter to skepticism; and that “transcendental” does not mean “transcendent” or beyond human experience altogether, but something through which experience is made possible. Emerson's idealism is not purely Kantian, however, for (like Coleridge's) it contains a strong admixture of Neoplatonism and post-Kantian idealism. Emerson thinks of Reason, for example, as a faculty of “vision,” as opposed to the mundane understanding, which “toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues….” . For many of the transcendentalists the term “transcendentalism” represented nothing so technical as an inquiry into the presuppositions of human experience, but a new confidence in and appreciation of the mind's powers, and a modern, non-doctrinal spirituality. The transcendentalist, Emerson states, believes in miracles, conceived as “the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power…” .
Emerson keeps his distance from the transcendentalists in his essay by speaking always of what “they” say or do, despite the fact that he was regarded then and is regarded now as the leading transcendentalist. He notes with some disdain that the transcendentalists are “'not good members of society,” that they do not work for “the abolition of the slave-trade” (though both these charges have been leveled at him). He closes the essay nevertheless with a defense of the transcendentalist critique of a society pervaded by “a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming, which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without an aim”. This critique is Emerson's own in such writings as “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar”; and it finds a powerful and original restatement in the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau's Walden.
2. High Tide: The Dial, Fuller, Thoreau
The transcendentalists had several publishing outlets: at first The Christian Examiner, then, after the furor over the “Divinity School Address,” The Western Messenger (1835–41) in St Louis, then theBoston Quarterly Review (1838–44). The Dial (1840–4) was a special case, for it was planned and instituted by the members of the Transcendental Club, with Margaret Fuller (1810–50) as the first editor. Emerson succeeded her for the magazine's last two years. The writing in The Dial was uneven, but in its four years of existence it published Fuller's “The Great Lawsuit” (the core of herWoman in the Nineteenth Century) and her long review of Goethe's work; prose and poetry by Emerson; Alcott's “Orphic Sayings” (which gave the magazine a reputation for silliness); and the first publications of a young friend of Emerson's, Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). After Emerson became editor in 1842 The Dial published a series of “Ethnical Scriptures,” translations from Chinese and Indian philosophical works.
Margaret Fuller was the daughter of a Massachusetts congressman who provided tutors for her in Latin, Greek, chemistry, philosophy and, later, German. Exercising what Barbara Packer calls “her peculiar powers of intrusion and caress”, Fuller became friends with many of the transcendentalists, including Emerson. She organized a series of popular “conversations” for women in Boston in the winters of 1839–44, journeyed to the Midwest in the summer of 1843, and published her observations as Summer on the Lakes. After this publishing success, Horace Greeley, a friend of Emerson's and the editor of the New York Tribune, invited her to New York to write for the Tribune. Fuller abandoned her previously ornate and pretentious style, issuing pithy reviews and forthright criticisms: for example, of Longfellow's poetry and Carlyle's attraction to brutality. Fuller was in Europe from 1846–9, sending back hundreds of pages for the Tribune. On her return to America with her husband and son, she drowned in a hurricane off the coast of Fire Island, New York.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), a revision of her “Great Lawsuit” manifesto in The Dial, is Fuller's major philosophical work. She holds that masculinity and femininity pass into one another, that there is “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” . Women are treated as dependents, however, and their self-reliant impulses are often held against them. What they most want is the freedom to unfold their powers, a freedom Fuller holds to be necessary not only for their self-development, but for the renovation of society. Like Thoreau and Emerson, she calls for periods of withdrawal from a society whose members are in various states of “distraction” and “imbecility,” and a return only after “the renovating fountains” of individuality have risen up. Such individuality is necessary in particular for the proper constitution of that form of society known as marriage. “Union,” she holds, “is only possible to those who are units”.
Henry Thoreau studied Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German, and Spanish at Harvard, where he heard Emerson's “The American Scholar” as the commencement address in 1837. He first published in The Dial when Emerson commissioned him to review a series of reports on wildlife by the state of Massachusetts, but he cast about for a literary outlet after The Dial’s failure in 1844. In 1845, his move to Walden Pond allowed him to complete his first book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimac Rivers. He also wrote a first draft of Walden, which eventually appeared in 1854.
Nature comes to even more prominence in Walden than in Emerson's Nature, which it followed by eighteen years. Nature now becomes particular: this tree, this bird, this state of the pond on a summer evening or winter morning become Thoreau's subjects. Thoreau is receptive. He finds himself “suddenly neighbor to” rather than a hunter of birds ; and he learns to dwell in a house that is no more and no less than a place where he can properly sit. From the right perspective, Thoreau finds, he can possess and use a farm with more satisfaction than the farmer, who is preoccupied with feeding his family and expanding his operations.
In Walden's opening chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau considers the trade-offs we make in life, and he asks, as Plato did in The Republic, what are life's real necessities. Like the Roman philosophers Marcus Porcius Cato and Marcus Varro he seeks a “life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” . Considering his contemporaries, he finds that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” . Thoreau's “experiment” at Walden shows that a life of simplicity and independence can be achieved today . If Thoreau counsels simple frugality—a vegetarian diet for example, and a dirt floor—he also counsels a kind of extravagance, a spending of what you have in the day that shall never come again. True economy, he writes, is a matter of “improving the nick of time” .
Thoreau went to Walden Pond on the anniversary of America's declared independence from Britain—July 4, 1845, declaring his own independence from a society that is “commonly too cheap.” It is not that he is against all society, but that he finds we meet too often, before we have had the chance to acquire any “new value for each other”. Thoreau welcomes those visitors who “speak reservedly and thoughtfully” , and who preserve an appropriate sense of distance; he values the little leaves or acorns left by visitors he never meets. Thoreau lived at Walden for just under three years, a time during which he sometimes visited friends and conducted business in town. (It was on one such visit, to pick up a mended shoe, that he was arrested for tax avoidance, an episode that became the occasion for “Resistance to Civil Government.”)
