Rethinking The Myth of Transcendentalism

Transcendence can be described as a sort of overcoming or surpassing- though it is usually understood in a metaphysical sense- to be transcendent it is usually assumed that one engages with some ephemeral force beyond the regular bounds of human perception. This view is one that both elevates and devalues the transcendental experience. It gives it an otherworldly mystique- detaching it from the milieu of existence- which is understandable given its tremendous power in fundamentally altering one’s perception of that very existence. However, elevating it to this status makes it seem as though transcendence is something adjacent to or beyond regular life, rather than something necessary to seize onto its full joy. In this article, we will examine the modern, western positions on transcendence to clear up misconceptions and establish a basis for understanding the transcendental as an intrinsic element in achieving a fuller conception of one’s self and the world around them- as well as an undertaking that does not, as many assume, preclude religion.


To begin, the term transcendental has been used in a wide plethora of divergent philosophical and religious traditions- each providing its own set of connotations that are often contradictory and without parallel. Here, the term is used to mean the overcoming of conflict or otherwise transgression of the boundaries that we usually take as being concrete or otherwise unassailable. This is best evidenced in the Christian theological transcendence- the God who is ontologically beyond the physical world, who is thus free from it. This conception is the one most thoroughly ingrained in the Western consciousness- though it is grossly inadequate. The issue here is that it supposes transcendence entails a complete deportation from the temporal realm- that it is a predicate of Godhood and something vastly out of reach for man, who is so unfortunately trapped in the world of perception. Transcendence should not be taken as somehow reaching a metaphysical state of perfection, it is not about attaining the consciousness of a God or otherwise being less human, it is about embracing our own humanity- being comfortable with our condition and with the world we must inhabit.


This highlights a larger conflict between the two general philosophical traditions in the developed world. The thinkers of the West have spent countless centuries attempting to establish man’s place in the universe and define his role- they have sought the ‘truth’. But yet this has not been found. The desperate scramble for some objective basis for life and its eventual purpose has not produced any definitive results. Though this is a terrible generalization of millennia of useful and insightful investigation into the matter, it is the general mission of western philosophy to define life in more and more extraneous and complex ways, to analyse language and thought further and further still until we at last understand what is truly real. In contrast, the Eastern traditions take an approach that means to acclimate man to his condition- it does not seek out some sort of externally graspable truth that tells us what is right and what is not- instead it looks to ensure that man can face his predicament without being mired in it. In other words, it seeks enlightenment. It achieves this through tautologies and paradoxes- seeking to examine dialectical relationships rather than seek an external truth that can be appealed to. Though neither tradition can be comprehensively described as conforming to either model, this dichotomy illustrates the contention between perceiving the world as a mystery to be understood and dominated by man, and the view that man is simply a part of the world, not some force above it but an integral part of a greater whole.


Transcendentalism, then, should not be viewed as one of man’s quests to conquer his environ, nor can it be understood as the attainment of some metaphysical good or qualities. It is none of these things. Transcendence means to understand the essential bipolarity of the world- evidenced even by those schools of thought just discussed- and yet to be beyond it. In our context, the most useful work on transcendentalism comes from those in the West who adopted the Eastern canon into their work- Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl G. Jung, Alan Watts and other luminaries who approached the teleological suppositions of the Eastern tradition with the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West. The doctrines postulated by these thinkers analysed and rethought the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism to adapt them for Western audiences- spreading an awareness of transcendence as it was understood in these traditions, as a negation of opposites, as an attainment of wholeness that was alien to prior thinkers.


Schopenhauer elucidated the idea that the world is simply representation- building on the earlier writings of Immanuel Kant and his doctrine of transcendental idealism- and that as such all the products of perception are simply human creations- they do not accurately represent reality so much as they represent ourselves- we establish analytic methods of understanding the world that are dependent on our prior experiences and can often be contradictory to the reality of things. Understanding this is the first step towards transcendence- once one understands the functional inadequacy of their own perception, and therefore the inherent inadequacy in all human perception, they have become free of believing that experience can really give us a full understanding of the world. This freedom from empirics is something that, in the modern world, with its obsession with science as a guiding force of human progress and the immediately visible qualities of both people and products, understandably believes to be nonsense.


