An Analysis of the Thematic Principles of Transcendentalism Present in Thou
Imagine a world where humans are unable to eat meat, nor do they have any craving for the taste of meat. An entire existence where, since the eve of human existence, we, as a race, have been herbivores, and have never felt the urge to consume meat. In such a world, the need for animals would be very limited. Livestock such as pigs and cows would not be sought after, and as a result, many of these species would die out. The populations of pigs, cows, and chickens would decrease dramatically.
In such a world, the need for livestock is entirely unjustified, and therefore, many of these animals will never have been birthed. This brings up the moral question of whether the constant slaughter and consumption of these animals is worth their existence in the world. Is it worth killing millions of animals so that an even larger amount does not die? This scenario is called “The Replacement Argument”, and it is a thought experiment. A thought experiment is an experiment that strives to think through certain consequences of theoretical scenarios and question the outcome. These experiments often question the boundaries of the physical and moral world and discuss the problems that we cannot wholly prove in this realm. Often times, these experiments tackle a strain of philosophy that concern society and the people’s individualism.
In such cases, these experiments are often used to explain the complicated concepts, and one such concept would be transcendentalism. Transcendentalism is a loosely-defined philosophical movement that is based on the ideas of individualism and natural life. This movement was based on the fact that self-reliance and independence would help the people “transcend into the best versions of themselves”. There are a few core beliefs that transcendentalism revolves around. The first of these beliefs is the notion that one should rely on oneself, and the idea that society and religions often corrupt the mind.
The second pillar of transcendentalism is the effect that nature has on individuals. The people of this movement often believed that people had to be in tune with nature in order to truly experience life and break away from the limitations of society. The third and final pillar of transcendentalism is the idea of self-knowledge. This idea states that people truly achieve knowledge only when they experience it for themselves. It states that often times, man cannot absorb concepts without the inclusion senses like sight or touch.
These three ‘pillars’ define the philosophies of transcendentalism, and are further illustrated in the following thought experiments. The first of these thought experiments would be Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Beetle in a Box’. Imagine that each person has a small box in which they keep an object. However, no one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box, and they can look only in their own. Over time, as people try to describe what is in their individual boxes, the word ‘beetle’ is used to stand for what is in our box.
Despite this, since the ‘beetle’ is different for every single person, it holds no actual meaning, but this unique thing in every person’s box becomes generalized as a ‘beetle’. Originally, this thought experiment was designed to illustrate the flaws in language. If each person has a different definition of what a beetle is, then what is truly a beetle? What is the point of the word ‘beetle’ if everybody disagrees on what it is? Over time, this experiment has expanded beyond just language to also be a metaphor for people’s minds. The ‘boxes’ stood to represent our bodies, and the objects in the box represent our minds. This analysis was based on the idea that nobody else can know what our mind is thinking at any moment in time.
Our minds are composed of our collective experiences and memories, and under no circumstances are people able to simply understand what is in our minds. However, it is generally believed that in a society, most people think the same way. People are thought to have the same views on education, on jobs, on marriage and on how to live life. In today’s society, if someone says, “The children need a good education”, this is interpreted as a schooling system of homework, testing, grades and classrooms. However, an education can mean anything from a practical experience in the world, to a self-study at home about the inner workings of the mind. Most of us probably have a different definition of what a ‘good education’ is, but due to society’s definition of it, we have come to define it as a simple schooling system.
We have cast aside our objects in our boxes, and have simply started to call them ‘beetles’. Over time, our unique thoughts and ideas have been converted into what society thinks these ideas should be, and have turned them into nothing but mere beetles. This idea of how society tends to blend our beliefs into a general idea explains Transcendentalists’ aversion to society. Most transcendentalists believe that society often strips people of their individual thought. To them, society tends to take away what is truly important to man in the process of trying to create something new. As society progresses, people have “built a coach, but [have] lost the use of [their] feet.
[They are] supported on crutches, but lack so much support of muscle”. Transcendentalists believe that society tends to create a uniformity that results in the loss of uniqueness. In the quote by Emerson, he is stating that by trying to ‘help’ everyone with coaches and crutches, society is adding to the decay of our muscles. Similarly, in the scenario with the beetle in the box, it states that society, by trying to define a beetle, is adding to the decay of our minds and our individualism as people. Another philosophy of transcendentalism, nature, is seen in Robin Attfield’s experiment, ‘The Last Human Scenario’. In this thought experiment, we are asked to envision a scenario where a catastrophe such as a nuclear holocaust has wiped out all life on Earth except for a single human, and a single tree.