At the opening of Walden's chapter on “Higher Laws” Thoreau confesses to once having desired to slaughter a woodchuck and eat it raw, just to get at its wild essence. He values fishing and hunting for their taste of wildness, though he finds that in middle age he has given up eating meat. He finds wildness not only in the woods, but in such literary works as Hamlet and the Iliad; and even in certain forms of society: “The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet” (“Walking” (1862)). The wild is not always consoling or uplifting, however. In The Maine Woods, Thoreau records a climb on Mount Ktaadn in Maine when he confronted the alien materiality of the world; and in Cape Cod (1865), he records the foreignness, not the friendliness, of nature: the shore is “a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it” .
Although Walden initiates the American tradition of environmental philosophy, it is equally concerned with reading and writing. In the chapter on “Reading,” Thoreau speaks of books that demand and inspire “reading, in a high sense” . He calls such books “heroic,” and finds them equally in literature and philosophy, in Europe and Asia: “Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares…” . Thoreau suggests that Walden is or aspires to be such a book; and indeed the enduring construction from his time at Walden is not the cabin he built but the book he wrote.
Thoreau maintains in Walden that writing is “the work of art closest to life itself” . In his search for such closeness, he began to reconceive the nature of his journal. Both he and Emerson kept journals from which their published works were derived. But in the early 1850s, Thoreau began to conceive of the journal as a work in itself, “each page of which should be written in its own season & out of doors or in its own locality wherever it may be” . A journal has a sequence set by the days, but it may have no order; or what order it has emerges in the writer's life as he meets the life of nature. With its chapters on “Reading,” “Solitude,” “Economy,” “Winter,” and “Spring,” Walden is more “worked up” than the journal; in this sense, Thoreau came to feel, it is less close to nature than the journal.
3. Social and Political Critiques
The transcendentalists operated from the start with the sense that the society around them was seriously deficient: a “mass” of “bugs or spawn” as Emerson put it in “The American Scholar”; slavedrivers of themselves, as Thoreau says in Walden. Thus the attraction of alternative life-styles: Alcott's ill-fated Fruitlands; Brook Farm, planned and organized by the Transcendental Club; Thoreau's cabin at Walden. As the nineteenth century came to its mid-point, the transcendentalists' dissatisfaction with their society became focused on policies and actions of the United States government: the treatment of the Native Americans, the war with Mexico, and, above all, the continuing and expanding practice of slavery.
Emerson's 1838 letter to President Martin Van Buren is an early expression of the depth of his despair at actions of his country, in this case the ethnic cleansing of American land east of the Mississippi. The 16,000 Cherokees lived in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee, and in parts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. They were one of the more assimilated tribes, whose members owned property, drove carriages, used plows and spinning wheels, and even owned slaves. Wealthy Cherokees sent their children to elite academies or seminaries. The Cherokee chief refused to sign a “removal” agreement with the government of Andrew Jackson, but the government found a minority faction to agree to move to territories west of the Mississippi. Despite the ruling by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall that the Cherokee Nation's sovereignty had been violated, Jackson's policies continued to take effect. In 1838, President Van Buren, Jackson's former Vice-President and approved successor, ordered the U. S. Army into the Cherokee Nation, where they rounded up as many remaining members of the tribe as they could and marched them west and across the Mississippi. Thousands died along the way. In his letter to President Van Buren, Emerson calls this “a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country; for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our Government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country, any more?”.
Slavery had existed in the United States from the beginnings of the country, but when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress in 1850, it had dramatic and visible effects not only in Georgia or Mississippi but in Massachusetts and New York. For the law required all citizens of the country to assist in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. This extension of the slave-system to the north, the subject of Thoreau's “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), was on public view when an escaped slave named Anthony Burns was captured in Boston, tried by a Massachusetts court, and escorted by the Massachusetts militia and U. S. marines to the harbor, where he was taken back to slavery in Virginia. His owner placed him in a notorious “slave pen” outside Richmond, where Burns was handcuffed, chained at the ankles and left to lie in his own filth for four months. Thoreau denounced the absurdity of a court in Boston “trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE,” when the question has already been “decided from eternity” . In his “Lecture on Slavery” of 1855, Emerson calls the original 1787 Constitution's recognition of slavery a “crime” , and he contrasts the written law of the constitution with the “Laws” and “Right” ascertained by Jesus, Menu, Moses, and Confucius. An immoral law, he holds, is void.
The distinction between morality and law is also the basis for Thoreau's “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). Thoreau was arrested in 1846 for nonpayment of his poll tax, and he took the opportunity presented by his night in jail to meditate on the authority of the state. The government, Thoreau argues, is but an expedient by which we succeed “in letting one another alone” . The citizen has no duty to resign his conscience to the state, and may even have a duty to oppose immoral legislation such as that which supports slavery and the Mexican War. Thoreau concludes: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also” . Slavery could be abolished by a “peaceable revolution,” he continues, if people refused to pay their taxes and clogged the system by going to jail . Although Thoreau advocates nonviolent action in “Resistance to Civil Government,” he later supported the violent actions of John Brown, who killed unarmed pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, and in 1859 attacked the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. In “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau portrays Brown as an “Angel of Light” and “a transcendentalist above all” who believed “that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave” . In early 1860, just months before the outbreak of the Civil War, he and Emerson participated in public commemorations of Brown's life and actions.
Source: Stanford University