Twilight in the Wilderness, Frederick Edwin Church

Nature and Freedom: an Introduction to American Transcendentalism

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
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New York, NY 10004

What is transcendental about American Transcendentalism? A complex and multifarious movement, one whose concerns ranged from religion to literature to feminism to abolitionism, American Transcendentalism is mostly closely associated with the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose respective classics, Nature and Walden, seem to advance a uniquely American conception of nature, freedom, and the individual. But, as Emerson himself wrote, Transcendentalism was not strictly “new.” Its roots are in the broader tradition of philosophical idealism—one that begins with Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and continues in the works of German Romantics such as Schelling and Schlegel.

In this course, we’ll examine the origins, major works, and philosophical implications of American Transcendentalist thought. What are the essential elements of Transcendentalist philosophy, and to what prevailing ideas, religious and philosophical, was it a reaction? How, in Transcendentalism, do God, humanity, and nature relate? To what extent does Transcendentalism belong to the wider Romantic movement in art, literature, and ideas? Why was Transcendentalism in part political, and how might reading the Transcendentalists today help us think through contemporary problems of freedom, conformity, oppression, and political action? In trying to understand Transcendentalism holistically through a more or less unified philosophical orientation, we’ll consider not only Emerson and Thoreau, but also several lesser-known figures, including James Marsh, Margaret Fuller, and Orestes Brownson. Secondary readings will come from such authors as Barbara Packer and Stanley Cavell.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:45-9:45pm
October 16 — November 06, 2019
4 weeks


Registration Open