American Romanticism and Andrew Cohen

Now that I have outlined some thoughts about Romanticism I want to go back and explore what I do think that Andrew Cohen might have gotten from William James. I do believe that Andrew Cohen picked up something from his reading of William James, but I don’t believe that you can reasonably place his work in the tradition of the Pragmatists. I do believe that there is an American spiritual lineage and an argument can be made for Cohen’s inclusion in it. That is the lineage of American Romanticism.

Romanticism as I have previously discussed has German and English roots. Although it is a loosely defined literary, philosophical and spiritual tradition, I do believe that there are three primary elements of American Romanticism that connects Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, to William James’ philosophy and then to Andrew Cohen’s Evolutionary Enlightenment. These elements are:

  1. A critique of scientific materialism and determinism
  2. The belief in natural creative forces beyond our ordinary awareness that can be embodied by a realized self
  3. The conviction that the development of the self is the highest human purpose

These fundamental principles can be seen strongly in the original American Romantics – the New England Transcendentalists. And although William James was a scientifically trained modernist, the ideas of Emerson, his godfather seemed in the end to have lodged themselves deep in the heart of James’ thinking as well. Andrew Cohen and his teaching of Evolutionary Enlightenment are also characterized by these fundamental ideas.

My research into American philosophy began six years ago when I read some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings and found that his spiritual teachings bore an uncanny resemblance to the teachings of Andrew Cohen. As I read more of Emerson and then William James I saw that there was a thread that ran through their thinking that connected them to Andrew Cohen. I now recognize it as the line of American Romanticism. All three critiqued scientific materialism and determinism. All three believed in a creative reality beyond our ordinary awareness. And perhaps most importantly all three believed that we actually choose who we become and that self-development is the ultimate purpose of human life.

The following quotation from William James’ first and arguably his greatest work “The Principles of Psychology” convey his belief in the human ability to self create.

“The ethical energy par excellence has to go farther and choose which interest out of several, equally coercive, shall become supreme. The issue here is of the utmost pregnancy, for it decides a man’s entire career. When he debates, Shall I commit this crime? choose that profession? accept that office, or marry this fortune? — his choice really lies between one of several equally possible future Characters. What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment. Schopenhauer, who enforces his determinism by the argument that with a given fixed character only one reaction is possible under given circumstances, forgets that, in these critical ethical moments, what consciously seems to be in question is the complexion of the character itself. The problem with the man is less what act he shall now resolve to do than what being he shall now choose to become.”

This sentiment would have been well received by Emerson and it is also reflected in these words from Andrew Cohen.

“…in the end, you are always choosing to be the person that you are. You are making conscious and unconscious choices in every moment that determine what actions you will take and what impact you will have on the world around you.”

And so I feel confident that at least in a broad and loose sense I can place Andrew Cohen in an American tradition of Romantic thinkers.