Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 13: Transcendentalism, Idealism, Pragmatism and Vedanta in the West


be here now coverRam Dass and George Harrison did much to popularize Indian metaphysical and spiritual ideas in the 1960’s and beyond.  They were gurus to hippies the world over. But they were not the first to bring this way of being to the West. In early to mid- 19th century America, Emerson and Thoreau were part of the Transcendentalist movement which drew heavily from eastern thought. In Germany, Schopenhauer had based his philosophy on The Vedas.  In the late 1800’s Swami Vivekananda created a sensation in America and became a polarizing figure among the leading literary and philosophical lights of the day; including those who were trying to create a uniquely American philosophy which became known as pragmatism. It can fairly be said that the impact of Vedanta on the development of Western moral philosophy began in earnest in the early 19th century. Ignoring this is intellectually dishonest and impoverishing.  At the same time, the threads of thought that date back to both Emerson and Schopenhauer followed divergent paths and some of their notable intellectual heirs were vocally opposed to approaches they viewed as backsliding.  These luminaries disagreed on many things but agreed on being sharply critical of anything that to them seemed like a reversion to pre-scientific ways of looking at the world and managing affairs.  By the early 20th century, the break was nearly total between those who held that any serious thought and putative guide to policy must embrace and proceed from scientistic materialism and those who felt more than learned that any wisdom for living that was worthy must not be limited to ivory tower sterility and logic chopping.  Academic philosophy seemed to be irrelevant and morally bankrupt to many who increasingly drew more from literature than hard science for ideas. Philosophy seemed to be bent on becoming a discipline that only existed to legitimize and so find a place for itself under the umbrella of serious science. This scientism was to replace the more classical view of Hegel and the idealists that physical and natural science were inferior branches of philosophy – which is the true science. The paths of the modern schoolmen and individuals who marched to different drummers sharply diverged with a few collisions that have been poorly understood in the context of the history of moral philosophy insofar as it can inform ethical decision making for human beings.  This is of critical importance in creating a framework for ethical decision making that can truly embrace the best of what it means to be human.

Emerson was all about overcoming the past excesses, errors and vanities of man and opening a future rich with possibility. He also extolled a Bacchic spirit of joy and praise over what is. For Emerson, man’s ability to directly connect with the divine within himself and of which he is part was true religion and this did not require the intermediation of puritan divines, busy and self-satisfied nabobs and political nincompoops. Nietzsche loved him for these reasons, as well as his aphoristic and poetic approach to expressing ideas. It was Emerson’s forward looking optimism that cured Nietzsche of Schopenhauer’s pessimism while retaining the centrality of his idea of “will to power.”  However it is the transcendentalist aspect that wants to reach beyond the limited for what is greater that was problematic for materialists who wanted to cast Emerson in their own image to claim that because he quit being a protestant minister in favor of being a poet and agitator he was for that any less in love with God as he understood the great spirit to be – that which pulls us life-ward and ever upward.  In this camp we can include William James, John Dewey and George Santayana, who for all their insight were messed up by Bentham and Comte, as were their greatest adherents in recent years, notably Richard Rorty. Emerson, like the greatest of the German and then American philosophical idealists, who got their memo a century late, was a Neo-Platonist like Boethius and Cudworth as well as a poet like Blake at heart. To miss this is to glide past the man entirely.  Emerson was not America’s first hippie, but he was arguably her greatest.

William James and his Harvard philosophy colleague Josiah Royce had a falling out over the latter’s enthusiasm for Vivekananda and his Carlyle-like ideas about what is best in man that seemed to run counter to the emerging ground-swell of the most leveling aspects of the democratic urge. The curse was part of the endowment received by James’ chosen successor and inheritor of the pragmatist tradition, John Dewey. This is most unfortunate, because Emerson’s inheritance was divided, reifying the hideous yet righteous challenge by Solomon to the true and the false mother of the baby presented to him.  Our choice should not be between freedom and justice. Rather it is to insist on both of these guided by wisdom, and yet to realize that the path of the loving is one of abnegation. Benjamin Franklin foresaw this false dichotomy as the nemesis of the republic and unfortunately it didn’t take very long for the train of liberty to be derailed by fanatics under various pennants. This was largely not because of what they believed but because they increasingly believed in non-belief as a prerequisite for the teachers and regulators of good behavior, who were to be Bayle’s moral atheists. This has not gone well, though the failure in America has at least outwardly been more boiling frogs than Thermidorian civic bloodletting orgies.

James and Dewey thought that Comtian third stage thinking would enable them to do good in the world by focusing on outcomes rather than permanent Platonic ideas, whatever these might be. What they gave us was a growing cadre of academic/official utopia spinners and technocratic social engineers, the last being Dewey’s invention. With the best of intentions and moved by democratic ideals, these thinkers propelled us mightily on the path toward a vast bureaucracy governing by administrative fiat and run by cynical operators and useful idiots mostly for the benefit of the kind of entrenched elites the pragmatists wanted to dis-establish through public education and nudgemanship. This has to be one of the great ironies of history.

The legacy of Emerson is a rich one and includes Nietzsche’s moral philosophy, hard boiled versions of pragmatism and much of what we know as New Age thinking (which is actually thousands of years old but filtered for the West). The relevance of this for a framework of ethics today is inestimable.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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