We have become so caught up in what it is that can be seen that we have forgotten the value there is in not seeing. We crave those things that satisfy our senses at the expense of those things that satisfy the other face of our being- the element that cries out for silence, for introspection and for taking a step back from the world we are immersed in, as to fully understand it. Just as one cannot see the frame of a painting without moving themselves away from it, we cannot understand that which is occurring in our lives without understanding the context it is contained in. This is what it means to transcend- to remain in the physical world whilst at once connecting with all that the physical world is not, that being nothingness and an absence of the continual motion of time and space that human life consists of.


As Heraclitus, an ancient progenitor of the views examined here, once said, panta rhei- “everything flows”. The world around us is constantly changing, warping and developing as time marches forward, in a way that can cause one to become anxious and intrepid as to where it is going and what purpose there is in this constant cycle between creation and destruction, life and death. An awareness of opposites is in many senses necessary to appreciate the fundamental vitality that is imbued into this process, whilst in the same instant understanding its absolute lack of any inherent meaning, and that we are too easily tied into accepting cognitive and theoretical positions that exploit our need for security and a sense of place in a life that is defined by its tumultuousness. Accepting the chaos of life whilst embracing the serenity of nothingness is the only method by which the constant oscillation between these two poles can be put to rest- many have misspent their limited time on this Earth forever attempting to force life into what one wishes it to be, ignorant of the peace that can be found in accepting the general impotence of mankind in relation to the universe and cultivating an appreciation of that which is outside of our anthropocentric struggle.


Jung offers some illumination as to how this can be understood in terms of our psychology. His position relies on the idea that through understanding the symbolism behind human processes we can fully realise our psychological motivations, in this instance the necessity of the ‘transcendent function’. He gives an account of the transcendental that enumerates its fundamental psychological role- it functions to redirect our libido (i.e. our life-energy, our attention and psychological commitment- meant in a different sense than the psycho-sexual mechanism postulated by Freud) away from the immediate concerns of daily life and towards a greater end- something seen in primitive cultures where before a great battle or other significant events, work would cease for the purpose of directing the libido of its members towards this effort through a religious ceremony. For instance, when facing war, the Aztecs would commit vast services of prayer and human sacrifice for Huitzilopochtli, their god of war and an incarnation of the destructive force of the masculine archetype that is mirrored across ancient cultures from Athens to Ayodhya. These appeals to the gods mask the appeal of man to himself, to the archetypal bodies allow him to comprehend the inanity of the world and enforce a conceptual order upon it.


In this sense, Jung means to frame the transcendent function as an attempt to produce synergy between the visible and invisible realms- what was once considered a purely metaphysical divide in religious traditions can be qualified now as a gulf between the visible conscious and the invisible unconscious. He argues that we exhibit the same conflict in this division as that which is occurring externally. It is this tension that creates the need for the transcendental- the need for one to overcome the conflict between these opposing poles. In the primitive cultures this was reached through rituals in which the gods communicated with the tribe and blessed their endeavours, establishing a unity between the physical and non-physical. A dialogue between ourselves and our unconscious takes place on a similar ground, and such rituals can be likened to meditation, where one remains in the physical world whilst absorbed in a state of mental serenity and an absence of chaos.


Transcendence, then, should not be seen as a vague, oriental term that can be safely ignored or, even worse, a way of marketing yoga classes and self-help books, but should instead be seen as a journey towards achieving wholeness and psychological wellbeing. Nor should it be thought of as the quest of an ascetic or a saint, because it does not entail withdrawing from the world, but rather becoming more fully ingrained in each moment that our existence allows us, giving a newfound appreciation for the smallest of occurrences and the briefest of joys, instead of the constant trepidation and anxiety that stems from being concerned with what may be ahead rather than what it is that is in front of us. Becoming mired in a conflict between the real and the possible is just as destructive as becoming caught up in some unwinnable battle between good and evil, or between heaven and earth. Each depends on the other for its existence and meaning, and once one realises this and traverses through their life as such, it brings to a permanent end these conflicts that we let detract from the point of life- that being to live it.

This article was written by Alfie Pickering