In this scenario, we assume that the tree is no longer able to provide the human with any further resources in its living state. However, if cut down, this tree can provide the human with wood and shelter to help the human survive. Despite this, when asked to cut down the last tree in existence, most people will believe this is unethical. From a purely analytical perspective, no harm can come from cutting this tree down. Even so, this action seems morally flawed.
This is due to the simple fact that our psychology causes us to have a moral standing on such cases. Initially, this thought experiment was used to explain how human being’s moral standings expand beyond humans and other conscious animals, to nature as well. Robin Attfield originally proposed this experiment in an attempt to prove that nature and the environment deserve recognition and have importance in society. This thought experiment was also cited in an attempt to explain the concept of environmental ethics in the International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this article, it outlined how “we, as human beings, will perish if we do not constrain our actions towards nature”.
If we go on polluting and developing our societies in the way we are currently, we will slowly kill nature off, and ourselves along with it. In this post-apocalyptic world, the sole tree is often believed as a symbol for the previous society, and this thought experiment is a sign of the future. If technology and society keep going in the direction it is, it is likely to fail. This thought experiment warns us against doing such things through moral obligations to nature. This ethical attachment to nature is most likely to stem not only from our reliance on nature, but also our emergence from it. In the past, we lived in harmony with nature, but with the advancement of technology and society, we have come to distance ourselves from the wildlife.
Despite this, our moral attachment to nature and our connection is evident in our reluctance to harm nature even if there are no repercussions from our actions. In Transcendentalism, a major belief is that in the past, people had an intimate relationship with nature and arrived at an understanding of the universe through nature. The transcendentalists believe that every moment with nature provides us a chance to learn from it and to grow as people. They believe that every person should hold nature in high regard, and that people should look towards nature for enlightenment. In this thought experiment, we can see a similar reverence towards nature that is extant in all of us. Due to the direction in which our technology is leading us, nature is slowly being left behind, and this thought experiment describes our moral obligation not to let that happen.
Many transcendentalists similarly believe that is society breaking us away from nature, and to them, the solution is to return to nature and live within it to have truly transcendental experiences. This experiment’s portrayal of our reverence of nature demonstrate an extremely similar point to that of the transcendentalists. The third concept of transcendentalism can be seen in Frank Jackson’s “Mary’s Room”. Consider a woman, Mary, who is an extremely gifted scientist, but is forced to examine the world from a black and white television. As she is studying the neurophysiology of vision and color, she collects all empirical data for these areas.
For example, when someone sees the color red, she is immediately able to tell the exact wavelength combination that stimulates the retina and signals the central nervous system to recognize the color as ‘red’. However, one day, she is released from her room and put into the real world. Will she learn anything new about color? Undoubtedly, yes. This thought experiment was used to criticize the schooling system and its emphasis on physical data. In the context of the thought experiment, the students were Mary, and the television was our textbooks.
In many schools today, the syllabus focuses on telling us everything they think we should know so that we can function in our respective fields. However, students are never able to physically try these things and experience this. This creates a gap in their knowledge that cannot be compensated for by physical information. This thought experiment was used to prove that there is a sector of knowledge that was more than just physical, and that there was a component that can only be learnt through first-hand experience. Throughout history, Transcendentalists have emphasized this same belief numerous times. “All of the major transcendentalists… spent years in the classroom, and all found the traditional education system to be inadequate and stupefying”.
In this community, it was widely believed that the traditional methods of teaching was unable to truly educate the soul. It was necessary to educate the mind through actual experience and encounters. They believed that only through experience would the students be able to grasp the “value of individuality and the importance of self-reliance”, and be able to find their own path in life. In many cases, the philosophers themselves would educate themselves though experiments with the goal of learning “by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”. Through “Mary’s Room”, we can identify many of the Transcendentalist’s objections with the traditional method, and we can understand the gaps in knowledge that can only be filled by true experience. “Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of … a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences”.
In this instance, a combination of three thought experiments examined and illustrated the major ideas of transcendentalism. The importance of individualism, nature, and education in Transcendentalism were brought to life, and effectively clarified. Through these examples, it can be seen that thought experiments can help to elucidate anything, even transcendentalism.