Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcendentalism and Liberalism

Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism, which says it originated with Locke, and that it was based on self-interested individualism that promoted economic growth.
For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, 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 ....
For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? 'Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
When he says he wants an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, Emerson is in the tradition of Jeffersonian liberalism, which tried to limit growth,  but limiting industrialization was no longer a live issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson's day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time - he wrote "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us" - but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.