Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

Talking about transcendence within a society that tends to see the universe as disenchanted and purposeless may seem odd, as anything transcendent seems to have little place in such a universe, but yet many of us have experiences that are best described as transcendent. Consequently, it seems to me that even those, like myself, who lack religious belief may require the concept of transcendence to understand their own experiences, so it is not a concept we can do without. I will examine two types of experience that I have had that I can only understand as transcendent to try to clarify why I think this.

The first experience is that of coming into contact with nature while one is alone. When I hike through a quiet trail alone somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, nature does not appear as merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular way, rather it is as if there is something behind the appearances of the landscape that I am connected with. This other thing that I feel connected with is not something that I can easily describe, but it appears to me as I hear the rustling of the leaves and the howling of the wind, and feel the uneven ground under my feet as I walk through this quiet path; it is at once something that is ever present through these walks, but yet indescribable in particular terms. In this context I do not feel like an ordinary self with ordinary human purposes, rather I feel connected with something beyond ordinary experience .The cause of this experience is not something that I understand, but the experience does seem to be best described as transcendent, as the experience is not simply beautiful, purifying or pleasant; it is all of these things, but it is more as it involves a sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary.

The other transcendent experience I wish to discuss involves creative musical inspiration. As a struggling musician I often find myself trying to force certain musical ideas which tends to only lead to frustration, but once in a while I will be playing my instrument and something will take over me, as if I were captured by something other than myself. In the moments of the creation of the composition I am not a self in the ordinary sense of a being that can disengage and reflect, but rather I am connected with something beyond myself which takes me out of my ordinary selfhood and drives me to create something wonderful and beautiful. It is hard to find an adjective to describe this kind of experience, but I do think transcendence fits, because in this kind of experience it as if something beyond our ordinary understanding peers in and grabs us and reveals what it is that we wanted to create, but could not describe before we had created it. Once again, the actual underlying cause of this experience is not clear to me, but the experience seems to not be one of ordinary immanent existence, but something transcendent.

So, it seems to me that transcendent is a category that is necessary to make sense of our experiences, as I would hazard a guess that many others have similar experiences and have an equally difficult time describing them in other terms. What is responsible for this sense of connection with something beyond the ordinary that we experience in creative musical inspiration, or quiet walks through nature, or other experiences, is not clear to me, but the category of the transcendent is still required to make sense of these experience and so even though we may believe in a disenchanted, purposeless universe, this does not mean that we have no use for the concept of the transcendent.

3 thoughts on “Transcendence, Disenchantment and Unbelief

    • I have been meaning to reply to this intriguing comment for awhile, but I keep forgetting to.

      Your explanation is relatively plausible, as it does not strictly follow that because an experience is alien, and seemingly higher that it is transcendent. However, if we take the strategy of viewing these experiences as ordinary then we have to figure out why it is that we have lost touch with this experience, and what makes it appear higher, as opposed to merely novel. I think there are ways of doing this within a purely immanent framework that eschews the transcendent-ordinary distinction, but nothing instantly comes to my mind.

      Furthermore, it is not clear to me that we should automatically forgo the language of transcendence when it seems to capture something fundamental about an experience. In many ways I wrote this to say that transcendence is not a dirty word, and we should at least consider it as a possible element of our vocabulary, but I would be lying if I said I had a knock down argument regarding why these experiences are best regarded as transcendent.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.

  1. Thanks for getting back to me.

    I suspect you’re far ahead of me as a philosopher, but the kinds of things you’re talking about — ‘losing yourself’ in performance, or noticing the meaning of the world — are sometimes talked about in a mindfulness context as ‘coming home to the self’, or simply being attentive to what is in the moment. Perhaps we don’t transcend anything in noticing what is present, we only notice what is present, and feel what that is like for us.

    Could the experiences you’re bringing to mind under the heading of transcendence be considered also as coming into closer contact with Dasein? I don’t have anything against the idea of the transcendent, but I often feel that my everyday, ordinary world lacks the proper measure of truth, and that this truth from which I am alienated is more of what I am, or could be. No doubt, this kind of thinking may just turn the problems associated with transcendence on their head! and not signify any real progress (toward what, I couldn’t say …).

    I enjoy your writing. Bill

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